Monday, 30 July 2007
Esoteric Picks #22
The Decemberists - Picaresque (2005)
The few earlier albums I've heard by The Decemberists certainly meet a description I found on amazon.ca --> Pirate folk songs. This 2005 album fits the same mold, but adds a rockier band to the tunes (more electric guitar, organ and increased tempos). There's always a hint of something macabre or perhaps impending doom somewhere in the stories related via the nasally vocals of Colin Meloy. But whether there's violin, accordion or standard rock band instrumentation, the tunes themselves shine through as memorable - not just hummable, but something you actually want bouncing around your cranium.
Classic English Language Film
Baby Face (1933)
The Barbara Stanwyck celebration continues...The original full length version of this film recently screened on TCM (complete with an additional 5 minutes that censors removed back in 1933) and it was a revelation. Not just the lurid events of the film (risque in the early thirties, but this was before the production code came into effect), but because of Stanwyck's performance. She's gorgeous obviously, but her sexiness and feminine charms dominate every single man she meets in the movie - and you absolutely believe each and every one of them would fall under her spell. I know I did...
Recent English Language Film
Kissing Jessica Stein (2002)
An amusing tale of one woman's frustration with the male gender and her experimentation with the world of same sex dating. And though many hang ups show up on all sides (hetero, homo and bi) as her new relationship begins, it turns out that the same basic stuff shows up in just about any relationship. This commonality across all people as well as the extremely likeable performances by the two main female leads makes this a film that's a step up from your basic "turn your brain off" romantic comedy. You care about these recognizable realistic characters and manage to be entertained without having to roll your eyes or be subjected to a montage backed by classic 60s Motown music.
The Virgin Spring (1960)
Ingmar Bergman passed away today. I'm not well versed in Bergman's oeuvre (my favourite film of his - Smiles On A Summer's Night - is his least representative), but anything I've seen by him leaves a lasting impact. Whether it's the highly erotic telling of a beach encounter by the young nurse in Persona or the family shattering events of The Virgin Spring, you can't easily shake a Bergman film afterwards. He doesn't seem to shy away from questioning things...anything (a common target is religion and its worth). The answers you may find in his films likely will depend highly on your own biases coming in, but likely Bergman will make you think about it from a different perspective.
Psychological horror and squeamish toe curling scenes battle it out in this occasionally darkly comedic tale of an awkward young woman named May. Awkward is too kind really - she's almost unable to function in "normal" society. As her relationships don't quite pan out the way she wants, she starts to focus on what she likes best about these people - individual characteristics like hands or ears. And since she can't really find a friend that she can relate to, she decides to make one...Angela Bettis delivers a really creepy yet somehow sympathetic performance as May.
Tuesday, 24 July 2007
Kwaidan - The Monsters
This is my submission to the Monster Squad-A-Thon being hosted at DVD Panache.
But wait...Can Kwaidan - a 1965 Japanese Cannes award winner (Special Jury Prize) about 4 separate ghost stories - really compete in a Monster Squad-A-Thon? Especially when the ghosts/monsters in question never make a sound louder than perhaps a whoosh and don't really give the audience any major scares? I mean, I've already talked about how beautiful this movie is to look at in another post, so does it belong?
Let's take a look at the result of coming into contact with each of these different ghosts from all four stories:
Story 1 - The Black Hair
Story 2 - The Woman In The Snow
Story 3 - Hoichi, The Earless
Story 4 - In A Cup Of Tea
So yeah, I'm finding them kind of monstrous...
Story number one - The Black Hair - is likely the scariest of the bunch. Along with providing probably the only jump scare in the film and a skeleton to boot, it:
- makes great use of the sound field (like many modern day Japanese horror films do), especially when the main character returns to his old house. The dead silence punctuated with creaks, snaps and sudden crashes heightens the spooky factor.
- establishes one of the earlier appearances of the long dark female hair that seems to have a mind of its own...
- toys with the victim mentally instead of exacting any sort of quick vengeance.
These are not benevolent ghosts were talking about in any of these stories. There's no second chances unless it serves a ghost's own selfish desires. Grudges are held, vengeance is sought and compromise is not a discussion point.
As with a great deal of Japanese horror (old and new), the film creeps up on you. You typically end up with feelings of dread curled up in a ball on the couch instead of jumping out of your seat with fright. That's not necessarily better, it's just a different feeling the viewer takes away with them after the film. For my money, the dread lingers much longer...
If you like ghost stories artfully told, look no further. Here's a nice lengthy trailer for the film (though the voiceover subtitles are a bit rough):
Kwaidan - The Beauty
I'm a sucker for strong visuals in film. Colour compositions, artistic interpretations of reality, contrasts, etc. Previous posts on Tears Of The Black Tiger, Ocean's Twelve and Pistol Opera bear this out.
Monday night I got a chance to see Masaki Kobayashi's terrific Kwaidan on the big screen at our local Cinematheque. Its 4 ghost stories are filled with the kind of imagery I love - in particular, the second story in the film called "The Woman In The Snow" - and helped it garner a Special Jury Prize at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival. I would not be surprised at all if the director of Tears Of The Black Tiger was influenced directly by the film for some of his shots and painted backgrounds.
I may discuss the actual ghost elements of the film in another post, but for now I'll just let the beauty of these screencaps (all taken from the 35 minute long second story - "The Woman In The Snow") take over:
Sunday, 22 July 2007
Behind The Mask: The Rise Of Leslie Vernon
This review is for the Final Girl Film Club.
The Toronto After Dark Film Festival had its initial run last October and I was thrilled to stumble across it just before tickets went on sale. Especially when I found out that Kiyoshi Kurosawa's latest Retribution would be playing there (I think I was one of the few that really liked it). After noticing that the Pang Brothers also had a film there (Re-Cycle - shoulda skipped it), I decided to go for the 4-pack and roped in the fine ninja-clan battle film Shinobi and the truly unbelievable Funky Forest. I had such a great time at all the films (except the dreadful Pang Brothers one) that I decided to belly-up to the ticket window for the final night screening of the closing film - Behind The Mask: The Rise Of Leslie Vernon. It was one of my better recent spontaneous decisions.
Some basics about the film - it begins somewhat as a mockumentary style look at an up and coming serial killer who hopes to follow in the footsteps of Freddie Krueger, Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers (in the world of the movie, those horror film icons actually existed). A student documentary crew follow him around during his preparations for his big night and we learn many of the tricks of the trade and the mythology of those late 70s horror films (Halloween, Friday The 13th, etc.). Leslie even has a retired psycho-killer as his own mentor. But as the crew get more involved, the story starts to shift from mockumentary to a real horror film.
The extended trailer should pretty much lay it out:
Yes, that's Zelda Rubinstein at the beginning of the trailer...And Robert Englund shows up too. So the references are knowing and clever, but they're done with warmth and fondness as opposed to any kind of ironic detachment (no potshots at Scream here - just distinguishing between the methodolgies). Leslie's preparations are documented by the team of journalism students and include stalking the "virgin", planting newspaper articles about his family history so that she finds them, doing cardio in order to be able to chase fleeing teenagers, etc.
The film is well paced, ingenious and a lot of fun. It shines mostly when it works with those conventions of horror films and weaves them into the story (occasionally poking fun at them too). In particular, the mid-section of the film when Leslie steps young journalism student Taylor through his plan for the big night. This section encompasses a great deal of the meat of the film - the breaking down of the slasher genre into its components to analyze a style and story that the filmmakers obviously love. Leslie explains to Taylor the Yonic imagery of the environment (Yonic is the female counterpart to the term Phallic) where the big night will take place and relates the sanctity of "the closet" (when a victim hides there) to the womb. This all ties back to the "Final Girl" he hopes his target ends up being - will this young girl take matters into her own hands (and there's discussion as to what it is she really is "taking into her own hands"), choose to fight back and become a woman in the process? There's also the gentle mocking of the genre conventions - when Taylor asks why Leslie takes into account the breaking of the second floor windows as an escape route but doesn't concern himself with the first floor ones, he answers back that none of the victims ever seem to think to escape that way - "you'd think they would..." he says offhandedly.
There's some good gags and setup previous to this that flesh out part 1 of the film - the documentary filmed portion takes up about two thirds of the running time. Up until this point, the entire film has been from the point of view of the two cameramen following Taylor and Leslie and is the footage that is to be used in their final story (actually there is one previous scene that briefly jumps out of the documentary footage - it is entirely around the first "kill" of the movie). The two cameras allow for the cutting between shots so the visuals stay reasonably interesting.
But then...Just past the hour mark, the cameramen shut down their cameras and the film jumps to an external viewpoint like standard horror films. To heighten this, the sound field opens up to surround the viewer (away from just 2 channels like the previous part of the movie). The documentary crew are now in the story they were covering - part of Leslie's big night. And though it isn't terrificly scary or filled with dripping tension, it's still a great deal of fun because it's dealing with all the conventions and plans Leslie took us through previously. And yet the viewer is still unsure where the story will end. It's a neat trick and well executed.
Where it diverts from the standard genre films is in the acting - it's uniformly quite good. In particular, Nathan Baesel is perfect in the title role. He's very funny, charming enough that you can see why the students stay with him and then flashes his violent side when necessary. Scott Wilson also deserves special mention as his mentor. They play it quite deadpan and it delivers much bigger laughs that way.
Horror fans (of the "classic 70s" genre) should really love this film, but only if they understand it isn't exactly like those films - it's a tribute and a loving one at that. First time director Scott Glosserman has done a superb job in creating an incredibly enjoyable film.
Sunday, 15 July 2007
Esoteric Picks #21
Jah Wobble And Deep Space - Beach Fervour Spare (2000)
Throbbing bass, booming drums and plenty of atmospherics (mostly improvised instrumental sounds) encompass every inch of this record. It's trance enducing in the best possible way and never dull. Trumpets roll in and out during some of the tracks as do a wide variety of different instrumentation from assorted cultures (Middle Eastern sounds dominate). The three part "As Night Falls" has the biggest groove of the set and rumbles along merrily, but the album is really meant to be listened to all in one go with its ebbs and flows and beats - just allow yourself to get lost in it.
Classic English Language Film
The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers (1946)
July 16th 2007 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of my favourite actresses - Barbara Stanwyck (take a look at the great tribute that appears on the Edward Copeland On Film blog - it steps through her films by decade and also has some equally great comments to it). Not only is she a truly stunning woman (that little sneer she occasionally flashes is just damn sexy), but she has tremendous range. She can hit all her marks while tossing off witty banter, throw herself into a melodramatic part or play the role of femme fatale. Those latter two are represented well in this fine noir film whose story is quite engaging and zips along nicely (even if it does tend to linger a bit long towards the end). Stanwyck doesn't actually show up until about a half hour in, but Van Heflin does a terrific job holding everything together as the young man returning to town after running away as a boy. But it's Stanwyck's show in the latter half. Speaking of Stanwyck...I rarely see mention of one of her best assets - her voice. It's confident and dominates, but it also soothes and tantalizes. OK, I'm getting fanboy-ish now...
Recent English Language Film
The Science Of Sleep (2006)
You can probably tell from this blog's title that I'm somewhat of a fan of Michel Gondry's previous film. Though on initial viewing I was somewhat disappointed by The Science Of Sleep, it seemed to provide more joys upon revisiting. Initially, I was trying to follow within the film what was reality and what was the dream world of main character Stephane. This time around, I found I could concentrate more on the beautiful and wildly inventive dreams as well as not really concern myself with where dreams and reality split. For Stephane, they are so intertwined that in many ways it didn't matter. You simply were able to experience what his world view was like. And in that way, it painted a truly interesting and moving portrait of an emotionally confused young man.
Lovers Of The Arctic Circle (1998)
The love story between two Spaniards is shown through a series of flashbacks, coincidences, occurrences of foreshadowing and a great deal of mirroring of events between time periods (even the main characters' names are palindromes). It's quite fascinating to see the level of detail brought to this wholly different approach to documenting the lives of these two young lovers. It's also a great way to set part of your film in the Land Of The Midnight Sun and capture the gorgeous surroundings while continuing the thematic line of the story.
The Taste Of Tea (2004)
As early as the two and a half minute mark, I knew I was going to like this film. And within the first 5 minutes we see: a train coming from a young boy's forehead, a stunning view of a huge white tree and a young girl who is constantly being watched by her own huge head. It's all part of a lovely story of an odd and at times eccentric family whose members each have slightly askew views of the world. Not only is the journey through the film fun and constantly surprising, but it comes together beautifully towards the end with a simple message that essentially teaches the characters to occasionally stop, appreciate the little things and just enjoy the taste of tea.
Even without subtitles, the trailer should entice:
And be careful of the following...It will indeed melt your brain...
Saturday, 7 July 2007
Performances That Changed The Way I Look At Movies
Emma at All About My Movies is holding a Performance That Changed My Life Blog-a-thon today, so here's my rather quickly whipped up contribution.
A constant in Blog-a-thons seems to be that some people extend the premise or even blatantly break the rules given. So I don't feel so bad about pushing the limits a bit here and considering several actors - all from the same movie. So the performances that changed the way I really look at acting and gave me a deeper appreciation of how it can pull me into a film are by...the entire cast of Network.
It's not necessarily that I think this is the epitome of acting and that no one can touch these performances. I love them, but the ones that spring to my mind as some of the best performances I've seen (that truly worked for me) are:
- Armin Mueller-Stahl in Avalon
- Koji Yakusho in Kamikaze Taxi
- Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums
- Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive
- Irene Jacob in Three Colours: Red
- Giulietta Masina in Nights Of Cabiria
And on and on...There's a certain dignity each of these actors brings to their roles that just made them sympathetic to me - no matter what their faults. There's also entire casts of Robert Altman films that bring a tremendous sense of naturalism to their surroundings via the improvisatory feeling of the films.
But I saw Network before any of these...I saw it in my second year of CEGEP (the equivalent of Grade 12-13 in Quebec - sort of like a bridge between high school and university) during a Social Science course about the media. Our teacher split it across two classes during one week and I absolutely couldn't wait for that second class. I was spellbound - not only by the topic of the film, but by each character, their passion and the torrent of words tumbling from their mouths. Very different roles then the more subtle ones listed above, but they hit you immediately because of their intensity. I've read some remarks about how the acting is too much and too theatrical. Perhaps, but it serves the material (Paddy Chayefsky's brillant script) and the main characters perfectly.
Peter Finch won a posthumous Best Actor Oscar for his bordering over the top performance as Howard Beale. He has some wondrous and crazy rants that let him bellow like a madman, but it's his quieter moments where he seems to have more focus regarding his message that impressed me even more - gave me chills at the time. Still do:
William Holden plays his best friend of many decades (Max) who is going through his own life changes. Not only is he seeing his friend slowly crumble away due to mental instability, but as head of the News division he is losing control of the relevance of his work. And he's captivated by the new programming director...
Faye Dunaway's Diana Christensen is the ultimate icy bitch. No concern or empathy for others. Little ability to feel any emotion whatsoever. Single minded in every step she takes, it's all about ratings, ratings, ratings. There's the classic scene that depicts her and Max's getaway weekend that shows them going out to dinner, eating, running back during the rain and then making love - all the while Diana spitting out volumes of ratings stats and programming ideas. You can see why Max is enticed by her surface passion and sexiness, but it's also pretty apparent that there's nothing underneath.
Robert Duvall plays Frank Hackett, the worst kind of Corporate boss. All orders, all yelling, all the time. You can see the spittle fly from his mouth as he practically foams during some of his more angry tirades.
And then there's Ned Beatty. His entire 6 minute appearance in the film is in the clip below. It's short, but the impact on Howard Beale (and the audience) is powerful and scarily effective. It's one of those roles that allows the actor to just chow down on the verbage of the script and feast away. I have to think that Alec Baldwin may have viewed this scene several times before taking on a similar role in Glengarry Glen Ross.
Seeing all these great actors just throw themselves into their roles to enable the satire and message of the movie was (and still is) an amazing experience. Along with Raising Arizona and 12 Angry Men it was a formative viewing experience that made me love film. Now that I think of it, I could probably write a similar post for the acting in those other two movies as well...
Thursday, 5 July 2007
I've been Meme-ed!
It's all the rage these days with the kids. It's the blog meme. And I just got tagged by Culture Snob.
I was kinda feeling pretty good. Sort of like being accepted as the new kid on the block. But as I note how many people have already got tagged by this particular meme, I'm thinking it's more like being picked last for the team ("Sigh, OK...We'll take Bob on our team...").
And yet, I'm still excited about it...
People who have been tagged are required to reveal eight facts about themselves and to post and obey the following rules:
- We have to post these rules before we give you the facts.
- Players start with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
- People who are tagged write their own blog post about their eight things and include these rules.
- At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names. Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged and that they should read your blog.
Eight Facts About Me
- My wife is Indian and I am pasty white. When we were getting some test photos taken of both of us (by a friend who was going to be our wedding photographer), he couldn't get the lighting right - either I was a glowing ball of white or he had to reduce the light coming in so much that my wife's features were too dark.
- One of my dreams was to become a radio DJ (not for a mainstream station, but one that allowed me to play what I wanted). I've managed to get on to college radio twice - once when I appeared as an out-of-town guest on my cousin Nelson's radio show (I think I played Marillion and The Call) and once as a guest DJ for the entirety of my friend James' prog rock show a couple of years ago. In the second case, the station programmer was listening during my appearance and later questioned my friend as to why we were playing such "loud" music during a Sunday morning slot ( I chose bands like Djam Karet, Anekdoten, Happy Family and my beloved Hoven Droven). He and James didn't see eye to eye on how to program the show and so they agreed to part ways. James still hasn't forgiven me.
- I'm about to start coaching my son's soccer team for the third year in a row. Up until now, it's been like herding cats, but this year they are 7 years old and will likely need to learn some, uh what do you call 'em, skills.
- I still tear up a bit near the end of Finding Nemo when Marlin cradles his son Nemo and you see him flash back to when he was still a little egg with a crack in it.
- When I was 12, my family drove across Canada (Montreal to Vancouver) and then back home through the States. I sat in the middle of the back seat in our parents' new Ford Custom 500 between my older brother and sister. We camped every night for a month. I'm amazed I still talk to any of them.
- I regularly opine the loss of logical and critical thinking in debates. Similarly, I don't understand why many people seem to think that seeing the grey areas in an argument or idea is a sign of weakness. Things these days are tending to the black and white ("Either you're with us or agin us!").
- The phrase "Do-it yourself renovation" gives me the heebie-jeebies.
- Beer and diet coke are my two favourite beverages (edit: to be more specific - Big Rock Traditional Ale or Sierra Nevada Pale Ale).
And now the list of 8 people I'm going to tag next...Remember, I'm actually excited about this, so don't get upset with me.
- Alonzo at Acrentropy.
- Chet at Opening Shots.
- Chris at Exploding Kinetoscope.
- David at Roger Really.
- Karen at Cinecultist.
- Michael at Zigzigger.
- Ray at Flickhead.
- Thom at Film Of The Year.
Now I'm off to map out the next soccer practice. Hmmm, I think we'll start with the wind sprints...
Sunday, 1 July 2007
Esoteric Picks #20 - Special Canada Day Edition
King Cobb Steelie - Project Twinkle (1994)
Producer Bill Laswell definitely applies his bass heavy dub sound over much of this Guelph band's second album, but he allows them to retain their range of sounds and their sense of groove. They have a fine sense of combining different styles (from funk to punk to dance beats to jazz). Their chiming guitar riffs dominate tunes like the opening "Slump" while others are more atmospheric. Though their following three albums are somewhat more consistent in style, they all have their surprises.
Classic English Language Film
Goin' Down The Road (1970)
A classic piece of Canadian cinema depicts 2 buddies from the East Coast who make their way to the big city of Toronto. They shuffle from job to job living a rather meager existence, occasionally getting drunk or meeting women. Though there's humour in the film, it's not exactly uplifting stuff - you know exactly where these guys are headed. As things go from bad to worse, it's apparent the big city didn't quite deliver on its promise. It defines for me "gritty low budget" filmmaking and of course those elements only add to the feeling of the film. I've heard people complain about the acting, but I thought both the lead actors delivered real and sympathetic characters - people you truly want to see achieve some happiness in their lives.
Recent English Language Film
A young group of downtown office workers bet each other to see who can avoid going outside the longest. In the catacomb of interconnecting passageways between apartment and office buildings, the task is physically possible. But the strain on the mental states of all the participants begins to grow...Director Gary Burns manages to keep the setting realistic (filmed in downtown Calgary) and yet still bring a sense of dreaminess to it all. The main characters aren't exactly likeable, but the movie is quite funny at times and makes some sharp points regarding our modern day habits.
La Grande Seduction (Seducing Dr. Lewis) (2003)
On Canada Day, I can hardly call a French language film from my home province of Quebec a "Foreign Language" film...This 2003 film is very much in the same gentle comedic vein as Local Hero and Waking Ned Devine, except for being set in a small Quebec fishing village. The fishing has dried up and the village is down on its luck with most of the men receiving welfare from the government. When the promise of a new factory is dangled to the town on the condition they find a full time doctor, they begin fabricating traditions to convince young Dr. Lewis (who happens to find himself stranded briefly in the town) to stay. They tap his phone, discover his weaknesses and then use that to their advantage - creating an annual festival of Beef Stroganoff and pulling together a cricket team. It may not be the most original film, but it's lovely, warm and genuinely funny.
Dracula: Pages From A Virgin's Diary (2002)
Guy Maddin is a unique filmmaker. Even if you dislike his very deliberate style and overall odd films (I admit to really disliking both his early Tales From The Gimli Hospital and his wider known Saddest Music In The World), you can't deny he has a distinctive view of his medium. With his re-telling of the dracula myth, he creates an absolutely beautiful piece of art. He manages to bring additional style to what is essentailly an old fashioned silent film by using lots of tints, irises, little splashes of specific colour and intertitles. Combined with music from Mahler and dancers from the Winnipeg Ballet, it's almost overwhelming at times. But what a way to be overwhelmed as shown in the trailer below:
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