Wednesday, December 2, 2009

SLIFF 2009 Coverage Part 5

Title: Egon & Donci
Director: Adam Magyar
Country: Hungary
Score: 6.5
Lovable inventor Egon, lives on a bucolic alien planet with his bulbous cat Donci. When Voyager 3 crashes near his house-farm-observatory, Egon is inspired to take a trip to the solar system we know and love. After many mishaps and adventures, the pair of hapless astronauts makes contact with Earth, where a rather depressing shock fails to totally damper their efforts at galactic friendship and good-natured fun.

Due to my special interest in Hungarian animation, I made an effort to see “Egon & Donci.” The film is charming and buoyant without being sentimental and cloying, reminding me of “Wallace and Gromit,” though not as hilarious or structurally perfect. It has a distinctive spirit that makes it more anomalous and interesting (though not necessarily as good) as Disney and Pixar output. I particularly liked Egon’s exquisitely textured ranch and the truly awe-inspiring scenes of outer space (leaning much more towards art than science in terms of accuracy). The character design was pretty unappealing to my taste, with both heroes reminding me of mascots for children’s cereal. Perhaps wisely, the filmmaker chose to make the film without dialogue, relying on sound effects and music for communicating to his audience. The result is a little too cute (familiar sounds used for space-age technology, like a car engine starting for a rocketship), but the music has several tracks that rise above generic techno to really set a mood of freedom and wonder.

Title: Mia and the Migoo
Director: Jacques-Rémy Girerd
Country: France
Score: 7.5
Mia is a young girl who sets out across South America to find her father, a construction worker trapped by a cave-in while working on a tunnel for a new resort (perhaps based on Burj Al Arab). She meets the son of the man in charge of the development project, an overstressed and violent capitalist distant from his ex-wife and child. His plan for a high-end hotel is being threatened by the Migoo, a group of friendly local shapeshifting giants that have sworn to protect the tree of life.

While thematically uninspired (Does every animated film have to be about saving the environment and/or robots?), “Mia and the Migoo” nevertheless puts a new coat of paint on a familiar outline. Each scene works well in its own right, but they remain a little too episodic to form a memorable story. What’s more important to how the film makes itself felt is the visuals, which are drawn with warm colors in a painterly impressionist manner. It gives the setting its vibrancy and seems to fit the local culture the tropical terrain. Kids will love Mia, the imperturbable hero and the adorably amorphous Migoo, but the film is easily good enough for all ages to appreciate.

Monday, November 30, 2009

SLIFF 2009 Coverage Part 4

Title: Hooked
Director: Adrian Sitaru
Country: Romania
Score: 8.0
A married woman and her mathematics professor boyfriend head off for a romantic picnic, but appear more eager to go at each other’s throats than lips, and one quickly gets the impression that their affair is in the final stages. The mood is made even fouler after they run into and knock unconscious a streetside prostitute. She wakes up while they are in the middle of dumping her body, and they awkwardly invite her to join their picnic to try and cover up their irresponsible cruelty. Tension fluctuates as she chats with the two lovers and picks apart their private affairs with a mixture of ingenuous friendliness and manipulative determination. Her motive is never quite clear, but none of the possibilities are reassuring.

The Romanian New Wave has been one of the international highlights of the last five years, and “Hooked” is no exception. The “Knife in the Water”-esque plot allows for the formation of a highly unsettling triangle, where candid conversations reveal a surface of commonplaces over a layer of tangled emotions over a layer of psychological confusion over layers still deeper. The innovative style uses exclusively first-person perspective, with the editing shifting rapidly and yet fairly smoothly amongst the gazes of the three characters. The screenplay is excellent overall, though the ending has a somewhat gimmicky implication. The acting makes the contrivances natural enough to take seriously and brings out the interplay of clashing personality types. The title is perfect.

Title: 35 Shots of Rum
Director: Claire Denis
Country: France
Score: 4.5
Centered on a train conductor and his daughter, this unassuming drama about friends and family exudes a warm, elegiac glow. The father attends the retirement party of a friend. The daughter debates whether she wants to be the reason a restless neighbor settles down and stays. A concert is planned, but car trouble and rain redirect the ensemble to a homely eating establishment for a night of drinking, slow-dancing and finding inner peace.

While a tribute to Ozu’s “Late Spring,” “35 Shots of Rum” is undeniably a work of Denis’s own. Critics have unanimously raved about this film, which will likely top a lot of best-of-the-year lists. Perhaps reading all the uncritical, factory-cut praise has made me feel the need to play devil’s advocate. While I’ve liked Denis’s work in the past, I see no evidence of artistic growth in this overly tame and mind-numbingly boring slice-of-life. Yes, it manages to recall real life with its meandering nonstory, lack of action, gentle rhythms, likable people and all that, but does it have anything to say? It tries so hard to be a quiet, intimate experience that it just made me sleepily note that I’d rather be having a quiet, intimate experience at home than watching one. The camerawork is lazy, the acting so understated that it can’t really be criticized or even much discussed and the pacing is a mess of sluggish debris. Critics will acclaim it, thinking that the masses really need to see this type of film, but audiences will stay well away. I, for one, can’t fault them this time.

Title: Three Monkeys
Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Country: Turkey
Score: 9.5
An accident on a lonely rain-swept road triggers a series of dangerous transactions in “Three Monkeys” by Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan. The driver, a politician with an uphill election campaign in the works, asks his chauffeur to take the manslaughter rap in exchange for a lump sum of cash. While his dad waits out his sentence the chauffeur’s son asks his mother to get an early installment, leading to painful confrontations and revelations for the entire family.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan (“Distant,” Climates) has had an extraordinary career already and if this isn’t his best film yet, which I think it is, “Three Monkeys” is at least his most entertaining. Considering that all his work is drenched in downbeat pessimism and immaculate imagery, it was hardly a leap for him to make an outright film noir (albeit a family drama noir), but what’s more surprising is his heretofore unexpressed knack for comic timing and surreal horror. He captures storm-strewn skyscapes, crumbling concrete and ill-treated flesh silhouetted in Hou Hsiao-Hsien lighting with rapturous shallow-focus, green-tinted cinematography without ever wasting a shot.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

SLIFF 2009 Coverage Part 3

Title: 24 City
Director: Jia Zhangke
Country: China
Score: 7.0
Zhangke’s “24 City” is a provocative mix of documentary and fiction, concerned with the relocation of a large Chinese industrial factory to make room for a luxury apartment complex. The details of the factory itself, such as what product it actually makes, is not the director’s interest, but rather the role it has played in the surrounding community and in the lives of enormous workforce. The film consists of a series of interviews with these men and women, about half of which are fake. The tone and craftsmanship are so strong even in the acted segments that viewers will be unlikely to distinguish them, and may not even realize that some parts were fictional. And yet Zhangke doesn’t play the postmodern trickster so much as delve into an impartial emotional truth that lurks behind both documentary and performance.

The Chinese Sixth Generation has been one of my weak spots in exploring Asian film, and so I eagerly embraced a chance to see my first film by the well-regarded Jia Zhangke. He’s a director I clearly need to get in better touch with, as his film evinces such a penetrating curiosity about what makes his country and his countrymen tick. “24 City” is at ease in a sea of rocky history, ugly architecture and disparate national priorities, watching with a misleading detachment the changes in generations, philosophies, personalities, economies and so on. His film can be almost unbearably glacial, but it has wisdom and even wit, notably demonstrated in an interview where a beautiful factory girl (played by Joan Chen of “Little Flower” and “Twin Peaks”) recalls being nicknamed “Little Flower” by her admirers because she looked like Joan Chen. This film has only grown on me upon reflection.

Title: Yella
Director: Christian Petzold
Country: Germany
Score: 7.0
Nina Hoss turns in an award-winning performance as a capable accountant trying to climb her way out of financial straits and an abusive relationship. She accidentally runs into and takes up with an unethical loan assessor and finds herself really enjoying her role as sharp-eyed sidekick. Yet as she extorts money from both shady and relatively honest entrepreneurs alike she’s plagued by something more than a guilty conscious and her violent stalker boyfriend: strange auditory hallucinations with ominous implications.

“Yella” is actually a really well-crafted film if you can ignore the obvious and intrusive ending twist. Why Petzold telegraphs it so openly, or even why he bothers to include it, is a more ponderous mystery than the mystery itself. But that aside, “Yella” manages to be a rare corporate thriller where the characters are worth caring about, especially the rather reserved lead, who manages to blend courage and cynicism into a decidedly complicated and not necessarily sympathetic role. Her conflicted desires to adopt a cold hard exterior while needing an emotional anchor neatly inverses the crisscrossed atmospheres of cold interiors and sun-dappled exteriors.

Title: We Live in Public
Director: Ondi Timoner
Country: USA
Score: 9.0
Timoner ("Dig!") continues her triumphant documentary career with this biopic about Josh Harris, a virtual personification of the information age and our internet culture. In 1993, Harris founded, the first internet television station, whose channel hosts he recruited by staging massive decadent parties reminiscent of interactive art installations. After alienating his own company by adopting a disturbing baby-talking clown persona called ‘Luvvy,' Harris was forced out of his own company. He proceeded to take his millions and build “We Live in Public,” an underground kingdom beneath New York City where he housed more than a hundred experimental subjects with free food, music and living quarters, but under the condition that everyone was subject to humiliating interrogations and constant surveillance (made accessible to all via TVs in each sleeping pod). After the police, thinking they were busting a Y2K doomsday cult, broke in on what had degenerated into a fatigued orgy, Harris abandoned the idea to embark on his next work. This time he wires cameras to cover every inch of his flat and lives with his girlfriend in a 24-7 live internet show with a chatroom for people to comment on his life. The results were unsurprisingly detrimental to everyone involved.

Harris is an undeniably fascinating character to study, a prescient mad-genius type that embodies not just our society’s obsession with technology and exhibitionism, but our increasing immaturity and cult of youth and novelty. Timoner is not quite trusting enough to let her audience ingest the self-evident warnings about our culture that her footage contains and is a little too ready to interpret it for us, but she’s deftly aware of the potential in her subject and handles the stages of his blazing ups and downs with the skill of a consummate storyteller. While “We Live in Public” is by no means scholarly enough to make us feel we are getting the whole story, it captures the zeitgeist of the online boom where the internet was treated like a wild lawless frontier and poorly-adjusted nerds became multi-millionaire celebrities overnight.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

SLIFF 2009 Coverage Part 2

Title: My Time Will Come
Director: Víctor Arregui
Country: Ecuador
Score: 5.0
“My Time Will Come” is a sprawling and somewhat meditative study of Quito, Ecuador where family and friendship tries to hold together amidst both domestic and gang violence. Dr. Arturo, a philosophical mortician, struggles to understand his brother, his separated parents, a budding romantic interest, his troubled city and even the dead. It is the latter which he relates to with the greatest ease, finding satisfaction with his evident forensic skill (practiced in a comically cavalier manner that involves heavy drinking) and the silent rest of corpses.

I found myself hoping, and perhaps even assuming, that Arturo would unravel the network of interlocking deaths that come streaming into his morgue. However, the type of clever cathartic conclusion that ties up the loose ends in many similarly structured films about disparate characters connected through a web of subtle links, doesn’t actually seem to be the point. Dr. Arturo’s bemused, deadpan resignation is the best that Arregui offers his audience, and while I can’t help being a bit disappointed, there is certainly an honesty and depth to his screenplay. The photography is pretty, if not quite beautiful. The editing is inefficient, but gives a fair-handed attention to even its peripheral characters.

Title: Animated Shorts
Director: various
Country: various
Score: various
It’s both unfair and irrational to try and review a compilation of shorts together, but it’s a little tedious to try and discuss each one individually, so I’ll try and just single out highlights. Overall, I thought this shorts program was better than any of the last few years, presumably because Cinema St. Louis is now able to be even choosier due to the huge number of submissions. Of the 13 shorts in this batch, about half were essentially music videos, which tended to make them quite watchable, but not very deep.

My favorite was “Checkoo,” by Erik Rosenlund of Sweden, about an office drone who doesn’t quite fit with the fast-pace tempo of modern life and resorts to a speed-enhancing drug to keep up. Smooth, sly and charming, Checkoo is a confident exercise in simplicity and style awash in orange colors and pop geometry. It has a lot to say, but knows how to do so in very few words. Other standouts include the ambitious dictatorship comedy “Only Love” by Lev Polyakov, the rough and jazzy “You’re Outa Here” by George Griffin and “Santa: The Fascist Years” by the always reliable Bill Plympton. The only short that really grated on me was “Articles of War,” a blunt, preachy and visually unremarkable treatise against the horror of wars presented as a letter from a WWII pilot to his WWI vet father.

Title: North Face
Director: Philipp Stoltz
Country: Germany
Score: 7.0
Based on a true story, “North Face” follows the ascent of two German mountain climbers scaling Mt. Eiger’s north face in 1936. Promoted by the Nazi’s as a race to “solve the last problem of the Alps,” the climb was regarded by many as impossible and even suicidal given the slope’s reputation as a “Murder Wall” prone to freak snow storms and avalanches. The pair of unpretentious country-bred climbers matches wits against an Austrian team, but quickly come to see the mountain as the only real foe when bad weather, frostbite and major injuries pin all four men against the unforgiving north face.

A gripping and evocative adventure, “North Face” easily carves a place for itself in the mountain movie genre. The acting is rather period-piece standard (which is to say, generically good), but the focus is really on Eigar and the gorgeious photography that puts us right in the midst of stone and snow. The viewer can feel the biting cold, the jagged crags and the constant vertigo. The film’s only serious flaw is in trying to tell the story from the perspective of one climber’s ex-girlfriend, a neophyte reporter with a callous Nazi boss. Her character just isn’t particularly interesting, nor do the Nazi subplots go anywhere, and the indirection distracts from the main action, especially when we are subjected to constant updates on her unchanged status waiting around at the base camp hotel.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

SLIFF 2009 Coverage Part 1

Title: Edgar Allen Poe’s Ligeia
Director: John Shirley
Country: USA
Score: 5.0
A professor of Romantic poetry with a happy carefree relationship finds himself entranced by a dark and mysterious student, with the odd name of Ligeia, who is conducting shady experiments on the nature of mortality in the university labs. Half hypnotized, half seduced, the hero is soon married to Ligeia and ensconced in a Ukrainian castle where he becomes aware of her paranormal efforts to cheat the grave.

In the great tradition of Poe adaptations (such as Roger Corman’s low-budget classics), this film shares only a few superficial ideas with the original story and largely plays up the sensational aspects (in this case the sex appeal, rather than the gore or terror). Also according to Poe-adaptation tradition, neither myself nor my friends could resist seeing this film, especially considering its Friday the 13th timeslot. I enjoyed seeing my alma mater used for quite a bit of the film’s first half and was most impressed by the remarkable cinematography and lighting. I was perhaps overly pleased by the campy screenplay and playful trashiness, which didn’t particularly resonate with some of my fellow viewers, but I thought it made for a rather entertaining, if uninspired, diversion.

Title: Terribly Happy
Director: Henrik Ruben Genz
Country: Denmark
Score: 9.0
Genz’s Danish comedy-thriller, set in a boggy rustic village with a wealth of secrets and infused with noir and western influences, was probably the most fun film I saw at this year’s festival. A city cop with a history of anger management issues is sent to replace the sheriff of a small soggy Jutland town as a form of provisional punishment. The place is quiet; clearly too quiet. Our hero hardly comes across his first report, a seemingly cut-and-dry case of domestic abuse, before he is sinking inexorably into a mire of moral compromise and corruption.

Playing like a Danish Coen brothers film, but with a voice of its own, “Terribly Happy” is a brilliant example of how you can blend genres and still make a thoughtful film with local color. The oft-visited bog where the evidence of innumerable secrets and crimes are sucked into oblivion, offers a deliciously morbid backdrop to the action while serving as a perfect metaphor for the hero’s reluctant integration into the community. The humor and awkwardness keep the film from being even the slightest bit depressing, while the frequent and unexpected plots convolutions make the deliberate pacing feel lively and tense.

Monday, November 23, 2009

SLIFF 2009 Overview

It’s time I came out of my book-buried retirement, at least temporarily, to cover the St. Louis International Film Festival, one of my favorite local events of the year. Showing remarkable restraint, in my own opinion, I saw only 13 screenings. I’ll do capsule reviews of them over the next few days.

This year’s festival had more than 250 films and my guess is that it was the best-attended year yet. Most screenings I attended were pretty packed and almost every major film and even some not-so-major films sold out (good for the festival, bad for audiences). I was too slow to get tickets for “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus,” which goes on my list of regrets along with accidentally missing the undistributed “The Headless Woman” due to my own clerical error. In retrospect, I also wish I’d seen “Beeswax” by mumblecore icon Andrew Bujalski, but I’ll look for it on DVD.

The best films I saw were “Terribly Happy” (a highly engrossing dark-comedy noir) and “Three Monkeys” (a Turkish masterpiece also of a noirish persuasion). Nothing I saw this year was particularly bad, though my least favorite is the current metacritic darling “35 Shots of Rum.” I lived up to the goals I laid out about a year ago: I saw documentaries (“24 City,” “We Live in Public”), shorts, local St. Louis work (“Edgar Allen Poe’s Ligeia”), the latest by several great directors (Jia Zhangke, Claire Denis, Nuri Bilge Ceylan) and a film from a country whose cinema I’ve never seen before (Ecuador).

For the first time in three years, I did not see or predict the winners of the main festival prizes. “Precious,” which I actively avoided (I am willing to admit I may have been wrong, but it was coming out in regular theaters the very next day so there was no rush), took the top prize. “Marcello, Marcello,” which I actively avoided because it looked overly cute and corny, took the ‘Best International Feature’ award. Best documentary went to “9500 Liberty.”

As usual, the commercials were the only really bothersome aspect of the festival, especially odious to viewers like myself who have to see them repeated 10+ times (maybe I wouldn’t be bothered if I watched more TV). Stella Artois continues their theme of misguided pretentiousness, Metromix St. Louis has not backed down from (or even changed) their loud and obnoxious ad claiming that St. Louis has a nightlife and SLIFF’s Coolfire Media spots again focus on genre movies (although to be fair they had many more this year and the ad was much better), but the standout newcomer is a cheesy promotion from some St. Louis culture center which has the gall to suggest that a weekend in St. Louis is the equivalent of touring the great cities of Europe. Incidentally, a live volunteer came out before each showing to ask that we all thank these and other sponsors. So, um… thanks.

Anyway, it really was a good time. Three of my friends from out of town stayed with me for the first weekend and we kept up a pretty constant diet of fine films, delicious food and erudite conversation (like whether Hugo the Hippo could beat Razorback in a fight). I was satisfied with the films I saw without exhausting myself utterly. I look forward to next year!

Friday, July 31, 2009

Slinking Off to Read a Book

Having let the previous week slip easily by without writing anything, I felt it was time to take a moment and honestly evaluate how I’ve been spending my free time. I haven’t been watching my daily film diet nor have I been in much of a mood to write. This month has been my least prolific month in a long time (well, ever). I think it best to announce that I’m taking a break for awhile, and free myself up until I’m ready to plunge back in.

As my last post alluded, I’ve been overwhelmed by a rival hobby: books. I’ve always been a reader to one extent or another, but the last few months my excitement about literature has been at an all time high. For one thing, I’ve been struck full-on with the realization that there are a lot more major works of literature than film that I have yet to experience. My current personal project is to try and read at least one work by every author I’ve ever been curious about, famous or obscure, and with the breadth of my interest it’s no small task. I truly wish I was better at moderation and could control my all-consuming manias, but they seem to run me ragged through no premeditation of my own. Then, too, I can’t deny that they’re a lot of fun along the way!

I doubt if I’ll ever stray very far from my core cinephilia nature. I’ve had other wave of obsessive interest in areas like cryptography and videogames, not to mention programming projects and disc golf, but film has been an enduring passion throughout. I’m confident that I’ll return to blogging as before and when I get back I should even have read the origins for several adaptation I’ve reviewed. In the meantime, I’ll be running a bi-monthly film night here in St. Louis. I also intend to post whenever the whim strikes me even on break, but I make no promise of regular updates for at least a few months.

The Film Walrus has never had a very large audience, but that’s all the more reason for me to thank the readers and commentators that have shared my love of film, read my digital scrawl and made me confident that there will always be an audience for great cinema.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Upcoming SciFi Adaptations of Note

I’ve been doing a lot more reading lately than in the past few years and indulging two of my literary loves: science fiction and great classics. Inevitably, I’ve been borrowing the free time from my movie-watching fund and that’s led me, in turn, to fewer posts of late. I plan to maintain the slower-than-previous rate of about once weekly for the near future, and I apologize if there’s anyone out there disappointed.

I tend towards prolonged binges (I cite my peak obsession periods with gialli, Czech New Wave, animations as examples) and my reading habits are no exception. During high school I read for leisure voraciously, while in college almost not at all (recreational reading had little appeal with all the assigned reading to deal with) and I can feel myself entering a renewed upswing. I blame my friend and fellow literature-lover Josh for enabling my born-again bookworm habits.

So I thought I’d spend some time on something I’ve rarely done on this blog: looking at works I’ve read and participating in the growing buzz surrounding their cinematic adaptations. My specific goal today is to infect a few readers with my enthusiasm for contemporary sci-fi, both in book and (upcoming) film forms.

The most rapidly approaching of what I’ve recently read is “The Road” (written 2006, release date Oct 2009) by Cormac McCarthy. I had to read McCarthy’s “All the Pretty Horses” (1992) back when I was in high school and I pretty much hated it, perhaps because of my mild aversion to westerns or my strong distaste for works “exploring issues of masculinity” or the pedantry of my teacher. But a slew of “Year’s Best” awards, followed by a Pulitzer prize (the only science fiction book to yet receive one!) convinced me to give McCarthy another try. I was quickly won over.

“The Road” is the seemingly futile journey of a man and his son, the latter of which was born shortly after an unexplained disaster that has put an end to civilization. A miserable decade or so has passed in the meantime and all plant and animal life has been extinguished. Only a few human survivors are left wandering a nightmarish landscape of desolation, despair, hunger and fear. McCarthy’s prose, blunt and stripped down but endowed with a poetic precision, was born to describe canvases of post-apocalyptic debris and intimations of abhorrent inhumanity. As an enthusiast of the end-of-the-world subgenre, I can acknowledge that “The Road” isn’t particularly original, but Cormac’s writing blesses it with greatness.

I watched the movie trailer shortly after finishing “The Road” and was a bit torn. There is a chance, looking at the grim imagery, that the film could capture the bleak atmosphere, arguably the most important element of the book. Less promising is the role of Charlize Theron. I admire her acting, but I’m skeptical of her character’s implied screen time: in the book, she only appears in a handful of brief flashbacks. Viggo Mortensen has the lead role, and I’m more than a little excited about that, especially given his recent successful collaborations with Cronenberg.

Interestingly, “The Road” wasn’t even nominated for a Hugo award, often considered the premier prize for SF literature. (Incidentally, “Spin,” by the shockingly yet-to-be-adapted Robert Charles Wilson, won the 2006 prize and would make a fine film.) However, 2008’s Hugo winner “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” (which also swept the Nebula and Locus Awards) is slated to be directed by the Coen brothers, perhaps sometime in late 2010. What’s odd about this book winning these particular prizes is that “YPU” isn’t really SF at all. It’s alternative history. Here’s the premise:

In 1940 a proposal was circulated to grant a portion of Alaska to Jewish refugees fleeing WWII and the Nazi genocide. In real life, the idea never came to fruition, but in Michael Chabon’s novel, Sitka, Alaska is now a bustling Jewish metropolis while Israel lacked the manpower to maintain itself. Meyer Landsman is a down-and-out, divorced and drunken detective who wanders the urban milieu of “the Frozen Chosen” trying to find the killer of a junky/chess prodigy/messiah before the city reverts back to US control. The utterance on the lips of every character is apt: “Strange times to be a Jew.” The style is hard-boiled noir, the writing flowery and liberally sprinkled with Yiddish (a glossary is included) and the plot well-laden with cynicism, conspiracies and revelations.

It makes a neat little circle to consider that the Coen brothers recently adapted Cormac McCarthy with “No Country for Old Men” (2007) and I can’t see any reason why they wouldn’t also make a cinematic masterpiece out of material as strong as “YPU,” too. My biggest concern is that the plot’s first half is so dense with groundwork and setup that it really tends to drag (though it all becomes important later). The first action scene is about 180 pages into the 400 page book and mystery doesn’t start to reveal itself until well after that, though it’s a pleasure to soak up the charming language and witty metaphors in the meantime. The Coen brothers will likely have to rewrite the complicated story if they want to get a more conventional modern-noir pacing, though they’ve got enough fame, financing and natural iconoclasm to defy Hollywood’s expectations. Whatever they come up with, I’m confident it will be compelling.

Michael Chabon will probably see his works adapted quite often (his “Wonder Boys” (2000) already initiated the trend) given that he’s such a well-regarded contemporary writer of the “serious” vein while simultaneously a pioneer and champion for popular genre literature. He’s also supposed to be at work on the script for the Edgar Rice Burrough’s (“Tarzan”) adaptation of “A Princess of Mars” titled “John Carter of Mars.” If it meets its 2012 release date, it will hit the centennial of the 1912 planetary romance novel, which was a major inspiration to the golden age SF writers and several NASA members, but which is a thoroughly awful book by contemporary literary and scientific standards. I’m encouraged only by the prospects of a major rewrite and the selection of Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo,” “WALL-E”) as director.

But coming back to more recent (anything after 2000 being recent on my scale) SF novels, I noticed that Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go” (written 2005) is being set for a 2010 adaptation. The premise involves children being raised at an isolated boarding school where mysterious incidents hint at a disturbing purpose. I read it after Time magazine included it amongst the top 100 novels written since 1923 (it was one of the most recent to make the list) and, despite a twist that may intentionally elude no one, it is quite stirring and strangely satisfying. Ishiguro is a stellar writer who has already gotten acquainted with adaptations: “The Remains of the Day” and “The Saddest Music in the World” being brilliant films that emerged from his work.

Mark Romanek (“One Hour Photo”) is in the director’s chair and I’m happy to see the great Charlotte Rampling as one of the teachers. I drew back with fear when I saw that Keira Knightley headlines the cast, especially considering that she doesn’t have the lead role. I don’t consider Knightley to be a particularly strong performer, but I’m willing to cross my fingers and see how the whole thing goes.

All told, I’m pretty excited about the potential SF we could see hit theaters in the near future. I’m sure I’m missing plenty of other novels on their way to the screen, but my SF specialty is really more grounded in the 1950’s-1970’s, decades that haven’t been treated particularly kindly by recent adapters. Anyway, please chime in on the comment section if you want to alert me to other SF you’ve been anticipating.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Review of A Self Made Hero

“The most beautiful lives are the ones we invent,” reflects an elderly Albert Dehousse (Mathieu Kassovitz / Jean-Louis Trintignant) as he looks back on the lives he’s led. Dehousse real biography is a mediocre childhood overseen by his mother in a small French town and filled with unrealized dreams of adventure and heroism. The young lad is devastated to learn that his father was not the WWI hero his mother claimed. Worse still, his status as the only son of a war widow exempts him from WWII service. His mother collaborates, his friends never invite him to help the resistance and his time is spent idly observing the war. But he learns to lie, wooing a beautiful local by masquerading as a writer. In reality, he transcribes his favorite novels at night and reads them to her in the afternoon as if they were his own.

One day the war is over. That’s when Albert Dehousse decides to retroactively join the French Resistance and become “A Self Made Hero” (1996).

His turning point comes when he breaks off his former life just after the armistice and heads to Paris. There he meticulously learns everything he might need to rewrite history. He insinuates himself into a veterans society and his encyclopedic knowledge of major and minor resistance figures combined with his non-specific affiliation to any particular political faction makes him a popular consultant with top officials. Soon he’s given a lieutenant-colonel post rooting out former collaborators who’ve assumed false identities in Germany. Unsurprisingly, he’s an ace at his job, but his ever thickening web of lies and the responsibility of executing men not unlike himself begins to fray his psyche.

Dehousse is a fascinating character and the backbone of “A Self Made Hero.” He’s a dreamer, not naturally gifted, and a boy who desperately wants a chance to prove himself. It’s questionable whether Albert is deprived of his chance, or simply lacks the bravery and initiative to create an opportunity. He gradually does become intelligent, cultured, witty, charismatic and inspiring, everything he ever hoped to be, but all in the service of a colossal lie. Because the truth is not on his side, he has to work twice as hard as the honest men who come to respect him. We see Albert endlessly rehearsing facts, quips and anecdotes in front of his mirror, many stolen from men he admires and overhears. In a lovely throwaway shot near the end of the film we see one of Albert’s insecure subordinates imitating him.

Novelist Jean-Francois Deniau, director Jacques Audiard and actor Albert Dehousse all work together to make Albert a relatively sympathetic, yet conniving anti-hero. He’s part pathetic delusional and part mastermind conman, but his face always wears a level of pleasant innocence that makes us want to believe him. We cheer for his rise to fame and power, yet it’s somehow sad, since his ability to fool (almost) everyone, only allows himself to continue fooling himself for long enough to become addicted. When his world starts to fall apart, as inevitably it must, he ends up charged with an ironically lesser crime. The film’s sardonic ending montage gives us a dizzying glimpse of the rest of Dehousse’s life, one even more cynical and still wholly uncured.

Jacques Audiard shows a talent for creating historical atmosphere without drawing attention to it. The audience is invited to get lost in Albert’s opportunistic and frequently nerve-wracking ascent, rather than the period detail. The nostalgic music by Alexandre Desplat and the bright cinematography by Jean-Marc Fabre help create an alluring tone for the film, that recedes easily into the background at the needs of the story and declines to dictate our emotions.

Audiard decides to use a documentary-type framing device, chronicling the real life of Albert Dehousse from a modern perspective. It contrasts nicely with the wartime backdrop and makes the brilliant conclusion possible, but the interspersed contemporary commentary and interviews are a little underdeveloped and don’t really add much information. The wonderful Jean-Louis Trintignant (“The Conformist,” “Death Laid an Egg,” “Red”) is cast as the surviving now-aged Albert , but his acting talent is underexploited and his recognizability compromises any intended illusion that the story is based in fact (a thematic and clever device, nonetheless).

“A Self Made Hero” manages to be strangely funny and yet strangely stirring, thrilling, well-made and well-acted throughout. It’s not quite daring, but it’s still a trenchant examination of the flexibility of history and biography when they’re put in the fallible hands of desires, dreams, memories and assumptions. The film shares with “Mother Night” (1996) and “The Memory Thief” (2007) a lesson about the temptations of fictional identities.

Mathieu Kassovitz likely benefits from having been on both sides of the camera (his work includes directing “Hate” (1995) and appearing in “Amelie” (2001)) and turns in a performance that really should have won something. This was one of Jacques Audiard first films, who is perhaps best known for his Cesar-sweeping “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” (2005) (I like “A Self Made Hero” better). His eagerly-anticipated latest film “A Prophet” (2009) won the Grand Jury prize at Cannes this year, and will hopefully get released soon.

Walrus Rating: 9.0

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Mid-Year Updates 2009

It's fourth of July weekend (American Independence Day) and I'm taking it easy; finally catching up on updating some old posts that I promised myself I'd get around to.

First off is my 2008 year-end list. I've seen more than a dozen 2008 films since then (I've had time, what with 2009's output merely sputtering along) and it's been enough for me to upgrade my assessment of the year. There are now excellent films like “Doubt,” “Milk” and “The Dark Knight” that I didn’t even have room for on my new top ten, whereas before I didn’t have a shred of anxiety about what to cut. In retrospect, I think “Synecdoche New York” was easily the best film of the year, and I’ll never doubt Charlie Kaufman again. I missed it in theaters because I’d read some negative reviews, by critics who I will utterly ignore in the future.

Here is the updated 2008 year-end top 10. Scroll to the bottom of it for the new material.

The biggest change has been to my year-by-year list of favorite science fiction films (The Golden Walruses: SF Edition). I’ve added more than 60 new films, bringing the total well over 500, and updated the rankings accordingly. The most noticeable batch is under 2008, which is now officially open. I’m also still [vainly] hoping to get some ballots from readers, so if you’re into SF and want to put together a list, I’m pathetically eager to peruse it!

I’ve also made watching films by female directors my latest obsessive focuses, and I’m looking forward to a potential blogathon on the topic near the end of August (to coincide with the anniversary of the 19th amendment). I’m made a bunch of updates to my list of personal favorite films directed by women, found at the end of this semi-recent post.

Some of the best new-comers include “Take Care of My Cat” (I stupidly missed a chance to see for free during a South Korean film series), “Fat Girl” (which manages to combine a bittersweet realist tone and an in-your-face controversy-courting attitude) and “Madchen in Uniform” (a 1930’s film that’s at least 40 years ahead of its time and gorgeous looking even on the scrappy transfers that survive). I also put “After the Wedding” on the list, as even though it might not be a masterpiece, Susanne Bier definitely strikes me as a director to watch. I’ve had a few disappointments: I was absolutely sure I would like Marguerite Dumas’s well-regarded but rarely-seen “India Song” (1975) and Samira Makhmalbaf’s brave “Blackboards” (2000), but neither really connected with me.

Lastly, for those who tolerate my sense of humor, I wrote a Grump Factory post a while back on one of the worst (or best?) videogames ever made.

Anyway, I hope everyone’s year is going well. And for those American readers out there, enjoy the holiday!

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Review of A Taxing Woman

[Image: “Cute. He has freckles too!”]

It takes a special type of talent to turn a tax auditing bureaucrat into a charismatic supercop lead, but trust director Juzo Itami to pull it off. “A Taxing Woman” (1987) was his third film and is instantly recognizable to fans of the director: it wears a charming grin, stars his wife Nobuko Miyamoto and skips along with understated cleverness and comedic ease. The result feels much like a hybrid of “Out of Sight” (1998) and “Ikiru” (1952), gently tuned by Itami’s particular camerawork and staging.

“A Taxing Woman” begins with an extended opening montage in which Hideki Gondo (Tsutomu Yamazaki) exploits every trick he can think of to evade taxes, from tucking away profits in a secret vault to paying off nurses to seduce patients into signing off on dummy corporations that can be used for laundering his money. Gondo is a sly and slippery businessman who runs love hotels, cooperates with the criminal underworld, sleeps with a bevy of mistresses and enjoys threading tax loopholes just for art’s sake. For all that, he’s a strangely compelling figure, a concerned father and a man driven more by gamesmanship than malice or even greed.

Cue the title screen. Enter Ryoko Itakura (Nobuko Miyamoto). We see her sitting at a café table watching transactions at the cash register, counting digits on receipts and observing the part time help. In her mind she reconstructs their entire business and sees through their every yen-pinching scam. They’re not even worthy opponents for Ryoko, who’s long been distinguished as a peerless tax agent on the fast track for a promotion to inspector. Her freckled face, persistent cowlick and unglamorous attire belie her intelligence, acumen and diligence. She may be the best mid-level government bureaucrat the screen has ever seen.

In truth, her adherence to the strict letter of the law may go a little too far, as in her unsympathetic demand that a small family-run restaurant pay taxes on the food they eat themselves. After all, she points out, since the store is recently incorporated, their free meals might as well be stealing. Though she’s usually immune to the puling, pleading and bribing of her quarries, their bitter accusation that the government fails to go after “the real criminals” hits home. After passing by a ritzy love hotel and the luxury cars parked in its garage, she sets her sights on the manager: Hideki Gondo.

Ryoko and Mr. Gondo’s showdown makes for a modern classic of rivalry romance, with the two quite opposite personalities developing a level of mutual respect for each other than threatens to become an emotional attachment. Even as the gloves come off, with Ryoko digging through Gondo’s trash in the rain and Gondo’s goons rousing public enmity towards taxation, there’s still a sense that they’re not just trying to win; they’re trying to impress each other. But Itami never takes the romance too far, allowing his characters to maintain their distinctive dignity while delivering a satisfying and even touching conclusion.

The secret of Itami’s success may be that he’s found a way to make a cop/crook thriller that masks a screwball comedy that masks a dark satire. The film feels like it’s heavily plot driven, and we’re given scene after scene of well-constructed thrusts of parries to reinforce this notion, but beneath the intricate financial technicalities and incomprehensible tax codes, it’s really our unexpectedly magnetic leads that make us care.

Like most Itami characters, Gondo is a villain we have trouble truly hating. The film seems torn between trying to show how corrupt he is and then talking us out of condemning him, a split-personality tone that actually describes him quite nicely. At one point Ryoko astutely points out that he’s really a dreamer (as evidenced by his delirious themed hotel rooms) and several slips expose his as a bit of a misguided romantic.

Ryoko, for her part, may demonstrate a methodical tenacity that is borderline excessive and exhausting just to watch (consider the title as pun), but reveals a maternal compassion that gives us a glimpse of a personal life almost rarely mentioned and, perhaps, only rarely lived. Yet her uncomplicated motivation in carrying out law and justice in her own sometimes small way is refreshingly free from Freudian baggage, not to mention avenging-my-dead-partner/friend/family backstories and pro-government propaganda.

“A Taxing Woman” couches a social message that warns us of plummeting integrity and widespread greed, but Itami knows that he’s making a comedy and not a polemic. In keeping with this, his camerawork focuses on the minutia of interpersonal tension – sometimes just the nonverbal play of casual gestures, expressive looks and slightly silly gaits – more so than action, violence or seedy atmosphere.

[Image: Nobuko Miyamoto making an arguably too-funny face. Her occasionally explosive expressions somehow never undermine the character.]

Itami’s sense of humor isn’t exactly subtle, but it also isn’t loud in the sense of discrete setups and pithy lines. He has a knack for simply depicting things in a way that brings out their amusing side, often times through Tati-esque choreography.

[Images: Ryoko and her boss puzzle over a difficult problem.]

I don’t think “A Taxing Woman” is quite as funny or original as Itami’s better-known “Tampopo” (1985), but the director makes better use of Tokyo, diving in and out of a buzzing metropolis defined more by its crowds than its architecture. It’s a city Itami depicts as burdened by too many minor corruptions for every crook to be collared, but not plagued by the type of big ticket crimes that would compromise his underlying optimism.

Always a fan of packing the frame and staging in depth, Itami makes good use of the real estate in his tight TV aspect ratio. It leads him into busy compositions, but “A Taxing Woman’s” Tokyo is a pathologically busy place, where efficiency is highly valued by both sides. The director’s thick, much-layered conjunctions of staging, composition and performances (Ryoko always hovering, Gondo always leaning forward from his limp), gives a tangible expression to Ryoko’s relentless closing in and Gondo’s bucking to riposte.

[Images: A variety of Juzo Itami’s deep staging shots. They’re too eclectic to fit into an overarching explanation, but amongst his many inventive uses are examples that lend extra weight to the background and environment, find humor and beauty in unusual framings, create a power hierarchy between the characters (that usually shifts) and simply squeeze more information into shots.]

Katie and I disagreed about the upbeat rubbery jazz theme, which she seemed to consider garish 80’s trash. I rather liked it, though I’m not sure what defense I can offer. It’s repeated too often and doesn’t spin off far enough to get interesting, but somehow it captures the spirit of both Gondo’s cheek and Ryoko’s pluck.

Juzo Itami is pretty much a style and movement unto himself, a light-hearted, more compassionate voice than is found in most Japanese films from the last decade and a half. You owe it to yourself to see at least “Tampopo” or “A Taxing Woman,” if you haven’t already. I’ve found myself surprised that Itami’s entire filmography is not more readily available, but I’ve reaffirmed my interest in tracking down more of his work even if Netflix can’t help me. Many consider his only sequel, “A Taxing Woman Returns” (1988), at least as good as the original, and that might be the direction I head next.

Walrus Rating: 8

Friday, June 26, 2009

Bootlegs, Ethics and Navigating the Grey Zone

Today I’d like to talk a little about a subject that can make a lot of cinephiles, film bloggers and internet users in general a little squeamish, if not outright defensive: copyright issues. I’m going to write about it at length, because I think it’s important and that there are a lot of misconceptions and misjudgments out there.

I’m going to try and make a distinction about what’s legal and what’s ethical based on my own knowledge and experience acquiring non-mainstream films and writing about them. I’ll finish by discussing some of the iffy “grey zone” questions I've had to ask myself.

What pop-culture has to say

First of all, let’s talk about the most common case, which is downloading a movie from the internet. Let’s assume this is a relatively recent (last 30 years) movie made in America by someone or some company that has not divested its copyright prerogatives and that it is widely available from a distributer on a modern format like DVD. The way I understand it, this describes most movies that are pirated. There is no question, none whatsoever, that downloading such a film is illegal and unethical.

I don’t think most people pirating movies have any doubts that what they’re doing is illegal, but they still manage to rationalize it. Downloading media has become so widespread that there is an “it’s OK because everybody’s doing it” atmosphere. It’s like drinking during prohibition, right? As I was attending college various techniques like direct connect and torrents became ubiquitous and many, many students I knew, otherwise ethical in other areas of their lives, had no qualms with amassing huge collections of illegal works. Most of my cinephile friends have downloaded a film at least once.

But doing something that is wrong just because lots of people are doing is about the worst logic I can think of and shows a weakness of character and general cynicism that it pretty contemptible. That’s why almost anyone who regularly violates copyright usually convinces themselves that what they are doing is not actually wrong. Perhaps illegal, but not particularly unethical. “Nobody gets hurt except maybe some corporate fat-cats.” Some of the rationalizations I hear people spout make me madder than if they’d just admitted they didn’t want to fork over their money.

A Chinese coworker of mine once explains how I should actually be on his side (pro-piracy), because bootlegging only hurts the big studios (who I’m always pillorying) and helps the common man see more movies (which I’m often advocating). In this popular self-serving fantasy, video pirates are technological freedom fighters committing heroic revolutionary acts. “Down with oppressive capitalism! Up with communal sharing of artistic works!”

Right. I’m sure self-interest never even enters into it. Much as I mistrust the rich and powerful, I don’t have much love for self-proclaimed Robin Hoods who steal from anyone who has what they want and give to themselves. If anyone, it’s the uploaders and free download sites who could claim to have society’s greater good at heart (though their substantial banner ads and popups make me think otherwise), but let’s at least not pretend downloading is about anything other than wanting to see a free movie.

What the law has to say

Any work, as soon as it is recorded in a fixed form is immediately protected by copyright. Films made for studios are considered “works for hire” and the rights belong to the producer and/or studio, not the director or screenwriter. No registration necessary. No copyright logo (©) necessary. No FBI warning necessary. These three things are included by major studios and distributers solely because they provide additional leverage when suing violators.

The copyright is held for 70 years after the author’s death (if made independently), 95 years from first date of publishing or 120 years from creation (whichever comes first).

In essence, you can not copy, distribute or display a film without permission if the rights are still in effect, subject to fair use. Fair use is a nebulous concept that takes into consideration the purpose, portion and influence on profit that a reproduction incurs. For instance, the screenshots that I take for use on this blog are explicitly protected because they are used for the purpose of a review, are not exploited for my money and represent a tiny fraction of the film in question.

But don’t get the idea that copyright is a simple matter. It is the realm of lawyers and complicated exceptions and elaborate flowcharts. (Though who doesn’t love a law that distinguishes separate treatments for parody and satire?) It can take a great deal of research to discover if a film’s copyrights have lapsed, putting it in public domain. I recently bought a 12-movie collection of silent “public domain” Hitchcock films from Best Buy. I’ve since discovered that most of them actually do have rights retained on them, but if the distributer, Best Buy and a reasonably sharp film blogger like myself didn’t know, can Joe Consumer be expected to do the research?

Well, copyright law does make provisions for people who commit what is called “innocent infringement” if the person was not aware and had no reason to believe that the work was still under copyright. You’d only be liable for about $200 per work. Willful infringement (most of what goes on online) is another matter, and if the work is registered, could result in as much as $150,000 per work. The law is much harsher on those who make a bootleg than it is with people who knowingly buy a bootleg. Downloading a film, by the way, counts as making an illegal copy. “Time-shifting,” recording a film off of TV to watch later, is covered by fair use.

There is no active agency that enforces copyright, which is one reason why most people get away with it. A complaint has to be issued from the authentic rights holder who must send a cease and desist letter and press suit themselves. If the work in question is not registered, they can only hope to recover the loss of profit they suffered, which often makes the effort worthless. If the work was registered, they can hit you for the numbers mentioned above.

Now here is something I want all the free film revolutionaries to pay close attention to: because the big studios register all their works, monitor a lot of internet sites and possess an army of lawyers with decades of experience, they are the ones mostly likely and most able to enforce their copyrights. They go through a lot of trouble to ensure that they do not lose profits because of piracy. They hire lobbyists to secure laws in their favor. They hire lawyers to sue companies and individuals. They raise the prices on DVDs to help recoup their losses.

They might still do these things to some extent even if piracy was not such a problem, but the more piracy goes on, the more they will react with aggressive business strategies. The bottom line is that when you score a point against a big studio by downloading one of their films, they will just take it out on people, often times the ones who are paying legally. It is the little companies and independent filmmakers, who are less able to defend themselves, that actually get hurt. Even if these victims are interested in fighting to enforce their copyrights, they have to pay court fees and waste time that could have gone to their continued creative output.

What ethics has to say

So if you actually care about making artistic works available to a wider audience then there are productive and ethical ways of championing that cause that are more credible than self-interest motivated piracy:
1) Support movements to change copyright law.
2) Help research and publicize lists of films that have not been renewed and are in the public domain.
3) Research films that are not available and not in public domain and organize campaigns to request those movies be released. When a large enough fan base makes itself known, there’s a much greater financial impetus to distribute unavailable films.
4) Support studios, distributors and filmmakers who make quality films available at reasonable prices.
5) Politely contact rights holders for permission or carefully utilize fair use provisions to present films in a non-profit, educational environment.
6) Make your own creative works and get them out to the public.

Complicated as copyright law is, the ethical questions surrounding the issue are even more slippery. At least in today’s culture I suspect that people are much more likely to obey their own judgment than the law, so talking about the ethical standpoint might be more convincing. If someone says they don’t believe in copyrights, they aren’t likely to hold back just because a rarely-enforced law says so.

So let’s look at some fundamental premises that copyright law takes for granted:
1) An artist’s work belongs to the artist or whoever commissioned the work and took the financial risk for it.
2) Artistic works such as film have value.
3) The person(s) in (1) has the sole right to modify, sell, exchange or license the work and to otherwise obtain the financial value they believe it to be worth.

I know a lot of people who claim to disagree with one or more of these ideas. For example, you might say that a responsible government has a duty to provide free access for its citizens to at least some of their culture’s creative heritage much the same way as it should ensure universal education and medical care for the poor. You might argue that fixing a price for a work of art is subjective, or disagree over why producers/studios have exclusive rights while the crew has none or quibble about the exact extent of the artist’s moral rights to their work (an area where the US trails a bit behind Europe).

I understand these and similar disagreements, but if you just plain don’t accept any of the basic premises above, you probably can’t be convinced of the need for copyrights. But if you’ve at least thought about the issues and developed and a worldview that isn’t merely self-serving, than at least you’re not obliviously taking bootlegs for granted.

Believe it or not, copyright law did originally have the public good in mind. It’s a balancing act: on one hand, you want to protect an artist’s copyright so that it is profitable and sustainable to create artistic works and on the other hand you want as many people as possible to have access to these works.

The original copyright act of 1709 issued rights for 14 years with a one-time optional renewal for 14 more years. This has since been extended to a rather ridiculous 95 years since its first publication (in our case, screening) which accounts for pretty much the entire history of cinema. I doubt if most people could even name a feature film from before 1914. Clearly the law has come to favor the rights holders over the public. Not coincidentally, those rights holders are largely giant media corporations with Washington influence. Indeed, supported by special interests groups like Disney, a succession of laws derisively called the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” has continued to push back the expiration date indefinitely.

At least with film, where a huge proportion of the profits are made within the first weekend of the release and most of the money even from rentals happens within a couple of years, I consider the lifetime of copyrights to be irrationally out of control. But if a studio or distributer continues to make their films widely available for reasonable prices and on modern formats, I still think it’s tough to violate copyrights and still allege the moral high ground. Especially these days with library’s stocked with classic films that are freely available to the public.

To me, the ethical question of rather it is OK to violate copyrights only really gets interesting when you look at films that are not widely or reasonably available or which aren’t available at all.

What I have to say

This is where I come in and start talking about my opinion on the ethics of unauthorized film distribution. It suffers from my own rationalizations and compromises, but I try to be honest about it and to hold myself to high standards, common sense and best intentions. I do think pretty much every film should be available to the world at a reasonable price (say, ~$50 or less), and in that sense I am guilty of my generation’s renowned sense of entitlement, but I’m not asking filmmakers or distributors to give something for nothing.

Solipsistic as it may sound, I’m going to conduct a Q&A with myself. That way, if anyone else wants to, they can copy just the list of questions and answer them based on their own convictions or present them to others as discussion points. Both might make for good exercises.

Q: How do you feel about borrowing movies between friends?
A: If money doesn’t exchange hands, I’m all for it. In fact, it’s one of my favorite ways of shaping cinephile converts.
The strict wording on some FBI warnings I’ve seen implies that you can’t even watch the film with your extended family. I think that’s just ridiculous.

Q: How do you feel about showing films to clubs or other organizations?
A: I think screenings of legal copies in small, non-profit clubs and educational organizations is fair use and utterly grand (obviously, considering my film club history). My college gets permission to show DVDs and 35mm prints to the community for free in exchange for not advertising the screenings, while my brother’s college runs licensed, low-cost screenings that have permission to advertise. I think that with anything smaller than those venues, especially if you’re showing something that most of the audience wouldn’t have even known about otherwise, you’re not cutting into anyone’s profit.

Q: Should you avoid bootlegs (from here on to include downloads and any other unauthorized acquisition of a film) even if there is no other option?
There’s a lot of circumstances I try to take into account. The simplest case, where a film is not available in any home format and is not shown on TV in your country, is one where I easily approve of bootlegs (presumably sourced from tapes of foreign TV airings). You are still responsible for confirming that the movie is not available.

Q: What if a film sometimes plays on TV, but isn’t otherwise available?
A: Wait for it to play on TV and watch or record it. If it requires cable/satellite that you wouldn’t otherwise buy, having a friend record it has never seemed a cardinal sin to me.
However, if a station owns the rights for a film and never (or almost never) plays it, do what you want and make your own peace. Previously I would give TCM (who owns an enormous amount of the unreleased films out there) about 6 months to a year to play a film before I sought other means, but if TCM follows through with their plan to make their entire library available on DVD by request, then I no longer need to make furtive back-alley deals.

Q: What if a film is available only on an old format like laserdisc?
A: Personally, I keep a VHS player around so that I can still watch the huge number of films that are available on tape but not disc. For films only previously marketed on obsolete formats like laserdisc, check whether the distributer is still around and considering a rerelease. Failing that, I generally seek out bootlegs sourced from the obsolete format.

Q: What if a movie is only available from another country, in PAL format and/or with incompatible region codes?
A: I found that a great investment is a region-free, any-standard DVD player (which are perfectly legal) that can play movies from anywhere in the world. Since region encoding is not backed by law – it is purely a way to increase profits by giving higher prices to wealthier regions – I never feel bad buying the film and stripping the silly limitations off with computer software (the distributor still got their money).
That said, I think that this is a case where the rights owner stupidly limited their own profits by not giving you a fully authorized option to pursue, and so I understand if people feel that getting a bootleg isn’t harming the company more than they harmed themselves.

Q: What if a movie is only available in another language?
You can often times find free subtitle files, which are legal to create and distribute. Minimal tech savvy is required to apply subtitle files to movies viewed on your computer.
Fansubbed bootlegs are illegal, but I still consider them a reasonable option if the current rights owner has no plans to provide a version in your language. I consider people who provide high quality fansubs to be doing a service to the cinema community.

Q: What if a film is only available for an exorbitantly high price, like a 35mm rental fee of or a festival/promotional/educational purposes price?
A: I’ve seen a lot 35mm rentals as high as $1000, without even taking into account the cost of the equipment you would need to project it. Festival/promotional/educational copies, which often pertain to experimental films, tend to be in the $100 to $250 range. That’s a sign that the distributor is doing outdated celluloid copies not intended for the general market. Sometimes you just have to wait for them to get their distribution branch in order for the price to drop.
If the rights owners posses digitized copies of these films that could be written to a DVD-r with little hassle, I consider the prices quoted above to be unreasonable and beyond the means of the general public (though exceptions exist). I have occasionally resorted to bootlegs in that situation, but often I just ignore these films.
If a movie is just plain expensive, like a Criterion release or the latest Blu-ray blockbuster, that doesn’t count as unreasonable in my book. You need to just commit to the price tag or wait for the cost to fall and used copies to become available.

Q: What if the rights owner wants to restrict who sees a film or how it is displayed?
A: If the rights owner in this case is the original author (preferably the director), then you should listen to their explanation, if one is given, and preferably respect it. I don’t usually agree that a film must be seen in theatrical conditions (as some filmmakers and critics insist) to be correctly understood and fully appreciated, but that is one expression of an artist’s moral rights over their work.
Sometimes I give in to moments of weakness and watch bootlegs of these films anyway, but I promise myself that, even if I don’t like it, I will give it a proper chance on the silver screen given the opportunity.
If the rights owner is a special interest group or religious organization that has acquired the rights for the purpose of preventing distribution and suppressing the original artist’s message, I side with the artist.
If the rights owner is a company utterly unaware or uninterested in distributing the film and unwilling to sell the rights to someone who is, I look for a bootleg. I’ve heard that the rights to some Peter Greenaway films went through several bankruptcy and repackaging sales and are now bundled into some obscure Japanese investment holding. If that’s true, then it’s a good example of a copyright not serving anyone’s idea of the public good.

Q: What if you think a film is in the public domain?
A: If it really is in public domain then it is legal to download and copies sold by anyone can’t be considered bootlegs. However, you should do at least some research into the matter. If I can’t find any glimmer of extant copyrights for a film during an hour of internet searching, I’ve satisfied my own conscience. The United States Copyright Office will conduct a semi-conclusive search for $150, or if you live near D.C. you can search their records for free. I’ve never gone that far.
Just because a film is in the public domain, though, doesn't mean it's not worth paying for. Most free and budget releases of public domain films are god-awful lazy transfers. I've found myself paying extra to get a definitive edition in more than one case.

Q: What if a film is only available on the grey market?
A: The grey market is usually meant to refer to internet sellers, called dealers, who sell movies that no one else has actively asserted copyrights for. Sometimes rights are not renewed, get trapped in limbo by a legal dispute, disappear with a distributor who goes out of business or get sold piecemeal only to specific countries. Dealers often times have a message like this one on their websites:
“The United States Berne Act states that: Films unreleased in the United States, including original version of films altered and/or edited for release in the United States, are not protected by American copyright; thus, they are considered public domain.”
That’s BS, although for years I believed it, mostly because I wanted desperately to believe it and never bothered to check. Having since read the Berne Convention Act and related copyright laws, I can safely say that it states the exact opposite: Movies copyrighted in foreign countries (or at least the majority who signed the Berne Act) are fully protected by U.S. copyright law.
Still, if you have decided for whatever reason that this is the best way to get the film, then it is less illegal than downloading the film since the lion’s share of the liability is on the shoulders of the dealer. Most of the dealers I’ve worked with are good people and will immediately withdraw items from their catalogue if you can show that another entity owns the rights.

Q: What if you acquire an unauthorized version of a movie when nothing else was available and then an authorized version becomes available?
A: My personal code of ethics is that I have to buy the authorized version when if it becomes available. This is really hard for me if I didn’t even end up liking the movie when I saw the bootleg.
The same philosophy has served me well with videogames. In college, I downloaded emulated roms (bootlegs of old videogames that run on a computer) from obsolete systems, but now that Nintendo makes many of these available legally on the Wii’s online store, at very reasonable prices, I’ve squared myself with the company.

Q: Is it OK to make copies of rented material?
A: Generally, no. I have at least two friends who rip all their Netflix movies to their computer so that they can send the discs back the same day. The way I see it, if you watch the film multiple times on your computer or lend it out, you are getting all the benefits of buying the film at only rental prices. If you are just watching the films at a later time and then deleting them, that’s probably just fair use time-shifting.

Q: Be honest, how many unauthorized movies do you own?
A: If you’ve tried to get a movie I’ve reviewed on this blog, odds are good that it was suspiciously absent from Netflix or Amazon. I’ve bought a bit over a hundred grey market bootlegs, most of which I can justify in keeping with the answers I’ve given above. I really do try to make sure that the artist and/or rights owner is compensated for their work whenever reasonably possible. I plan to be even more careful in the future.
The one black market bootleg I own, “Kill Bill Part I,” was purchased in the Philippines by a roommate and given to me as a gift. I keep it around because the creative English subtitles are hilarious, and probably constitute an original work in themselves.

The conversation continues, with particular emphasis on the anime community, over at The Grump Factory. John shares some his own thoughts and reactions on the issue of downloads and bootlegs.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Review of Princess Raccoon

It’s safe to say that most Japanese film enthusiasts are familiar with the cult director Seijun Suzuki’s work (thank you, Criterion!), especially his unconventional psychedelic yakuza films from his days at Nikkatsu. Suzuki was an important dissident from within the studio system, a spiritual brother of Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller who took subpar B-movie scripts from his producers and twisted them into surreal, inverted genre-busters infused with a unique auteur sensibility. While a cult audience followed his film even at the time, Nikkatsu’s higher-ups hated his unauthorized script changes and, inevitably, he was fired in 1968.

Somewhat ironically, the films that Suzuki made after his studio days are less well known despite his immensely increased degree of artistic freedom. I can understand why his studio work is more popular, given that Suzuki’s use of arty techniques and surprising aberrations hangs handsomely on the unpretentious genre frameworks that ground the stories. His later free-wheeling experiments are less accessible and harder to follow. The strangeness that initially popped out of the details came to take center stage. I confess to being somewhat disappointed with “Zigeunerweisen” (1980) and “Pistol Opera” (2001).

His most recent and probably last film, “Princess Raccoon” (2005), may be the key that has opened up my appreciation for his later career. It’s a musical starring Joe Odagiri as Prince Amechiyo and Zhang Ziyi as Princess Raccoon. Amechiyo’s father, a powerful demon, banishes his son to a lonely mountain out of pride (lest his son become more beautiful than the father). Before Amechiyo’s kidnapper reaches his destination, the princess of Raccoon Palace rescues him for her own mischievous purposes and soon falls in love.

“Princess Raccoon” is set in the world of ancient Japanese folklore and mythology, populated by gods, demons and shape-shifting raccoons (actually tanuki, but I refuse to enter into that debacle) who meddle in the affairs of humans. The time period is a bit nebulous, with renaissance era Europeans wandering around in the background and a giant classical Italian painting dominating one set. Equally so is the landscape, which includes soundstages in the heavens, earthly outdoor terrain and impossible CG environments.

The point, made clear from the very start of the film, is less the romance of the relatively uninteresting characters, than the spectacular design concepts that Suzuki engineers from this chaos. One suspects that he cast actors based on whether he liked their faces rather than on their emotive talents, and he tends to take more interest in their elaborate period costuming than their delivery. His rainbow palette is outright gaudy, but allows us to soak up a childlike love for color and contrast devoid of overly academic good-taste.

There’s a great deal of risk when a director becomes obssessed with orchestrating essentially undemanding eye-candy, and it’s doubtless that may viewers will find the film self-indulgent and shallow. However, Suzuki does his best to make us understand that the artifice is part of the point and that the visual presentation is worth our attention. Katie noted that the film reminded her of “Percival” (1978) in it’s intentional artificiality, but its lineage can be traced natively in the strong Japanese tradition of ritualized staging and detached abstraction (visible in films as diverse as 1963’s “An Actor’s Revenge” and 2001’s “The Happiness of the Katakuris”) that owes more to Kabuki than Brecht.

By foregrounding the methods behind the fantasy and illusion, “Princess Raccoon” makes us admire the process of creating as much as the experience of viewing. The intricate painted backdrops (sometimes with the wrong perspective), stuffed raccoon toys attached to strings and crude CG (I’d quibble that it goes too far) are never integrated systematically into a kind of realism, but are left isolated enough so that we can appreciate them as individual elements within a swirl of arts and crafts.

[Images: Some of the backgrounds are designed in the style of traditional Japanese ink and woodblock art.]

This makes for a film that isn’t particularly smooth and cohesive, but somehow Suzuki never lets it devolve into the type of postmodern pastiche where the humor comes from random non-sequiturs and anachronistic juxtapositions. He unwisely includes a weak subplot that breaks up the flow of the romance, music and adventure, but he makes the right decision to eschew manic editing. The craziness is contained, if just barely, and everything fits comfortably into Suzuki’s overarching vision, though his is a dreamlike vision divorced from ordinary reality.

[Images: One set is nominally reconfigured and relit as Prince Amechiyo walks in a circle around it. The shot changes from arctic to desert, either to symbolize the long passage of time on his journey or the variety of terrain he traverses. By recycling the same camera position and layout, we can’t help appreciating how the mild redressing of the few props changes the atmosphere completely. The taxidermied hawk adds a touch of humor.]

Suzuki preoccupation with beauty is also addressed thematically within the narrative. Beauty is shown to be a powerful force independent from morality; a force capable of both good and evil. The prince’s father, for instance, is fatally consumed by pride in his beauty, while vanity hampers the budding romance between Amechiyo and Princess Raccoon. But the film also shows how beauty is an inspiration, a cause for celebration and a foothold for love. The film is neither particularly original or deep in what it has to say on the topic, but it’s self-aware about its superficiality.

[Image: The princess is so beautiful that the firewood for her warm baths burns with jealousy.]

The eclecticism in the art design is shared by the music numbers. Suzuki bounces around the world and across history with everything from traditional poetic pieces and show tunes to rap, tap dance, ska, hymnals, hard rock, opera and children’s choir. Like Hollywood musicals of old, the songs are funny and buoyant and more about having a good time than about demonstrating raw musical talent.

[Image: (Bottom) A literal and Greek chorus of Japanese ladies-in-waiting.]

Suzuki’s biggest flaw in his musical numbers isn’t the questionable vocal training, but his limp choreography. He never quite manages either the graceful precision of geisha dancing or the effervescent energy of a Hollywood showstopper, though some of his concepts are intriguing, including dancing duets of women giving birth and sumo wrestlers who play drums on their massive bellies. Suzuki has always been better at composing static images than at capturing motion (it’s part of what makes his action movies so startlingly different), causing the dancing to feel poorly directed and less spectacular than the backdrops.

The films from both the highest of high culture and the lowest of pop culture are often accused of having poor plots and acting, but for very different reasons. Somehow “Princess Raccoon” manages to sample those flaws from both ends while also capturing their best attributes: inventive artistry and unabashed entertainment, respectively. It’s a combination that might be said of Suzuki’s 1960’s work, though it manifests quite differently. If this really is his final film, I think it makes a fine finish.

Walrus Rating: 7.5

[Image: One croak from the Frog of Paradise is all you need.]