Saturday 28 February 2009

Random Notes #9

I put this screenshot here for no better reason than the obvious...It's frosty beer.

The Flight Of The Red Balloon (2007 - Hou Hsiao-Hsien) - Ed Howard's comments about "Mulholland Dr." in this House Next Door post kinda fits my own general feelings about Hou's latest (in particular the last line):

"Did I understand it? Not even close. Subsequent viewings revealed layers of narrative and themes that I hadn't detected the first time. But the sensation of watching the film, the mystery and beauty of its images, the ideas about imagination, fantasy, movies and loss bubbling up through its obscurity, these were all there the first time. The fact that I was compelled to revisit the film a second time—indeed, probably close to a dozen times by now—says a lot about the power of that first experience, that it made me want to return to this film so frequently. I do trust my instincts, and I trust them to know when a film has more to offer me"

Though it didn't completely weave its magic on me, I wouldn't be surprised if a second viewing did. The languid pace, the wandering camera (which was obviously carefully planned), the casual discussions and the lack of a specific plot all tie together to give the film the feel that we're just dropping in on the daily activities of just another "family" in Paris - Juliette Binoche's hectic life is balanced by the complete calm of her son's new nanny, but there's a strong feeling of loneliness from all the characters. As one reviewer said, the film makes you feel like you just spent a week in Paris. That alone is reason enough to see this lovely albeit very slow moving work.

The Films Of Budd Boetticher (1957-1960 - Budd Boetticher) - I had a great time with this set of 5 films by director Boetticher and star Randolph Scott (who also associate produces). Each is under 80 minutes and chugs along at a nice brisk pace. Several of the films (particularly "The Tall T" and "Buchanan Rides Alone") have almost a "TV episode" feel to them as they have some awkwardly plotted moments and poorly staged action scenes, but no matter - the middle sections of all the films are extremely engaging and pretty much define the term "taut". Scott feels a bit old for some of the roles and occasionally comes across a bit goofy, but when he's in full-bore-angry-man-looking-for-vengeance mode he's terrific. "Decision At Sundown" and "Ride Lonesome" are probably my faves of the bunch, but each has gorgeous mountainous backdrops, interesting characters (flawed heroes and complex bad guys) and pithy statements about "what a man's gotta do..."

The Tall T

Decision At Sundown

Buchanan Rides Alone

Ride Lonesome

Comanche Station

The Talk Of The Town (1942 - George Stevens) - A few minutes into this I had to do a quick double check of the liner notes on the DVD to verify this was actually a comedy...Cary Grant is accused of arson and murder at the outset of the film and then escapes prison as his death sentence approaches. He holes up in the attic of a house rented for the summer to a legal big wig looking for peace and quiet in order to finish writing his book. Through your standard screwball plot contrivances, the house's caretaker (Jean Arthur) becomes the lawyer's secretary for the summer and Grant pretends to be the gardener. The three spend a number of meals and fireside chats going over their legal philosophies - Grant is of the compassionate justice mind while the lawyer is more clinical and believes that the law is the law. There's some surprisingly interesting back and forth debates by the two, but it's Jean Arthur's warmth and humour that really pulls the film together. Her comic timing is subtle, but almost always spot on to get the most impact in a situation or line reading. Very entertaining throughout.

She Done Him Wrong (1933 - Lowell Sherman) - Mae West is really the sole attraction here (though a young Cary Grant seems to be already able to hold his own) as she cracks off one liners after double entendres. My favourite: "I wasn't always rich. No, there was a time I didn't know where my next husband was coming from." It's certainly a movie of its time though - at one point she calls her black maidservant "eight ball". At 66 minutes, this is apparently the shortest film ever nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. Short of West's dominating performance, I don't see much else here that warrants the Oscar nomination, but West sure is bigger than life.

The Underrated Blog-a-thon at Chicago Ex-Pat

Jamie over at Chicago Ex-Patriate is jumping into the Blog-a-thon fray near the end of the month. It's his first one, so mark down March 23-27 as dates to contribute to the Underrated Blog-a-thon. Film, music, art, literature...Any art form qualifies since they all have their hidden gems or misunderstood masterpieces or well-known but not well-loved pieces.

Perfect. I can drum up some love for my favourite band on the planet - Hoven Droven. And even Scandinavian music in general. I'd babble on more about my adoration of these Swedish lads and their electrified folk tunes, but then I'd be jumping the gun wouldn't I?

By the way, remember that the band is Swedish...So the final word that comes up on screen at the end of the video doesn't mean what you think it means - it's a Swedish word for "End".

A Much Improved "In Memoriam"

From Roger Ebert's Journal:

This is a wonderful set of choices for the clips and it's nice to be able to see them all put together like this. It's pretty much the video they showed during the Oscars, but the constantly moving camera and different screens took the focus away from the purpose of the segment - to honour and remember those who have passed. I find it's much more powerful and respectful simply shown like this.

Apparently not many people agree with my overall thoughts though (ratings up 13%, many critical and blog raves for the telecast). Oh well.

Monday 23 February 2009

My Problem With The Oscars Ceremony

I haven't seen many of the films that were up for nominations this year (except for "WALL-E", "Man On Wire", "The Visitor", "In Bruges", "Tropic Thunder" and "Kung Fu Panda"), but I still watched the Oscars. I missed my friend's Oscar party for the first time in roughly 15 years unfortunately, but I was still looking forward to the telecast. Yes, it's long and self-serving, but I always liked how it was a 3-4 hour celebration of film.

But it didn't feel like that tonight. Yep, they had some of the previous winners on stage for presentations and did mini-chronicles of 2008 films within a couple of high level genres, but it all felt removed somewhat...

Part of it was due to the way they were presenting clips of the nominated films. Either the live camera was roving across another screen showing the clip or a backdrop had several different smaller screens or stills. I don't think it was until the very end when they had that montage of previous films cut in with the year's top 5 did the clips actually fill my entire screen at home. The films just seemed to be after thoughts.

And the acting presentations...The actors were nominated for their "acting" - could we see some of it? Nope. Instead we got 20 different personal tributes from other winners. So it appears that The Academy's strategy for getting more peope to watch is to make it about the "stars" and not their performances or the films themselves. Well, so be it I guess...I know the ratings have taken a tumble or two the last few years (particularly last year I think), so go crazy with your special half circle seating area for the "stars", the lack of any celebration of the films of yesterday (except that final montage) and the multiple bumper announcements about "the most talked about award this year" (ie. stay tuned as we hope there will be tears over Heath).

But did you have to screw up the In Memoriam too? The camera woozily moved in and out and back and forth to the screen showing the faces and names of those who passed away - so much so that I expect some people would not have even been able to even read who some of those folks were. And seriously - could you mute the freaking audience microphones? Do we always have to hear the applause meter to see who the crowd liked the most (Pollack over Minghella apparently). And only one clip with actual audio (for Newman)? I guess you couldn't have heard over Queen Latifa's LIVE singing anyway...Geez.

I know, I know...Big whoop. Some good things though:

  • Kate Winslet's request for her Dad to whistle so she could find him. That was great.
  • I know some people find Philippe Petit (the focus of Best Documentary winner "Man On Wire") to be annoying, but if you could balance the Oscar upside down on your chin in front of hundreds of millions of people wouldn't you do it too?
  • The classiness of the Ledger family.
  • The woman who won for Best Documentary Short ("Smile Pinki") had one of the best thought out, timed and honest speeches of the night.
  • Jerry Lewis' speech was mercifully short.
  • Yay WALL-E!
  • I got 18 of 24 in my Oscar Pool. Don't if that was enough to win yet...

Monday 16 February 2009

M.I.A. on Region 1 DVD - "Survive Style 5+"

Jeremy over at Moon In The Gutter has been paying tribute all month to films that are not available on Region 1 DVD. I don't have much to contribute since I mostly see R1 discs, but one example of a film I'd love to see get wider distribution in North America would be Gen Sekikuchi's 2004 burst of energy "Survive Style 5+".

I've mentioned the film before, but it bears repeating. It was one of the most fun cinema experiences I've had over the last few years (I can only imagine how much better it would have been with more than just the 7 people who were in the theatre) and I've been dying to see it again since then. It's essentially 5 separate stories about different people dealing with some major curveballs from life and their different styles of surviving. Yes, that is indeed Vinnie Jones amongst an otherwise completely Japanese cast. Sonny Chiba also makes an appearance as does the terrific Tadanobu Asano.

The pace is fast as the stories cut between each other and overlap characters. The humour ranges from completely absurd to extremely dark - a hypnotized man behaves like a chicken, a wife keeps coming back from the dead (with different abilities each time), a British hitman and his interpreter accost people and mini-commercials are scattered throughout. The colour schemes alone (especially in the first story with Asano) are a visual treat.

Apparently since the film only got music rights for release in Japan, it's not likely to be found in Region 1 anytime soon. I've posted the trailer before, so here's an extended scene from the film. Having just killed and buried his wife, Asano's character returns home to find...his wife. It builds quite slowly, but stay with it:

Oh what the hell, here's another trailer:

I expect that I'll get myself that region free player this year simply so that I can get the version of this DVD that's out there (the Region 2 has English subtitles). And I'll be all smiles at that point.

Sunday 15 February 2009

Random Notes #8

A Wedding (1978 - Robert Altman) - Though it never hits the heights of his best films, Altman's "A Wedding" from 1978 is a prime example of an ensemble cast weaving through numerous story lines and little episodes that slowly unravel a bigger picture. In this case it all happens within a 24 hour period at the wedding of a young couple and the reception at the bride's parents' sprawling estate afterwards. There's plenty of odd moments, some that don't work, but it has a great cast (Carol Burnett, Paul Dooley, Pat McCormick, Lilian Gish, etc.), some genuinely funny scenes and Altman's restless camera.

MGM: When The Lion Roars (1992 - Frank Martin) - A 6 hour trip through the history of MGM Studios, this documentary has some great clips, old archival footage and interesting tidbits about the stars of the 30s and 40s (not to mention studio bosses Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer). It spends the vast majority of its running length in those early years, but that was the studio's peak and fortunately there were still plenty of actors, editors and cameramen still around to reminisce freely about how things operated. One problem though is host Patrick Stewart - he goes a smidge over the top in some of the linking segments (on some strangely created sets that are supposed to be in the clouds) and brings way too much seriousness to some of the mawkish lines written for him. Here's his introduction (I love his reading of the line at the 1:07 mark - "...was the grandest motion picture studio the world has ever known!" - with each successive word getting louder and louder):

That's a helluva smoking jacket he's got on though.

With the set of clips that starts at the 2:17 mark, you can see that MGM had no shortage of great films to cover - certainly worth putting up with even the worst of Stewart's orations.

Sukiyaki Western Django (2007 - Takashi Miike) - I simply expected this film to be more fun...There's some great looking shots, spiffy angles and neat ideas (a crossbow arrow flying through the hole in someone's chest, etc.), but it didn't really make me smile much. Sure it hits a bunch of spaghetti western and samurai film tributes along the way, but there's plenty of slow spots and the set pieces just didn't quite excite as much as they should have. Other facets of the film I liked: the surreal painted sky near the beginning of the film, the lovely winter scene near the end and both female performances.

Nick And Norah's Infinite Playlist (2008 - Peter Sollett) - Another example of a film just not quite reaching the heights it could have - and not because it wasn't what I wanted it to be, but because it wasn't more of what it was actually trying to be. The relationship between the two leads is kinda sweet and the performances (by both Michael Cera and Kat Dennings) are natural enough that you really like these kids. But it gets hung up on some rather dull funny business, goofy plot and way too many silent pauses while characters look shyly at one another. I can even forgive the ability of all the characters to always find parking spots right in front of busy downtown NY clubs (though during one point in the movie they come to a deserted church and yet they park way across the intersection from it), but it became a bit too much with the final secret show on top of the roof. It didn't have to be a realistic portrayal of a night out in NY, but it just didn't give me enough of the relationship so I couldn't help but notice everything else - including all the other characters that didn't add very much (Cera's ex-girlfriend is a 100% bitch, Dennings on-again-off-again boyfriend is a 100% dick, etc.). Still, there were some nice touches - Cera's gay band mates acting as cupid for the couple and some of the snippets of dialogue between the two leads.

Pineapple Express (2008 - David Gordon Green) - This actually exceeded my expectations. Granted they weren't overly high to begin with, but I enjoyed the whole take on the manly action movie from a stoner's perspective. James Franco and Danny McBride have their timing down pat and provide most of the film's funny moments. Seth Rogen is fine, but I'm hoping to see him do something a bit different next time out - I'm not as tired of his schtick as some other people are, but I'm getting there. As opposed to Nick And Norah, in this case I embraced all the completely unrealistic and impossible elements of the plot.

Monday 9 February 2009

Misunderstood Genius or Spectacular Failure?

...or simply something in between?

As some of the bigger films of 2008 start to trickle out to DVD, I can finally begin catching up on what so many folks were talking about last year. I usually watch most of the new releases by getting the 3 for $10 deal (for 5 days) from my local video store, so the trio I picked up a week or so ago (I am REALLY slow on the posts coming out of the 2009 gate...) was:

  • Burn After Reading
  • My Blueberry Nights
  • Speed Racer

Three vastly different movies that share a common trait: They were all pretty much eviscerated by many critics when first released. All three films suffered a raft of slings and arrows mostly due to high expectations given the directors involved (Coen Brothers, Wong Kar-Wai, Wachowski Brothers). But as their releases widened, all three seemed to find their fan bases and suddenly there were passionate defenses and appearances on Top 10 lists for the year. So I've been slightly curious...

As it turns out, all three share something else: In the end they all made me shrug "Meh". All had extraordinary moments and characteristics, but in the end just left me thinking "well, it wasn't bad, but...".

For example, the first 20-25 minutes of "Burn After Reading" was, frankly, boring...It turned a corner fortunately and Brad Pitt's comic turn was inspired at times (I also loved Richard Jenkins and Clooney), but the story failed me. I found it fizzled at the end and overall balanced out to a middling affair. I know it's a film about "nothing", but knowing that didn't help much in making it more interesting. I did laugh out loud at Clooney's "I meant the back seat, not a rear entry affair..." line - mainly due to his delivery.

With "My Blueberry Nights", I fully expected to be cringing with every line delivery by Norah Jones if early reviews were to be believed. But she wasn't that bad - not exactly subtle or with a wide range, but certainly at least adequate for the role she filled in the film. As well, the look of everything was gorgeous - Kar-Wai fills his frames with colour and care (though I was getting awfully sick of that jittery slow motion - it reminded me of cheesy 80s music videos). The setup and the idea of Jones reporting back her travels to Jude Law's Cafe owner was fine, but I found that neither of the two long stories (the first with Rachel Weisz and David Strathairn, the second with Natalie Portman) were really worth their length. Even typing that, I find it strange to think it - I should be happy to have the extended time with these people to flesh out their characters, especially with the quality of the actors (Weisz and Strathairn are pretty great). But I think it would've worked more towards helping the wrap around story and Jones' character if there had been at least one or two more stories as she hopped between waitress and barmaid jobs.

Then there's "Speed Racer" - hitting the Top and Bottom 10s of many of the bloggers and critics I respect the most. I was quite apprehensive going in, but was pleasantly surprised that the visuals weren't as distracting or headache inducing as I had been led to believe. As a matter of fact - they were stunning. Every single frame of the film looked like a Lite-Brite set had just exploded right underneath a rainbow. The race courses reminded me of the strange, convoluted ones I built as a kid using popsicle sticks, Hot Wheels tracks, cardboard tubes and anything else I could find lying around. These were much cooler though...And the acting was far superior to what I expected as both John Goodman and Susan Sarandon actually created real people within this cartoonish world. But again, it was the story that let the whole thing down. Dull, predictable and without a single interesting character outside the immediate family. I know the bad guys are supposed to be bad, but did they also have to be boring? I found that whenever the plot returned from the racing, I started to tune out or had to find refuge in the beautiful pictures. The additional issue - the one that brings it much further down my list for the year - was the character of Spritle Racer, Speed's young brother. What the hell were they thinking? He was, hands down, the most annoying unfunny character I've seen in the past year. Perhaps longer. I don't know the original show of Speed Racer, so I can't say if they were trying to recreate something from it or just felt they needed some humour for the kids. Whatever the case, they failed miserably. I gritted my teeth every single moment that kid was on screen while he mugged away and shouted his lines.

In the final analysis for me, all three films are somewhere below average if I take into account all the 2008 films I saw. Some great moments, sequences and acting - but stories that just didn't pull me in and never managed to get me to really care what happened in the end. I'm glad I saw them though (and actually have a strong urge to see "Speed Racer" again at some point...).

Next up? Probably "The Flight Of The Red Balloon", "Mister Lonely", "Pineapple Express", "Sukiyaki Western Django" and "Ping Pong Playa". So I'll report back on those sometime in, oh I don't know, June...