Sunday, January 30, 2011

Let Them Eat Cake

Ministry of Fear (1944) - Lang
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Steve Neil (Ray Milland) is having a strange day. He gets released from an asylum after serving 2 years for poisoning his terminally ill wife. It was a mercy killing. Then he accidentally gets embroiled in a complicated Nazi plot involving a cake he won at a fair while waiting for a train to go to London 'to lead a normal, quiet life' and for some reason, everyone wants his cake: at first the ladies at the fair want it back, then on the train, it gets stolen by a man who pretends to be blind, who then dies in an air-raid. What the hell is going on?

This tight Graham Greene espionage thriller has great atmosphere and tension throughout with air-raid prone rainy London as a backdrop. The noir lighting in this film is just as sharp as Milland's hawky features. Highlights are the one involving the séance table and the night rooftop gunfight in the rain. I wish Lang could've elaborated on the nature of hypnosis in the beginning and the wall clock pendulum and séance element a little more because most of the time Ministry of Fear feels very much like a good Hitchcock film. One can easily see the film's influence on Coen Brothers. Anyone care for this slice of cake?

Life During Wartime

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) - Sturges
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Macreedy (Spencer Tracy), a mysterious one armed man in black, comes to Black Rock, a small desert town in the West and starts asking questions about a Jap farmer named Komoko who is nowhere to be seen. The townsfolk are less than welcoming, even downright hostile. The local honcho Smith (Robert Ryan, On Dangerous Ground, Billy Budd) who seems to be in charge of everything, wants Macreedy disappear.

This tale of racism/blind patriotism in the post-war small town America presented in anamorphic widescreen, features some amazing desert vistas in day time as well as night exterior scenes. Ryan is as menacing as ever, even shooting down a woman in cold blood in order to keep his racist murder case dead and buried in Black Rock. We get to know Macreedy's retired vet story. Tracy keeps the righteous torch burning 'til the end. Sturges mixes elements of Western and noir and the result is spectacular. Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin appear as Smith's goons. I got a great kick out of watching the scene where Tracy karate chops Borgnine. Great stuff.

I'm half horse half alligator scene

Mixed Tapes: Searching for Billie

Another mix from me over at 8tracks:

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Sperminator, not Spiderman on 42nd

The Basketball Diaries (1995) - Kalvert
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Jim Carroll, the Lower Eastside staple, writer, poet, musician and a former heroin addict is played by young Leonardo Dicaprio. It's the late 70s NY which was a completely different world compared to spic and span of Bloomberg's 2011 version. Young catholic schoolboy Carroll with his rabble rousing, little delinquent friends (including Mickey, played remarkably by Mark Wahlberg who shows that he can be great when he's being his meathead self and doesn't act seriously), tears down the night and the city. Soon ether sniffing and fantasizing about shooting up the school slips into burglary and homicide.

Drawing from Carroll's harrowing experience as a junkie, Dicaprio really shines as a once promising high school basketball star to heroin addict who'd do anything to score some dope. Lorraine Bracco as discombobulated but tough working-class mom, Bruno Kirby as a basketball coach with pedophile tendencies make up the great supporting cast. It didn't make much impression when I first saw it years ago and my lady who grew up in NY had never seen the film before. And I'm glad I watched this with her.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Falling Out of Love

Blue Valentine (2010) - Cianfrance
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Documentary director Cianfrance examines a young couple's relationship, juxtaposing their sweet beginning with their falling out of love. Ryan Gosling plays Dean, a high school dropout underachiever and Michelle Williams plays Cindy, a med student from an upper middle class family. They share the common broken home background. In the beginning, it's a love-at-first-sight story, if a little too cliché involving abortion. 6 years later, Cindy has fallen out of love. With no one to blame and a lovely daughter in tow, the couple's marriage disintegrates. Both actors are endearing in those joyful and painful moments. Cianfrance's reductionism- focusing exclusively on the beginning and ending of the relationship, and no clutter of other characters to populate the couple's world, leaves the audience with deep, sad, beautiful sense of longing. I think it might have been better if he left the beginning of their relationship and the falling out part completely separate. But either way, I wanted more.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Mixed Tapes

It was a matter of time someone had a good idea to set up a website for people to make their own mixed music list and share with others. Me, being the former mix tape master, this is very good news. After several days of idling, I put up a couple of mixes at 8tracks.com. I urge to join all of you my friends to do the same. Please click & listen to them for your pleasure:



Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Vulnerables

Suburbia (1984) - Spheeris
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I haven't felt this kind of empathy toward the kids on the skid in films since My Own Private Idaho. This is what Korines and Clarks of the world try very hard to emulate and always come across as bullshit. This is what Alex Cox succeeds in presenting only in attitude and spirits with his films. Suburbia is the real thing. Spheeris has real affection for these non-actors who act out their squatter punk kids roles super awkwardly, which is totally befitting for the film.

It starts out with a toddler being attacked by a vicious half breed doberman pinscher and ends with another gut wrenching tragedy. These punk kids might act tough, but they are vulnerable and need to be protected, not exploited. Spheeris understood that. Features D.I. and TSOL and the Vandals performances.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

I want my underwear to be handwashed

The Housemaid (2010) - Im
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Plotwise, this remake of the old Korean classic doesn't rise above Lifetime channel movie of the week - a naive young woman getting a job at a super rich family mansion as a housemaid, sexually being taken advantage of by its handsome head of the family, gets pregnant, forced to have her baby aborted, takes revenge.

But under Im Sang-soo (President's Last Bang)'s direction, the film becomes a sly take on class a la Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoigie. It starts out with a random suicide of a girl in a busy neon and glass night where fashionable young people hang out. The difference of their young carefree life and people who serve them is shown in a very effective handheld- documentary style. Our heroine Eun-yi (adorable Jeon Do-yeon), a lowly restaurant worker is seen trying to get a peek at the fresh corpse. She is not frightened or sad, just curious.

I don't have to mention anything obvious here - the power play involving oral sex, the importance of male in Korean household... The thing is, everything, from set design, framing to acting, is just flawless. Im's robotic precision is counterbalanced by Jeon's good hearted, if not naive Eun-yi and Yun Yeo-jong's Byung-sik, the all knowing, eye-rolling, head of the caretakers. Despite all the fabulous looking people in the film, the middle aged Byung-sik, whose lifelong servitude to the obscenely rich family which make her a conflicted character, so much fun to watch.

Im saves the grotesquery of the wealthy to the last minute. But the build up (to the not so subtle climax and ending that can be read as slapdash) is so engaging and understated that it only amplifies the brilliance of Im's precision filmmaking.

Art of Seduction

The Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl (2009) - Oliveira
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The film starts with a distraught young man on a train, telling his hard luck story to a stranger next to him about his pursuit of a young blonde he first saw across the street from his office window. All the shots are so static and dolly movements so careful, as if not to disturb stuffy, dusty interior that feels like an old antique shop.

In its 64 minutes running time, time in The Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl is subjective - we see snow covered ground outside the train window in the beginning, green scenery by the end. The clock tower is missing arms but chimes away nonetheless.
Oliveira creates a richly layered parable about unattainability of perfection with beguiling Catarina Wallenstein as highly fallible example to the notion of ideal romantic muse. The problem I had with it is that its enigma disappears once you take the film as a parable. And the ending is very unsatisfying. Directed when he was 101 years of age, however well put together this film is, you can almost smell the old man's musk.

Mice that Roared: Dustin's Top 10 Films 2010

I don't know about you, but for me, 2010 was a really lackadaisical year for films. My movie going/viewing experience wasn't as vigorous as last year (and I say this every year- I guess I really am not seeing as many as before). Mainly small films and documentaries dominate the list. And here they are:

*Click on titles for reviews*

1. White Material - Denis
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2. Film Socialisme - Godard
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3. Exit Through the Gift Shop - Banksy
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4. Never Let Me Go - Romanek



5. Winter's Bone - Granik
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6. Black Swan - Aronofsky
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7. Marwencol - Malmberg
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8. Non ma fille, tu n'iras pas danser/Making Plans for Lena - Honoré
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9. Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo
- Oreck

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10. The Housemaid
- Im

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Honorable mentions: Dear Doctor - Nishikawa
The Runaways, Bare Essence of Life, Alle Anderen/Everyone Else, Altiplano, Milk of Sorrow, Les Regrets, Turn It Up to 11, Missing Persons...

Friday, January 14, 2011

East of Eden: Kim Tae-gyun Interview

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In 2002, East Timor (officially Timor Leste), a tiny island nation 400 miles north of Australia, became the first independent nation of the 21st century. A former Portuguese colony and invaded and annexed in 1975 by Indonesia with the help of US, this nation's history is marred by violence and poverty.

Director Kim Tae-gyun (Volcano High, The Crossing) uses this volatile backdrop for his latest film A Barefoot Dream, tells a story of a former Korean soccer star and failed businessman who travels to East Timor, like many other opportunistic foreigners, in the hopes of exploiting the local economy. Instead, he ends up coaching a soccer team of poverty stricken East Timorese kids, ultimately bringing them to a world tournament soccer victory. The film makes its North American premiere at the Tribeca Cinemas in Manhattan as part of bi-monthly Korean Film Nights series, made possible by Korean Cultural Service and the Subway Cinema. I had an opportunity to sit down and talk with director Kim prior to the screening:

How did you come across this incredible story?


There was a Korean TV documentary about East Timor and its independence. They featured coach Kim Shin-hwan and the East Timorese kids and how they won the Hiroshima International Youth Soccer Tournament very briefly. In it, Kim says, "I wish I could feed these kids some meat from time to time." That appealed to me a great deal.

Did many Koreans know about the existence of East Timor prior to A Barefoot Dream? In the States, except for some reports by independent journalists, the situation in East Timor didn't generate a lot of attention in mainstream media.

Yes and no, there were debates on sending peacekeeping troops in the parliament without much of fanfare (which we eventually ended up doing) when Indonesian troops were violently oppressing the East Timorese. I think Koreans are more aware of international issues once it became a viable economic power.

Was coach Kim Shin-hwan (as Won-kwang in the film, played by Park Hee-soon) involved in making of the film?


Oh, absolutely, from beginning to end. If it weren't for him, we wouldn't have the film. Just like you see in the film, Kim got to know the locals pretty well, first with his broken English (or Konglish as we call it) then by picking up their dialect. He was not only our consultant, but a guide, interpreter and ambassador. It was his friendship with Xanana Gusmão(the former President and present Prime Minister of East Timor) that made possible for him to appear as himself in the film!

What were some of the challenges you faced shooting in East Timor?

They literally had nothing there. After years of violent conflicts, there was no infrastructure set up. We had problems as soon as we landed. Bureaucracy over there is tantamount. Our gear was stuck at the airport for a long time. There have been no film productions in East Timor other than one Australian documentary crew before us. Dili is a small town of about 15000 people. And we needed about 300 extras for many of the scenes. We put out an ad for cast and extras but no one came. We had to actively seek out people on the street. But they had no concept of film business. They just came and went as they pleased. Understandably they were busy eking out a living. But for us every step was a challenge since all the things we took for granted in film productions were not there.

You have some amazing kids in this film. How was the casting process?

We cast mostly from Coach Kim's pool. He had about 30 members in his team. We picked kids whom we felt right for the part. They were around 9-11 years old.

Was it a difficult to direct them?


When the script was finalized, we gave them copies and asked them to read it prior to shooting. But kids just being kids, not some professional child actors, non of them read the script all the way through (laughs). So I had to sit them down beginning each day of the shooting and read it aloud together, one page at a time.

What became of the original team members?


As you know, it was 2004 when Kim led the East Timor team to become champions. The original members of that team are now in their late teens and many of them make appearances in the film (as grown up soccer players). They all went different ways. Some of them are still playing soccer.

You think some of the kids from the film have a future in professional soccer, for instance, Ramos? He is phenomenal.


Yes. I think Ramos could definitely be a soccer star. The other two (Motavio and Tuo), I'm not sure. I think they like to play but have other interests.

Your previous film, The Crossing (2008) (about the flight of the North Korean refugees) dealt with an important subject. Are you generally attracted to social justice issues in making films?


I think it's got to do with me getting old. I don't think film should be made just for entertainment purposes. I think there should be a good balance between entertainment and substance. At least that's what I try to do anyway.

There is talk that A Barefoot Dream is being considered for nomination for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. This film would certainly deserve such an honor.

For Trailer, Please visit Subway Cinema for Free Korean Movie Night

Monday, January 10, 2011

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Before Sunset for Grown Ups?

Certified Copy (2010) - Kiarostami
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Is it safe to say Certified Copy is Before Sunset made by Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry, Wind Will Carry Us, Close-Up) starring middle aged people? Well, not really. It starts out with an Englishman James (William Shimell, resembling David Strathairn) giving a talk on his new book about the legitimacy of copies compared originals in art in picturesque Tuscani. As an infatuated antique dealer (Juliette Binoche, reviving her frazzled single mom in Hou Hsiao-Hsien's The Flight of the Red Balloon) picks James up and drives him around town as a guide, the film becomes something else: deconstruction of a marriage. Even though it's the first film set outside Iran, there are Kiarostami touches everywhere- long driving shots, actors talking while looking at you straight in the eyes, blurring the lines of what's real and what's not. As the couple exchange tit-a-tat, we witness the copy of the real married couple breaking apart.

I realized while watching it, that Kiarostami was at it with his magic again, completely blowing away my expections of what the movie was going to be with his elegance in simplicity.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011