Midnight in Paris (2011)

Midnight in Paris (2011) movie poster

director Woody Allen
viewed: 08/29/2012

Never a Woody Allen devotee, I’d only managed to see one other of his films in the past decade, his 2006 Scoop with Scarlett Johansson.  Despite its positive reviews, Midnight in Paris was not high on my list either.  But a friend urged me to watch it, saying that it was indeed a very good movie.

Well, what can I say?  I did indeed like Midnight in Paris.

Reading about Allen from the outside, meaning reading about him and his films in the press while never actually watching his films, is sort of an educated ignorance.  His recent series of films set in Europe seemed an odd, though real change for the noted Manhattanite.  And while it’s hard or just foolhardy to suppose about things that one hasn’t full knowledge of, it’s quite possible to assume that Midnight in Paris is his gem of this period.

It stars Owen Wilson as “the Woody Allen character” as is often the case in films that Allen doesn’t appear in on his own, a young writer, verging on a Hollywood career, torn by his passion as a novelist and his pretty but shallow fiancee.  They visit Paris with his in-laws to be and he accidentally falls into a reverie, discovering on his late night walks, a Paris of another era, his fantasy of “the Lost Generation” of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein (among many others).

It’s light fantasy, or fantasy-lite, but it’s a conceit that pervades charm and is metaphorically fertile.  Every city is in many ways haunted by its pasts, its periods, its history, its classic citizens.    Wilson is enamored of the 1920’s and so finds the Paris he is seeking and more.  The illusion is real, like a The Twilight Zone episode, one into which he could escape if he wanted to, especially with the beautiful Marion Cotillard, a muse from another time, away from the charms and shortcomings of the present (and of America).

Allen and Wilson come to realize the illusion of their reveries, that all ideals are “idealized”, all times seen as beautiful epochs are indeed their own “Belle Époques”, beautiful, especially in hindsight, to those so inclined to myopically view history.

The fantasy of the “Lost Generation” could probably inspire students of literature and history today but Midnight in Paris is Allen’s dream, perhaps a flitting fancy, even.  The film is charged by wonderful cameo performances by actors playing the flitting figures of art and history.  My personal favorite was Adrien Brody as Salvadore Dali, fervid, self-promoting, silly, charming.

I did indeed enjoy it.  Since I have only seen one other of Allen’s recent films, it’s not fair of me to say that it’s his best in ages, but it does seem apt to compare it to his 1994 Bullets Over Broadway, which was also a period film without Allen in it, as one of his biggest successes of recent times (relatively recent).  But actually, I liked it more than I liked that one.  Wilson is good, too, not channeling Allen the way some actors do (or feel they need to do) but working the character through his own comic vernacular.

I am interested to see what Allen’s next film will be.  He’s filming here in San Francisco.

The Police Tapes (1977)

The Police Tapes (1977) dvd cover

directors Alan Raymond, Susan Raymond
viewed: 08/27/2012

Shot on what was at the time a new technology, portable video, husband and wife team Alan and Susan Raymond spent three months in the South Bronx, riding along with police through what was then the most crime-ridden area of New York City.  The resulting film, The Police Tapes, was originally aired on a PBS channel, 90 minutes of footage from an “on the scene” reportage.  This sort of film-making today is as common as dirt.  The whole of COPS, essentially, by technology and distribution, is captured in a similar spirit, and even one of my favorite television shows, The First 48, shares aspects of this film’s creation.

The Police Tapes pioneered the technology and also the subject matter, being freed up to move about the fast-moving crime scenes with the officers, among crowds, criminals, and the amazingly decrepit borough of the Bronx.  There is an immediacy to video that differs from film, something in the movement perhaps that captures a “presence” in its imagery.  And even in black and white, in what was a very early quality level for mobile video, the character of the people, the place and the time leap outward.  The South Bronx at the time was incredibly impoverished and ethnically diverse.  The police that appear on camera are trying to keep the whole thing from blowing up, breaking up fights before they turn lethal, doing what they can to control a caustic and volatile situations.

The Bronx Borough Commander, Anthony Bourza, who appears onscreen speaking eloquently about the issues of his precinct, was the one who brought the Raymonds in to expose the reality of the world his officers were venturing into every day.  He recognizes that the problems stem from poverty and opportunity and seeks social change at levels higher than in his power to control.  By having the couple come and shoot the film, the exposure to the rest of the country of the reality of life in the inner city might help change government policy.

What is amazing in the footage as it differs from the nearly ubiquitous eye of cameras today is the lack of sophistication with which things are handled.  Murder scenes are muddled by officers, once just to get a look, another time to try and defuse a riotous crowd.  Interviews in the police station are done at desks, rather than interview rooms, and typically not on tape.  Volatile people pervade the scenes.  You can feel the pulse of the city on edge.

Like COPS, mostly the film is intended to side with the efforts of the police, not to expose mistreatment or abuse.  It’s the double-edged sword of “reality”, open to the possibility of creating propaganda from different sides.  The earnest reality of the film is that the cops depicted are generally really trying to help resolve problems.  One cop does end up bashing a ranting, raving, violent woman into submission but she’s pretty out of control and there are no walls between the front and back of a police car at that time.

The Bronx of the late 1970’s looks like frightening slums, teaming with people, a wild place, a powder keg.  The film also apparently inspired the show Hill Street Blues, basing the captain after Bourza, who during one meeting with his officers, warns them to be careful out there (or something quite similar).  Even though we’ve become familiar with the “on the street” style of filming police at work, The Police Tapes is quite fascinating.  It’s hardly a perfect piece of cultural anthropology but it certainly is a compelling time capsule in time and space to a very different New York.

Stand by Me (1986)

Stand by Me (2012) movie poster

director Rob Reiner
viewed: 08/24/2012

Ah, Stand By Me.  It’s a pretty classic film, great performances, memorable scenes, nostalgia well-done.

I know it’s not a kids film but I thought that it would be something the kids would like.  I explained to them that it wasn’t so much a kids film as it was a film for adults about being kids.  But really, the main reason the film is rated R and thus “not a kids film” is because of the language.  There is a lot of cursing and some un-PC cigarette smoking.  And it’s not pandering to that audience.  It’s pandering to the adult audience, specifically those that came of age at the time depicted in the film, late 1950’s, baby boomers.

You know, it’s not just a pretty good film but a pretty great one.  Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell are beautifully cast and the performances that director Rob Reiner managed to evoke from them really feels timeless.  I was a teenager when it first came out, not a kid the age of those in the film, certainly not yet someone pining for those years, but I’ve always liked it.

Reiner had an impressive decade in the 1980’s as a director with This Is Spinal Tap (1984), The Sure Thing (1985), Stand by Me (1986), The Princess Bride (1987), and When Harry Met Sally… (1989).  All mainstream hits (with perhaps the exception of This Is Spinal Tap which was always more of a cult success and The Sure Thing which was a lesser effort), most of which have continued mainstream appreciation.  His work hasn’t really stayed up at that level of quality or interest since then, but it still makes for a heck of a resume.

Adapted from a Stephen King novella, “The Body”, it’s the story of four kids who venture out in the waning days of summer to look at the dead body of a boy their age, who had been hit by a train, yet undiscovered by authorities.  The story is narrated as a flashback by Richard Dreyfuss, in a style that would be appropriated by the television show The Wonder Years and eventually become a kind of shorthand for nostalgic exploration of that time period. Each of the kids have their own demons in life, but Gordie (Wheaton/Dreyfuss) has the most poignant, dealing with the accidental death of his older brother and alienation from his family.  Each of the kids, Wheaton, Phoenix, Feldman and O’Connell give amazing performances.  It was a coup of casting and directing them.

Of course, it’s hard to look at any River Phoenix film without some amount of regret over the tragedy of his shortened life.  This was the film that put him on the map, so to speak, and his performance in it is still very moving.

Even the setting seems worth noting. Stand By Me was filmed in and around Brownsville, Oregon, an exquisite exemplar of small town America.  And the scene on the railroad bridge, one of the film’s signature moments, is so beholden to its setting, that beautiful trestle that became so treacherous.

The kids loved the movie. Felix said that he’d put it up with his all-time favorites, noting how his mother had talked about it and how much other friends of his would like it.  Clara was a little put off by the cursing.  I guess it goes to show that she doesn’t hear a lot of it in her normal life nor in the films we watch.  Cursing was more naturalistic in films, I think, before the 1990’s.  Maybe the MPAA hardened their rules about how many times certain words could be used and films are now cut so that they can be marketed to different audiences.  It is, of course, “how kids talk”.  I was going to say that to Felix and Clara but then realized that they know how kids talk and that they don’t themselves talk like that.  Otherwise, she enjoyed it too.

It’s a great movie.  Really is.

Alien (1979)

Alien (1979) movie poster

director Ridley Scott
viewed: 08/23/2012

The film that taught us that “In space no one can hear you scream.”

My personal relationship with the film, Alien, dates back to its initial release in 1979.  I was 10 years old and convinced my mom to take me and a friend to the movie.  It was my first R-rated film.  Against better judgment, doubtlessly, it was also my younger sister’s first R-rated film.  She would have been 6 at the time.  These are indeed the things of which nightmares are made and from which therapists do profit.

It had been years, years since I had seen the film.  Like apparently many people, I had wanted to review it before watching director Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012) when it came out earlier this year but it took Netflix this long to get around to sending it to me.  While I missed the opportunity to prep and refresh for watching Prometheus, I was still quite keen on revisiting the film, the sci-fi/horror classic, a film that actually lives up to such a moniker.

The film was always of a higher class than the bulk of the horror or science fiction films of its time, and it’s probably safe to say that it still is.  It was only Scott’s second feature film, as is often noted, but it’s masterfully designed, paced, and crafted.  The designs, largely developed from H.R. Giger remain a peak in the field.  Can you even think of designs that compare with the sexualized surreal creatures, pods, and ships even since?  The constantly-evolving creature, in darkness, never seen in full, teasing with its acid blood, its projectile fangs, its complex physique, even after a series of several films, comics, games, proliferation is still outstanding.

And Sigourney Weaver.  A working class hero.  Not yet quite the female action hero that she becomes in James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) but still a far cry from the scantily-clad scream queens of the typical horror film of its day.  Much has been noted about the age of the cast, that unlike so many slasher films of the day, it’s not a load of young things getting picked off one by one during acts of horniness, but a crew of more middle aged spans, a bit more haggard or simply wearing no make-up.

Revisiting Alien was well-worth it.  It’s a great movie.  My son Felix is presently 10 and I wouldn’t watch the film with him. When I was 10, I was totally into horror movies (“monster movies”) and at that time all of the films were rated R and getting more gruesome and pessimistic, so it wasn’t such a bad thing to have taken me to.  My sister on the other hand…

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972)

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972) movie poster

director Kenji Misumi
viewed: 08/22/2012

So many movies, so little time.  I had watched the first of the series of the Lone Wolf and Cub films (Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972)), with the intention of watching the whole series as I delved more deeply into the samurai film genre.  Only, that was four years ago already.

Well, no time like the present to catch up.

Unlike the Samurai Trilogy that I had just finished watching, the Lone Wolf and Cub films, coming 20 years later, are comprised of a much different substance.  These were not big budget studio films, but much more rapidly produced, pulpy action films in which blood spouts and breasts are bared, limbs are lost, surprises leap out from many places.  Though it’s not as high-falutin’ nor noble or polished, the films are gruesome fun, much more like a comic book (they were adapted from a manga, not a novel.)

One thing about these films, four years between episodes doesn’t require a great deal of memory to catch on to the story.  The “Lone Wolf” is the former executioner for the shogunate and is pretty much the most badass swordsman out there.  He treks through Edo-era Japan, taking assassination jobs, having committed his and his “Cub’s” life to Evil.  Though he’s not really evil at all.  He’s just a ruthless killer.

He is hired to take down three assassin brothers who seek to assassinate another man in a dispute over trade secrets.  He’s also faced with a clan of killer geishas and ninjas, who still seek revenge over his shaming them from before.

With his cute as hell kid in his super-armed cart, he puts on some wild shows, chopping limbs and heads and loosing geyser after geyser of bright red liquid.  The child even gets in on the act at one point, pushing a button that pops out some more blades that take down one assailant.  The contrast of the innocence of the wide-eyed expression on the face of the child, seeing everything unflinchingly, to the stylized violence offers the films’ jarring kick.

Great stuff.  Hope it doesn’t take four years for me to see the next one.

It won’t.

 

Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (1956)

Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (1956) movie poster

director Hiroshi Inagaki
viewed: 08/19/2012

The final segment of Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy, Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island, is the culmination of a masterful epic.  I had watched the first film, Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954) a couple weeks before and then watched Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955) following up with the finale the very next day.  It’s actually one of those film series that really works best if seen all together, in one sitting, or within direct proximity to one another.  it’s a single story, a fairly complicated one, whose cohesion relies upon the others.

It follows the path of Musashi Miyamoto from poor rebel to enlightenment and mastery.  For this finale, the story focuses on how Miyamoto (Toshirô Mifune) learns to go back to the earth.  He stops looking for fights and moves to a small village and takes up farming.  He fights against brigands when they come, but continues to eschew females (who all fall for him).  Ultimately, his nemesis, Sasaki Kojirō (Koji Tsuruta) (who should be his good friend except samurais, like gunslingers it seems, have to fight each other to prove their worth), sets up the ultimate battle.

The battle takes place on a beach at sunset, the most masterful sequence using natural light in the series.  Inagaki employs natural settings and natural light throughout the film when he can, achieving some amazing moments, while occasionally sometimes darkened scenes.  When it works, it’s brilliant.  The finale is brilliant in its simplicity and setting.

I’ve been (rightly or wrongly) thinking of this series as sort of the “height” of the traditional samurai film.  The production was doubtlessly expensive, starring the classic Mifune, featuring the traditional values of the genre: nobility, spirituality, honor.  I need to do some more reading to see if this is really true or not.  Judging from the samurai films of the 1960’s and 1970’s that I’ve seen, it appears, like the Western, to have become a genre ripe for social commentary, inverting classic tropes, contrasting well-established tradition.

One of those factors is the role of women in these films.  It’s either the “whore” or the “virgin”, both pathetic and limited in their way, in their parts they play, in their range of experience.  Certainly, these roles in the Edo period for women were probably greatly limited, controlled, and subjugated, but the film never looks to comment on this, rather it seems to perpetuate or at least not to evaluate it on its terms.  Again, probably something of equal in your traditional Western, too, in the 1950’s.

A great epic.  See it all together if you can.

Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955)

Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955) movie poster

director Hiroshi Inagaki
viewed: 08/18/2012

Part two of Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai TrilogyDuel at Ichijoji Temple expands the narrative of the first film, giving direction to where the story will culminate in the film’s final segment, Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (1956).  Musashi Miyamoto (Toshirō Mifune) seeks to further his learnings and abilities as a great samurai, discovering more and more that the greatness of a samurai is not just in his skills and success in duels but in his own peace of mind.  Meanwhile, he develops a rival in Sasaki Kojirō (Koji Tsuruta), who sees Miyamoto as the one samurai that he must defeat, while the character of Matahachi (from the first film, Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1955)) fades away as a profligate drunk and fool.

Miyamoto continues to gain female adoration, of his own love Otsu, the courtesan Akemi, and even another very experienced courtesan.  He also picks himself up a follower, a boy who wants to train alongside him.  Miyamoto furthers his nobility and experience, his fan club, and more.

Typical of trilogies, the middle part bears the problem of neither beginning nor end as far as the larger narrative goes.  It’s not such a problem for this film, really, other than the story keeps getting more and more complicated.  It would probably be best to watch all three of these films in sequence together.  I did follow up Samurai II with Samurai III so that helped.

As I noted about Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto, the films are beautifully executed, and they seem like big budget studio productions at the height of a classic style.  Inagaki uses both sets and locations for the film, varying back and forth with good cohesion.  What is really striking about his outdoor shooting is his commitment to natural light.  The culminating battle in Samurai II takes place at dusk, and as Miyamoto is ambushed by a craven group of samurai, he backs himself into a rice paddy as the light begins to fail.  This technique of shooting in that “magic time” of dusk is further realized in the finale in the battle on the beach between the two heroes.

It’s great stuff, not quite as good as the first film, but great especially within the context of the whole.

ParaNorman (2012)

ParaNorman (2012) movie poster

directors Sam Fell, Chris Butler
viewed: 08/18/2012 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA

From the Portland, OR-based stop-motion animation studio Laika (the team behind the fantastic Coraline (2009), emerges the studio’s second film, ParaNorman, a children’s movie about a boy who “sees dead people”.  For a kid who gets along with ghosts better than the living, Norman has a real penchant for zombie films.  His whole room is covered with posters and toys of the living dead.  He’s an outsider in town, even a “freak” in his own home.  So it’s a little odd that when the zombies really do come to life, he’s frightened by them.

The animation is lush and the design is gorgeously detailed.  Every character, from speaking part to walk-on, is lovingly designed, with unique qualities and inherent oddities all of their own.  The entire world of ParaNorman is overtly wonky, and while the story is set, I assume, somewhere in New England, the town looks an awful lot like Portland.

It’s a town like Salem, MA, whose history and commercial tourist appeal is tied to its dubiousness in persecuting “witches” to death some 300 years prior.  When the witch’s curse is not stifled, the dead bodies of those who had killed her are brought back to life to wreak revenge on themselves and everybody else and only Norman’s ability to communicate (and relate) gives the town any hope.

As beautiful as the animation is, the story and execution are far more traditional and straight-forward than the magical levels achieved in Henry Selick’s Coraline.  It’s hard not to compare the two films, coming from the same studio as they do.  ParaNorman also cultivates a somewhat “goth”-ic appeal, perhaps to a more extreme degree.   But it’s always a strike against a film when it comes to the moralizing, especially when the moral is spelled out in specific, somewhat pedantic language.

Clara was super-keen on this film.  She loved Coraline.  Both she and Felix enjoyed the film quite a bit.  I would say though that the film is pretty scary compared to a lot of “kiddie” fare.  Clara told me she was scared at least once during the film, though nonplussed afterward.

I wasn’t overly surprised by the film.  I loved the look of it from the trailers, but the whole thing had an obviousness about it that suggested that it wouldn’t elevate to the sublime charms of Coraline (admittedly one of my favorite films).  I had read somewhere that supposedly Selick was going back to work with Laika on another Neil Gaiman book, The Graveyard Book, and I’ve had real hopes for that.  Laika is also supposed to have optioned the Portland-based children’s book, Wildwood, which I haven’t read but have heard good things about.

The kids liked the film even more from having seen some of the models from the film at San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum a few weeks ago.  I know they would love to see more about how the film was made.  I do enjoy the fact that they like stop-motion animation so much, and I do very much enjoy watching the films with them.

The City of Lost Children (1995)

The City of Lost Children (1995) movie poster

directors Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Marc Caro
viewed: 08/17/2012

1995, in some ways, doesn’t seem all that long ago.  In truth, it was probably 1996 when I last saw The City of Lost Children, the brilliant, crazy fantasy film from Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro.  It was, at the time, to my mind, one of the coolest, wildest fantasmagoria of contemporary cinema.  It’s one of those films that became an art house and repertory cinema favorite, cult film par excellence.  But strangely enough, I don’t know that I ever saw it again.

It is certainly some statement about how vivid the film’s imagery remained emblazoned in my mind, particularly the rubber face of Dominique Pinon as the multiplied narcoleptic assistants and the costuming and comic simplicity of Ron Perlman as the simple-minded strong man.  The image of the tower in the sea, where the evil Krank (Daniel Emilfork), the weirdest, most withered-looking old man in the world, abducted children to steal their dreams.

The visual design of Jeunet and Caro’s two films, The City of Lost Children and Delicatessen (1991), epitomized the fantastique in the early 1990’s, ludicrous dreamscapes, worlds strange and vivid, characters bizarre, comical, full of whimsy and verve.  As it turned out, these were the only two films that the duo produced together in this fashion, while Jeunet went to Hollywood to take a crack at the Alien franchise and then had his biggest hit back in France with his massively charming Amélie (2001).  Still, nothing really quite achieved the pure wacky surrealism of The City of Lost Children.

It was for my children that I sought to see this film again.  I’ve developed a trope of fantasy films, which I may be enjoying more than them at the moment, but has fueled a strong interest in delving further inroads into, and it seemed that this one was as good as many to tap.

The film is still a visual feast to me, a very enjoyable, odd, wonder.  Clara enjoyed it; she’s been more open to variety and the unusual than Felix.  In fact, Felix’s criticism of the film was that he found it hard to figure out who was “good” and who was “bad”, namely in the character of the flea circus assassin guy, Marcello, and the brain in the box (Uncle Irvin).  I guess, perhaps, more incisively, the film is not a children’s film, though it’s about children and in many ways could be a film for children.  Probably it was a bit harder to follow, certainly is stranger, and is not as cut and dried as many such films.

I still found it fantastic.

The Raid: Redemption (2011)

The Raid: Redemption (2011) movie poster

director Gareth Huw Evans
viewed: 08/16/2012

An Indonesian action film par violence.

An undercover raid of a Jakarta tenement which houses the city’s most brutal criminal goes insanely awry, leaving a squad of SWAT police in the lurch, while they are annihilated by the bullets and machetes of an endless array of bad guys.  Iko Uwais stars and assisted in choreographing the fervent, blinding action, combining gun play and martial arts in copious quantities and with visceral brutality.

It’s all about the action and the fighting here, which is well-shot and well-choreographed, and like I said, fast and furious.  Strip back to the storyline, the logic and cohesiveness quickly disappear, but as is true in many action films, only needs to hold the thing together for the otherwise non-stop fists, kicks, bullets, and blood.  The action makes great use of the limited space of the interior of the rotting building, from flinging bodies down stairwells, bashing faces into doorjambs, hiding in paper-thin hidden rooms.

Beyond that, Ray Sahetapy who plays the merciless top gangster and Yayan Ruhian who plays his top fighter and enforcer,”Mad Dog”, are very good.  It’s always important to have good villains.

The film has been a huge hit and is being re-made for Hollywood, while Gareth Huw Evans and Uwais are planning to shoot more, perhaps into a trilogy, meaning that this film will have legs and perhaps influence beyond itself.  When it comes down to it, it’s the action, the fighting, the cinematography and choreography.  That’s what this film is all about.  It’s pretty breath-taking at its best.