Sunday, August 27, 2006


After some deliberations, I decided to make a new personal weblog, since this one was being dominated by film pieces lately. Maybe having two blogs will encourage me to devote time to both, though I make no promises. The new site can be found at:

Get it? Since it's not about films? Hahahahahaha *snort* *sigh*

In other news, I didn't see any new movies this week, so instead of my promised one new film piece I'll be posting another piece on a classic within the next few days, although which remains to be seen. In the mean time, check out my two cents on PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE below.

I also tinkered a little bit with my top 100(+2) list today, bumping up an old favorite into a higher spot. I still plan to add more films to the list, some interspersed with the original selections and others appended onto it. I won't commit to a date at this point, except to say that it ought to happen by the end of the year.

Finally, take 2-odd minutes of your time and check out my favorite trailer of 2006 (to date). I liked IN THE BEDROOM a great deal, but I wasn't especially excited for Field's follow-up until I saw this.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Salutations From the Other Side- Image and Power in PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE

Note: This is my modest contribution to an ongoing Brian DePalma blog-a-thon leading up to the release of THE BLACK DAHLIA. If the rest of you would have me, that is...

SPOILERS to follow. Because 32 years is enough time for you to have seen this one in my opinion.

The first time I saw the (awesome) trailer for Brian DePalma’s latest film, THE BLACK DAHLIA, I was particularly fascinated by the scenes featuring Elizabeth Short (Mia Kershner) auditioning for a film. She gives a solid but unspectacular line-reading, and the unseen man behind the camera coldly goads her on, trying to get her to express a deeper, more authentic kind of sadness. What struck me most profoundly about this moment is the combination of the director’s insinuating tone and Kershner’s performance, which turns this ingenue into a helpless victim of the camera’s unblinking gaze.

However, it wasn’t until the second viewing of the trailer that I realized something- the man behind the camera is played by DePalma himself. This isn’t the first time a great filmmaker has used his own presence in a film to underline the power wielded by those behind the camera and the powerlessness of those in front of it. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Michael Powell’s late masterpiece PEEPING TOM- this film contains footage from the protagonist’s childhood, when he was constantly and mercilessly filmed by his own father, played by Powell himself. As indebted as DePalma- by his own admission- is to Hitchcock, there’s a fair amount of PEEPING TOM in many of his films as well. Indeed, he takes PEEPING TOM’s major theme- our compulsive need to watch- to its logical breaking point. In Brian DePalma’s world, he who controls the image has the power.

In many of Brian DePalma’s best films, the central storyline involves two or more parties who jockey for control of the image. BLOW OUT finds John Travolta as a soundman trying to piece together an assassination using evidence, and as such attempting to wrestle the truth from a shadowy government cover-up. FEMME FATALE is about a female criminal who re-invents herself as a diplomat’s wife, and the photographer who becomes obsessed with finding out about her past. But never has this plot dynamic been put to more purely entertaining use than in PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE. BLOW OUT remains my favorite DePalma film, but the dark and painful recesses into which the film descends by its finale (a masterful combination of an emotional sock in the gut and a twisted punchline) can be hard to take at times. PHANTOM, on the other hand, is a ball- over-the-top but never willfully campy, with great Paul Williams music and that inimitable DePalma style, which even at this early stage in his career was in full flower.

Of course, “image” isn’t just about what is shown. Just as often, it can be what is withheld; in short, it’s the public’s perception rather than warts’n’all reality. Swan (“he has no other name”), the rock’n’roll uber-producer played by Paul Williams in PHANTOM, is a master most of all of molding the public’s perception, and his masterpiece is himself. The opening voiceover in PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE summarizes Swan’s rise to power- his first gold record at 14, his bringing of the blues to Britain, his lobbying to get his gold records deposited in Fort Knox. He’s rarely photographed, and then only by those with rights to his image. Heck, we don’t even see Swan’s face until roughly twenty minutes into the film. Instead, we see the fuss everyone else makes over him- the hushed waiting for his approval at a concert, the kowtowing toadies and lines of groupies attending to him, the low doorways that force the tall to bend down to his level.

By contrast, Winslow Leach (William Finley) is an amateur in the image department. He is first seen clumsily pasting his name over a billboard of Swan’s most popular band, The Juicy Fruits, and when he crashed the concert venue to take over the piano after the Fruits’ set, there’s something distinctly off-putting about his stage presence. As Leach pounds away at the keys and sways wildly as he sings his rock version of FAUST in the hope that Swan will take notice, DePalma’s camera insistently circles around him, creating the same unsettling effect that would later pop up in CARRIE’s prom sequence. Swan likes what he hears but not what he sees, and after prying the music from Leach, he proceeds to grind his image into the ground- dressing him up in women’s clothing, planting drugs on him to have him arrested, and even having his teeth removed as a prison “health experiment.” Eventually Leach, attempting to exact his revenge on his oppressor, has his face disfigured in Swan’s record press and is left for dead.

But Winslow Leach survives, taking up residence instead in Swan’s newly-built musical Xanadu, The Paradise. He raids the wardrobe, donning a mask and a cape, becoming the titular Phantom. His hunger for revenge has never been greater, and once Leach becomes the Phantom, an interesting thing happens- as his presence becomes more shadowy and enigmatic, he becomes a more formidable adversary for Swan. Whereas Leach was just a man, and a weak one at that, the Phantom is fascinating. Swan comes to realize this, precisely at the time the Phantom detonates a bomb during rehearsals for Swan’s production of FAUST.

This sequence employs one of DePalma’s favorite tricks, split-screen, in a way that simultaneously makes it an archetypal DePalma moment and underlines his thesis perfectly. One half of the screen shows the Phantom carrying out his plan, and the other shows Swan’s perception of the event. Swan, sitting in the Paradise balcony, is none the wiser until just before the bomb explodes, when he notices the Phantom sneaking around in the rafters, by which time he’s powerless to do anything about it. His face slackens as the explosion occurs, although less it seems from the tragedy (which rarely fazes him otherwise) than from the loss of control.

Like any powerful man, Swan isn’t willing to back down, so after quickly deducing the identity of the Phantom he works overtime to get him on his side. He convinces his upstart rival to re-write FAUST for him and pins him down to a lifetime contract, signed in blood, in the hope that the hard work will neutralize the Phantom’s new-found power and allow Swan to maintain control of the proceedings. And so, when the Phantom demands that the soulful Phoenix (Jessica Harper) - who he fell in love with at an audition early in the film- perform his cantata, Swan defies him by instead casting strutting glam-rocker Beef (Gerrit Graham).

With the Phantom being kept on a steady diet of drugs and kept under lock and key while he toils away at his music, Swan goes ahead with the production, giving Beef free reign to make the music his own (Swan, ever-reluctant to pin himself to a specific sound, is always futzing with FAUST’s musical style). However, when the Phantom breaks free on opening night and electrocutes Beef onstage (with a neon thunderbolt, no less), it’s a curious moment, and typical of the moral grey areas typically found in DePalma’s work. Rather than turning into a momentous tragedy, the evening ends in triumph, as Phoenix takes the stage to calm the crowd and becomes an overnight sensation. Naturally, the crowd eats it all up (“how often does a rock star fry onstage? They know they’ve been fully entertained”) and Swan happily proclaims the show a greater success than he could have imagined.

All this leads up to the film’s most explicit expression of its thesis, during a scene in which Swan seduces Phoenix inside his home. The Phantom, forever pining for Phoenix, follows them, and he climbs onto the roof to spy on them. It’s in this scene that DePalma inverts the dynamic between the watcher and the watched- for someone who is doing the watching, the Phantom is strangely powerless. Perhaps it’s the way the scene is shot- Swan’s bed is situated directly under the skylight, as though he wants to be seen. Finally, Swan pours salt in the Phantom’s wounds, so to speak, by turning the gaze around. As he lies next to Phoenix, he turns on a remote camera on the rooftop directly behind the Phantom, watching he who watches him, taking back the power.

If you’ve made it this far, you’ve no doubt either seen the film and already know how it ends, or you haven’t seen the film and would prefer not to have it completely spoiled. For you, I’ll oblige, taking only the opportunity to remark how the film’s finale (a) manages to remain relatively faithful to the FAUST legend it so extensively references, (b) allows Leach the opportunity to take back the image once and for all, and yet (c) transpires in a way that Swan would almost certainly have approved of, in the abstract at least. If nothing else, the crowd keeps dancing, which I’m sure he would have enjoyed.

Of course, the greatness of PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE doesn’t begin and end with the idea at its center. For one thing, the music is pretty great- awesome as Paul Williams’ work with the Muppets was, it’s light-years away from his songs here. While both Swan and the Phantom, true to the film’s thesis, are both more compelling as archetypes than as flesh-and-blood characters, they’re surrounded by a colorful supporting cast, particularly Gerrit Graham’s Beef, a truly inspired comic creation. And DePalma is at the center of it all, directing with a sure hand and great panache, following his muse while putting on one heck of a show. In PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, as in so much of his DePalma’s work, he’s in full control of the image, and we, his audience, are powerless in the face of it. Personally, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Snakes on a Plane (2006, David R. Ellis)

One of the more overused clichés in filmdom is the way people justify their enjoyment of uninspired, unambitious product by stating, “it was good for what it was.” After all, how much of the idea of what a film is supposed to be is defined by (a) studio advertising, and (b) the expectations we have based on this advertising? That’s especially applicable to a phenomenon like SNAKES ON A PLANE, which based on its high-concept title and the Internet storm that has arisen around it has overshadowed the film itself. How could the movie itself possibly live up to the sheer idea of it? Setting aside the pop-culture tempest that has arisen, I found it fairly easy to enjoy more or less on its own terms, although if the movie hadn’t worked as well as it did I’m not sure my moviegoing experience would have been nearly so much fun. There’s something to be said for a movie like this- it’s empty calories to be sure, but it’s tasty and goes down easy. David R. Ellis has become one of Hollywood’s premier go-to guys for high concept B-movies (see also: CELLUAR), and he wisely concentrates on making SNAKES ON A PLANE trashy fun without resorting to camp or kitsch. Of course, with the wrong leading man this could have sunk like a stone, but Samuel L. Jackson is perfectly suited to the material, playing it straight-faced without shying away from the ridiculousness of the surroundings, as when he barrels through the plane, Taser-ing snakes left and right. And for the most part, his supporting cast follows his lead, although the scenes near the end featuring Kenan Thompson are too overtly comedic to fit easily with the rest of the film. Still, the movie is a lot of fun, and the fact that the audience was into it as much as I was- whooping it up at all the crowd-pleasing moments- made it all the more so. I know it’s been said before, but I can’t stress this enough- if you’re going to see SNAKES ON A PLANE, the bigger the crowd, the better.

Rating: **1/2.

Classic of the week: Lola Montes (1955, Max Ophüls)

Like DAVID HOLZMAN’S DIARY, which I also saw for the first time this past week, LOLA MONTES deals with the idea of a life as spectacle, though the similarities end there. The most obvious example of this theme is the film’s framing device, which finds Lola re-enacting her life for a crowd of circus onlookers. It’s telling that Ophuls uses a public venue from which to flash back to the events of Lola’s life, rather than, say, the writing of a memoir, since she was not one to shy away from scandal. In the world of the film, she invites hubbub and controversy wherever she goes- even such a small thing as torn clothing causes a stir among those around her (memorably setting up a palace-wide search for a needle and thread). Watching the film, I couldn’t help but recall a recent conversation I overheard about what sophistication means in cinema- the popular answer being an attitude toward sex- and how perfectly this fit in with that definition, as when Lola’s servants coolly try to recall the number of lovers she’s had. One of the most frequent criticisms of the film is that Martine Carol, who plays Lola, doesn’t have the star presence to pull off such a larger-than-life character, but I think that’s what Ophuls was going for- Carol was beautiful and sensuous, yes, but she’s also life-size onscreen, and a more charismatic performer would have had a hard time pulling off the character in the framing device, when she’s but a shadow of her former self. This being Ophuls, this movie is gorgeous- nobody could move a camera like him- and although he’s clearly a great filmmaker we don’t hear much about him nowadays (in other words, time for a resurgence). LOLA MONTES makes wonderful use of color and ‘Scope framing, and I’d relish the opportunity to see it on the big screen. But what stuck out in my mind wasn’t the beauty of the proceedings, but how sad the tale was that they served- a woman whose life went from being the lover of a king to standing in a circus cage among the animals, selling kisses for a dollar.

Rating: ***1/2.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

World Trade Center (2006, Oliver Stone)

There’s a key moment late in WORLD TRADE CENTER that sums up pretty nicely my misgivings about the film. While a group of rescue workers are digging through the rubble to reach the protagonists, they come upon the body of another character who dies early in the film. As they continue onward to the still-buried survivors, one firefighter covers the corpse with his coat, and that’s the last we ever hear from him. By and large, that’s the film’s M.O. in a nutshell- it seeks to uplift us with the story of survival and triumph over tragedy by glossing over the deaths that took place on 9/11. The problem isn’t that the story of McLoughlin and Jimeno ends happily (that’s how it really happened, so we shouldn’t begrudge them that) but that the film is so determined to end on a positive note that the larger reality of the day- that thousands of lives were lost as a result of the WTC tragedy- barely seems to register. Was the life of the man whose corpse was discovered near the heroes any less important just because he didn’t survive? The film doesn’t seem to think so. UNITED 93 was hardly a perfect film, but at least the acknowledged the grimmer side of the day, whereas this is just a TV-ready boy-in-a-well story, given some measure of relevance by the 9/11 backdrop. No wonder that the Right has embraced this movie, as it closely resembles our Administration’s approach to the war in Iraq (yes: heroism, flag-waving; no: death, dissent, bad news). For me, however, the film misses the boat by sanitizing the tragedy so acutely, since without the very real and omnipresent spectre of death in the equation most of the drama is gone from the story. As a result, it just felt like two guys waiting to be found instead of the same two guys who just as easily could have died down there.

Rating: *1/2.

Editor's Note: Right now the plan is to continue with the film-related content. It was getting to be a bit much to write about everything I saw, so for the time being I'll try two a week- one new release and one oldie. Let's see if I can keep it up...

Saturday, August 12, 2006

2005 in review: Finally, #1

1. The New World (Terrence Malick)

B-side: The Intruder (Claire Denis)

Well, if you’ve been paying attention you knew it would end here. I’ve expended so much time and energy on praising THE NEW WORLD that its spot atop this list would be inevitable even if I hadn’t already given it prominent positions on my top 100 list and my recent piece on films that shaped me as a moviegoer. Here it is, and what a long journey it’s been leading up to its official unveiling as my favorite film of 2005. How fitting that this journey should end with two films that deal with voyages of discovery.

That both THE NEW WORLD and THE INTRUDER are jaw-droppingly gorgeous should go without saying, given their directors’ pedigrees. Likewise, neither Malick nor Denis has ever been particularly hung up on conventional narrative structure- Malick thinks nothing of dropping key characters from the action for long periods of time, and I believe it would take me at least another viewing or two of THE INTRUDER to even puzzle out everything that happens in the film. But like too few films out there, these two movies are purely cinematic experiences, unimaginable in any other art form. And that these films succeed so well in these terms makes them special.

Like my friend and fellow blogger Lee Walker- whose recent series on important films in his life pretty much wiped the floor with mine- I despair that cinema as we know it may soon run out of unique ideas (being an aspiring filmmaker that prospect is doubly frightening to me, as I fear that there will be nothing left for me). But both Malick and Denis are among the handful of filmmakers who are exploring the remaining options and boundaries of their chosen medium, and that these masters of cinema are still not only putting forth effort but are actually succeeding to provide us with new images is a reason for hope. The cinema may not have much time left, but with artists like these in its corner it’ll no doubt go down swinging.

2005 in review: an addendum before we get to the top banana

Just because I’ve listed all of my favorite films of last year doesn’t mean there weren’t other notable titles. Listed below are 25 additional films that in one way or another, for better or worse, were defining films of 2005. Whether they were new works by essential filmmakers, critically-acclaimed works, Best Picture nominees (they're all here, save the ones I've mentioned elsewhere), pop-culture touchstones, or simply films that stuck out in my mind when contemplating this list, I couldn’t imagine this past cinematic year being the same if not for them.

Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan)
The Best of Youth (Marco Tullio Giordana)
Broken Flowers (Jim Jarmusch)
Café Lumière (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
Capote (Bennett Miller)
Crash (Paul Haggis)
The Devil’s Rejects (Rob Zombie)
The 40-Year-Old Virgin (Judd Apatow)
Good Night, and Good Luck. (George Clooney)
The Holy Girl (Lucrecia Martel)
Howl’s Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki)
Junebug (Phil Morrison)
Land of the Dead (George A. Romero)
Last Days (Gus Van Sant)
March of the Penguins (Luc Jacquet)
Match Point (Woody Allen)
Me and You and Everyone We Know (Miranda July)
Munich (Steven Spielberg)
Mysterious Skin (Gregg Araki)
Saraband (Ingmar Bergman)
Sin City (Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller)
The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach)
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (George Lucas)
Syriana (Stephen Gaghan)
Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit (Nick Park and Steve Box)

Friday, August 11, 2006

2005 in review: #2

2. Kings and Queen (Arnaud Deplechin)

B-side: Gilles’ Wife (Frederic Fonteyne)

Eighteen months ago, Emmanuelle Devos was just another talented French actress to me. Having seen her in READ MY LIPS and ESTHER KAHN had brought her to my attention, but hadn’t really made that much of an impression on me. However, in the intervening year and a half, all that has changed- in my opinion, she has risen to the highest echelon of contemporary actors (who she joins there is a subject for another time). The lion’s share of the credit for my finally recognizing her searing talent goes to these two films, in which she gave two of 2005’s very best performances.

Not coincidentally, I also fell in love with the films of Arnaud Desplechin this past year when I caught a retrospective of his work at the Wexner Center. And having seen them all, I can proclaim without hesitation that KINGS AND QUEEN is his best work to date. It’s certainly his most ambitious, juxtaposing a family melodrama with crazed comedy in a way that results in hairpin emotional turns. Some may be put off by the film’s tonal inconsistencies, but I believe there be method to Desplechin’s madness, as he explores how the stories the film tells affect the characters who inhabit them. Devos is a revelation as Nora, a sensible mother whose thoughts turn to her own mortality after he father falls terminally ill, and Matthieu Amalric (also seen in MUNICH) is just as good as her second ex-husband Ismael, an irresponsible musician who gets committed to a mental institution. In a time when most movies have become all-too-predictable, here’s one that’s capable of darn near anything, narratively-speaking, which is an achievement in itself. That it accomplishes this with such style and emotional gravity is cause for rejoicing.

If Devos is the star attraction in KINGS AND QUEEN, she’s almost the entire show in GILLES’ WIFE. That the film is entitled GILLES’ WIFE rather than ELISA is accurate, as Elisa is the very model of a devoted housewife. Indeed, her duties as a wife and mother appear to be her only joy in life, and even when Gilles cheats on her (with her own sister no less) she stays with him because she knows no other way. In today’s world Elisa would be seen as a fool, but the film, set in the 1920s, doesn’t see it that way- she’s simply doing what she’s been told is expected of her as a woman, and Devos plays up her dignity and steadfastness, even when Elisa is spying on her sister on Gilles’ behalf. In GILLES’ WIFE, Devos gives a performance worthy of the greatest silent-film actors, conveying vast reserves of emotion with her unique facial features. In Hollywood terms, Devos isn’t conventionally attractive, but it’s her acting gifts and, yes, her singular brand of beauty that will allow her to endure long after today’s marquee babes have faded away.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

2005 in review: #3

3. Innocence (Lucile Hadzihalilovic)

B-side: Pride & Prejudice (Joe Wright)

The relatively large amount of independence and social mobility of modern women is, we shouldn’t forget, a fairly recent development. For much of recorded history, the roles of women were limited, and once a woman was placed into one they were generally stuck there for the rest of her life. Even an iconic figure such as Jane Austen found a measure of freedom only through her writings, in which she chronicled the lifestyle she knew all too well while also commenting wryly upon its conventions, no doubt taking pleasure in the opportunity to stand outside them for a change.

Austen’s most celebrated novel, PRIDE & PREJUDICE, has been adapted numerous times over the years, but the 2005 version has an undeniable freshness to it. It’s not without its flaws, to be sure- any 2 hour distillation of the material is bound to leave something by the wayside- but it’s also highly entertaining and surprisingly cinematic. Keira Knightley makes Lizzie a shade too contemporary for my taste, but perhaps that’s the point- she doesn’t quite fit in with the rest due to her nature. Of course, the art direction is impeccable, but more surprising is that the characters actually seem to dwell in their surroundings, instead of feeling like actors who were made up and marched onto the sets every morning. If nothing else, this latest rendering of Austen’s classic shows us that the Colin Firth miniseries is hardly the final word on the subject.

The girls of INNOCENCE are much younger than those in PRIDE & PREJUDICE, and if anything their options are even more limited. The film is set in a mysterious boarding school for girls between the ages of six and twelve. They are only taught two subjects (dance and science), and are never permitted to leave the premises. INNOCENCE is compelling on a symbolic level, as a representation of what it means to grow up as a girl, but what really impresses are the purely cinematic aspects of the film. Hadzihalilovic, the professional and romantic partner of IRREVERSIBLE director Gaspar Noé, is a gifted filmmaker in her own right, and from the very first scene she creates a world so unique and hypnotic that it feels more than a little reductive to try to puzzle out what everything means.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

2005 in review: #4

4. Caché (Michael Haneke)

B-side: Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-ho)

The thriller genre is chock full of movies, some good, many more bad. The difference between good thrillers and bad ones lies more than anything in the level of suspense the film generates. Thankfully, 2005 was a good year for the genre (see also #5), with numerous thrillers made by filmmakers who actually took the time and effort to create suspense instead of going for cheap shocks. And the year’s best thriller, bar none, was CACHÉ.

In the film, Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche play a proper bourgeois couple (he even hosts a weekly televised panel discussion on books). When someone begins sending him mysterious videotapes- first of his house, then of slightly more sinister things- long-suppressed secrets from his past begin to eat away at him. Morbid curiosity, and a lack of police interest, lead him to conduct his own investigation of his own, but it quickly becomes apparent that Haneke has something in mind other than a clean resolution to the case. Haneke’s style is often described as cold and clinical, but the primary reason why CACHÉ is so nerve-racking is the emotions that the film traffics in, the emotions we hide from the world- in Auteuil’s case, shame, guilt, a quick temper, and even racism (a 1962 massacre of Muslims in Paris is a plot point as well). In addition, the distanced style of the videos is eerily similar to Haneke’s own, to the point where the two become virtually indistinguishable by the end of the film.

MEMORIES OF MURDER is not only a thriller, but also a police procedural, a genre equally prone to formula. But Bong, taking his cue from an unsolved real-life serial-killing case, is as unconcerned with figuring out whodunit as Haneke. Instead, he uses the mystery as a stepping-stone to explore other issues, particularly police brutality (the cops aren’t above using torture and random raids as a means of getting information) and the general ineffectually of Korean law enforcement (from the beginning the detectives are mostly grabbing at straws and hoping to get lucky). Haneke is one of the world’s great filmmakers already, and Bong’s new film THE HOST got some of the best reviews at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Could we be witnessing the rise of a new suspense master?

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

2005 in review: #5

5. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg)

B-side: Oldboy (Park Chan-wook)

Most cinematic violence elicits an easy reaction- hand-to-hand combat is exciting, a serial killer with a knife is scary, a gaping wound is gross. But in life it’s hardly that simple. Severe violence causes a great deal of pain, and it changes everyone who is touched by it. Most reasonable adults aren’t especially eager to perpetuate violence without at least examining other options beforehand. These are two films- both based on comic books or their more respectable relative “graphic novels”- that problematize the violence wreaked by their characters.

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE begins in an idyllic small town where little of consequence happens. Kindly Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen, excellent) runs a diner, his wife Edie (Maria Bello, giving a career-best performance) is a lawyer, and they have two children, a boy and a girl. Little of consequence happens in their world until two stickup men mosey into the diner one night and Tom overcomes and kills them. He’s proclaimed a hero by the townspeople, but the look on Tom’s face shows us that it’s not that simple- where did THIS guy come from? Turns out Tom has a violent past, and Cronenberg is smart enough to realize that while Tom can distance himself from that past through further violence, his peaceful world will never be the same. The film isn’t the shoot-‘em-up the plot summary might imply, but predominantly a domestic drama in which Tom and those around him have to reckon with the consequences of what they’ve done.

OLDBOY is a little more straightforward in its approach to violence- superficially it’s a revenge story in which a man hunts down the person responsible for imprisoning him for fifteen years. However, that doesn’t mean director Park is content to keep it that simple. After Oh Daesu (Choi Min-sik) is released from his captivity, his first few confrontations are slick and exciting, particularly the already-famous “hammer fight” in which Oh Daesu takes on a hallway full of rivals armed only with a claw hammer. However, the closer he comes to his target, the uglier the violence becomes. And what of the violence wreaked by the captor upon Oh Daesu both during the imprisonment and after he is released? There’s little catharsis for either party involved in this story. Revenge dramas must navigate a narrow passage between encouraging the audience’s bloodlust (like the WALKING TALL remake) and wringing their hands over the violence (see Park’s follow-up LADY VENGEANCE). Fortunately, OLDBOY avoids falling into either trap.

Monday, August 07, 2006

2005 in review: #6

6. Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

B-side: Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee)

In my humble opinion, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (aka “Joe”) is the most fascinating filmmaker to emerge so far this century. His work isn’t about plot or character, or even mood, as much as it is about giving off a particular vibe, one that’s damn near indescribable to those who are unfamiliar with his films. TROPICAL MALADY, his best film yet, is no exception- there’s really no way to describe the movie other than to say that it produces a lulling, hypnotic effect on those who are down with what it’s doing. The story, as it were, focuses on a soldier and a townie who embark on a sweet courtship until the townie disappears into the forest. When it turns out that the shape shifting forest shaman who has been terrorizing the countryside actually be the man he loves, the soldier sets out into the forest to track him down.

As traditionally-structured as TROPICAL MALADY is mindbending, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN became one of the year’s biggest cinematic talking points, not least among those who loudly excused themselves from actually watching it. It’s not simply that homosexuality makes many people uncomfortable- consider how long WILL & GRACE was a top-rated sitcom. Rather, it’s the film’s refusal to makes its lovers into easily-digestible gay stereotypes that put people off; that and the way it placed its tragic heroes into a Western, traditionally the manliest of genres. Shame, because the alleged controversy was kicked up over a fairly uncontroversial-feeling movie, a satisfying piece of classical Hollywood storytelling that featured a great lead performance from Heath Ledger.

“Love is a force of nature,” reads the tagline for BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, and the same could apply to TROPICAL MALADY. Both of these films deal, of course, with homosexual relationships, although for the most part the similarities cease there. While homosexuality, coupled with a time (pre-Stonewall) and place (the West) that affords BROKEBACK’s ill-fated lovers little chance to be together, Joe’s film is matter-of-fact, almost nonchalant, about his characters’ sexuality. Unfortunately, given the tempestuous reaction to BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (coupled, naturally, with the ongoing “defense of marriage” bile being spewed out by our current administration and its followers), the reality of Lee’s film is probably closer to our current world, and that’s really too bad. Cinema, more than almost any genre, is capable of creating empathy within its audience. If only someone could watch either (or both) of these films with an open mind for a change, perhaps that person would be less likely to persecute and condemn others who don’t share his sexual beliefs. Alas, I don’t hold out much hope for this, but were it to happen I would certainly welcome it.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

2005 in review: #7

7. Keane (Lodge H. Kerrigan)

B-side: Tony Takitani (Jun Ichikawa)

After yesterday’s focus on women who seek to control their own destinies, now it’s time to take a 180-degree turn to shed some light on two films about men who suffer from varying degrees of mental illness. In one of the films, the illness is undiagnosed, but it quickly becomes apparent that all is not right with him. As for the other, well, that he isn’t well is never in question.

KEANE is a probing look at the life of the title character, a schizophrenic played in a bravura performance by Damian Lewis. Keane tries to live some semblance of a normal life in his more lucid moments, but all of his thoughts are consumed by his missing daughter, presumed kidnapped. Kerrigan wisely keeps the story with his protagonist, which not only places us in his shoes for the duration but also calls into question all that we don’t actually see- does he really have a daughter? Was she really kidnapped, or was it something else entirely? As the film progresses, Keane befriends a mother and her young daughter, and Kerrigan somehow avoids exploiting Keane’s relationship with the little girl, generating suspense not from whether he will harm her but rather whether he can control his illness when she’s around. In a year full of expansive canvases and ambitious projects, KEANE stuck out as a superior intimate character study.

No less intimate was TONY TAKITANI, based on a Hakuri Murakami story about a most lonely fellow. From a young age, Tony (the one and only Issey Ogata, from YI YI) learned to be self-sufficient and to keep his own counsel, and he grew up with little need for emotional contact. Blessed with a gifted hand but little sensitivity to guide it, Tony becomes a graphic designer. Eventually, he meets a woman and marries her, only to be taken aback by her obsession with buying designer fashions. The story, while simple (and short- the film is only 75 minutes long), is highly affecting, and Ichikawa’s style suits it perfectly, with left-to-right camera movements that give the impression of reading a book and a lovely, plaintive score by Ryuichi Sakamoto. TONY TAKITANI works less as a conventional narrative film than a musically-inflected mood piece, and on those merits it succeeds beautifully.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

2005 in review: #8

8. Domino (Tony Scott)

B-side: Head-On (Fatih Akin)

For years, critics have been bemoaning the decreasing number of strong female characters in cinema. Thankfully, there were a few exceptions to that trend in 2005, with these films being two of the most notable. In both DOMINO and HEAD-ON, the heroines yearn to escape their pre-destined place in society through unconventional means, and somewhat miraculously both flower in their new surroundings.

I’m still a little stunned that I loved DOMINO as much as I did. Tony Scott has never been a director I’ve cared much for- my favorite films of his tended to be entertaining for other reasons besides his contributions (the Hackman/Washington chemistry in CRIMSON TIDE, Shane Black’s script and Bruce Willis’ performance in THE LAST BOY SCOUT, Deneuve and Sarandon in bed in THE HUNGER, etc.), and waiflike ingénue Keira Knightley seemed about the least likely bounty hunter imaginable. All the more miraculous then that they both pulled off easily the best work of their careers. They’re backed by a highly eclectic and uniformly awesome supporting cast (best in show: Mickey Rourke and Mo’Nique), and a strange tapestry of a script from DONNIE DARKO’s Richard Kelly. The end result is one of the year’s best pure entertainments, but with the extra edge as the film indelibly probes the near-saturation point pop culture has reached in America today.

In HEAD-ON, Sibel Kekilli is remarkable as Sibel, a suicidal party girl who gets out from under the thumb of her strict Muslim parents through a marriage of convenience. That her older barfly husband Cahit (memorably played by Birol Ünel) has even fewer prospects than she does could have led to disaster, but instead his listlessness slowly brings out her more nurturing side and propels her into responsible adulthood. HEAD-ON works both as a peek into the lifestyles of Turkish immigrants in Germany and as a punk-suffused anti-romance (dig the “Punk! Is! Not! Dead!” bit), but Akin’s film is more unpredictable than that, taking a surprising turn in the final hour that separates the couple and lands the story back in Turkey. The film's final minutes exert a strange emotional charge, occurring after so much has happened to Cahit and Sibel throughout the course of the film that a conventional happy ending would not only be unfeasible, but also deeply unsatisfying. Wisely, the film doesn't fall into that trap.

Friday, August 04, 2006

2005 in review: #9

9. Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog)

B-side: The World (Jia Zhang-ke)

In 2002, BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE kicked off a documentary resurgence that has continued, unabated, to this day. How else to account for a movie about the mating habits of penguins becoming summer ’05’s biggest word-of-mouth sleeper? Much more heartening to me was the release of the far superior GRIZZLY MAN, Herzog’s most acclaimed and widely seen film in over a decade. The film sold itself as the true story of Timothy Treadwell, a self-styled protector of grizzlies who spent over a dozen summers living among them in Alaska until one of them mauled him to death. The movie uses extensive video footage that Treadwell himself shot over a number of trips into the wilderness, but no less important is Herzog’s presence in the film, offering his perspective on Treadwell’s life and legacy and calling into question his subject’s beliefs and methods. It’s safe to say that GRIZZLY MAN wouldn’t have been half as fascinating had this visionary director not taken such an active role in the telling of the story.

THE WORLD is, superficially speaking, a fictional story set against the backdrop of the real-life World Park in Beijing- technically, no more of a documentary than NASHVILLE. But what lingers in the memory of the film isn’t so much the ostensible story (a messy relationship between a dancer and a security guard) as the portrayal of the park itself, both as a phenomenon and a symbol of China’s strange relationship with the world today. In a country most of its citizens never leave, World Park is the closest these people will ever come to, say, London Bridge or the Leaning Tower of Pisa- to say nothing of the park’s replica of the World Trade Center (“the real Twin Towers fell on 9/11, but we still have ours!”).

Both Herzog and Jia, in their own ways, have constructed their films around pre-existing phenomena (Timmy Treadwell’s tapes and World Park, respectively). However, what makes the works more similar than one would realize at first glance is the wonder and curiosity they display for their subjects. Herzog might disagree with Treadwell’s philosophies on the natural order, and Jia may be dubious about World Park serving as a step toward globalization, but both filmmakers clearly marvel at the fascinating subjects they’ve discovered, and each imposes himself on his subject just enough to make the end result that much more interesting.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

2005 in review: #10

10. King Kong (Peter Jackson)

B-side: 2046 (Wong Kar-wai)

One’s a mega-budget remake of a legendary effects extravaganza. The other’s an enigmatic semi-sequel to arthouse hit IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE. What could they possibly have in common? Not a lot on the surface, but if you look past the superficial differences it’s easy to see that both films are clearly the work of cinema-drunk directors, jumping off from their inspirations in inspired directions.

Jackson has long stated that the 1933 version of KING KONG is the film that made him want to become a filmmaker, and his new take on the story reflects this. The film, at three hours, is roughly twice as long as the original, and Jackson packs the expanded running time with spectacle and flights of fancy. In other words, he geeks out, using the seemingly unlimited studio resources afforded him by his LORD OF THE RINGS success to bring to the screen the version of KING KONG that has played out in his imagination since he was a child. Some have attacked the film as starting slow and suffering from bloat, but I was enraptured every minute, and even when Kong ends up exactly where he know he’ll end up, Jackson’s retelling works like gangbusters.

Since IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE was released, his follow-up project, 2046, was hotly anticipated by Wong fans but also something of an unknown quantity, and for good reason- one of the magical things about the prior film is how self-contained it was, to the point that it’s hard to imagine much of anything happening after the final fade to black. Where could Wong possibly go from here? While 2046 combines a number of familiar Wong elements- doomed love, awesome cinematography, gorgeous women (Gong Li, Faye Wong, Zhang Ziyi playing a grown-up for once, Carina Lau, fleeting glimpses of Maggie Cheung)- Wong remixes them within the framework of a sci-fi story written by his protagonist, played once again by Tony Leung. The result is intoxicating, a Wong film for Wong lovers, playing out, as all his best work does, less like a story than a one of those old songs he loves so much.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

2005 in review: #11

11. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Shane Black)

B-side: Kung Fu Hustle (Stephen Chow)

Sure, the films I’ve already listed are artistically edifying, but sometimes one craves something else entirely. What these two films have in common is how they cleverly- yet lovingly- lampoon their respective genres while working as more than just surface-level spoofs. Both Black and Chow clearly know their inspirations (detective fiction and kung fu action flicks, respectively), and rather than simply rattling off a laundry list of allusions, they create films that contribute to their genres rather than standing back and laughing at them.

KUNG FU HUSTLE in particular refuses to confine itself to martial arts. The film’s setting is something out of GANGS OF NEW YORK, and the comedy is lowbrow in the best sense of the word. Most obviously, Chow is heavily influenced by old-school cartoons, and the film’s special effects are deliriously unrealistic, crafting a world in which the laws of physics have been formulated by Jones and Avery rather than Newton and Einstein. In the middle of the madness, however, the film finds moments of strange beauty and pays homage to Chinese martial arts stars of the past, especially Qiu Yuen, who hilariously essays the role of the chain-smoking, ever-grouchy Landlady.

If anything, KISS KISS BANG BANG is even better, or maybe I’m just biased because I’m much more familiar with pulpy detective stories than I am with chopsocky. Regardless, Shane Black is a strong contender for 2005’s comeback of the year, crafting a film that’s both a ripping L.A. mystery and a kiss-off to the City of Dreams (who but a bitter expat could have crafted a line like, “it’s like someone shook this country by the East Coast and only the normal girls managed to hang on”?). Plus the thing’s hilarious, chock full of the bizarre one-liners Black fans have missed all these years, and great comic performances from Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer, and Michelle Monaghan. So why isn’t this higher on the list. Well, I told you it was a good year…

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

2005 in review: #12

12. Nobody Knows (Hirokazu Kore-eda)

B-side: L’Esquive (Abdellatif Kechiche)

Since THE 400 BLOWS- and even before it- the cinema has unspooled countless tales of youth in the big city. Whereas a country upbringing is usually portrayed as warm and pastoral, the city is full of perils, and children have to be both crafty and lucky to avoid falling victim to them. These two films were 2005’s best films about youth confronted with city life.

NOBODY KNOWS is a naturalistic account, inspired by a true story, of four siblings who were abandoned in Tokyo by their single mother. Having no one to count on but each other (being discovered by the landlord means eviction, and if the cops find out they’ll be separated), they must be creative in order to survive. L’ESQUIVE (released in the U.S. as GAMES OF LOVE AND CHANCE) happily takes place under less dire circumstances- the protagonists’ parents are still around, and the kids are somewhat older. However, its characters face their share of difficulties, not the least of which is puberty, which all the anxieties that implies.

While Kore-eda’s film maintains a certain distance from its story- which benefits the film in my opinion, since to rub our faces in it might turn it into a sensationalistic wallow- Kechiche plunges his camera into the lives playing out onscreen, keenly observing every uncomfortable classroom session and every swarm of girls that overwhelms the film’s protagonist. While the approaches seem to be quite different, both are decidedly un-Hollywood, and as a result both films are far more effective than more conventional versions of them would be.