Ikiru (1952) movie poster
(1952) dir. Akira Kurosawa
viewed: 02/25/09

Plot: bureaucrat discovers that he has terminal stomach cancer and then dedicates his life to building a playground.

Sounds thrilling.
Though I’ve been watching a growing list of every Akira Kurosawa film, I somehow managed to queue this one up before really realizing what it was about.  Like pretty much every Kurosawa film, it’s highly praised and esteemed, but when I read through the basics of the plot I was thinking to myself: “What night of my life am I going to want to watch this film?”

Actually, of the films of Kurosawa’s that I’ve seen, he does have two main types, the samurai period films and the modern or “contemporary” films, which often seem to have a crime theme.  This film is quite different.  Obviously.

Largely, the film is a critique of burocracy, the particularly lugubrious kind that existed in Japan at the time of this film’s production, when forms upon forms existed and certain occupations were like that of the protagonist of this film, a human rubber stamper.  Whole divisions of people who sit around with stacks of paper, essentially “doing nothing”.  In Ikiru (translated as “To Live”), Watanabe, the bureaucrat in question, discovers that he has stomach cancer and probably about six months to live.  Reflecting on his life, he feels that it has amounted to nothing, his job is pointless and empty and he feels rejected by the son that he dedicated his life to raising.

After a series of adventures in “living” by carousing with a writer that he meets in a bar and enjoying life with a young woman that he formerly worked with, Watanabe comes to realize that he can contribute something through his means at work and dedicates what is left of his life to building a playground where a cesspool currently exists and is troubling a local neighborhood.  So, in other words, instead of “doing nothing”, he pushes to do “something”.

The first half of the film is about his discovery of his illness, his analysis of his life, and his adventures with the writer and the young woman.  A little further than halfway through the film, he dies, and the second half of the film takes place at his wake, where his co-workers and family reflect on his final months and his accomplishments (though they only come to understand him through the discussions at the service).

The film is good, certainly, featuring many of Kurosawa’s regular actors.  There is a lot of interesting camerawork in the film, framings, uses of sound and so forth, and the film is visually interesting.  In some ways, through parts of the film, it feels almost like an Ingmar Bergman film or something, but its heart is the critique of this uniquely Japanese system of burocratic bizarreness.

I don’t know.  Not my favorite of his films, but still a good film.  Seems strange among the others that I’ve watched of his of late.

Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Danny Boyle, Loveleen Tandan
viewed: 02/22/09 at Village Cine Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

So, last day in Argentina, I’m feeling quite sick, had to check out of our hotel room and kill most of the day since the flight home wasn’t til late.  So, after brief research, found out that all the American films in Argentina are still in English, but with subtitles.  The big cinema features many a reasonable film, and here you go: a new experience — watching a movie in Argentina.

And if that weren’t quite enough, the film selected is Slumdog Millionaire, the eventual Oscar winner for Best Picture, the very day of the Oscars themselves.  Outside of Slumdog Millionaire, the only other film up for Best Picture that I had seen was Gus Van Sant’s far superior film, Milk (2008).  The Oscars are known for picking dogs.

Slumdog Millionaire is a decent film.  I don’t know what I can tell you about it that you probably don’t already know.  But it’s a fairly standard rags-to-riches through the ghetto story with romance.  It’s a melodrama.  It’s just set largely in the slums of Mumbai and realized mostly through flashbacks through a character who happens to be on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?.

It’s directed by Danny Boyle, who has made some good films in his career, Shallow Grave (1994), Trainspotting (1996) and 28 Days Later… (2002) would be the highlights.  But he’s also a little hyperactive, pounding with trendy music, choppy cutting, a bit of dislocating action, and stylized camera angles and color.  It’s a bit busy for the subject matter.  I guess the busy-ness and chaos of Mumbai is the potential reasoning behind the pacing of the edits and the character, but it’s the same damn style he uses always.  Works better in a zombie movie or one about heroin addicts in Scotland, if you ask me.

But the story is charming enough.  You care.  You join in.  It’s not a bad film.  Maybe it’s more like his 2004 film Millions, in a sense.  Not as soft as a family film, but one that redeems the good guys over the bad.

Actually, I thought that the amount of horror that was inflicted on the children of the slums was more akin to a Dickensonian Victorian nightmare modernized.  One thing that struck me, however, (and not trying to pretend that the horrors are not true or perhaps even worse in many cases) but it did remind me, the deforming of children to be made to become more sympathetic beggars was not unlike what is done to children in Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs (1928), in which children are intentionally disfigured to become fodder for freak shows.

Decent film? Yes. Best Picture material? No.  They so very rarely ever get it right.

The Cat and the Canary

The Cat and the Canary (1927) movie poster

(1927) dir. Paul Leni
viewed: 02/14/09 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

The last of the three of the silent films from the Castro’s mini-fest for Valentine’s Day, The Cat and the Canary was one that I’d been wanting to see for a while, too.  It’s one of the oldest of the “old dark house” horror/mystery/comedy genre, and directed by Paul Leni, who had directed The Man Who Laughs (1928) from last year’s Silent Film Festival, it’s got some Expressionist street cred as well.

All told, it’s a pretty loopy little film.  “The old dark house” genre is one in which all sorts of strange, evil things seem to be happening, in “an old dark house”, and everybody is weird.  In The Cat and the Canary, the story revolves around a will and an inheritance, and a cast of oddball characters.  Actually, the funny thing is that this movie reminded me the most of a Tex Avery cartoon, Who Killed Who? (1943), but spoofing a genre that spoofs itself, is comedy in its own horror, seems almost like the same thing.  Still funny, actually.

Some of the imagery is quite weird and effective: creepy hands, scary demon faces.  And “Mammy Pleasant”, the hilariously inaptly-named housemaid, is a total crack-up with her arch-bizarreness and sullen glares.

It’s quite good fun.


Sunrise (1927) movie poster

(1927) dir. F.W. Murnau
viewed: 02/14/09 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

I’d long wanted to see F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, a film that is often cited as the greatest film of the Silent Era, and perhaps one of the greatest films ever made.  High praise indeed, but it has been pervassive, certainly, this praise, over time throughout institutions, critics, and personal opinions.  And as the second of three films that I saw at the Castro this day, I was more than ready to see it.

I’d watched a few other Murnau films of late: Faust (1926) and The Last Laugh (1924), two other significant, arguably masterpieces from Murnau’s German production.  Still, Sunrise is something quite amazing and beautiful.  In some ways, it’s hard to relate exactly.

As in The Last Laugh, the story is most powerfully evoked without intertitles, simply through the narrative driven by the visual action and visual storytelling.  It’s the kind of beauty of narrative that one is always instructed when writing to “show, not tell” when relating story.  And the imagery and the cinematography are stunning.  Again, as in The Last Laugh, the camera moves in such powerful ways, innovating in ways that are harder to grasp today since these are all now part of cinematic grammar, but it’s not just the innovation but the actual execution and implementation of these devices — they are commanding.

The story is a simple yet classic one.  In a small village, a young farmer is tempted away by a seductress who comes from the city.  She enthralls his heart and then suggests that he murder his wife and come away with her.  Tortured by the decision, the farmer takes his loving, idealized wife on a boat, planning to drown her.  And he almost does, only at the last minute dissuaded by her prayers.  Once back on shore, the woman tries to run away, ultimately catching a tram into the city.  The man, who realizes his guilt and mistake, is redeemed in a church and tries to win back the trust and love of his wife through a day and night in the city.   Through their escapeades and adventures they are redeemed.  But a storm brews on their trip back across the lake and the wife is thought drowned.

I don’t need to tell you the whole story.  But it’s a story of love and redemption.  And it’s beautiful.  Intensely moving.  George O’Brien, as “the man”, I found intensely powerful, acting with his face and his whole of his form.  His internal torture through love and lust and love, duty and regret, everything is evoked through his entire form.  The film won a unique Oscar at the first Academy Awards.  The film is utterly unique.

The opening sequence, the seduction, the town, the scene in the weeds and moonlight, is stunning, aesthetic, amazing.

Perhaps, this is something that is more easily appreciated by seeing it with one’s own eyes.  Though the film has this reputation, making it have to live up to a reputation, an ideal, an ultimate of cinema, how one approaches it is of unique experience and opinion.  And those who are not already open to the silent film could be challenged by it as well.

But I support the chorus of appreciation for Murnau and Sunrise.  I think it’s an amazing film, certainly one of the most moving that I have seen.  And beautiful.  Masterful.


Our Hospitality

Our Hospitality (1923) movie poster

(1923) dir. John G. Blystone, Buster Keaton
viewed: 02/14/09 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

There was a special winter Valentine’s Day Silent Film Festival at the Castro and I made the most of it.  Three films was a bit of an endurance run, especially with a lot of outward travel wrapped around it, but the opportunity to take the kids to see Buster Keaton on the big screen was just plain not to be missed.  Unfortunately Felix had a conflict, having to do some karate testing to earn a stripe for his belt, but Clara was availble and the family from upstairs, both girls and their folks, plus my ex-in-laws, come from England for a visit, we had quite the little crowd for the event.

It was quite something, lots of young kids and families and people.  I mean, it’s Buster Keaton!  He’s the man.  The most amazing and wonderful silent film comedian/writer/director/actor/auteur.  And, you know what?  Fun was had by ALL!  I mean it.  Coming out of the film at the end, the joy and smiles on everyone’s faces were as fresh and pure as one could imagine, the true and genuine response to such masterful, wonderful, fantastic stuff.

And this is not even Keaton’s best!

Our Hospitality is the first of Keaton’s feature films to be created and conceived as a feature film, the story of a dilletantish fellow from the North, who inherits a family estate (such as it is) and a historical feud (of the Hatfield and McCoy variety) that had pushed his widowed mother from the South in the first place.  It’s also the setting for a Romeo and Juliet-like romance between Keaton and “the girl” that he meets on the “train”-ride down, who happens to be the descendent of the opposing family.

The main story takes place in that Keaton ends up in the warring family’s house as a guest of the girl, but the family has sworn to kill him to settle the blood feud…only they can’t shoot him, out of Southern hospitality while he is a guest in their house.  They just need to wait for him to go outside.  Thus is the setting for many of the gags, with Keaton finally aware of his predicament and trying to stay indoors.

The two main other sequences that are the prime pieces of the film are the train ride down in the very old fashioned train and the amazing waterfall rescue that sets the finale.  The old fashioned train is a working model of Stephenson’s Rocket, a hilarious steam-driven train that is far closer to the carriages of the Old West than a proper train, a true missing link in the evolution of transit.  The discomfort of traveling by this means and the rickety qualities of the train are the setting for a series of a number of gags, exacerbated by the tracks built for the job, making ride more twisty and bumpy than necessary.  And it does sort of lead the way for the work that will be one of his true masterpieces, The General (1927).

But the totally amazing stunt, the waterfall rescue at the end, is just one of those great cinematic moments.  Clara was sitting on my lap so that I could whisper the intertitles to her, and when Keaton swoops over, tied to a rope and snags the girl from the boat just as it is about to go over the waterfall, is just pure physical genius.  Clara sponaneously started clapping and cheering the stunt, the heroics, the wonder.  It was awesome in the most pure and wonderful ways.

Keaton is a true cinema god.  Wonderful beyond words.

The War of the Gargantuas

War of the Gargantuas (1966) movie poster

(1966) dir. Ishirô Honda
viewed: 02/08/09

Last year, I watched a long-time childhood favorite of Japanese monster movies (daikaiju eiga), Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965) and pondered when its sequel, The War of the Gargantuas would be released on DVD, because it was not at the time.  Well, what a difference a half a year makes!  Here in both glorious Japanese and less-glorious dubbed English is the sequel to the original film, directed by the inimitable Ishirô Honda, who also directed the prior film as well as Gojira (1954) and many of its sequels.

It’s action-packed, it must be said.  Within seconds of the title sequence, a giant octopus attacks a fishing vessel, trying to eat the crew.  But then the octopus is pulled off, the crew is rescued by the giant green gargantua, a big hairy yeti-like thing with protruding teeth.  But even worse! He dumps the crew into the sea and begins to eat them! Bad big green gargantua!

Well, as the story unfolds, more and more people are attacked by this giant beast and people begin to suspect that it is the caveman-like hero/monster from Frankenstein Conquers the World.  But the scientists who knew him doubt that he would be a man-eater.  As the monster grows in ferocity, attacking the cities and the countryside, impervious to much except some laser technologies and electricity, he is rescued by his “brother”, the brown gargantua of the mountains, supposedly our hero from the prior film.  The brown gargantua tends to his hurt brother until he discovers that his brother eats humans.  And then, it’s all out war!

Where the previous film had significant references to the atomic bombings, this film is more about off-beat science and unkillable flesh that can grow into a whole other being.  And where green is evil, brown is good, and they die together in a battle that ends in a suddenly-erupting oceanic volcano.  Talk about deus ex machina!

I can’t really tell you why I liked this film at the time more than the others other than it was simply a bit different. I liked the child monster growing up to be the good monster.  And I don’t really know what else.

As an adult, the oddest thing is the green gargantua eating humans as his ultimate crime.  It’s not outright gory, but it is quite suggestive.  And with their misshapen faces and fuzzy fur and pokey teeth, they’re kind of charming.  Not as outre perhaps as the more plodding and cumbersomely-clad beasts, they stalk around and make for a good time nonetheless.

If it sounds like your cup of tea, it probably is.  If it doesn’t, it’s probably not.  For me, it’s a soft spot in my heart for this big, gruesome twosome.

Edward Scissorhands

Edward Scissorhands (1990) movie poster

(1990) dir. Tim Burton
viewed: 02/07/08

I’d long had Edward Scissorhands queued to re-watch.  It was one of those films that I saw at the time it had come out and never again, despite having liked it fairly well.  And whether or not I think positively of Tim Burton or not, I tend to still be drawn to his movies and in some ways have been hoping to find the little tidbits of potential that he seems to squander even in his best works.

A consumate fantasy, told in flash-back by a prosthetically aged Winona Ryder, the film is in many ways a critique of society, and if you look into it, it’s a pretty harsh critique.  Edward, a man-made man (made by Vincent Price in his final screen role), is a child in the body of a Goth-fantasy.  He’s Robert Smith’s head on the bondage body of the “Pinhead” of the Hellraiser (1987) movies, with giant, Freddy-Kreuger-like scissor-hands.  And he enters a world where everything is pastel as hell, people drive the same cars, and have perspectives as limited as their front yards.

At first, he is a novelty.  An artist with his scissors on topiary, pet grooming, or hair-styling, he is adored.  But when a couple of characters turn against him out of jealousy and rejection, he becomes a literal Frankenstein’s monster, chased by an angry mob to his old home on the hill.  The set design would be purely absurd if it wasn’t so clearly some form of allegory.  Edward’s home is on a lone black hill, in a secluded castle that overlooks suburbia.

His hands, incomplete from his build-out due to the death of his creator, leaves him unable to “touch” and his isolation has made him shy.  But his goodness is quickly seen by the Avon visitor who brings him home and tries to teach him well.  The only family on the block with a sense of conscience and goodness.  Johnny Depp, in his first role for Tim Burton, is the death-rock fantasy of internalized shyness and artistic, romantic soul who is an utter outcast in the world.

He falls immediately for Winona Ryder, who is disappointingly blond in this film, playing the cheerleader/homecoming queen to her boyfriend, the pumped up and evil Anthony Michael Hall (no longer a skinny dweeb as he’s been in his John Hughes films).  He’s actually so evil as to be uninteresting.  And the high drama of the ending seems a bit unnecessarily over-the-top.

But Burton is shooting for movie magic here, fantasy, romaticism.  And the scene that drives the romantic story, of why it snows on this little burg, is because Depp is still up on that mountain making magical ice sculptures and sending down the downy shavings of ice like big flakes of snow for her to bask in.  Awwww.

The film is likable.  Not as funny or enchanting as it could be.  The best moment is when Edward kindly snips the bangs for a dog that comes to comfort him in his dour time.  The dog licks him to say thanks.

Burton hit his tops with Ed Wood (1994), his second pairing with Depp, with whom he has now made a number of films.  I had hopes early on that Burton would become great.  His designs are wonderful and occasionally his ideas sparkle.  But he’s lazy in the material he chooses, maybe because Edward Scissorshands, his most personal work, inspired by a story that he co-authored, didn’t achieve the commerical success of his Batman (1989) movies, and so he’s stuck with re-inventing or re-making things, rather than trying to do something genuinely unique.  This was perhaps his closest shot at it, and it almost works.  It has charm, and I am sure that there are many who swoon with it still for its sweet heart.


Coraline (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Henry Selick
viewed: 02/07/09 at the AMC Loews Metreon 16 with IMAX, SF, CA

Coraline is an amazing stop-motion animated film by director Henry Selick, adapted from a book by Neil Gaiman.  Selick made his name, which will be truly made after this film, in directing The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), James and the Giant Peach (1996), and the mixed-animated/live action film Monkeybone (2001).  When I say “made his name”, I mean, people who follow animation enough would know that he was the director behind the stop-montion animation and those films.  But those films are less known, except for The Nightmare Before Christmas, and that one is often mistakenly attributed to Tim Burton, who was a writer and producer on the film.

The thing is that none of those films begin to touch Coraline in their brilliance.  In Coraline‘s brilliance.  The film is beautiful, firghtening, astounding, moving, amazing.  I reckon it to be one of the best feature animated films ever made in many ways.  It has a darkness and a frightful side that doesn’t make it ideal for the littlest of little ones, especially on the big screen, looming out in 3-D.  But it is so good, many will fall in love with it and it will stand the test of time.

The design and animation, which Selick has always been quite effective with, is heightened here to amazing levels.  The characters are beautifully designed, from the lead to the old ladies, the evil “other” mother, the cat, the dogs, the dog-bats, the acrobatic Russian upstairs…

There is a nuance to stop-motion animation that is truly unique.  The fact that these are actual, three dimensional puppets, animated by fractional movements shot one frame at a time, casting real shadows, real light, is a quirk of the medium.  Their movements, while stilted occasionally by the style of the animation, adds to their beauty and surreality.  It is not a world that we live in.  It is pure dream, pure fantasy, a world recognizable from our sleep and imagination.

And much, much beyond the beauty of the design of the characters is the amazing work done on the set designs.  The gardens, the whole world, is alive.  The story is of a young girl, Coraline, who after moving to an isolated boarding house and ignored by her parents, finds a door to an alternate universe where everything is different, seemingly better, except everyone has buttons for eyes.  This world is the fantasy land, with magical plants, musical parents, fantastic theatrical performances by jumping acrobatic mice and two old English stage actresses and their hordes of lookalike Scottish terriers.

The dream and the nightmare become ravishing, frightening.  The “other” mother deforms, step by step, into some mechanical skeletal spider.

This is a fantastic, wonderful film.  Brilliant.

I took Felix only because Clara had a playdate.  I think she would have been okay, but she would have been scared for certain through many parts.  Quite frankly, I missed having her cuddle and cringe on my lap.  Felix gets a headache from the 3-D glasses, so he watched much of the film without them.  I didn’t think that the 3-D effects were so outstanding or even necessary.  Felix was glad that we got to keep the glasses nonetheless.

I recommend this film about as highly as I can.  It’s a beautifully produced, magical film.  I don’t know that everyone will like it as much as I do, but I think it was brilliant.  It’s a rare film that I would gladly go see again in the theater, and that is not something that I say often.

Henry Selick and his team of animators have made a true gem.

Bangkok Dangerous

Bangkok Dangerous (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Oxide Pang Chun, Danny Pang
viewed: 02/06/09

It’s not often that I am prescient.  Or maybe it’s just that I don’t have a lot of good documentation to prove out my predictions.  I saw the original Bangkok Dangerous (1999) a couple of years back as I was hearing of the American re-make of the film with Nicolas Cage as the star.  I liked the original and postulated on the Pang Brothers cash in in Hollywood.  Here it is.

For those that know me, it won’t be surprising to hear me say that I have a thing for Nicolas Cage movies.  I used to like him genuinely, in his early work, but now, in his later period, an aging Hollywood action-star among other things, he gets a lot of these seriously B-movie grade films to work in.  And the thing is, as bad as the films are, he certainly keeps them entertaining somehow.

But in Bangkok Dangerous, he’s striving a bit against himself.  Age is not treating his never quite handsome good looks too kindly.  His face is interesting, but with his long hair and receding hairline, it’s harder to imagine some gorgeous deaf-mute shop girl falling for such a big lug.

See they did change the story to an extent.  They’d have to you would imagine.  And it’s certainly not as good as the original.  Cage is still a hit man and the story goes awry in a turn directly from the original.  But there is something a little more poetic in the deaf-mute hitman who is isolated from life than the big American soft-spoken badass.

The most hilarious scene is when Cage is learning the girl’s name, which means “rain” and which she teaches him to “say” in sign language.  Cage gives it his best go, but it’s pretty silly.  I can’t imitate it in words, so if you want to find out, you’ll have to rent it.

Bangkok Dangerous fits well into my Nicolas Cage bad movie list.  But it’s not so bad.  It’s enjoyable enough.  Why complain when I actually like this stuff?

Dead or Alive

Dead or Alive (1999) movie poster

(1999) dir. Takashi Miike
viewed: 02/05/08

For the uninitiated, Takashi Miike is one of the most prolific, bizarre, cult filmmakers out in the world today.  And Dead or Alive is one of his more notable films, a film popular enough to have two “sequels” made.  And I have to say, Dead or Alive, which I’d been meaning to see for ages, is one of his best films.  Typically violent and at times just plain surreal, Miike takes the yakuza gangster film to places it’s really never been to.  And it’s hard to imagine anyone else who could have pulled it off in this way.

The story is chaotic and there a dozens of characters to follow, so it’s no cake-walk even making it through the first 10 minutes.  In fact, the film opens with a heavy metal rage, a montage sequence where images appear just barely long enough to eke out their meaning.  But it’s not just sex, violence, drugs, and gluttony, it’s actually laying out the first part of the narrative in hyper-fast fashion.  I think I caught up about half-way through the movie.  One can only be grateful that this pacing isn’t sustained throughout.

Beyond the narrative, about Chinese triad wannabes trying to kick their way into the Japanese mafia and the cop that want to take them all down, the film is interspersed with truly bizarre moments of Surrealistic nonsense.  In one scene, in a shoot-out, one gangster batters his hand and deep fries it for no apparent reason just before he is shot.  The ending itself is a total break-away from reality, so over-the-top that it’s outright comedy.

And Miike is known for both his violence and perversion.  Bestiality is implied quite explicitly, and one female character dies in a kiddie swimming pool full of her own feces.  Miike’s world is gross and chaotic, violent and insane, and one in which just about anything can happen.  It’s one of the exciting things about his films.  You really don’t know what to expect.  And he’s not just a hack.  His films have interesting development and camerawork, they’re insanely interesting.

Personally, I recommend Dead or Alive, Audition (2000),or Ichi the Killer (2001) as his best work.  Audition is probably the most accessible of the three, while Ichi the Killer is probably the most extreme.  His other films are always interesting, but sometimes less effective in their out and out weirdness.  Anyhow, Miike is the man.