Saturday, March 31, 2007

Japanese Directorial History Part II: Establishing a Personal Style (1926 Onwards)

Japanese film leading up to the 1920s remained largely derivative of other art forms. Films based on Kabuki theater and geisha dancing flooded the market. Western influences led to “shingeki,” literary adaptation of classic works, both domestic and imported. At this time, accurately presenting the text was the ultimate goal. The power of authorship was thought to rest in the hands of the original writer, not the director. Very little experimentation was done in Japan to explore film as a unique medium. Rarely was it felt that film merited material tailored specifically to its form of presentation.

This stagnation began to give way in the 1920s as “jidaigeki,” fictionalized period pieces, became a popular genre [Richie 2, 24]. Masterless samurai, called ronin, developed as popular, if rebellious, protagonists. While relatively violent and often nihilistic, these samurai films were still essentially genre movies. They were shot in a fairly conventional manner that blended traditional Japanese and established Western techniques. It would not be until 1926 with Teinosuke Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness that a personal style, rather than simply a “Japanese” or “Western” aesthetic would assert itself as a viable mode.

Kinugasa was too experimental to be tolerated by the already dominant studio system in Japan, and the film had to be financed out of his own pocket. A mild critical success, the film was still a financial disappointment and Kinugasa would only be able to make one other film, 1928’s Crossroads, before being subsumed by the studio system. Despite a mere two-film run of independent movies, Kinugasa had established a unique style that incorporated Japanese culture, German expressionism, Russian montage editing and American special effects. Crossroads continued Kinugasa’s themes of madness and further experimented with uncanny imagery. Although his films were lost for almost 45 years, today they are seen as definitive evidence of a burgeoning movement towards directorial authorship; a movement that would grow further in the 1930s.

One of Japan’s first great directors, Yasujiro Ozu, started his career in 1929, but it wasn’t until his I Was Born, But… (1932), about youths seeking a father figure, that he started gaining attention for his signature style. Although influenced by Chaplin and Lubitsch, Ozu gained renown for consciously rejecting many of the tenets of Hollywood filmmaking (or, for that matter, filmmaking anywhere). By the 1940s and 1950s, Ozu was well known for filming in 360 degree space, shooting from unusually low levels, filming with a single 50mm lens (creating a flat, uniform quality) and highlighting graphical relations and transitional shots devoid of characters [Kijo]. He also refused to pander to international audiences and their short attention spans. By the early 1930s, he had eliminated pans, dissolves, fades and most camera movement from his films, allowing him to focus on beautiful static compositions and humanistic character development.

His plots shifted from highly American-influenced slapstick comedies to “shomen-geki,” quiet, meditative tales of simple, everyday characters, such as small children in I Was Born, But… and Good Morning (1959), middle-class families in Late Spring (1949) and Tokyo Story (1953) or traveling actors in Floating Weeds (1959). Ozu’s oeuvre was one of first in Japan to be representative of a particular directorial style and tone without restrictive ties to genre or nationality.

Around the same time as Ozu, director Kenji Mizoguchi also established himself. Mizoguchi’s films were characterized by extremely long takes (“one scene, one shot”), 90 degree editing (making him one of the few directors in the world other than Ozu to oppose the Hollywood-perfected 180 degree system) and a focus on the downtrodden and suffering (The Life of Ohara [1952], Ugetsu [1953] and Sansho: The Bailiff [1954]).

Unlike Ozu, Mizoguchi often favored wide-angle lenses (24-35mm) to lend depth and distinct layering to his compositions. Mizoguchi’s life and films became deeply associated with a traditional Japanese aesthetic (his set design and lighting intentionally recall famous works of Japanese art), but his technique remains definitively his own. His frequent concern with issues of the treatment of women and their role in Japan makes him one of the first directors to be repeatedly associated with a progressive or controversial theme.

A sensitive advocate of feminism, Mizoguchi would return to the plight of women as a subject throughout his career: Sisters of Gion (1936), Osaka Elegy (1936), Utamaro and his Five Women (1946), The Life of Oharu (1952) and A Geisha (1953). Although we shall continue to address the issues of personal style, Kenji Mizoguchi serves as an excellent point to begin a discussion of the second form of directorial resistance: taking a social or political stance

Friday, March 30, 2007

Introduction to a JDH (Japanese Directorial History)

This post will be the first of five parts in a series on Japanese directorial history, looking at the development of Japanese cinema from a historical perspective informed by auteur theory. It is meant to be a general introduction and not an exhaustive account either in breadth or depth. Individual reviews of Japanese films (some of which can be found here) are also helpful as well as detailed biographies.

History may be the only thing that has been consistently kind to Japanese directors. Certainly Japanese Studios, Hollywood imports, television, the sex industry and even native audiences have not always been kind to great (often declared in retrospect) directors. A reoccurring theme across the careers of many of the most famous Japanese directors has been resistance: to studios compromises, Hollywood competition, economic imperatives and the temptation to take the easy way out.

There are very few Japanese directors who have found success in Japan and internationally, or amongst critics and audiences. There are no Spielbergs in Japan (Even Kurosawa had infamous financing difficulties in his late career). Yet, when one looks back over Japanese film history from the 1920s to today, one finds countless great films, and there is little doubt that Japan has developed an impressive legacy of important directors.

This series will take a look at Japanese cinematic history as it affected the artistic maturation of directors, paying particular attention to the three main forms of their resistance: style, social and political statements, and content.

‘Style’ concerns how a director films a story and is generally the first mark that distinguishes a director as unique. Here, resistance means creating a style that is personal to a director and which may ignore the tastes of either domestic or Western viewers.

‘Social and political statements’ tell us what a film means and provide insights into a director’s beliefs. Resistance in the form of social and political messages can be very overt, and generally rejects traditional values, laws or widespread practices.

Finally, ‘content’ is everything that is actually caught on film. Prominent Japanese directors have often pushed the envelope in terms of depicting violence, sex and offensive material. Although, historically speaking, these three resistant trends emerged roughly in sequence, they are not restricted merely to finite periods. Rather, it can be shown that they are cumulative and that all three continue to this day.

In covering the history of Japanese cinema, the scope of this series has been restricted to ten directors: Teinosuke Kinugasa, Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Akira Kurosawa, Nagisa Oshima, Shohei Imamura, Seijun Suzuki, Satoshi Kon, Takashi Miike and “Beat” Takeshi Kitano. This selection does not presume to cover all, or even the majority, of challenging directors who have left their mark on Japanese cinema, but it does provide a wide variety of examples. Their careers and films can serve as a basic introduction to the rise of Japanese cinematic authorship and Japan’s role in film culture and counterculture.

The following work cited applies to this series:

Abe, Casio. “Beat Takeshi vs. Takeshi Kitano.” Kaya Press, 1994.

All Movie Guide. 2005. All Media Guide, LLC. Oct. 1, 2005.

Cazdyn, Eric. “The Flash of Capital: Film and Geopolitics in Japan.” Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002.

Domenig, Roland. “The Anticipation of Freedom: Art Theater Guild and Independent Cinema.” Midnight Eye. Vienna. June 24, 2004.

Field, Simon and Rayns, Tony. “Branded to Thrill: The Works of Seijun Suzuki.” London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1994.

Kiju, Yoshida. “Ozu’s Anti-Cinema.” Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan, 2003.

“Multiple Sub-nyquist Sampling Encoding” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved Nov. 12, 2005, from

Nolletti, Arthur Jr. and Desser, David. “Reframing Japanese Cinema: Authorship, Genre, History.” Indiana University Press, 1992.

Ritchie, Donald. “The Films of Akira Kurosawa.” Third Edition. Berkely: University of CA Press, 1996.

Ritchie, Donald. "Hibakusha Cinema: Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Nuclear Image in Japanese Film." 1996

Richie, Donald. “Japanese Cinema: An Introduction.” New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Hall of Strangeness Part VII

Chungking Express – (Wong Kar-Wai) The lives of two cops, a drug-runner and a waitress intersect in this fresh romance about fate and chance. Combines superb acting, gorgeous cinematography, intelligently repetitious music, a great script and lots of pineapples. One of my favorite love stories ever shot.
Artistry: ***** Fun: ***** Strangeness: ***

The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover – (Peter Greenaway) Set primarily on a single stunning set (hundreds of feet long) with a camera that dollies along-side, the film follows the four title characters over the course of nine days. The crude thief has recently purchased an exquisite restaurant that he pretends to be cultured enough to appreciate. His quiet wife begins an affair with a bookish man at a nearby table and the cook helps cover for them, but tragedy looms.
Artistry: ***** Fun: *** Strangeness: ****

Cowards Bend the Knee – (Guy Maddin) Beginning with a random framing device, a nameless man observes sperm under a microscope and discovers it to be teeming with hockey players. The star player, Guy, discovers that his girlfriend is pregnant and takes her to a combination hair-salon/abortion-clinic. While the cross-dressing doctor goes to work, Guy becomes enamored with Meta, the daughter of the female owner. Before consummating this new relationship, Meta demands that Guy avenge her father using the man’s preserved, blue hands. The plot only gets weirder until the action culminates in a hockey wax museum located in the rafters above the Canada-USSR hockey finale. If Lynch was snowed into a black-market Canadian studio circa 1920, this is close to what might have resulted.
Artistry: **** Fun: *** Strangeness: *****

Cowhead – (Takashi Miike) Osake becomes a dangerous liability for his crime boss after he claims a poodle is a yakuza attack dog and brutally kills it in public. His friend Minami is assigned to drive him to a dump for execution but Osake disappears along the way. While trying to find him Minami encounters a man obsessively describing the weather on the phone, an albino faced stranger, the weirdest hotel owners ever, a rice owner whose responses to questions are all on convenient cue cards and the mysterious “cowhead” to which the title refers. The conclusion is Miike excess at its grandest.
Artistry: *** Fun: *** Strangeness: *****

The Cube – (Vincenzo Natali) Seven apparently unrelated characters (including a thief, cop, government employee, mathematician and an autistic man) wake up inside “The Cube,” a massive 3D grid of colored rooms. They must escape by solving the cube’s mysteries and maze-like structure, but entering the wrong room can trigger deadly traps. Unfortunately the C-quality cast couldn’t act their way out of cardboard box, and this cube isn’t made of cardboard. Suspenseful and oddly profound. Followed by a miserably nonsensical sequel and a not-without-its-merits prequel.
Artistry: ** Fun: **** Strangeness: ****

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Iceberg Arena: Rip-Off Wars

In the history of science fiction films there have been three epoch-marking movies that changed the landscape of film and altered pop culture history: “Metropolis” (1927), “2001” (1968) and “Star Wars” (1977). Star Wars in particular became the most lucrative film franchise of all time, earning more than $4 billion on toy-and-tie-in rights that George Lucas got for a mere $15,000 as part of the original studio deal. For better or worse (Peter Biskind’s book “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” makes an excellent argument for ‘worse’), Star Wars changed the face of cinema forever, leading producers down the path of special effects, huge budgets and franchise tie-ins. This article is not about any of that.

Despite the inexhaustible cultural fallout from the Star Wars phenomenon, the Film Walrus is concerned today with only one particular aspect: foreign knock-offs. In the wake of the blockbuster film, studios around the world leapt at the chance to skim money off the success vat and most didn’t have things like copyright laws, ethics or talent to get in the way.

Japan and Brazil both released films called “Planet Wars” in 1977 capitalizing on the craze and correctly noting that planets are more likely to go to war than stars (which, incidentally, don’t support life). The Brazilian film had the advantage (?) of starring the Trapalhoes, a Brazilian equivalent of the three stooges.

Italy, always willing to take American ideas to maximum extremes (see giallos, spaghetti westerns and any Italian movie about zombies, sharks or cannibals), weighed in with “Cosmo: War of the Planets” and “Star Crash.” Meanwhile Turkey made one of the most notorious disasters ever committed to film: “The Man Who Saved the Earth” better known as “Turkish Star Wars.”

This Iceberg Arena will pit the two most famous rip-offs, “Star Crash” (1978) and “Turkish Star Wars” (1982) against each other in the ultimate battle of poorly understood science, terrible camerawork and shameless bootlegging.

“Star Crash” was directed by Italian schlock specialist Luigi Cozzi, hoping to parasitically feed off the fraction of filmgoers that don’t read theater marquises very carefully. The universe is under threat from a giant spacefaring lava-lamp and initially this is of little concern to intergalactic smugglers Akton (who sports a frizzy man-perm) and Stella Star (one-time bond girl and popular C-list actress Caroline Munro). Captured by Galactic Police Chief Thor and his Texan robot Elle, the duo is put in charge of finding jedi prince Simon (played by a pre-“Night Rider” David Hasselhoff), and stopping the evil Count Zarth Arn.

“Star Crash” has just about everything bad a B-movie junky could want: stop-motion robo-skeletons, a mountainous robot warrior, sexy Amazonian aliens, cardboard backdrops with Styrofoam props, an evil spaceship shaped like a taloned fist, sloppy laser fights and Hasselhoff. Caroline Munro changes in and out of various impractical space bikinis even when imprisoned (while undergoing hard labor her uniform also stipulates high-heels) and when floating through the raw vacuum of space. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s something very wrong about Munro’s half-naked character jumping through an open window on her ship and gliding through a gaping portal on the enemy’s main deck to engage in a laser battle. Oh, I know what it is: wouldn’t all the captured robo-skeletons escape?

Some of the best lines:

“And you must be extremely careful when the sun sets; the temperature drops thousands of degrees!” This really makes me wonder what temperature scale they were using. Unless, of course, absolute zero has gone down in the distant future.

“You are the nicest human being I have known. Now maybe is a good time to use your ancient system of prayer…and hope it works for robots too.” Maybe if you’re praying specifically to the robot god, but he only understands binary.

“Hurry, time will only stay halted for three minutes!” So if time is frozen… how do you know when three minutes have past?

But for all the bad in “Star Crash,” it still makes a hell of a lot more sense (and has a comparatively astronomical budget) than “Turkish Star Wars.” Turkey had recently experienced a political coup and in the period of the early 1980’s Yesilcam, Turkey’s Hollywood, was forbidden from making films that could in anyway be considered oppositional to the regime. This left only one solution: make utter nonsense.

An incomprehensible introduction informs us that humanity in the “galaxy age” is faced with the ultimate deadly threat. An evil wizard from a powerful empire is trying to destroy all planets. But don’t worry, “a coating which was formed from compressed human brain molecules was protecting the Earth.” The masked wizard could penetrate the shield if he had a human brain, but he is brainless (so we are informed). This introduction is accompanied by clips stolen directly from “Star Wars” but re-edited, with some shots repeating four or five times.

Soon we meet Murat and Ali, two pilots trying to destroy the death star. As they fly through space, Ali shouts that he is “dropping altitude” (relative to what?) and promptly proceeds to explode along with his friend. Except that they wake up under a pile of rocks and begin roaming an alien world (actually a popular Turkish tourist site). Ali lets loose his irresistible sex whistle, but it only attracts skeleton marauders. About an hour of insanely bad fight choreography ensues that involves trolls, ninjas, mummies and robots (obviously). Murat makes extensive use of an off-screen springboard to jump a whole lot and Ali trains by karate-chopping solid rocks.

Near the end of the film, Murat finds a giant cardboard sword with jagged lighting bolt spikes in an Islamic temple that landed on the planet as a meteorite milleniums earlier (what?). You might think he’d use the sword to kill the wizard but you’d be wrong; instead he melts it into a seething bucket and then plunges his hands into it to create cumbersome golden gauntlets. About twenty decapitations later, the evil wizard is defeated.

In the meantime you’ll get to see footage from NASA newsreels, a documentary on Egypt, a mute hippy romantic interest, hundreds of rocks that explode when kicked, a monster stabbed to death with its own severed limbs and an unexplained animated yellow spiral that appears about a dozen times. Rarely will any of it be explained by the hilariously awful subtitles.

You’ll also be treated to a gratuitously illegal soundtrack borrowing from “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Moonraker,” “Battlestar Galactica” and “The Black Hole.”

Some of the best lines:

“However in some cases Earth had been disintegrated into parts.” This piece of background info from the introduction only confuses me. How many cases could there be? Isn’t it important to know which case is 'reality'?

“We must cross over the space speed.” I guess that must be pretty fast. Incidently, “the speed of space” became a popular Turkish slang catchphrase for technobabble following the movie’s release.

“I am tired like a dead.” Sometime I know exactly how they feel.

“My power is invisible.” I’m pretty sure he meant “invincible” but this saves on special effects.

“I am powerful! I am invincible! In order to save the world the man from Earth should destroy me.” I’m not sure he meant that last line to slip out. Of course, if he really is invincible I guess it doesn’t matter.

Both films deserve their cult-classic status and are likely to remain at the vanguard of awful for decades to come. Though the battle between the two films is close, I have to name “Turkish Star Wars” as the marginally more comically pathetic travesty… and thus the winner of this Iceberg Arena. Watch the full film (whose copyrights lapsed in 2002) for free here.

Winner: Turkish Star Wars

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Review of Turning Gate

"Turning Gate" (2002) by director Hong Sang-soo is one of those movies where the profundity sneaks up on you. For at least the first half of the film I wasn’t even sure if I was watching a depressing midlife crisis, a romantic comedy, a realist art-film exercise or a modernist fable adaptation. Where "Turning Gate" ultimately succeeds, is in being all these things simultaneously.

The protagonist, Gyung-soo, is himself a somewhat paradoxical success/failure. While we are told of his decently lucrative stage-acting career, his crossover attempt into film has resulted in a disappointing financial bust. Gyung-soo is fairly handsome and, as he mentions late in the film, has a strange magnetism that attracts people to him. Yet he is unable to find viable love. His two relationships with women (one of them inadvertently the crush of an old friend and the other a stranger met on a train) form the bulk of the film.

Hong Sang-soo finds a realist mode in his own personal style that is so unhurried that we might be fooled into thinking that he has no agenda. No visible effort is put into making any given conversation arrive at a predetermined conclusion or to take on specific meanings. Dialogue progresses with incomplete sentences, non-sequiturs, awkward pauses, unsophisticated responses, passive aggressions and trivialities. The characters are realized in such a manner as to change between likable, flawed, sympathetic and pathetic from moment to moment with little warning. They have the complicated, ambiguous personalities of everyday humanity. The narrative arc sometimes feels like it has no idea where it is going (an illusion, of course, since Hong Sang-soo knows exactly where he wants the film to end) and the sensation of drifting with the tides gradually aligns us with Gyung-soo’s own confusion, melancholy and desire for love and meaning.

In the second half of the film the sensation of aimless drifting and near-random events is slyly withdrawn. Patterns, coincidences and half-meanings begin to accrue. Buried memories resurface, honest emotions are expressed, surprising links are made and, in the suddenly karmic conclusion, Gyung-soo’s entire story takes on the form of the fable referred to in the title. The revelation, at once upsetting and surprising, inevitable and predictable, feels like a final puzzle piece dropping into place. Perhaps strangest of all, however, is that Hong Sang-soo has provided us with an ending twist, without ever having posed a mystery. What the assembled picture-puzzle reveals is nearly as ambiguous as the story at the start. In Hong Sang-soo’s film, there is still no easy answer, no clarifying revelation, to life itself.

Walrus Rating: 7.0 (but growing higher the more I think about it)

Monday, March 26, 2007

Iceberg Arena: Oft-Told Scandal

If there’s one thing that sells movies consistently it would have to be sex. Runners-up include intrigue, murder, celebrities and explosions (writing comes in at #39 and originality at #81). These completely made-up statistics go along way to explaining the popularity of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s 1782 novel “Dangerous Liaisons” (although it has no explosions). Given that there have been five major theatrical adaptations released so far it is time someone wrote a definitive comparison. The Film Walrus therefore presents a special Iceberg Arena Battle Royal. A chart at the end of this post keeps track of the rankings for each point of comparison.

The following contest will spoil the plot, but the story isn’t terribly important and besides, if you don’t know it already you’re unlikely to read/see it soon anyway. Set amongst the French aristocracy just before the revolution, Vicomte de Valmont and Marquise de Merteuil are two scheming high-society members who take their pleasure and power from countless cynical sexual escapades. Merteuil discovers that one of her former lovers is engaged to a virginal ingénue, Cecile, and decides to take revenge by asking Valmont to seduce her and make the future husband a laughingstock.

Valmont is reluctant since he has recently set his sites on the married, morally-upstanding Madame de Tourvel, a target more worthy of his skills. Valmont does eventually agree, however, after discovering that Cecile’s mother has warned de Tourvel of his insincerity. While tricking Cecile into sex, he learns that she already has her eyes on a young music teacher, Danceny, and Valmont encourages them to begin an affair.

While Valmont does succeed in seducing de Tourvel, he doesn’t realize in time that he’s found true love and is tricked by the jealous Merteuil into spoiling the relationship. In response, Valmont ruins Merteuil’s recent affair with Danceny, but has the tables turned when Merteuil reveals Valmont’s seduction of Cecile to the hot-tempered Danceny. Danceny challenges Valmont to duel, fatally wounding the reformed philanderer, but not before providing Danceny with letters that permanently disgrace Merteuil.

If it sounds complicated, it is, but the constant intrigue, power changes and double-crosses are what make the script so much fun. Each of the film adaptations have borrowed the basic skeleton but put their own spin on the story, often with dramatic differences.

The first film adaptation was Roger Vadim’s 1959 French language “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” which updates the story into the 1950’s and sets much of it in the Swiss Alps. British director Stephen Frears followed in 1988 with “Dangerous Liaisons,” a straight-forward adaptation with few changes and an all-star cast. Frears’s version released to critical acclaim, much to the chagrin of former Czech New Wave director Milos Forman, who was already into production on his own American version. His “Valmont” soon appeared in 1989 and is set several decades before the novel’s time period. In 1999, the largely untalented Roger Kumble made a trashy modern teen exploitation version called “Cruel Intentions” which became a guilty-pleasure sleeper hit. The most recent version, “Untold Scandal” (2003) came from the relatively unknown Korean New Wave director Lee Je Yong, who places the story in his own home country whose aristocratic period took place a few decades after the novel’s.

Frears’s version is the most true to the book, keeping the original ending, leaving much of the dialogue intact and making the setting historically accurate.

“Valmont” comes fairly close in terms of accuracy but “Americanizes” (read: dumbs down) some of the dialogue, romance and plot events. Forman inexplicable chooses to excise Valmont’s deathbed revenge in favor of making Valmont’s death into a suspenseful surprise, a dubious choice that deprives Merteuil of her fated comeuppance.

“Untold Scandal” remains surprising similar despite the culture shift, perhaps due to the shared period of puritanical trappings that hide a darker underworld. Lee Je Yong’s ending humorously maximizes film’s visual potential by replacing the final letters with explicit artistic rendering, but offers Merteuil a surprisingly redemptive coda that is unique, though cheesy.

“Cruel Intentions” warps surprisingly little of the basic set-up and seems at home amongst its bevy of modern promiscuous teens. The major change is the atmosphere, now dressed up in a hip, trendy veneer rather then a prim and stuffy one. It also puts a timely twist on one subplot to add a fitting homosexual angle. The reputation-wrecking letters being entirely inadequate for a modern adaptation, Kumble has the de Tourvel character handout Xeroxes of Merteuil’s diary (which includes a diagram of the cocaine-filled crucifix she always wears) during Merteuil’s insincere funeral speech over Valmont’s grave.

Finally, “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” takes the most liberties with the script, but does so in a wholly appropriate manner. To make Valmont and Merteuil’s friendship/rivalry all the more bitter and intense, Vadim makes them a long-married couple with an “honest, open relationship” that thinly disguises their secret hatred for each other’s infidelities. Also deeming the original ending too weak for a modern movie, Vadim transfuses the irony factor into de Tourvel’s grief-induced madness. Merteuil gets her comeuppance by somewhat arbitrarily catching on fire, becoming permanently disfigured.

One of the main ways these films distinguish themselves is through their ensemble casts, since the performances are key to the complicated, deceit-filled and emotionally diverse script. The Film Walrus will exam the five lead parts: Valmont (reformed scoundrel), Tourvel (virtuous love interest), Merteuil (villain), Cecile (naïve virgin) and Danceny (Cecile’s boyfriend).

Chief amongst the Valmonts is actually Untold Scandal’s neophyte Bae Yong-Jun, in his first cross-over role after a successful career on Korean television. Bae is clever, persuasive and subtle, pulling off the charm and seductiveness of the character at every level. He is so full of his own lies that even he finds it difficult to tell when his feigned love becomes sincere. Vadim’s Gerard Philippe comes close to the right balance and seems believable as the irresistibly confident rogue. “Valmont” displays a young Colin Firth doing a passable job that falters only occasionally on the delivery but isn’t particularly memorable. The much-lauded John Malkovich is truly overrated in the role, tipping his hand too far toward the smarmy, evil and conceited side making him unconvincing as a successful seducer or as a romantic reformer. Ryan Philippe in “Cruel Intentions” needs no discussion.

The role of Tourvel is a relatively difficult and thankless part; especially considering how one-dimensional and prudish the character is (everyone else gets to have much more fun). Michelle Pfeiffer (in 1988’s “Dangerous Liaisons”) handily takes first place in terms of performance, but Cruel Intention’s Reese Witherspoon looks the part and feels the most at home channeling the essence of purity and sweetness in a way that makes the one-dimensionality an advantage. Vadim casts his then-wife (unsurprising for the womanizing oft-married director) Annette Vadim in the role and gets from her a workable performance. Both “Untold Scandal” and “Valmont” (with Meg Tilly) are flat and uninspired beyond redemption.

The villainous Merteuil is the part generally played with the most relish and has given many actresses a chance to show their fangs and develop a darker image. Jeanne Moreau easily steals the show in the French original with a keen, jaded performance that is downright chilling. Annette Bening gives the best performance of the “Valmont” cast and manages to the fullest arc from an initially pitiable and sympathetic position to one of malicious spite (sadly, she has a terrible evil laugh). Sarah Michelle Gellar successfully dirtied her role-model/girl-power reputation from TV’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and comes across convincingly vampy in a rare brunette performance. Frears’s version features Glenn Close who hogs a lot of screen time but totally overplays her part and looks too old and too unpleasant to fit the part, but does convey an intimidating viciousness. “Untold Scandal” comes in as the least memorable, but Lee Mi-Suk does get to have some of the most outrageous hair in screen history.

Cecile, like Tourvel, is a difficult part due to its relative simplicity and limited range. None of the five movies pull it off with any great flourish and Uma Thurman (in the 1988 version) is probably the best simply by virtue of being unobtrusive. “Valmont” puts a young Fairuza Balk to good use, especially her expressions for confusion, nervousness and shock, but she lacks depth. The Cecile in “Untold Scandal” is pretty ridiculous in her doe-eyed naivety but amply sells the fragility and giddiness of the part. Selma Blair in “Cruel Intentions” and the forgettable girl from “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” are both too whiny and petulant, ultimately distracting rather than complimenting the other performances.

Finally we have Danceny, a role necessary for the plot but certainly the most minor. Essentially the part is a male version of Cecile with less lines and more hurt pride, not really a juicy performance to dig into. Vadim manages to turn it into a fairly brilliant bit-part for the superb Jean-Louis Trintignant (in a young, pre-famous cameo) as a student torn between study and puppy love. “Untold Scandal” casts the handsome Jo Hyun-Jae who give the part a little of the youthful swagger and recklessness reminiscent of Toshiro Mifune’s samurais. Sean Patrick Thomas gets the job done, and adds some needed racial diversity to “Cruel Intentions.” Meanwhile Keanu Reeves and the kid from E.T. (in the 1988 and 1989 versions respectively) compete to see who can make the most insanely awful catastrophe out of their brief appearances.

In terms of the films’ looks, Frear’s and Lee Je Yong both get the most glitter and glam by pouring money into the lavish costumes and decoration, vividly rendering the period detail. “Valmont” trails a little behind, clearly harder-up for cash and sticking to a Czech aesthetic that seems a little dull, particularly in regards to the soft-focus cinematography. “Cruel Intentions” is crisp and clean, but uncaring about its mise-en-scene and without any period splendor to exult in. While Vadim’s French version probably had the smallest budget, it wins hands-down in terms of style, technique and craft. Vadim’s wildly inspired camera angles, mature sense of framing and motion, and formal black and white photography helped to usher in the French New Wave while belying the poor film work on his “And God Created Women” and “Barbarella.” Frears, Foreman and Yong have the talent but not the ambition or creativity to match Vadim. Kumble just phones in his direction.

Perhaps there is some generational bias, but I have to award “Cruel Intentions” with the best and most thematically relevant music, featuring some of the best of the late 90’s indie circuit like Placebo, Blur, The Verve and Fatboy Slim. Vadim also finds somewhat unusual, but well-suited inspiration in a jazz/bebop score by Thelonius Monk. Frears opts for somewhat obvious period orchestrations, a decision matched by “Untold Scandal” with less successful results given the cultural displacement and emotion accenting. “Valmont” comes in last with some classical pieces of its own diluted by several execrable unharmonious choir numbers.

Overall, the original “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” wins in my book, with a solid overall cast and stellar camerawork. Following that, “Untold Scandal” beats out “Dangerous Liaisons” by a hair due to its less overworked cultural setting and strong lead. Frears’s version deserves much credit and is probably the best bet for someone looking for a straight-forward adaptation with no surprises and high credibility. Despite being almost completely artistically bankrupt, “Cruel Intentions” may be the most accurate to the spirit of the novel, delivering attractive faces and shameless fun in a fast, energetic and fully modern package. Its excellent soundtrack and appealing cast have earned it a reputation as one of the best slices of 90’s teen trash. “Valmont” is probably the most disappointing, far too long and too compromising; destined to be viewed as a poor-man’s shadow of Frears’s film.

Winner: Roger Vadim's 1959 "Les Liaisons Dangereuses"

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Vienna Part II

One nice thing about 8+ hour international flights is that you often get to see multiple in-flight movies for free, usually from the recent past. The flights to and from Vienna allowed me to catch up on five films from 2006 that I didn’t get around to watching on my own dime. I’ll now review them here.

Rocky Balboa

Where to start? For beginners, watching this insipid movie made me feel just as bad as Stallone looked. The man distorts his face like a hideous clown drawn by Picasso and in so doing successfully conveys the idea that Rocky should not be allowed to return to the ring, for his own sake as much as for the audience. The Boxing Commission initially agrees, but is soon convinced to change their mind after Rocky threatens them in the most brutal possible way. No, no, not punching: cringe-inducing, pretentious, pseudo-patriotic speechifying.

If you are really into sappy monologues about “believing in yourself” then this movie is perfect for you. The sheer quantity of preachy clichés being sold as homespun profundity will more than sate those looking for a return to good, old-fashion American values. Perhaps more distressing then simple bad writing is the return to American values we’d rather leave behind, namely racism. Outdoing even the poorly coded racist undertones of the original “Rocky,” this sixth sequel has the aged, Italian boxer putting the cocky African-American Mason “The Line” Dixon in his place.

The rest of the badness found in this movie comes from fairly predictable areas: reignited romance, father-son arguments that end in love and healing, a scrappy dog named “Punchy” which might be the 2006’s worst obvious metaphor, a final fight that borrows its style straight from pay-per-view, a remixed “Eye of the Tiger” that takes out everything that was great about the original, etc. In the film’s defense, however, I did find the screening to be inadvertently hilarious and a source of ongoing in-jokes amongst my family.

Walrus Rating: 2/10

Marie Antoinette

Sofia Coppola’s third film continues her interesting pattern of taking unusual perspectives on familiar genres. Done as a period piece about the title princess from Austria who married the French prince Louis XVI, Coppola offers almost no history and initially seems to be making a sensitive comedy about the couple’s awkward sex life (or lack thereof).

The final product, however, is less about narrative and more about sensorial details like elaborate clothing, extraordinary cuisine and ornate architecture all caught in crisp cinematography and set to an excellent soundtrack by “Gang of Four,” “The Cure,” “Aphex Twin,” “New Order,” “Siouxsie and the Banshees” and “Air.” Kirsten Dunst’s appealing performance in the lead is both subtle and vulnerable enough to be believable and sufficiently supported by Jason Schwartzman and the rest of the cast (including many indie favorites).

Unfortunately, like all of Coppola’s films so far, it falls short of being as deep as it feigns and is too quickly forgotten. While aesthetically appealing from moment to moment the film is just too light and carefree to accomplish much. The two hour length is far too long and by the time the film decides to tell a story in the final 30 minutes, it seems rushed and a little trite.

Walrus Rating: 6.5/10


Bill Condon’s musical adaptation shares with “Marie Antoinette” the same indulgence in good-natured superficiality, but lacks the other film’s creativity or musical taste. As a story, “Dreamgirls” feels like a giant lumbering fusion of every “rise-and-fall” band/musician story since the dawn of time. Every stale montage, production number, plot twist, character type, betrayal and turn-around from the genre has been resurrected from the dead and sewn unto the lurching unstoppable box-office Frankenstein. This operation is handled by some of the best doctors and equipment money can by; each component is surgically grafted with steely precision and professional detachment. Viewers will be pleased with the impressive procedure, knowing that the patient is at all time perfectly safe and in practiced hands, while the technician breathe life into the dead assemblage. Sadly, however, the monster will forever lack a soul.

Therein lays the sin that condemns the beast. The whole point of the film, as it loudly announces in both shouting matches and piercing songs, is that soul, talent and authenticity are more important than outward appearances, popularity and good looks. The ironic paradox is that the film’s structure, marketing and presentation deny its purported beliefs at every turn. Emblematic of the problem is the casting of Beyonce Knowles (for her looks) and Eddie Murphy (for his fame) in major parts despite their embarrassing acting disabilities (although in fairness, Murphy puts in a career high).

The essential hypocrisy of the film isn’t the only paradox. “Dreamgirls” also turns its back almost completely on the genre of music it claims to depict (and borrows its plot loosely from). Most of the song and dance numbers are the type of all-out Broadway show-stoppers that guarantee big audiences but will alienate the hardcore and historically interested. The problem hits home hardest, and most ironically, when the film’s “talented” songwriter walks out of a recording session because the simplistic disco beats are given precedence over his “important” lyrics. At no point in the film up to then have we seen the man produce anything but catchy, refrain-heavy hooks with the same obvious themes and limited vocabulary every time.

Walrus Rating: 4.5/10

Stranger than Fiction

While I occasionally find Will Ferrell to be funny, his movies almost never are (for me) and so I came into “Stranger than Fiction” expecting very little despite the hype. I was pleasantly surprised to find my preconceptions to be shattered by this clever and unassuming film which deserves a place as a minor comedy gem.

Ferrell plays Harold Crick, a mild-mannered (in the extreme) IRS agent who has an obsession with counting and an emotionally empty life. He finds his clockwork habits interrupted one day by a female narrator who begins as a mild annoyance (repeating exactly what he’s doing and thinking) and soon becomes a ominous mental trauma (she predicts his imminent death). Crick’s author is Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), a prestigious author who hasn’t published in more than ten years because writer’s block has prevented her from conceiving the exact manner of Crick’s death.

The delightful premise is executed quite well with instances of perfectly timed comedy, charm and insight. The writing is just the right blend of daily comedy and tragedy which Crick recognizes in his own life story. The direction is unobtrusive and has a couple nice touches like the CG calculations that externalize Crick’s mind and the morbid fantasies that externalize Eiffel’s. The ultimate ending is a disappointing sellout, ameliorated somewhat by being acknowledged as “merely OK” by the film itself.

The supporting cast of Dustin Hoffman, Tony Hale and Maggie Gyllenhaal all have their moments to shine although Gyllenhaal, as the romantic love interest, loses all believability in the second half of the film. She delivers a saccharine background story, shows no agency whatsoever (she gives in instantly to Crick’s archaically possessive declaration of “I want you.”) and ceases to develop further after serving her role as romantic object-goal.

Walrus Rating: 8/10

The Fountain

Easily the best film from the trip, Darren Aronofsky’s third film is a highly-original, existential, sci-fi dissertation that spans three stories spread across a thousand years. Hardly a recipe for box-office success, “The Fountain” had the guts to advertise itself for exactly what it was (room existed for some creative editing) and then to see its audacious premise to completion.

Edited together in an impressive non-linear web is the tale of a Spanish conquistador who journeys to South American (searching for the tree of life in the hopes of saving his besieged queen), a modern story about a medical scientist trying to find a cure for his wife’s terminal brain tumor, and a futuristic (and highly abstract) episode following a bald guru sailing towards a dying nebula on a space-tree-bubble. The lead man from each section is ostensibly the same (played by Hugh Jackman).

Switching styles once again (following “Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream”), Aronofsky proves he is still a maverick visual poet. His film has a distinctive look, aglow with the ambiance of golden light and rippling with the echoes of his interwoven stories and brilliantly framed graphic matches. The camerawork compliments the ambiguous material, finding visual ways to evoke the themes of acceptance, abasement, eternity and hidden continuity.

If “The Fountain” has a flaw it is that the attractive leads (Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz) aren’t really up to the material. They have a lot of symbolic and artistic weight to carry and neither has the nuance and delicacy to sell the material with much realism or depth of personality. It isn’t a major fault given that their roles are at least as much symbolic as flesh-and-blood, but it would have the film just a little more divine.

Walrus Rating: 9/10

Friday, March 23, 2007

Illicit Cinephilia Den Exposed

An interesting development took place today with my Splice account ( on gmail which may prove my occasional paranoia about Google to be less unfounded then some suspected. A Splice announcement sent out to some 250 accounts bounced back for 90% of my contacts with gmail claiming a "permanent failure due to a Sector 5 violation." Nothing on gmail's help site explains what a sector 5 violation is but word on the discussion boards is that it may indeed be code for censorship. Most often this has been cited in cases where the heading was politically incorrect, which fits with this week's email for Werner Herzog's 1970 "Even Dwarfs Started Small" (included in my headline).

Although I should probably be impressed at the possibility of being labeled a political dissident, I am instead rather morose. I no longer have any easy way to communicate with the Splice club or send out the weekly emails. The problem has been reported to Google and I am interested to see how they deal with it (past complaints have been fixed but not adequately explained). Obviously I have been a long time fan of Google's work and use gmail for emails and this blogger, but I remain skeptical of any force with enormous power and Google has shown a willingness in the past to cooperate with censorship (as in China). I generally support many of Google's decisions, but only so far as they maintain an ethical stance.

For now, here is a replication of the censored Splice email:

This week’s Splice film is Werner Herzog’s rarely seen, “Even Dwarfs Started Small” (1970). The movie has the unusual honor of being only the second all-midget film ever made (the first being the poorly received musical western, “Terror of Tiny Town”) and tells a truly outlandish tale of inmates who overturn their asylum.

An early work in the director’s important career as a New German Cinema icon (he continues today with films like “Grizzly Man” and “Rescue Dawn”), the film shaped much of his evolving style and subversive approach. Eccentric actor Crispin Glover (who provides a commentary on the DVD) counts himself amongst the cult following and cites the film as the primary influence on his own “What Is It?” (1996).

“Even Dwarfs Started Small” is a highly symbolic and difficult work, but a rewarding experience nevertheless. However, I’ll also be providing a secondary option depending on the mood. “Fiend Without a Face” (1958) is a classic of cheesy fifties horror, featuring mind vampires that can suck brains out through their victim’s skulls.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Vienna Part I

So the trip to Vienna was obviously quite great. Amongst other things, I was able to visit Schonbrunn Palace, the zoo, a butterfly house, a Struass & Mozart concert, the Belvedere Palace, the Hundertwasser haus, a revolving restaurant, Roman ruins, the UN building, my brother and five art museums. The cuisine was delicious and hotel, the Marriot, was extremely comfortable. Public transit more than sufficed for travel within the city.

Now to twist this around into a film related post. First off five of my favorite photos from the trip and matching relevant movies:

1) Meerkats using pack instincts and cuteness to acquire food, just like in the wild.

Best use of an unusual mammal for ambiguous emotional effect: Lemur, “The Element of Crime”

2) Lizard locked in a staring contest with me.

Best Godzilla villain: Gigan, but not just because he has lasers, a cool color scheme and giant claws but because in his intermediate form he sprouts chainsaw pinchers. In the final stages he becomes the three-headed Kaiser Ghidorah and shoots fire rays from his mouths.

3) Revolving restaurant tower reflected in skyscraper (taken by my brother, Patrick).

Best mirror scene: The final shootout in “Lady from Shanghai.” Runners-up include the passage into the underworld from “Orpheus” (1950) and the ironic 'mirror image' application of a scar from “Hollow Triumph” (1948).

4) The world’s most delicate thing: A spiderweb stretched between a flower petal and the tip of a wing on a sleeping butterfly. Sorry about the focus not being right. Zoom in near the red arrow to see web thread.

Most delicate on-screen moment(s): The 10+ minute silent heist sequence from “Rififi” (1955) which has the audience holding their breath in total tension. Runner-up goes to the loaded moment before “confession” in the coda of “My Night at Maud’s” (1969).

5) Painter painting painter painting model. One of only 34 confirmed Vermeer's in the world. The rest, ironically, are probably forgeries.

Best Vermeer-related movie: “A Zed and Two Noughts” (obviously)

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Hall of Strangeness VI

Cannibal: The Musical – (Trey Parker) The title says it all. A musical styled after Oklahoma! with a plot reminiscent of the Donner party. Humorous musical numbers parody the genre and lead into scenes of excessive gore. Has the same pleasures and pains of South Park creator Trey Parker’s other work.
Artistry: * Fun: ***** Strangeness: ***

Careful – (Guy Maddin) The small town of Tolzbad is perched so high on a precarious mountain slope, that all noise must be suppressed to prevent an avalanche. Amidst the whispering, tip-toeing and general repression, a host of terrible misdeeds is conducted, ranging from incest to murder. Shot in the intentionally antiquated style of 1920’s German Expressionism.
Artistry: **** Fun: **** Strangeness: *****

Cassandra Cat – (Vojtech Jansy) Revel in the Czech children’s fable about a magical cat who must wear special glasses to prevent nearby townspeople from appearing in their true colors (red for lovers, yellow for cheaters, gray for thieves and blue for hypocrites and liars). The bureaucrats want to kill it and stuff it, but the children want to hug it and love it forever. Who will win in this metaphoric lesson about the evils of taxidermy?
Artistry: ** Fun: *** Strangeness: ***

Cemetery Man – (Michele Soavi) Italian giallo revivalist Soavi, wittily casts Rupert Everett as Dellamorte, a dispassionate gravedigger who is surprisingly unfazed about the dead returning to walk the earth. With the “aid” of his feeble-minded, incomprehensible assistant Gnaghi, our hero does reluctant battle with such foes as a troop of undead boyscouts and a zombie motorcycle gang bafflingly buried with their bikes. After undergoing the repeat trauma of killing his girlfriend (both before and after she was a zombie) and other women (always played by the same actress as the girlfriend) Dellamorte finds himself driven to existential crisis. Assisted by great music, atmosphere and flair.
Artistry: ** Fun: **** Strangeness: ****

Charisma – (Kiyoshi Kurosawa) How many time have you gone to the video store looking for an existential eco-thriller and left empty-handed? Never let that happen again. In Charisma, a detective who failed to act during an important hostage situation takes a sabbatical in the woods, only to get caught up in a series of plots concerning a mysterious tree named Charisma. Think of it as Fern Gully for the Sartre and Lovecraft crowd (if there is one).
Artistry: **** Fun: ** Strangeness: *****

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

How Should I React to the Cornucopia and Dead Pheasant on Your Head

I fully intend to write up a bit about my trip to Vienna, but I'm still busy catching up after the trip. I'll try to tie the whole thing into a film topic by reviewing the in-flight movies, but it'll all be a pretense to announce what a good time I had. As for now, a shameless rant about silly hats in old movies:

Although presumably part of the problem comes from fashion and culture in the period between 1930 and 1959, I still find it hard to believe the real-life equivalents of silly hats were so ludicrous. Gratuitous offenders are usually marked by a diameter in excess of shoulder width, a height amplified by feathers or antennae and garnishes that may include frills, flowers, doilies, vales, animal corpses, experimental art and more.

The problem goes beyond being a simple fashion blemish as it often undermined female characters or simply writing them off with using the visual shortcut in lieu of real development (equivalent to an upper-class “dumb blonde” stereotype). The emphasis on women’s “silly and frivolous” characteristics was often patronizing and ridiculous even at the time and seems evermore so in retrospect. Silly hats had the chutzpah to spill over into the plot, becoming a major element in films like “The Phantom Lady” (1944) and serving as a painfully trite metaphor for personal growth in the Oscar-winning “Mrs. Miniver” (1942).

Monday, March 19, 2007

Review of Vive L'Amour

Tsai Ming-Liang’s "Vive L’Amour" (1994) tells the non-story of two young men and a young woman who have in common empty lives and an empty apartment. Hsiao-Kang sells crematorium slots, Ah-Jung hawks knock-off clothing in the evening and May Lin is a real estate agent. All three spend the vast majority of their time alone and adrift even when they are technically sharing an apartment. Their “relationships” are so tentative that they hardly meet the definition. For instance, May Lin never finds out that Hsiao-Kang lives in one of her unsold apartments where she occasionally meets Ah-Jung for wordless, semi-anonymous sex.

Vive L’Amour is vintage Ming-Liang in its grueling detached long takes, minimal dialogue and uncompromising pacing that straddles the fence between art and torture. Working with a scant mise-en-scene focused around an apartment with little more than a bed, a rug and a tub, the director manages to create a sense of place and mood that owes a lot to his skill with lighting, composition and staging. Particularly noteworthy is the way that the male characters sneak, creep and hide as they secretly dwell in the unsold building, reacting to the changes in sound and lighting that signals the presence of another occupant. Hsiao-Kang’s reactions, initially comical (bowling with a melon, silently crawling out from under a bed right next to May Lin’s exhausted legs) eventually become both more disturbing and more sad.

With the extremely minimized dialogue and distant camera, it may initially seem like the film relies very little on the strength the acting, however the body language and lack of expressivity in the characters is a key factor. When the camera finally gives up a close-up for the final image it is shocking; uncomfortably intimate after a pattern of detached emotional repression and made more so by the extreme shot length.

Vive L’Amour is not a particularly easy movie to like, owing not just to the pacing and minimalism: the film finds its emotional peaks and most powerful impact by reveling to a degree in the awkwardness and pain it reveals in the vacuous lives of its lonely characters. Ming-Liang maintains a pseudo-realism of seemingly minor events that doesn’t try to be particularly clever, hilarious or momentous, but instead, invites us to analyze our own emotional reactions to progressively more revealing moments. By the time we see the shy Hsiao-Kang masturbating under a bed or Min Lin unable to recover from uncontrollable, unmotivated crying, we realize that Ming-Liang has dredged up something truly profound from the emptiness of their lives.

Vive L'Amour is neither the best Tsai Ming-Liang film nor a particularly good place to start with his work. My favorite is "The Hole" (1998) which is both more interesting and more accessible. "The River" (1997) is similar to "Vive L'Amour" but provides even more disturbing impact and a bit more stylistic edge.

Walrus Rating: 6

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Sabbatical in Vienna

In a few hours I'll be heading onto the first leg of my trip to Vienna (cue zither score from "The Third Man"). I'm unlikely to be able to post while there for my week long spring break. Of course, if I see any films I'll make sure to write something up about them later. And now... I leave you.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Hall of Strangeness Part V

Branded to Kill – (Seijun Suzuki) After years of churning out cheap Japanese studio fare in the 60’s (read: gangster films and softcore porn) iconoclastic director Suzuki started getting… weird. Leaving the script to drift in lower orbit, Suzuki tells the story of “Number 3 Killa,” an assassin with a rice fetish. After a butterfly lands in front of his sniper scope during the crucial moment of an important hit, he finds himself haunted by butterflies and stalked by the mythical “Number 1 Killa” in the ultimate game of cat-and-mouse.
Artistry: **** Fun: *** Strangeness: ****

Brazil – (Terry Gilliam) Easily Gilliam’s best work to date, Brazil is a comic 1984-esque vision of the dystopic future. A computing error leads to the death of the wrong man (it was supposed to be vigilante plumber, Harry Tuttle) and Sam Lowrey is in charge of the paperwork. Unsure of whether he’s working for the big-brother government or a terrorist organization, Lowrey’s life soon spins out of control.
Artistry: ***** Fun: ***** Strangeness: ****

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia - (Sam Peckinpah) Only once in his entire life was Peckinpah given full creative control and final cut on a film project. He makes the most of it in this dark twisted film about a Bennie, a loser who agrees to retrieve the head of a former nemesis for a pair of gay bounty hunters. The task should be easy considering that Garcia is already dead, but the ensuing bloodshed proves him very, very wrong.
Artistry: ** Fun: ** Strangeness: ***

Bubba Ho-Tep – (Don Coscarelli) Bruce Campbell plays Elvis Presley, long since escaped from the limelight and now pathetically fading in a southern retirement home. His spirits are revived when mysterious scarab-related deaths point towards a possible mummy. He teams up with the black JFK (the CIA altered his melanin so that no one would believe his identity) to send the foul creature back to the netherworld.
Artistry: ** Fun: ***** Strangeness: ****

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – (Robert Wiene) A classic of German Expressionism, this silent film follows an evil hypnotist who uses a sleepwalker to carry out his murders. The director inventively chose to avoid using highly overrated 90 degree angles.
Artistry: **** Fun: *** Strangeness: ***

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Review of Inland Empire

David Lynch’s latest creation, “Inland Empire” (2006) could not have been made by any other director. It is easily his most iconic work. It’s his hardest to explain.

The story, in as much as it matters, is about Nikki Grace, a married actress who gets a part in an upcoming movie called “On High in Blue Tomorrows,” an event predicted by her creepy, mysterious neighbor. The script, actually a remake of a Polish story, appears to be cursed and previous attempts at adaptation culminated in murders. As production gets under way, co-star Devon pursues an affair with Nikki despite multiple warning about her jealous husband. It isn’t long before the actress is enmeshed in a surreal fantasy world that mixes elements of her life, the movie, the events surrounding the Polish film and her imagination. Also there is a rabbit sitcom.

A little background on the film: David Lynch shot entirely on digital, improvising the script as he went along around a general idea in his head. No linear causality seems possible in decoding the film and, unlike “Mulholland Dr,” as yet no key or explanation can satisfactorily make the plot coherent. At three hours in length, critics are split between decrying it as a self-indulgent mess or an avant-garde masterpiece.

I think that as a narrative experiment, “Inland Empire” is an innovative and worthwhile experience. Looking for straight-forward answers seems to cause quite a bit of frustration but enjoying the questions, ambiguities and puzzles presented can be both enjoyable and artistically mesmerizing. Lynch clearly has a knack for creating movies that appear to fold back into themselves with endless hints, implications and connections that generate a half-genuine/half-artificial profundity. I view his latest plunge into borderline non-narrative strangeness as the next evolution of his work, and yet I have to admit that I prefer the more cohesive enigmas of “Lost Highway” and “Mulholland Dr.”

In terms of script, the dialogue is vintage Lynch all the way, for better or for worse. He has some of his most pretentious moments, predominantly when he falls into the pattern of having characters pose uninflected non-sequitur questions at each other. However, a few scenes stand out as memorable high points in his career including a hilarious exchange in which Harry Dean Stanton begs for money and an infinitely disturbing conversation about whether you can catch a bus to Pomona.

On a technical level, the switch to digital has been a sore issue for most viewers. While I’m glad that David Lynch is so excited about the freedom and ease it offers (he has returned to feature films and vowed to make only digital movies from now on), I can’t help but agree with the general critical reaction that his visuals are disappointing.

Particularly unpleasant are the frequent extreme close-ups which show up as distorted and aggressive, shouting “IS THIS NOT CREEPY!” when the message could be conveyed in a more subtly, under-your-skin manner. One is reminded too vividly of the forced claustrophobic horror of “Blair Witch Project.” Presumably this heavy use of close-ups was necessitated due to the lack of resolution and shallow focus on medium-long DV shots which makes facial expressions and nuances difficult to distinguish.

I’m torn about the use of lighting in the film. Some shots are quite thoughtfully arranged, with interesting uses of harsh lighting from behind or off to the side. A grey darkness prevails through most of the film giving some images just enough definition so that outlines can be felt but not enough to resolve our curiosity and fear. However, too many scenes are so grainy and muddy that color contrast is all but lost and Lynch’s compositions suffer as a result.

The set design is not particularly inspired either, with minimalism seemingly used to mask the grainy loss of detail. Too many shots on too few sets creates a feeling of repetition and stagnation, dampening our excitement and fascination. Though it provides good contrast for the bizarre events and dialogue, the mundane nature of the sets (bare apartments, bare hotel rooms, drab streets, empty studio warehouses, empty theaters, etc) feels dry when they could have been used to develop a keener visual style.

On the upside, compliments must go the fairly savvy use of speed and digital manipulation which often marks some of the eeriest moments. At one point a leering image of the phantom trumps even the creature living behind the dumpster in “Mulholland Dr.”

Happily, the aural qualities of “Inland Empire” are truly brilliant, a rival to his debut “Eraserhead.” Clearly, tons of effort has been poured into his ambient sound and room noise experimentation creating a chilling atmosphere and nerve-wracking mood that usually makes up for the lack of visual punch.

One final issue that needs to be brought up is the self-referential tone which feels out of place and unnecessary. The postmodern hipster aesthetic is simply not Lynch’s style, so why does he feel the need to constantly remind us of his own work: “Rabbits,” his internet series, the plot, characters and themes of “Mulholland Dr,” Twin Peaks’ lumber motif, his regular cast members, etc. Leaving the theater I initially was feeling self-congratulatory about catching so many nods, but I checked myself after further consideration. What was the point? It served no purpose within the film. Is he pandering to his niche audience? Is he trapped within a narcissistic bubble of his own themes, obsessions and oeuvre and unable to generate wholly new ideas? The trend is disturbing and I hope it doesn’t continue in his later films.

Walrus Rating: 7.5

Monday, March 5, 2007

Review of God of Cookery

In God of Cookery (1996) Stephen Chow plays a self-proclaimed grandmaster of culinary skills brought low by his hilarious hubris only to return to power by recapturing his passion and art in its most humble form: street vending. The formula is pure cookie-cutter (I warn: there will probably be more puns to come), but Chow succeeds at upsetting the obvious by making full use of his chef motif and stirring everything in with his usual manic kung-fu insanity.

Despite the grammatically suspect subtitles and absence of text translations on the version viewed, I felt this was Chow’s funniest work. For me the physical comedy and gratuitous hyperbole work best without the obtrusive aid of computer graphics. Chow must resort to more creative techniques to get his shockingly over-the-top effects, and often their low-budget transparency (like using good, old creative editing) provides a charm with its own comedic value. Since God of Cookery aims much of its parody at television and the already exaggerated antics of shows like Iron Chef or fast-food commercials, Chow is forced to find new extremes using the same medium and available techniques as his targets.

The challenge manages to find him milking his character’s outrageous personality and hijacking the kinetic action of kung-fu flicks, the spontaneous music and heightened emotions of melodrama and even the incongruous sanctimony of religion. The result is quite often witty, absurd and highly inspired. One scene, in which a judge reacts to sampling two rival dishes, first shows a rapid triply-repeated zoom (a staple of Hong Kong cinema, here used with eye-winking irony) of the judge crying out, “Good!” with an ecstatic expression. Ever willing to one-up himself even after his most superlative exaggerations, the second taste elicits a split-screened, superimposed montage of orgasmic delight including a shot of the judge rolling across a mattress-size slab of pork.

Where Stephen Chow tends to go wrong for me is in the departments of character and structure. The characters seem to have been handed one physical characteristic and one personality trait apiece and they are never called upon except to elicit the same audience reaction.

Structurally, doing away with “straight” moments that might have balanced (if done well) or leavened (if poorly) the cartoon fun, makes it difficult to sympathize, understand or believe in the characters and story. While this isn’t a requisite for enjoying most of the jokes, it would provide a grounding to contrast the absurdity against. When events or behaviors become totally random it bypasses the natural excitement of the unpredictable and becomes arbitrary, lacking impact because there are no rules, logic or motivation. This is a complaint that becomes even more relevant in Shaolin Soccer and Kung-fu Hustle.

Overall, God of Cookery is a giddy and unrestrained treat with laughs pulled from the most unexpected places. Its creativity should be celebrated as much as its sheer wackiness, despite of (and occasionally because of) its lack of artistic and narrative rigor.

Walrus Rating: 7.5

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Review of Save the Green Planet!

Within the first ten minutes of “Save the Green Planet!” it’s clear that director Joon-Hwan Jang shares with his protagonist, Lee Byeong-gu, an off-kilter insanity that is fascinating even while it disturbs.

Lee is a beekeeper, an eccentric inventor and a conspiracy theorist. He’s the type of ingenious crackpot who would be hopelessly endearing in the unlikely Hollywood remake. Looking disarmingly goofy in a homemade “alien-proof” combat suit, it is hard not to find him pathetically humorous as he kidnaps a chemical corporation’s CEO and accuses him of being an alien prince all within the opening scenes.

In truth, his comically twitchy performance is underscored by a darkly traumatized history and a reliance on illegally procured prescription drugs. Our sympathies start to shift away from Lee as his full pathology is unveiled by his sadistic use of cruel torture methods. Our laughter becomes a little bit uncomfortable. The imagery gets more intense and even queasy. Suddenly it seems as if a pair of mismatched oddball detectives may be the real protagonists and we start to root for them to catch the raving madman.

But then again… we learn a little about Lee’s past. It seems there might be more to this kidnapping then just some crazy theories about aliens. His victim, established as unsympathetic from the start, really seems to be a very unethical businessman. A legitimate revenge motive may be at the bottom of Lee’s obsessive psychotic drive.

But then again…

…and so it goes. The audience is never really sure where the truth lies and the slippery shifts in perspective aren’t limited to just the narrative: Jang uses so many genres that its difficult to define exactly what we’re watching. Without ever slacking the pace he pulls the carpet from under us in countless scenes where we had settled into a stable mood. Dark comedy is inserted into moments of tension; abrupt violence interrupts a cheerful monologue; unsettling documentary footage finds its way into a moment of exhilarating CG fantasy. Even the most experienced film aficionado eventually must cede control to Jang as he calls all the shots and takes the film to ever more unpredictable realms, continuing even as the credits roll.

Trying to capture the uniqueness is difficult. You get the post-modern audience-aware winking of Tarantino, but there is still emotional investment. You get the light-speed manic chaos of Steven Chow, but there is still underlying structure and depth. You get the formalized strangeness of David Lynch, but there is still absurdist fun.

Special attention must be given to the cinematography and effects. The spiraling inspired story and polished look sometimes overwhelm the characters and the performances rely more on broad physicality than timing and poise. Ultimately a fun and occasionally dumbfounding experience, “Save the Green Planet!” is best watched with a group in a festive mood.

Walrus Rating: 8.5
(Walrus’s Roommate’s Rating: 10!)

Saturday, March 3, 2007

I Wouldn't Pay Those Taxi Drivers Either

While blogs are, ostensibly, an excellent way to keep track of personal data, upload photographs, exchange news, declare enlightened opinions and so forth, everybody knows that they were originally created for one lone reason: ranting. In keeping with the time honored tradition I am creating a label (“Shameless Rants”) where I can restrict my raving and foaming of the mouth. Readers should fill free to skip or indulge in a shared gripe. And now my first entry:

So many special effects seem dated within ten years of the film they were made in (or even when they were made), but none ever lasted so long, was used so much and is so obtrusive to witness as rear-projection backgrounds to give the "illusion" that vehicles are moving. It’s not just that everyone notices how fake the second layer looks, the problem is we can't concentrate on anything else.

When a movie uses a background that is moving out-of-sync with the foreground, projecting actual locations behind laughably obvious studio props or inconsistently matching the lighting, focus and angle, the audience can’t help but have their eyes affronted, their mind distracted and their mood disintegrated. If anyone in old movies ever wore their seatbelts there might at least be some excuse for how come nobody is experiencing the bumps and turns. Maybe the lack of any real travel explains why movie protagonists never pay for taxis when they get out.

We have rear-projection to thank for spoiling the suspended disbelief of countless chases, car-ride conversations, sailing excursions and plane trips. Even some of Hollywood’s greatest directors, such as Alfred Hitchcock, fell victim again and again.

In the 1930's rear-projection actually won an award for best technical achievement and in its day it probably merited the excitement. If only we could have abandoned it sooner. Credit goes out to directors like Lars von Trier in "Zentropa" who managed to successfully revive the effect for his own artistically self-conscious purposes.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Review of Time of the Gypsies

Emir Kusturica should have been a sure thing for me. I like Yugoslavia. I like magical realism. It’s like we were made for each other. Yet, my first experience with Kusturica’s work, “Underground” (1995) didn’t have the impact it should have.

The story, quite clever, follows two brothers during WWII. The younger leads the townsfolk into a vast underground cavern where they build and operate an armory to help the war effort. The older brother risks his life above ground to provide food and supplies and deliver the finished goods. The film takes a very dark turn when the older brother secretly decides to continue the arrangement long after the war has ended, using the weapons to become a wealthy arms dealer.

“Underground” possesses the type of absurdist premise and imagery that I deeply appreciate and, indeed, I experienced many moments of rare amazement at Kusturica’s vision and craft. However, the films epic 3+ hour length and unfunny (to me, at that time) characters offset my final score to a 7/10.

My second experience was even worse: Kusturica’s semi-autobiographical “When Father Was Away on Business” (1985) had all the sluggish pacing of “Underground” without the insight, imagery or imagination. Though it was loved by the critics for its charming, realistic look at adolescence under Yugoslavia’s Soviet occupation, it got a lackluster 5/10 from me. The traditional Film Walrus formula for such things is as follows:

Coming-of-age format + War + Male sexual awakening + Resounding message of hope and goodwill despite hardships and tragedy = Eyerolls

So it was with some surprise and with great pleasure that I watched and loved “Time of the Gypsies” (1989) after giving Kusturica a year long break. The protagonist is Perhan, an adolescent gypsy boy with an eccentric family, a talent for the accordion and telekinesis. His father is an unemployed irresponsible gambler and his grandmother is a benevolent witch. His only friends are a turkey (who turns in an outstanding performance) and a girlfriend that he can’t marry until he saves up a massive dowry.

A local gangster owes the family a favor and agrees to pay for Perhan’s sister to get a leg operation. Perhan accompanies her to a hospital and travels with the gangster to Milan to make a decent living. As Perhan works the mean-streets of Italy’s underworld and gradually climbs from low-life to lower-middle, he loses his innocence and risks his soul.

Within the framework of a deceptively simple rise-and-fall narrative (something like “The Goodfellas” without the glitz) is an endless series of brilliantly constructed scenes. The acting, mood and imagery remains absurdly balanced between black humor and touching tragedy. In a rare synthesis of gypsy clichés, Kurstica manages to capture simultaneously both the poverty-stricken, petty-crime melancholy and the free-wheeling, exotic magic of Perhan’s life.

Especially noteworthy is the score by Goran Bregovic which manages to find a place where both accordions and oboes can frolic and be happy. The cast, with almost no exception, turns in stellar performances even by my overly-skeptical standards for child acting. Kurstica, who was clearly fully committed to his material, grabs dozens of memorable shots and films entirely in the Gypsy language of Romany (a cinematic first).

Walrus Rating: 9.5

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Iceberg Arena: Olympia, Olympiad, Olympics

The Film Walrus is hardly the first person to point out conspicuous similarities between films released around the same time: Armageddon/Deep Impact, Volcano/Dante’s Peak, Bug’s Life/Antz, The Descent/The Cave, Capote/Infamous, etc. Sometimes it’s coincidence and sometimes it’s lack of creativity. Either way, it’s always fun to compare the two and see which is better and that’s why I’m introducing The Iceberg Arena.

The Iceberg Arena borrows its name from the sacred walrus combat tradition, wherein two walruses fight over a mate or a dead seal on a drifting, ever-shrinking iceberg. The fighting becomes more intense as the arena contracts. Tragically, even if one walrus reigns supreme, it is a hollow victory because global warming dissolves the iceberg from underneath their innocent blubber. Luckily walruses can swim.

Thus in the grand tradition of walrus battles and comparing movies, The Iceberg Arena will be a reoccurring format where I allow two films to fight tusk and fin. Of course, this being The Film Walrus, the contestants will be more interesting and unusual than “Armageddon” or “Dante’s Peak.” To inaugurate the combat, this Iceberg Arena is dedicated to the king of competition itself: The Olympics.

“Olympia Parts I and II” (1938) vs “Tokyo Olympiad” (1965)

The 1936 Olympics were held in Berlin and filmed by Leni Riefenstahl. Riefenstahl, an early female documentary maker, had become a controversial but well-regarded director with her 1936 “Triumph of the Will.” The film remains one of the best propaganda films ever made, possessing a stirring visual power despite its disturbing Nazi iconography and the terrible historical events that comprise its darker unseen half.

“Olympia” at nearly four hours, was Riefenstahl’s next film and it boldly continues her earlier visual mastery. She set the tone for decades of sports reporting afterwards with effective techniques like capturing races in slow-motion, aiming telephotos lenses down the track to catch the details of athlete’s expression and exertion, and attaching cameras to blimps for impressive aerial views. Her surprisingly artistic approach, as in her alternatively low and high angle shots of rotating divers in midair, is often haled with good reason.

But Riefenstahl’s Nazi sympathies also carry over from her previous film. The same low angle shots that exalt the divers’ arcs across the heavens are shared with Hitler gazing out across the stadium.

The film opens with a bizarre ode to the Aryan body-type, the camera tediously exploring Roman ruins and fetishizing the idealized nude statues which come to life in a multiple-superimposed climax of German flesh and muscle. The lingering sense of body worship never quite dissolves, subtly underlying the sports and making the close-ups uncomfortable. It interferes most conspicuously with the framing; Riefenstahl had dozens of cameras on hand but chooses extended shots that cut off the tops of heads, faces or nearby competitors to focus on legs, torsos and arms.

African-American athlete-extraordinaire Jesse Owens took several gold medals including the 100m, 200m, long jump and relay. His victory and the lock-out success of three other Americans in the Decathlon hampered Hitler’s intention that the 1936 Olympics be a triumph of the Aryan genotype. Riefenstahl doesn’t hide their victories and defenders of the film often cite this fact as proof of its balance and lack of propaganda intent, but certainly it would have been impossibly conspicuous to excise such key events as the 100m sprint, relay and decathlon especially since the movie was meant to recuperate much of its extreme expense in international sales.

Tokyo was scheduled to host the Olympics after Berlin, but by 1940 the war made the event impossible and it was canceled. 27 years later the Olympics did make it to Tokyo and well-established fiction director Kon Ichikawa was commissioned to film it. Ichikawa probably seemed like a safe bet; completely the philosophical opposite of Riefenstahl (it was important to Tokyo that they prove their good intentions to the world), Ichikawa had brought a very personal humanist touch to such varied subjects as arson (“Enjo” [1958]), cannibalism (“Fire on the Plains” [1959]) and sexual deviancy (“Odd Obsession” [1959]).

However, upon returning with the finished 3-hour film, the Japanese Olympics committee was outraged. Ichikawa had failed to “document the event” and instead had indulged in making “a work of art” as it was derisively declared. The committee was angered that the full expense and scope of the construction was not foregrounded. The minister of education complained that it would not be understood by children in the schools where it was booked to play across the country.

Ichikawa’s film often neglects to quote the winning times, distances and scores and in an even bolder stroke, often shows less interest in the winner than the losers. At one point Ichikawa strays into an extended vignette following a participant from Chad (“he is older than his country”) as he wanders the streets barefoot and eats a quiet meal. Riefenstahl finishes Part I of her film with the marathon, focusing with extreme close-ups and stock footage on the steady stride and imperturbable force of the lead runner. Ichikawa’s camera hangs back to watch the stranglers, the sweating pained faces of the men stopping for drinks or grabbing sponges on the go. When it does return to the victor it is with the hope of reading his thoughts at the deeply personal moment, and the narrator seems saddened by the stoic lack of expression.

While “Olympia” is virtually unanimously heralded as the highpoint of artistry in sports documentation, Ichikawa’s craft seems superior to my eye. He benefits from having more than a hundred cameras, 70mm color Tohoscope (1:2.35 aspect ratio) footage, 1600mm lenses and years more experience than Riefenstahl. His slow-motion shots (the gymnastics against a black background, the hurdles race shown with no sound except when a hurdle is knocked over), variety of expertly framed shots (looking out through the woods at cyclists or peering across what seems like miles at a pole-vaulter) and touching eye for detail (a news typist slipping off her shoes under the table, a spray of mud as a shot-put hits the earth in the dour rain, etc) make “Tokyo Olympiad” a masterpiece of nuance and artistic humanism.

Ichikawa’s patriotic bias is reduced to two shots of the rising sun: the flag which opens the film and the telephoto sunset at the intermission. Both shots are done artistically and seem to fit well. Ichikawa smartly directs the symbolism away from pure nationalism or war connotations and towards a sense of Japan reborn as a peaceful icon of progress; a daring graphic match transitions the red ball at the center of the opening flag into a wrecking ball as it destroys the run-down buildings where the stadium is to be built.

While discussion was taking place in Japan as to how to re-edit Ichikawa’s failure, the film was sent to Cannes where it was a resounding success. The Olympic committee changed its tune and released the film unchanged. It became the most successful film in Japan ever made up until that time.

Winner: Tokyo Olympiad