Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Capsule Reviews 3/31/10

A few more short reviews of films to keep in mind if you run across them. Todays collection are all remakes from England.

39 STEPS (1959)
Kenneth More is Richard Hanny in what is essentially a bright and colorful version of the Hitchcock film. Its the second screen version (followed by the more faithful to source version from the late 1970's and a BBC TV version from a few years ago). Its the classic story of the wrong man on the run having to unravel the mystery that officials are too blind to see. Its a good little film on its own but suffers in comparison to the other versions. There are two problems with the film, first the bright daylight and colors work against the mood. the other problem is Kenneth Moore is too stalwart a hero to be anything other than a man of action. he carries himself with such aplomb that its hard to believe that he could ever not come out on top.. Other versions aside, its a good little film that is fine in its own terms.

DORIAN GRAY (2009)
British made version of Oscar Wilde's tale of the descent of Gray into depravity once his portrait is painted. Its an adult updating of the tale with sex and violence out front for all to see. For the most part its very well acted by the name cast that includes Colin Firth, Ben Chaplin, Fiona Shaw and Maryam d'Abo. However in the title role of Dorian Gray, Ben Barnes, leaves little impression. He seems to have been cast not because of his acting ability, rather because he looks good. This isn't to say he's bad, he's not its just that he comes off as rather bland and not really compelling even when he's deep in the dark side. Its not fatal to the film but it makes you realize how much betterthis should have been.(It might have gotten more than a capsule review) Worth a look if you run across it.

ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1949)
Surprising good animated version of the classic tale begins with a brief bit with brief bit set at Lewis Carol's college where he and Alice (and her sisters) meet various characters, including the Queen of England who end up as characters in Wonderland. Once the story begins Alice interacts with the Wonderland characters who are all stop motion characters. It's a trippy tale that kind of reminded me of the big budget color spectaculars (The Red Shoes came to mind) that were produced in the late 40's and early 50's. This film was supposedly suppressed by Walt Disney whose own studio was working on his own version at the time and so has been difficult to see ever since. While the music isn't as spectacular as in other (Disney) versions, the film bests those other version in that it flows better. This is probably the first film version that I've seen where the story seems as if it's a single story instead of a group of loosely connected sequences. It may not seem like much but it really works wonders and for my money is the first version that satisfies me from start to finish. I know some people don't like the animation which is old school, but I like it since it adds a sense of other worldliness to the proceedings. Worth a look if you can find it.

Angulimala (2003)


There is no one path to enlightenment. There is no one path to god. Everyone must walk their own path to salvation and no one can say what is right for anyone else.

The belief that there are differing paths is to enlightenment is at the heart of this Thai film about a Brahman born to be a thief and murderer despite the hope it would be otherwise. When the signs at his birth are bad the young child is sent away to study philosophy in the hopes of changing fate. The monks sensing his bad side refuse to teach him, however he does learn. When he's tricked into believing that the killing of 1000 bad men will bring about his getting the core of Dharma he is set on a murderous path.

Odd film about the ability to change and find enlightenment even after walking a dark path. The ending where he does find enlightenment is strangely moving even if it seems to be at odds with all that went before. Actually this is the sort of film that will get you thinking, what is the ultimate path to salvation anyway?

Recommended for those who want a real change of pace but not for general consumption (at least by American audiences) since its dark path to the light will upset many.

(And yes this is supposed to be a true story)

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Night on the Galatic Railroad (1985)


Kenji Miyazawa’s tale of two friends traveling on the title train is a classic of its type. It is an allegory for children (and adults) about what happens after we die.

The story is set in an unnamed place, though indications are that it is Italy or another European country, concerns two boys who go out to a festival and then find themselves on a train traveling across the heavens. How either boy got there isn’t clear until the end of the story which has one boy returning to his village while the other travels into the next life.

I really like this film. There is something wonderfully up lifting about it. Every time I’ve seen it I’ve felt just a little bit better. It is a deeply spiritual film infused by both Buddhist and Christian iconography. It’s not a film of gloom and doom but of quiet hope. There is more to life than we know. There is no need to fear.

At the same time the film is not overt, if you aren’t really aware of many of the deeper meanings it’s simply a supernatural story. I know most of the ideas will go over many kids’ heads since they are just not up to processing what Miyazawa was getting at. (I’m still not sure what some of it means).

The animation is quite lovely. The characters are all animals, which is keeping with Miyazawa’s use of animals in his stories.(Even the animated biography of Miyazawa Spring and Chaos used animals). There is a simplicity in the images that hides a complexity in the story.

As an adaption of a prose story this film is right on target. The film seems to get everything that was in the novel right. It also seems to smooth out a few bumps I found in the English translation of tale that seem to be either the result of the translation or perhaps something bumpy in the original story.

A couple of words of warning. Those expecting a slam bang action film will be disappointed. This is simple a drama that has been animated because its the best way to tell the tale. This is a film that could just as well be told live action. I should recommend that this film really not be given to small kids. there is nothing wrong with the subject matter, nor is there anything wrong with the film, its just its more a film of ideas rather than of kiddie action and they may very well get bored.

Forgive me this is one of those films that is hard to fully explain, rather its better to see it.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Thirst (2009)


Chan-wook Park‘s new film is a complex film that is not easy to classify. Nominally a horror movie, the central character is a vampire, the film actually has elements of comedy, theology, melodrama, cultural invasion (and its analog of viral invasion of a body), romance and few other things as well. It’s a film that has almost too much on its mind. The film takes its own matters and mixes them with classic European literature, in this case Emile Zola’s "Thérèse Raquin". It’s an odd mix that doesn’t always gel, but none the less has an incredible power.

Here it is almost a year since I saw the film at the US premiere at Lincoln Center (with a post film discussion by the director) and I find my cage is still rattled. Its not so much what happens is bothersome, its more that its wide reaching story and its themes ring a lot of bells in retrospect.

The plot of the film has a will loved priest deciding that the best way to help mankind is to volunteer for a medical experiment to find a cure for a terrible disease. Infected with the disease he eventually succumbs and dies, but because of a transfusion of vampiric blood (its not explained) he actually survives. Hailed as a miracle worker the priest returns to the hospital where he had been ministering to the sick. Unfortunately all is not well. The priest finds that he needs blood to survive. He also finds that he has all of the typical problems of a vampire, and its no not possible for him to go out during the day. Things become even more complicated when he becomes reacquainted with a childhood friend and his family. The priest, with some of his animal passions awakened becomes taken with the wife of his friend. From there it all goes sideways.

This is an ever changing film. This is a story that spins through a variety of genres as it tells the very human story of a man who finds that his life has been radically altered by a chance event and who finds that he is no longer who he thought he was. It’s a film that you have to stay with to the end because the film is forever evolving into something else.

Its a film that has a great deal on its mind and the themes its playing with are constantly being explored in a variety of ways. The religious notions of Christian thought and belief are constantly being tweaked, here’s a man of god who now literally needs blood to survive instead of just the blood of Christ. There are different cues to the invasion of the West into the east- say western style mannequins in a traditional Korean dress shop. The film has enough going on that one could, and people probably will, write books just discussing the film.

The two of the strongest parts of the film are its vampiric elements and its romance

The vampire part of the tale is brilliant. There is something about how it lays out the ground rules and the nature of the “affliction” that makes such perfect sense that it pushes the old vampire ideas aside. Sitting in the theater I found myself amazed at how impressed how well it worked. I think the fact that it played more or less straight is what is so earth shaking. Here is a vampire who just wants to have a normal life. It’s contrasted with what happens later, it makes clear that living an existence of hunting humans really isn’t going to work. Its not the dark world of Twilight or Lost Boys, rather its something else. I personally think that the film changes the playing field from a hip cool idea or dream into something more real and tangible. (The sequence where the powers kick in is just way cool)

The romance is also wonderfully handled. Sure the sex scenes are steamy and well done, but it’s the other stuff, the looks, the talk, the gestures outside of the sex that makes this something else. There is a scene where the two lovers are playing mahjong with her family and everyone is having a single conversation that means one thing to the lovers and another to everyone else. I love the looks, the quiet stares as the forbidden couple look at each other hungering for each other and unable to act, the disappointment and heartbreak of betrayal both real and suspected, and the mad passion of possible consummation. This is one of the great screen romances of all time. It perfectly captures the feeling and emotion of deep passionate love (and lust). If you’ve ever loved deeply I’m guessing you’ll find some part of your heart on screen, I know I did. The statement “I just wanted to spend eternity with you” has a sad poignancy to it. It’s both a statement of what was the intention as well as the depth of emotion. The tragic romance will break your heart. (The last good romance of this sort I saw was Scorpio Nights about a romance in a boarding house)

I won’t lie to you and say that the film is perfect. Its not, as good as the pieces are and almost all of them are great (especially the actors who I have so far unjustly failed to hail as amazing) the whole doesn’t always come together. The various genres, thematic elements and tones occasionally grate against each other. Frequently I was wondering where the film was going. I hung in there even though the film seemed to be wandering about aimlessly.

Right after I saw the film I found I liked the film. I loved the pieces more than the film as a whole. However in the days weeks and months since I first saw it it has been pinging around in my head, and I’m guessing that it will probably always do so. It wasn't long before I quickly realized that the film was one of the best of 2009.

Ultimately terms like "Like" or "love" is irrelevant since this is a film that really should be seen since it has so much going on that it will provide you with enough material to think and talk about for days, or in my case a year, afterward. One of the meatiest and most filling films you are ever likely to find.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Running on Karma (2003)


When I saw this film the first time I was left sitting slack jawed and wondering what in the hell these people were smoking or ingesting when they made this off kilter little film. To say that this film is unique is an understatement.

In all honesty there is no really way to full explain or discuss this film, you really have to see it. With that in mind I'm going to make a stab at trying to give you an idea of the plot, but even so I know I'm leaving out a few twists: A body building ex-monk who dances as a male stripper and who can see the future gets mixed up with a police woman going after a killer. Mix in some laughs, comic book villains, some very bloody deaths, some serious action, discussions of the nature of the universe and predestination; shake well and perhaps, just perhaps you may get an idea of what this film by Ka-Fai Wai and Johnnie To is like. Then again you may not since this film operates in its own orbit, going from pillar to post on its own crazy course. I don't think I had any moment where I really knew what was coming next.

Say what you will about the plot elements but on its own terms it's a great deal of fun. In its way its a more sedate version of the "crazy" films people think are the norm in Asia cinemas.

The nice thing here is that while problem with the film is thats so incredibly quirky that it never really seems to pull it all together, it doesn't matter. Under normal circumstances not pulling it all together will kill a film, but here you don't really mind simply because its not only being different from pretty much any other film ever made, it's also being very entertaining. Just don't watch this when you're looking for a movie that makes perfect sense.

I would love to say more about this film, but I really can't. This is one of those movies that you just have to take it on faith that is worth your time. If you want to see a movie thats certainly unlike any other film out there, this film is for you. But be warned its bumpy and imperfect and you may hate yourself for liking it in the morning.

Lapsus

I found this short film about a nun at the NYICFF website and thought it might be fun for Palm Sunday.

Either that or its my ticket to the dark nether regions....

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) - In brief


This is just a brief note about a film thats just starting to play across America that I think you'll want to see, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Yes, Steig
Larson's Millennium trilogy has already been filmed in Sweden with the same actors carrying over in all three films. I don't know if the second and third films have US release dates, but based on this first film be assured that if they do I'm going to be lining up to see them as soon as they come out.

Note to Hollywood: Don't try to top this film. I know that you have your own version of the film in the works, but just stop it now. There is no need. This film will do fine, its damn near perfect and I highly doubt anyone will ever top Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander, the title character.

Note to anyone reading this: As I said, this is just hitting American theaters (and is coming out on DVD elsewhere in the world) so if it's playing near you- Go see it.

For those who don't know this is the story of Mickael Blomkvist, a journalist heading to prison for libel because a story he wrote went south. He has six months until he has to report to prison, during which time he's asked to look into the 40 year old disappearance of a rich man's niece. Along the way he hooks up with Lisbeth Salander and with her help it quickly begins to look like the disappearance might be linked to a series of murders going back decades.

Gripping and tense this is a movie that will hold you in the palm of its hand for the entire two and a half hour running time. There are so many turns that you can't help but watch since the story never coasts along, it just runs flat out from start to finish.

If for no other reason you must see Noomi Rapace's star making turn. Blomkvist maybe the main character but it Lisbeth you will remember forever.

A word of warning(and potential spoiler): The film is often violent and there violence against women that will curl your toes. Normally I wouldn't mention this but some of it is intense and even I had a hard time. I mention it because people behind me made comments about the intensity of it.

That's it for now. This was suppose to be brief, but the film is so good I couldn't stop typing. Do yourself a favor and be ahead of the curve and go out and see this before everyone else tells you about it.

Written By (2009)


A messy review for an even messier movie.

The world premiere of Ka-Fai Wai's film was the opening of the New York Asian Film Festival in 2009. It was a big to do with the director in attendance and was the cause for much hoopla. When I saw the film in its second run in the festival a week later I was left confused and wondering what the big deal was. (Looking at my notes I see I noted people sleeping through it and laughing at in appropriate times.)

Certainly the film is typical of the writer/director (and frequent Johnnie To collaborator) in that it is decidedly atypical. While his films frequently mess with your head and challenge your expectations almost always they pay off. One need only look at The Mad Detective or tomorrow’s film Running on Karma to know that he’s really good at doing the impossible.

Written By on the other hand is the sort of film where he couldn’t quite get it right. Ka-Fai Wai said that he went through multiple cuts of the film and this was the only way the film worked. I would hate to see what it looked like when it didn’t work.

Okay, you’re probably wondering why am I mentioning this film if it doesn’t work. I’m mentioning it because I’ve kind of softened toward the film. I’ve seen it on DVD since I saw it at the film festival and while I will be the first to say it is often a mess, I do think that there are some real treats in the film.

The story concerns a family that is in a terrible car accident. The father is killed, the daughter is blinded and everyone is left to struggle on. Many years later with the family still struggling with the death of the patriarch, the daughter decides to write a story about the father who is now blind, struggling to deal with the death of his family in a terrible car accident who starts a story where his family lived and he died and they start a story where… You get the idea.

If you’re confused reading that imagine how it’s watching the film, where it gets even more confusing as characters from various permutations begin crossing realities. It’s a mess that goes off the rails almost instantly since you're never clear where or when you are. (It's only kind of clear at the very end)

The fact that the film is unclear is where a large part of my dislike for the film comes from. I don't like that we have to spend so much time trying to unknot what we are seeing. It's a big problem that the nature of reality is out the window to start with, since the film becomes a fight to know what is what. More than once you wonder if what you just saw was real or not.

When I saw the film a second time I was in a better place since I kind of thought, 'to hell with it, it makes no sense, just go with it'. I did and while I still am not a huge fan I could enjoy the film more.

Certainly the film isn’t perfect, some of the "blind" acting is funny for the wrong reasons, and some of the plot twists, including more tragedy, that feels like they were only added to keep things going. Unfortunately no matter how you look at it you will probably laugh for the wrong reasons at some point.

But at the same time the film has some real joys. The best stuff is all of the sequences with the Queen of the Underworld. The sequences of the trolley taking away the spirits are the reason I didn't walk out the first time and they are good enough on their own to recommend the film. There are also some great moments when the walls between realities begin to crumble and the dead and the living are reunited.

I’m not going to lie, this isn’t perfect (actually its not even close) but it is worth seeing. Keep your expectations in check and I think you’ll find some small treats in this film. If nothing else you’ll find the way you’ll want to pass into the next life.

Available as an import and from Amazon e-sellers.

(This has been revised seven times in the first six hours since posting-watch this spot for further revisions.)


Friday, March 26, 2010

All About Women (2008)

Tsui Hark isn't really the first name that would come to mind when you'd think of filmmakers who'd make a movie about women. After all, he has a long history of making ridiculous action movies, like a couple of the A Better Tomorrow movies and various Jet Li movies (probably the less said about his Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, the better).

Still, All About Women is true to its title (I know the legend is that it was originally called "Not All Women Are Bad"). Co-written with Korean filmmaker Kwak Jae-yong (of My Sassy Girl fame, which I'm sure one of us will write about eventually), it explores the lives of three Chinese women. It is, nominally, a romantic comedy, but the whole "romantic" element is secondary to following our three heroines.

Ou Fanfan (Zhou Xun) is a nerdy, awkward woman in her middle 20s who works at a medical clinic. She has "selective scoliosis" which causes her to go stiff any time a man touches her. Tang Lu (Kitty Zhang) is a femme fatale business woman -- she is powerful in her job and is constantly breaking men's hearts. Tie Ling (Kwai Lun-mei) is a 19-year-old Internet novelist/boxer/musician who has an imaginary boyfriend in pop star X.

The women may seem like archetypes -- the gawky woman who's actually beautiful, the cold-hearted woman who will have her heart melted and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl -- but this movie defies all expectations. While these three women do interact with men and develop relationships with them, it's more about their relationship with each other, with society and with other women. Their romances are secondary to all of that. Instead, it's a striking and hilarious portrait of what it's like to be a woman in the modern world.

I especially loved Tie Ling and her conflict with Mo Qiyan. It's obvious he wants Tie Ling to be his Manic Pixie Dream Girl -- the one who will elevate him out of his boring existence and shake up his world, but she's having absolutely none of it. As much as I love My Sassy Girl, it does feature someone who is a prototypical MPDG, at least at first, so I love this inversion and I love that Tie Ling gets her own voice and arc. Mo Qiyan is pretty much shown to be as silly as he is.

Ou Fanfan is more troubling -- she's someone who develops a pheromone to make men fall in love with her. While she's smart and savvy, her loneliness does get in her way and she's willing to mislead to get what she wants. I appreciate that she's not just some innocent nerd but actually pretty conniving, but ultimately, she's a little selfish and perhaps unlikeable. Still, her vulnerability is genuine and it's hard to blame her for what she does.

Tang Lu as the modern businesswoman is successful, but her emotional emptiness at being a metaphorical man-killer is palatable. She's not someone who needs to be tamed by true love -- she's never punished or shamed for being who she is -- but her change of heart is genuine. She does realize there are more important things than her life than worldly success.

While there is a plot, it's convoluted and really doesn't particularly matter. Tsui Hark handles the slapsticky moments with surprising grace (Kitty Zhang plays several characters and is a fearless comedian). I can see how the more ridiculous elements of this movie might put some people off, but I definitely prefer the aesthetic here to your standard U.S. romantic comedy.

And that's kind of the thing for me -- I don't dislike romantic comedies, but they always seem to present women in a less-than-satisfactory light. Asian romantic comedies often seem to do better on this account -- it's not just about falling in love but how the characters develop as people. I want to see more of that.

All About Women was made by two men, but it understands women's perspective well. If you're put off by the kinds of movies Katherine Heigl typically stars in, seek this one out.


My Beautiful Girl Mari (2002)


This is simply one of the best animated films ever made. Its more for adults who will get what's going on then for kids. I'm re-posting my IMDB review here since it says what I want to say about this film in a way I can't improve upon. Its is available on DVD in the US and elsewhere.

(One note:The week spoken about at the start refers to when I first saw this several years ago)

Its been a week since I've seen this movie and it still haunts me. In its way its one of the finest animated films I've seen. Its not perfect and I'm not certain that its for everyone but for those who it clicks with will find that they have found a new friend.

The story is told mostly in flashback.It concerns the summer when two boyhood friends were just about to be separated. As they prepare to be apart for the first time they find their lives are changing rapidly. Added into the mix are flights of fantasy, perhaps, as first one and then both boys are pulled into a strange world.

What exactly transpires isn't wholly clear, which is fine, since this is essentially the memories of one of the adults of that magic summer. What happens, fantastic or not is simply reported as real, and we are forced to sort out if its real or not. Memory plays tricks and we don't remember everything, or even always correctly. You could say that how one sees the film marks what sort of person you are.

This is one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen. There is a quality to the films images that has rarely been equaled in animated film. Several times the sheer beauty of what I was seeing brought me to tears.

The best part of the film is how it makes you feel like a child. Things transpire and you FEEL what its like to be a child. This is not an intellectual knowing that this is what its like to be a child, rather the film physically makes you FEEL what its like. I can't explain it other than to say its pure magic. I've seen literally tens of thousands of films and I've never felt like this ever.

Perhaps the only downside to the film is the odd nature of the telling. As I said things are not always instantly clear with what's happening. This is particularly noticeable at the start of the film where are characters are adults and they speak rather obliquely about whats going on. There is also several moments in main narrative where things seem a bit odd. While the oddness passes there is a lingering feeling, oh so very very minor, that something is amiss.

But the flaws are minor quibbles. This is one of the great animated films and proof that not all the best animation is coming from America or Japan. If you get the chance see this movie. There is something very special about it.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Poppoya The Railroad Man (1999)

A sweet little review for a sweet little film.

Ken Takakura gives a heart felt magical performance as an aging railroad station master closing out his time on the job looking back on his life around the anniversary of the death of his young daughter.

Magical little story had me tearing up at the end as this beautiful film came to a close. Takakura is wonderful as the title character who has spent most of his life living in a small post at the end of the line in the wilds of Japan. To be certain the story is ultimately cliché as we have our hero looking back over his life and regretting the choices he made and facing an uncertain future, but at the same time there is something about this film, the performances, the photography , the music, that really sells the story and moves you.

This is a wonderful little hidden gem of a film that went on to my list of films that were wondrous discoveries of the year. To be certain its not the best film ever made but it is a heart warming, at times heart breaking, little film that deserves to be seen.

(Those who love trains need to see this since the scenes of the trains in action make this a truly magical film to watch, after all there is nothing like watching trains in the country in the snow.)

Available as an import DVD or VCD.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Vincere (2009)


This film is currently in theaters and on pay per view on the IFC in Theaters service.

This is the story of Ida Dalser who met Benito Mussolini before the First World War and gave herself over to him body and soul. She sold everything she had so he could produce a newsletter. She also bore him a son out of wedlock. Unfortunately upon returning from the war he dumped her and began to take steps to erase or marginalize any unfortunate bits of his past. The result was her institutionalization and worse.

Grand tragedy of an operatic sort, this is the story of one woman's story that may or may not be true (there isn't enough information to completely accept nor dismiss the tale of the romance). I have no idea if its true or not but it does make for one hell of a tale.

Beautiful to look at this is one of the most sumptuous films of the year. This is a film that looks and feel like what big epic tales should look like. Watching this film last night on TV I was simply in awe of what was on the screen. This is one of those films that's filled with stunning images that never cease to amaze. If you like great looking films this is a must see.

Giovanna Mezzogiorno is heart breaking as Mussolini's discarded mistress. What she goes through will break your heart, even as you shout at the screen because you know she's being foolish. Its a great performance that is utterly believable, you believe that she really is that in love with Il Duce which makes it all the more terrible.

The real find here is Filippo Timi as Il Duce and his son. While he looks nothing like the real man he completely sells you on the notion that he is the man. There in all its glory is the charisma that enchanted not only Ida but the whole country of Italy as well. Its a staggering achievement that I mark as one of the high points of the film year. Frankly had I seen this film before I had put last week's best acting choices together I would have included this as well. If you want to see how good he is watch the final piece of his performance where, as the younger Mussolini, acts out the speech his father is giving on the radio. Forget Heath Ledger as the Joker, this man is insane.

Technically this film is hands down one of the best of the year. Between the music, the photography and performances this film is hands down one of the best of the year.

The problem is that the film turns rather cold. Ida's story, on a certain level, has no where to go. She's mad about the boy and he wants nothing to do with her. It can only end up in tears and at a certain point its too clear where this is heading. Emotionally the film stalls and what should be a film that you love with all of your heart, instead it becomes a film that you like and admire.

Reservations aside- this is a movie that you MUST see if you love movies. Sure it may not hit a home run out of the park, but it is, ultimately what movies are suppose to look like and act like.

Perhaps Love (2005)


I find I love this film more than I can say. This is one of those movies that I've handed off (at least 5) copies to people since I saw it early in 2009. Where many other movies faded from view this one stayed with me for the whole year and then some.

This film also answers the question of "Why do I love Asian cinema?". The answer is I love it because the continent seems to be the biggest place in the world where people are in love with film as much as me. They break the rules; they break the bounds and they make things that nobody else is doing.

A musical of sorts, this is the story of an actor who once wanted to be a director, an actress who once loved the actor but now is now involved with her director, and the director who loves the actress even though he knows she may leave him. They are all making a musical film which in movie tradition parallels the triangle that exists in real life. Its an often jaw dropping, eye popping emotional film. To be sure it doesn't always make complete sense, partly because the frame work confuses things a bit too much, and partly because I don't think all of the elements are there, but at the same time the music, the images and the emotion just carry you along.

Many people compare it to Moulin Rouge but I don't think that's fair since this film really only compares to that film in that they are musicals. This is a movie musical that knows what it is and knows how to use the conventions of movies and musicals to great effect.

This is a movie I want to go out and show to people. I want to show it to people and explain- "you want to know why I love movies here watch this" or "If you want to know what a movie is suppose to be watch this". It's magical- from the opening narration about how we are all the directors of our lives- to the final fade out this is pure movie magic.

If you love movies or musicals or both you do really want to see this...

Available on dvd from a variety of sources

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Spider Lillies (2007)


To be honest I originally picked this Taiwanese film up because of the case. Its a weird tie closed case with tattoos and post cards bound inside of it. I like odd box sets, especially Asian ones, which is why this got picked up. It had been sitting on myself for two years before, unsure of what to watch while I sorted papers, I pulled this off the shelf and gave it a go.

The plot centers around a girl who runs a racy web cam site, her grandmother, one of the men watching her (he's cop trying to bust her), a kid who finds power in tattoos, a lovely tattoo artist and her brother. The girl is attracted to the tattoo artist and vice versa but because of complications and plot that is much too complicated to explain simply, things are not as easy as you might think (nor as complicated as I'm making it out to be). I really liked this film. It has any number of very real characters that worm their way into your heart.

This is an odd film at times in that it plays with the notion of why we remember and how we remember and what is real. Why do you remember what you remember? Are you sure that you really remember everything? This film noodles with the ideas at times with memories repeated differently. There are several characters who's memory is failing and we see how that effects those around them.The film also skirts around how we perceive people on line, as the cop falls for the girl and the girl isn't sure who is telling her they love her.

There is something about the characters that made it all real. I mean how can you not help but love a film that shows the dangers of being a web-cam girl when you live at home with your grandmother.

I need to say I loved how the romance between the characters is handled as something that just sort of was. The fact that its two women isn't really the point, its that its two people. Forgive me, I'm tired of films that are same sex romance; especially where they beat you over the head with it to the point that you wonder if its about anything other than being gay or lesbian. This is about the people.

My only real complaint with the film is that the layers of memory and stories and reality kind of reach a breaking point about an hour and twenty minutes in. Somewhere about that time the film seems to be juggling way too many balls and I began to lose track of what was happening. Its a minor flaw because by that time the characters have built up enough good will it just carries you to the end.

I think its worth a look, and even a repeat viewing.

Currently available on DVD in the US and elsewhere.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Private Eye (2009) (Geu-rim-ja sal-in)


I had picked this film up in Chinatown simply because the cover looked interesting. There was no English anywhere on the cover but I went with it anyway. (A general tip-if a DVD is from Korea of a Korean film, the chances are almost 100% that you'll have English subtitles on the DVD). When Harry Knowles at Ain't it Cool put it on his "Best of 2009" I recognized the cover art and dug it out and took a look. I really liked what I saw.

During the Japanese occupation of Korea a young med student desperate to work on a real human body stumbles upon a corpse and the woods and takes it home. Complications arise when he discovers whose body it is, namely the son of the Interior Minister. Unable to get rid of the body without drawing attention to himself he hires a private eye specializing in errant wives to solve the murder before he finds himself arrested. From there the story spins out as the private eye, his client (and stand in Doctor Watson), and a lady who is a scientific genius begin an investigation that grows more and more complicated as more bodies begin to turn up, the wrong people are arrested and the implications of events take a darker turn.

Its a story very much mired in class with all of the main characters are outsiders of a sort; The client not quite a doctor, the detective was once a guard in the Royal Court, who left for some unspecified reason; and the lady is upper class and chaffing at the limits of her station-she shouldn't be studying science and making the things she makes. None subscribe to the conventions of class and seem to act only with an innate sense of justice and fairness (things get tenser when the wrong people get arrested for the crimes). Operating on the outside of society they are free to walk among all of the classes, something that is required to solve the crime. The story at its core is very much the sort of thing that Sherlock Holmes might have handled had Arthur Conan Doyle allowed his stories to becomes several shades darker than they are (the story starts off as a simple murder mystery but things get very dark as the story progresses.)

The film is for much of its running time an excellent drama with a fine trio of detectives at its core. One watches the film because it's hard not to like the heroes trying to get to the bottom of the foul deeds. This is a good thing because the films plot begins to become unwieldy as events go on with a few side characters not as well drawn as the central trio and a couple of story complications (opium war?) that come across as not particularly well integrated. This last bit could have been straightened out by extending the running time by a few minutes.

In the end the film, and especially the characters, stays with you. I find that some weeks after seeing the film I like it better than when it just ended. To a large degree it's because of the characters. I want to see what happens next, something one can hope will happen since the film ends with the possibility of more adventures for out heroes.

Currently available as an import DVD.

A solid film. Recommended

The Heavenly Kings (2006)


Four Hong Kong actors -- Daniel Wu, Conroy Chan, Andrew Lin and Terence Yin decided to form a boy band, ignoring the fact that everyone except Yin really couldn't sing and they were, for the most part, a decade too old to be considered "boys." Nonetheless, Alive still made an impression and found fame -- playing concerts and getting endorsements.

Except it was mostly all a joke. The Heavenly Kings, directed by Daniel Wu, is one part This is Spinal Tap-like mockumentary and one part Sacha Baron Cohen-esque prank. It's a movie that will keep you guessing as to what's real (the Mona Lisa Bridal Salon ads are) and what's not (the extended sequence with the stylist that eventually dresses the boys up as The Village People is not). It serves as extended commentary on the nature of the Hong Kong star-making machine, and in, a lot of ways, the nature of star-making machines anywhere in the world.

Wu features interviews with several HK pop stars and musicians to get their perspective on the industry and while they're all mostly polite about it, not too many of them have good things to say. And that Wu and his friends were able to pull off this prank also doesn't speak well of the industry either -- mostly, Wu's point is that being famous (as he and his other actor friends were) and good-looking is enough to become a pop star.

Still, underneath the motivation and message, this is a delightful, entertaining movie. The parody aspect isn't overdone. While there's something undoubtedly fun about how they four of them were able to game the system, this story would be nothing if the audience didn't care. All four of our leads are likable and appealing, bringing their own doubts and humanity to this situation. Chan worries about his weight; Yin doesn't want to repeat his previous experience of recording an album; Lin wants to honor the memory of his father and Wu just wants to keep it all together. There's a wonderful arc to everyone's story and it makes the movie more than just a shared joke.

The Heavenly Kings accomplishes the neat feat of being critical without being dour; having a point of view without beating your over the head with it. It's both fun and thoughtful, and that's pretty rare. This movie has stuck with me and I enjoy revisiting it.

(The members of Alive and the founders of Rotten Tomatoes took the AliveNotDead.com web address and turned it into a community for artists. I think that's one of the coolest things to come out of this movie -- they not only pointed out a problem, they've tried to fix it.)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Sparrow (2008)


The story of four pickpockets who get entangled with a mysterious woman is a charming throw back to the 1960's style European caper films that starred people like Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard. Though filmed in Hong Kong the film has the feel of being set in Paris.

Director Johnnie To has made a flawed but intriguing film. He has taken all of the finest things and brought them together into a film that will more than likely have you smiling from ear to ear.

The first thing you'll notice is the score which doesn't sound like its from Hong Kong. The score is decidedly European or at the least Euro influenced and it perfectly sets the mood of a light hearted romp.

Next we have the look of the film. This is a film that is in love with its characters and its setting. I don't ever remember seeing a film that made Hong Kong look this good. Its one of the jewels of Europe not a jewel of Asia. Had the film not been in Chinese with an Asian cast you'd swear it was Paris. The black and white photos that Simon Yam takes in the film are stunning. They add a nice dimension to the film, and their use during the credits is a nice way to ease out of the film.

The cast headed by Simon Yam is first rate. Yam has always been a tough guy actor and the chance to see him in a lighthearted mode is great. Who knew he had such a great smile. Its infectious. Kelly Lin as the woman in question is wonderful. Looking over her IMDb entry I'm amazed at how many movies I've seen her in. She really is a great actress. The rest of the cast is equally good, even Lo Hoi Pang as the villain of the piece. He maybe slimy but at the same time you can't help but like him.

Last but not least are the various set pieces and sequences in the film. The film is filed with wonderful little bits that make the film a pleasure to watch. From the opening where Simon Yam is in his apartment, to the various meetings of the crew, the first pickpocket outing, the first appearance of the woman in everyone's lives, to the "wounded" chase, and on and on to the finale in the rain with umbrellas. You admire the audacity, charm and technical skill that's has gone into each bit.

Which is part of the problem with the film, As enjoyable as the film is you never stop thinking that the film is a film. On some level all of the characters do become real, frankly I would love a sequel, but at the same time you are also aware of the film-making. You know that Johnnie To is skillfully moving everything about. Its not bad but it never allows you give yourself over to the film completely to it. You're aware of the magician doing his magic-even if you can't see how its being done. Its not fatal, its more nit picking because pretty much the rest of the film is so good.

In the interest of fairness my only other complaint is that the plot has a couple of plot bumps or gaps that again are not fatal but could have been smoothed out bridged had the film been a little bit longer (the film runs about 85 minutes). They are not the thing I can really discuss because to do so will give details away, never mind they complaint is minor.

Absolutely worth a look. This is one of those films that I really think should be seen even if its not perfect or going to be loved by everyone simply because there is so much good in it its worth experiencing.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Vengeance (2009)

This weekend's Double Feature is one highlighting one of the best filmmakers working today, Johnny To. I don't dare say director since he also produces and writes as well. He is a man who makes films that are interesting even when they crash and burn. Today and tomorrow I'm going to talk about his two of his most recent films, both of which really impressed me.

(And a heads up next weekend I'm going to look at the work of Ka-Fai Wai, who is To's partner in crime and a director in his own right.)


Johnnie To gave me a wild end of year treat (I saw this on an Import DVD on New Years Eve) with his tale of French chef who comes to Macao to get revenge for his daughter. She was shot ,ending up in a coma, while her family was killed in for an unknown reason. The chef, played by Johnny Hallyday, hires three hit men to help him get revenge. The trouble is things are not quite what they seem and complications set in.

This is a wonderfully awkward film, awkward in part as the result of the multiple languages being spoken through the film (the mix of English, French and Chinese require that you see this with subtitles. They also create some awkward speaking performances as people are not always comfortable with what they are saying) and partly the result of the way things unfold. It takes a while for the film to click but once it does the film blossoms into one of the better films of the year.

To be certain there is action and twists galore, but the best thing in the film are the actors. Anthony Wong, Suet Lam and Ka Tung Lam are the men Hallyday hires and they are wonderful. You sense the bond between them. Hallyday is a revelation in a role that is at first simple, and then becomes something more. To say that his stoic face hides many things is an understatement. Not to spoil anything, but what first seems like a kick ass attitude soon becomes something else entirely. There is something going on here and Hallyday pulls it off winningly. Its hands down one of the best performances of the year. You go with the film where ever its going because you like Hallyday and his friends....

...which is a good thing because there are two sequences in the later part of the film that almost derails the film. Both sequences follow in close proximity to each other (one is a weak shoot out in a field and the other is what happens after that) and are going to be the point at which many people either give up on the film or press onward. I kind of gave up, but this being a Johnnie To film and what had gone before was so good I figured that To would pull it out. He did and the film ends with one of the great gun fights of the year.(I blame the sequences on screenwriter Ka-Fai Wai who is one of the best writers in Asia today, but at the same time he often takes things in an odd direction just look at Running on Karma, Himalaya Singh, The Mad Detective or Written By). I think if you're willing to go with the bumps you'll find the film rewarding.

I really liked this film a great deal. For those who like more than just straight forward action this is a must. Honestly there is a great deal going on here and it makes you think as it makes you go wow.

One of the better films of 2009.

Currently out overseas in theaters and DVD. The film is starting to show up in US theaters as this post appears via IFC Films who appears to have picked up distribution of the film.(Its screening at Brooklyn Academy of Music this weekend)

Friday, March 19, 2010

Harry Brown (2009)


This is the last of the mini marathon of great acting in 2009 reviews.

In fairness I’m not sure this really will get noticed by the Oscars, but it’s a performance of quite intensity that makes you sit up and remember just how good Michael Caine really is.

The plot the film concerns Caine’s title character. He’s an ex-military man living quietly on a pension. He is trying to fill the void left by his recently deceased wife. A friend of his asks him to help with some toughs who are terrorizing him and the people in his block. Unfortunately Caine doesn’t want to get involved. There is a part of himself from his military days that he wants to keep buried. However when Caine’s friend meets with a bad end and the police won’t help, Caine finds that he has to do something. Unfortunately for the toughs involved that involves awakening the darkness inside him.

Okay, if you’re thinking geriatric Death Wish stop. This isn’t that sort of a film. Yes, there is some “action” and yes, Michael Caine kicks butt and takes names. But this is a film with a hell of a lot more on its mind.

As I watched the film I was really thrown off. I was expecting something different then what I got. Much of the film is dramatic. People sit around and talk. Life goes on. Yes, its focused on the story but its not fantastical action and bang bang shoot ‘em up, its an actual developing plot. the film is looking into the problems of getting older, of disenfranchised youth, of the limits of police power and a few other things. There is a real human drama going on here and for a good chunk of its running time you’re going to wonder where the action is. As I said this is not Death Wish.

In its way the film is really just a study of Harry Brown and his life under the circumstances that he finds himself on. Its an amazing tale with an amazing performance by Michael Caine who is pretty much on screen the entire time. Caine’s performance is very real and very understated. There are no grand gestures, no showy histrionics just real close to the vest acting. Its clear from what is said and done that Brown is not an emotive character, his years in the military have taken the big shows of emotion away. Instead there are small gestures, the flashes behind the eyes that give a clue as to what is going on inside. It’s incredibly touching. Its incredibly real. It’s the sort of thing that most actors never would have done. Most actors would have overplayed, they would have made the role showy and outward. Caine doesn’t do that and its why he’s so good, he plays it real. It’s a gem of a performance.

This is a winner of a film. I like that it confounds your expectations, even in retrospect, the film is not what I think it was or should be, its it’s own animal and wonderfully so.

This one is just coming out on DVD elsewhere in the world. Its also just been slated for a limited release in the US.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Mother (2009)


Mother is just getting a US release and it’s a film that will knock you back and kick your feet from under you.

It’s a film that you have to be willing to allow take its time to complete. Don’t assume anything about what’s going on at any point. I mention this up front since when I saw this at The New York Film Festival last year there was appoint at which about 20 people all through the audience got up and walked out. It was as if a certain revelation was too much for them, little did they know that there was even more twists and turns coming. I’m mentioning this because this is a film that doesn’t truly end until the credits roll. If you go don't leave until the end. I say this at the outset because most US films end before they end. This one doesn’t, and it would be a shame if you miss something.

This is the story of a mother whose son is charged with killing a young girl. He’s a none too bright kid who is severely mentally handicapped. Knowing her boy she instantly springs into defending him and clearing his name. How far she goes and what is revealed in the course of that is the movie.

This is a film from Joon-ho Bong who directed two marvelous films that also play with your expectation, Memories of Murder, the true story of the hunt for South Korea ’s first recognized serial killer and The Host, a monster on the loose film that wrecks every convention that went before and reset the board. Neither of those films followed the normal course and where they went made you sit up and take notice. They were singular films from a singular mind, who it could be argued is one of Korea ’s best directors.

The story, a heartbreaking, nerve jangling tale is very good, however what kicks this up a couple of notches is Kim Hye-Ja as the title character. She is amazing. When I saw the director speak after the NYFF screening he said that she had made her career playing typical motherly characters. This is a take on that. In some ways she is the mother we all would want and yet in other ways… let’s just say that maybe not.

Its certainly one of the two best lead performances by an actress I saw in 2009 (Xun Zhou in Equation of Love and Death is the other). I can’t really compare the two performances fairly since they are so different. I won’t dare try and say who is better because the effect of both performances is different.(I want to say more but I don’t dare, you'll understand when you see this film why I'm so careful)

Do yourself a favor and just see this movie. Don’t read any more about it then you have . Just see the film with as few expectations as possible. Just see it.

Just be prepared to be knocked about, and I can not stress this enough, STAY TO THE VERY END.

Currently going into US theatrical release this is coming out on DVD elsewhere in the world. However you see it. Just see it.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Capsule Reviews 3/17/10

Some short reviews of crime and action films for your viewing pleasure. They are the sort of thing to find at your video store in the spaces between the major releases.

THE LOCAL (2008) is about a drug dealer who is trying to stay clean. He ends up getting involved with various people including a man who pays him to get a kidnapped relative back. Low budget independent film is a really good film on its own terms. The cast is uneven but game and the script is quite good. Definitely worth a look for those wanting something a bit grittier then Hollywood.

LOVE LIES BLEEDING (2008) Iraq war vet is trying to get by in a bad neighborhood. When his house is robbed by some bad guys he goes to get his stuff back and walks into the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong. Taking the money he finds, he flees only to be chased by Christian Slater a psycho DEA agent who will stop at nothing to get his money back. Solid little B action film has good characters and the sense to just keep moving all the way to the end. Everyone selld the story which doesn't try to do anything except entertain. I've seen this on DVD and on cable, which ever way you see it give it a shot.

BORDER TOWN (2009) is a pure exploitation B movie with no shame and just great action. It concerns a man who has been on a five year quest to find his kidnapped daughter. She's been kidnapped by white slavers and the quest has taken him around the world and left a trail of dead men in his wake. Everyone wants our hero dead because he allows no one and nothing stand in his way. It all comes down to a border town ner Mexico where the bad guys know he's coming and he knows they know. Super action film probably would have been a main stay of the grind-house movie theaters in their heyday. This is a film with good good guys, bad bad guys, funny lines and lots of action. Think of it as a sort of play on Robert Rodriguez's Desperado. Its a small scale gem and one I wanted to watch again when it was over. Keep in mind its not high art just good fun)

Bronson (2009)


It begins and ends with Tom Hardy. If one wants to know about Bronson, all one needs to know is that Tom Hardy gives one of the best performances you are ever likely to see in anything. Why he was not up for an Oscar I can only blame on the producers not having the resources to properly push the film for consideration. Hell, the film has barely gotten any sort of release in theaters before it was released on DVD.

This is the story of Michael Peterson, who later changed his name to Charles Bronson. He went to prison for a short term in the 1970’s and managed to keep himself there ever since because of his knack for beating up people and destroying property. He was/is considered the most dangerous man in England . It’s said that he has calmed down, giving up his violent tendencies; even becoming a best selling author. That doesn’t mean that he’s still not hated by prison authorities who were beyond angry when a smuggled out message from the man himself was played at the premiere of this film.

The film is told from Bronson’s point of view. He tells us his the story from the start of his life of crime through his now eternal time in jail. It’s a stylized portrait that some have compared to Clockwork Orange. I think that that description only tells part of the story. Some moments are realistic, some moments are fantasy (Bronson in white face talking directly to an unseen audience) some moments are a mix. It's Bronson’s life as he would have us see it.

Its amazing. Yes, its violent, yes it’s nasty, but at the same time its charming and funny. Bronson, the character does everything he can to make himself engaging to his audience. The film creates a duel sense of a guy you absolutely would want to talk with, and yet at the same time he scares the living snot out of you because you never know when he’s going to explode. If the film works, and it does in spades, thank Tom Hardy. Hardy inhabits the role in away that’s scary. There simply is no trace of anyone or anything he’s done before. (Think of his role in Star Trek Nemesis or his roles as Robert Dudley in The Virgin Queen and you’ll be utterly confused) The easiest way to describe it is that Hardy is Bronson. Whether he’s even close to the real deal is irrelevant. He is the character on the screen and that’s it.

I really like this movie a great deal. Its rough and tumble and charming and explosive and silly. I don’t know if it’s a movie for all tastes but its definitely worth a look for those who don’t mind a little bit of violence.

Its out on DVD.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Equation of Love and Death (2009)

Today I’m beginning a four day series of films that contain some of the best performances of 2009. These are films where the performances made me sit up and go "Hello". Trust me, if you want to see great performances where the actors make it look easy or as if they aren't acting, track any of the next four films down.

If you want to see one of the best performances of the year, possibly one of the best performances ever put on screen this is one to track down. I only found out about it because the film was part of the New York Asian Film Festival last year.

Xun Zhou is a cab driver named Li Mi. She is a chain smoking, fast talking cabbie trying to work out the meaning of the universe or more specifically what exactly happened to her boyfriend who has been missing for four years. As the film opens we get a series of inter-cut cab rides as she talks to her stunned passengers about the numbers of their relationship. How many letters sent over how many months? Is there a pattern, a reason behind it all? She also shows them pictures of her missing ex in the hopes that someone will be able to tell her where he is. One day two gentlemen climb into her cab who will up set her life and set events in motion that will unravel the mystery of the missing boyfriend.

A hypnotic central performance by Xun Zhou is the reason to watch this very good little film. She is something almost other worldly in a performance that is, simply put, one of the most amazing things I've ever seen on the screen. I'm talking top three or at worst top five. She grabs you from the instant she appears and holds your attention and proceeds to rock you back on your feet, or in your chair, six ways to Sunday.

Its amazing.

If there is any justice this film will get some form of wide distribution and be seen around the world instead of in film festivals or as DVDs imported from Hong Kong (which is how I saw it). It's simply not right that the work Xun Zhou is doing will not be seen by more people. (And if you want to know how good she is compare her performance to another great performance in things like Perhaps Love-a film to be reviewed shortly)

The cast is great. I don't think anyone is even remotely bad. The film belongs to Zhou, but everyone else holds their own and gives her something to act against.

Outside of Xun Zhou the film is good.

The story is the weak spot here. It's a little too neat in how everything ends up tying together. Some of where this film wanders can seem a bit far a field, which is the reason I haven't given too many details about the plot. It's a bit choppy, with events not always seeming to play out completely, but at the same time the film is more a character study of Li Mi so the film shows us what we need to follow her quest. Its a battle between expectation and actuality and looking at part of the film again this morning I find it plays better the second time since I wasn't expecting it to behave in a certain way.

I really liked this film a great deal.

This is one of those films put on the list and keep an eye out for since it's a little gem that's going to be hidden from view.

(The original title apparently is Li Mi Guesses which is probably better but less poetic)

Monday, March 15, 2010

Stiletto (2008)

Those of you who know me have heard me talk about this film before so bare with me as I do it again. Those that haven't heard me talk about this film before listen as I ramble on.

This is a wickedly violent revenge drama with Tom Berenger as a Greek crime boss who, along with other people, is being hunted by a young Russian girl who used to be his mistress. The whys and who's of the affair take the full running time to unravel so I won't say more than that.

What I will say is that this is a mean and nasty film with violence exploding usually in ways we least expect it, in a manner that is really in your face. This is a movie that makes you frequently sit up and go "whoa" (think about the opening sequence where Tom Berringer is attacked).

I can't believe that this film has stayed under the radar. I stumbled upon entirely by accident. It was one of those times when I put on a movie expecting it to be terrible and instead found myself pleasantly surprised.

Well stocked with a fantastic cast of character actors (William Forsythe, Michael Beihn, James Russo, Tom Sizemore among others) this is as solid a "B" crime film as I've seen recently (and I mean B as in the classic definition of a B film, the sort that was carefully crafted to play on a double feature, that was made with care and not just thrown together).

If there is any real flaw, or if there is going to be any point that may trouble some viewers it's that the film is very complex, or at least it doesn't reveal anything until the stand in for the audience, the cop working for Berenger, finds anything out. This makes for several scenes that seem like they are coming from left field, when in reality they are not, after all we don't know what something means until we look at them in retrospect. (I'm also sure that the end will leave some people annoyed, but I'm not one of them, I think it works).

Currently available on on DVD this is the sort of film that you're probably going to pass over when you see it on the shelf at your video store. Don't do it because its really worth a look not to mention a bucket of popcorn and a soda, especially if you want a dark little crime film to "brighten" up their evening.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Asian Cult Cinema Magazine has ceased publication

This is a loss. The magazine was a great way to find out what was new and happening in Asian cinema. However according to an email sent to the people on their mailing list familial obligations has forced the shut down.

The e-store is remaining up, so you can still use it as a source for many of the films I've reviewed (and will review).

Private Detective 62 (1933)

This is the second of a mini marathon of Pre-Code films from William Powell. As with The Jewel Robbery, this film is not, to the best of my knowledge on DVD, however it is on the rotation at Turner Classic Movies on cable so there is a strong possibility that you can run across it at some point.

To start with I have no idea where the number in the title comes from, but it doesn't really matter, this is a rip roaring mystery drama comedy about government agent William Powell who, after being arrested and deported by the French government ends up as a private detective working for a detective of lesser moral standing. Complications arise when Powell 's used to get the goods on a socialite who is owed a great deal of money by a gambler. Powell falls for the girl, but continues to see her until he's found out. As things become even more morally questionable a murder occurs and Powell must wade into the matter.

Excellent story of intrigue and adventure that has a wickedly funny edge to it. Its easy to imagine Powell's Donald Free as Nick Charles in his heyday since he seems to operate in a similar manner. Everything clicks here from the mystery to the comedy to the romance into a seamless whole. This is one of the examples where Hollywood nailed perfectly.

I can't understand why this film isn't better known because its so much fun.

NYICFF at home Mirage

A student film about a robot on a water starved planet.

Linked from the NYICFF website where more films can be found.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Jewel Robbery (1932)


I'm going to do a couple of pre-code William Powell films today and tomorrow. These are both great little films that are not to my knowledge on DVD however they are both in the rotation on Turner Classic Movies which means that they are readily available.

Decidedly un-PC pre-code film would probably get a PG 13 today, perhaps, maybe even an R rating, depending on how the ratings board viewed William Powell giving people wacky weed...

Set in Vienna the ultra rich wife of a baron goes to a jewelry store after hours in order to shop with her husband. While there one of a string of daring robberies occur, perpetrated by the ever dashing William Powell and his henchmen, occurs. Powell and the married woman are drawn together and Powell later turns up at her place...and as it is I've said too much.

Wild and as off beat as they come, this is one of those wonderfully strange films that Hollywood was churning out in the days just before the Motion Picture Code was actually enforced. It's not often you get a lead character who is a happy trollop, near nudity, drug use, adultery, hints of illicit sex, a wicked sense of humor, the bad guy getting away, and I don't know what else all in 68 minutes?

When my friend Lou mentioned his disbelief at what he was seeing while watching this film, I told him I had to see it as well. The film was, what he said and more. Its clear why this film isn't better known, its because the censors in Hollywood wouldn't let it be screened. Its a shame because the film is actually quite good and amusing. It has some genuine laughs, some plot twists you've not seen before and a wonderful sense of being alive.

Its a genuinely fun film. I don't think its perfect, its a bit too talky in the way that films from the period often are, and the film's heroine is really a self centered twit of the sort that inhabits many of today's prime time shows like Gossip Girl or their ilk. At the same time its a must see for anyone who loves old movies, or anyone who thinks old movies are passé and out of touch with reality. This is a unique experience

NYICFF at home Wolf Daddy

A lovely little film.

(As always more films can be found at that NYICFF website)

Coming Soon....

This is the pause that refreshes. Actually this is just a note as to the direction this blog is going to take for the next couple of weeks and months.

I suspect some of you are sick of seeing animated films (I kind of am myself) and I just want to say that’s all over for a while. Yes, I’ll have a couple of short animated films this weekend for your viewing pleasure but I’m heading off into new directions with this weekend’s Double Feature of William Powell pre-code films.

Monday I’m making a serious break with “nice” and family friendly with the revenge film Stiletto. This will be followed by four days of the best performances from last year that no one paid any attention to. Apparently I set up the week too early since two of the films, Mother and Harry Brown now are getting good sized releases in the US (Mother is out now and Harry Brown comes at the end of April.)

The week after that are just some really good films with no theme. There is a collection of “spiritual” films for the week between Palm Sunday and Easter, not to mention Passover. More random films will be followed by great films from last years New York Asian Film Festival, a week of horror films in honor of my Moms birthday and a few other goodies. (Going into May overlooked B mysteries, a week of documentaries and we have great war films for Memorial Day)

As is the norm the weekends are double features with a look at two collaborators works for the next two weekends and a biblical double feature for Easter.

After that things are less certain as it appears more of the partners in crime will be coming aboard and they have definite ideas about interesting pairings. And there will be more good stuff coming up so keep reading and check back every day because who knows what's going to show up.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Wholphin- An Appreciation

This is a brief appreciation of the McSweeney’s spin off DVD magazine Wholphin.

In theory this is a quarterly, but the publication schedule can be a bit off, not that it matters really since the magazine they put out is choice. Wholphin is a collection of short films, fiction, non-fiction, animated and live action on DVD. They come bound in a book that has interviews with the filmmakers that shed a little bit of information on what you are seeing. It’s a fantastic way to have a mini film festival every couple of months.

When you put in the DVD the first thing you notice is that the menu is different and changing each time you go back to it. The reason is that they put the menu over part of several of the shorts. If you don’t do anything after about a minute the menu disappears and a short plays. If you let it go it will play all of the menu shorts and then play the rest of the films as they are on the menu. It’s a cool way to go since at least at the start you’re not sure what you’re going to get or more precisely where you’re going to end up.

Last night I was watching issue 6 (they’ve put out ten issues so far) and then menus consisted of insects up close, sharks and a short film about a man trapped in the trunk of a runaway car.

There is always something good on the DVDs. In the first four issues they had foreign TV shows subtitled by different people for differing, The marvelous animated film The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello

, and a short film by Spike Jonze that might have gotten Al Gore elected. Bound with the first three issues was The Power of Nightmares an excellent 3 part documentary on the rise of the Neo-Conservatives and the Fundamentalist Islamic movement at exactly the same time. Over the last couple of weeks I watched the fifth and sixth issues. In issue 5 I was treated to seeing an great documentary on Rubik’s Cube solvers called Piece by Piece and the animated Madame Tutli Putli. Issue 6 had Vote for Me about the introduction of democracy into a Chinese Grammar school , Force 1 TD about the search for shoes for a seeing eye pony and a chilling piece On the Assassination of the President. I can’t wait to see the remaining 4 issues because I’m not sure what I’ll find.

If you like short films you really need to be seeing this. McSweeney’s has a couple of subscription deals that can be had at their website, or you can pick up the issues at amazon Deep Discount or DVD Empire. (Though you can get them greatly reduced from Amazon E-sellers, which is how I filled in my collection. ) The magazine is definitely worth your time and money since it’s an evening's worth of entertainment and then some.

Gwen and the Book of Sand (1984) NYICFF




I have tickets to see what is said the only surviving English subtitled print of this film for the 20th of March. I also have the film on DVD which has no English subtitles. For some unknown reason I ended up watching the film on DVD and I'd like to report in on the film.

Set in a post apocalyptic world where all the world we see is essentially sand covered. The world is divided into those who live in the desert and those who live in the few towns. Society has slid backward, with a sales catalog becoming a holy book (ala Walter Miller's Canticle for Leibowitz). Gwen lives in the desert and when a friend of hers is carried off she sets out to find him. Along the way she meets up with a strange old woman who journeys with her to the place where her friend has been taken.

It is a stunningly beautiful film. It has been rightly called a tone poem of sorts since much of the film doesn't have any dialog. The film becomes surreal as the detritus of our existence makes for an often surreal landscape for the characters in the film. It makes you ponder what all of the crap we produce will end up as.

The film doesn't really look like any other film, looking more like pastel drawings come to life or perhaps cut paper. Director Jean-François Laguionie has made a film that in its stark way is a work of art. (Having watched 8 of his short films that were included with this film on DVD I think its best to call all his films moving paintings since that is what they most resemble).

I am in awe of the film in many ways.

At the same time I don't know if I need to see the film again, or rather if I need to make a special trip into Manhattan to see it on a big screen so close to seeing it on DVD. Yes, I think the film is beautiful and worth seeing, but at the same time I'm kind of full when it comes to this film and the directors other work.

If you've never seen the film and are a fan of great looking animation, I can't recommend it highly enough. The film is a real treat. (Just be warned, this is not a hopping action packed film)

Currently out only on French DVD. According to THE NYICFF literature the availability of this film in English is very limited.



Anipages Daily posted a good review of the film

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Day After (Eoddeon Gairn Nal) (2009)- What am I missing?

Okay time to do something different. For the last bunch of weeks I’ve been telling you about films, and now I’m going to ask you for an explanation of a film. I’ve seen the movie two and a half times (the last time last night) and the film completely eludes me.

The film is called The Day After in English and Eoddeon Gairn Nal in Korean (which is what you’ll have to use to find it on IMDB). It’s by a filmmaker named Lee Suk-gyung. The film feels like a Dogma 95 movie (basically films have to be as close to real life as possible, no music except if on the "radio", natural light, no real post production)).

The film’s plot follows a put upon single mom as she goes through several days of her life. It begins with her getting into a fight with a delivery man and it follows as she goes to work, dates and deals with her family. The largest portion of the film is a sequence where she in a hotel room at a conference and her roommate opens up about her life and we play fly on the wall as they sit in their beds and talk. It’s clear her life isn’t as bad as her friends. She goes home and….that’s pretty much it.

Perhaps it’s because I’m not a woman, perhaps it’s because it’s not that good, but for whatever reason the film completely eludes me. I’ve read a few pieces that mention it positively and the readers of IMDB (my self the notable exception) have given it 7 out of 10.

What am I missing? Any ideas?

Help I'm a Fish (2000) (NYICFF Flashback)


Animated film from Denmark, it was dubbed into English by a British cast that includes Terry Jones and Alan Rickman. Its had a strange route to the United States in that it i hasn't been available except as an import. I picked this up a few years ago the only way I could get it was as an import DVD.

The story is a simple one. When Stella's parents go out for the evening she and her brother are left in the care of their Aunt and their cousin. When the kids go fishing they are forced by the rising tide to go into a cave where they end up at the home of a marine biologist named Professor Mac Krell. Stella accidental drinks a potion that turns her into a starfish and is tossed into the sea. In an effort to find her her brother, cousin and the Professor set out in a leaky boat, but a storm comes in and the two boys are forced to drink the fish making potion while the Professor is washed over board. Losing the antidote, its found by a fish named Joe and his shark friend who end up turning slightly human from exposure to its properties. Joe then sets out using the potion to make himself king, while the kids, helped by a sea horse named Sasha try to get it back and back to normal.

Small scale animated film is perfectly paced at a mere 75 minutes. The story is simple and while it wobbles a bit at the start once it gets going its a pretty good piece of fluff. Its the sort of thing that is completely mindless and completely entertaining.

Is this the greatest animated film? Oh, lord no. Its a small trifle. The sort of thing that you'll like while its on and the kind of wonder about afterward. The problem with the film is that there really isn't much to the plot and had one had a mind too one could probably chop a good ten or fifteen minutes out of it.

On the other hand this is a surprisingly good film. There are some really wonderful animated sequences (The octopus is amazing) that make this a surprisingly good looking film. Best of all the film is full of great lines (The exchange when Alan Rickman orders his second in command to eat himself as punishment is hysterical) and great moment (try not to tear up when Stella tells Sasha he can't go with he and she tries to make him go away) that prove that the filmmakers are trying to do more than just make a cookie cutter kids film.

This is a film that is worth watching if you can find a copy, especially if you have small kids. I really think the kids will eat this up. Which is why I'm kind of at a loss as to why this film has never gotten a US release (I can't see any sort of release except for the odd screening). Frankly if it wasn't for the NYICFF I never would have heard of this film. Its a film that is completely under the radar except for a select bunch of fans who are constantly trying to figure out why the film has yet to get any sort of US release. I have no idea why this is since its definitely better than many similar direct to video films that get a big play.

If you have kids, this is worth keeping your eyes out for.