Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Pretty Jamie Gumm

The Collector (1965) - Wyler
A young, introverted butterfly collector (Terrence Stamp) in a secluded big house with a separate cellar, moves up his territory when he kidnaps a pretty art school student (Samantha Eggar). After begging and pleading and escape attempts, they sort of agree on their terms - he will let her go after 4 weeks, hoping she will fall in love with him.

With only two principal actors (plus one small character in the middle), this John Fowles adaptation feels more like a play. Young Stamp is intense, playing the role of creepy, shy man with chips on his shoulders. Is it sex that you want from me? Miranda the art student asks him. No. He wants to respect her as a proper woman.

There is a big confrontation over Catcher in the Rye. Their class differences are highlighted and the gap between them is obviously too wide. The film suffers from Fowles passive aggressiveness of the characters and their shallow psychological makeup. Stamp is effectively creepy but the film doesn't quite escape from its Stockholm Syndrome/captive drama mold.

I Hate Musicals

Sell Out! (2008) - Yeo
The Filmbegins with sultry Rafflesia (Jessica Lai) interviewing a Malaysian film auteur for her low end TV talk show called "For Art's Sake". The auteur is Yeo Joon Han (the director making a cameo) who just won the prestigious Young Overseas Chinese Women New Directors Honorary Mention Award at the Krychindangzhongbushaus Village Far Eastern Film Festival. When asked about why his almost silent indie art film "Love is Love and Nothing Else", is so slow and boring, Yeo, who appears in the nude for the interview (and seems very comfortable), vehemently defends the authenticity of his film by citing that in real life, nothing really happens, that no one actually breaks out into a song in the middle of it. He goes on even further, stating that people who make musicals should be chopped into 18 pieces!

This prologue shows director Yeo's mischievous intentions. Sell Out! is an all-out, over-the-top satirical musical romantic comedy where many things happen and people break out into songs, many times over. And it's uproariously funny.

After capturing her lovelorn boyfriend's death on camera where he recites his poem before he dies, Rafflesia comes up with a concept for the ever-popular reality TV - a televised death. This will surely show her pretty half-English rival who the boss is. The only problem is, she has to wait by the deathbeds until her sadsack subjects croak. A potential megahit in her hand but under the tight deadline, she has to find a more reliable subject very soon. What kind of deaths are predictable? Suicides.

Enter Eric (Peter Davis), an honest engineer who works for the same greedy conglomerate that Rafflesia works for, named, ahem, Fony Corporation. He is in a pickle because the clownish corporate bigwigs can't believe their ears when they hear his 8-in-1 soy bean machine is built so well, it won't break right after its warranty runs out. How can you make money out of the product that won't break down? This is followed by musical number, "Money". They end up exorcising Eric's creative 'dreamer' side out of him, But the exorcism goes wrong, resulting in two Erics - the dreamer and the practical. Deeply depressed by all this, the practical Eric comes up with a plan involving lovely but heartless Rafflesia.

Director Yeo jabs at many things with his ironic sense of humor - snobby art film scene, money hungry corporate culture, absurd reality TV shows and even Malay English (Manglish). The film's filled with horrible, insensitive jokes and people but in Yeo's hand, they never feel malicious.

Sell Out! caught me by surprise, since I didn't know what to expect watching my first Malaysian movie. It's a light romantic comedy version of Network set in bustling modern day Kuala Lumpur with its own karaoke singalong time built in for the audience. I haven't had this rib roaring good time watching a film in a long while.

Sell Out! will be screening as part of the 10th annual New York Asian Film Festival on Friday, July 1st and Monday, July 4th. You can find out more information at the NYAFF website.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Lunch break Contemplation on Life

Tree of Life (2011) - Malick
Tree of Life
It is a noble attempt to visualize someone contemplating his life for five minutes in his office during a lunch break. But The Tree of Life as a film just doesn't work. It is a fluffy snoozefest, 'Cotton: the fabric of our lives' commercial stretched out for two and a half hours with a better quality National Graphic episode thrown in. An old photograph from one's own past can more effectively evoke such thoughts than that of Malick's pretty picture diorama.

It's beautiful I admit on many occasions and some of the details of growing up are beautifully done. My problem is not with its semi-narrative structure. I appreciate poetry as much as the next guy. It has to do with how it's put together. It's way, way too meandering. And the walk on the beach scene showcases Malick's gooey life affirming tendencies at its most cringe inducing worst.


Under the Volcano (1984) - Huston
Al Finney's boosy Brit diplomat the south of the border is fun to watch. But it's a bit too melodramatic for me. I've heard a lot about Malcolm Lowry's book that the film is based on, filled with symbolism, details and whatnot about the looming WWII. The ominous vocano, white horse, Day of the Dead are all there in the background but they don't make that much of an impact on the story of a man who can't get over his wife's infidelity. Solidly done, and Finney's great. But I couldn't get over how a scrumptious woman like Jacqueline Bisset would come crawling back for pale, flabby man who is drinking himself to hell. He gets away with saying hurtful things because he is drunk. I've always hated that passive aggressive tendency about drunks. It still makes me curious about the book.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Fire Within

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) - Reisz
Whatever people say I am, that's what I am not.

With his rugged good looks and swagger, Arthur (young Albert Finney) is a hard working, hard drinking factory worker. Constant trouble maker in arrested development, he has to face the consequences and think about settling down when he gets his girlfriend at the moment- a wife of a co-worker, Brenda (Rachel Roberts) pregnant and meets pretty, young Doreen (Shirley Ann Field). Would he change his ways and become like his characterless parents who only know work and TV?

Saturday Night is a matter of fact depiction of working class. "All I'm out for is a good time - all the rest is propaganda." Arthur declares in his narration early on. Finney's at his best being a brut without real menace. Straight laced Roberts plays an object of desire for a good looking working class bloke here and again in This Sporting Life for young Richard Harris three years later.

Quoted and loved by many British rockers- from Steve Ignorant of Crass to Morrissey to Arctic Monkeys, I can see how Arthur's take-it-or-leave-it attitude appealed to many young men before Travis Bickle age.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Heartbreak Capital

Cafe Noir (2009) - Jeoung
Cafe Noir is screening for free Tuesday, June 21 at 7:00 PM, as part of Korean Movie Night at Tribeca Cinemas. You can find more details and information on the Subway Cinema site.

Jeoung Sung-il, a well regarded Korean film critic, makes a directorial debut with Cafe Noir, largely based on two works of literature - Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther and Dostoevsky's White Nights. This sprawling three hours plus contemplation on love and heartbreak also draws from many different cinematic sources. This concoction doesn't always work, but is still quite intoxicating. And in Jeoung's hands, Seoul, the neon megalopolis, becomes the new capital of the heartbroken.

The film opens with a young woman unwrapping and eating a hamburger while looking up forlornly to the heavens in what appears to be an indoor mall. Tears roll down on her cheeks as we see her stuffing her face in real time. She is our Joan of Arc of the fastfood age, christening the film.

Young-soo (Shin Ha-gyun, Sympathy for Mr, Vengeance, Save the Green Planet), a music teacher, is first seen getting dumped by his lover- a mother of one of his pupils, on a Christmas eve. Not accepting the defeat, he devises a plan to off the obstacle (the woman's monstrous, Rilke quoting husband). When he fails to kill the husband of his lover, Young-soo realizes that for the happiness of the woman he loves, it is he who needs to be out of the picture.

For the second part of the film, Young-soo re-emerges, only to go through another crushing heartbreak. He meets a young woman on a bridge by chance (showcasing the brightly restored Chung-gye creek which runs through the heart of Seoul). She begs him not to fall in love with her, but to be a confidant and proceeds to tell him a sob story in one long take- she has been waiting for her lover on the bridge for a year. They made a promise to meet after a year if they still love each other. Tonight might be the night, or tomorrow night, or the night after.... Her lover is obviously not coming, and our melancholic hero can't help falling for this delusional, yet vibrant, lovesick woman.

With its deliberate episodic pacing, arduous monologues, forever tracking shots, mix of B&W/color photography, a lot of intriguing supporting characters and a lot of film references (from The Red Balloon to The Band of Outsiders' dancing sequence to jabbing at recent Korean movie hits- Old Boy and The Host), Cafe Noir is a truly astounding cinematic examination of unrequited love.

With everything mapped out to a tee, Jeoung's style is quite the opposite of Wong Kar-wai. But it wouldn't be a stretch to regard him from now on as Wong's cerebral brother.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Wrong Play!

The Dresser (1983) - Yates
The setting is WWII London. Norman (Tom Courtenay) is a dresser to an aging Shakespearean actor, known only as Sir (Albert Finney in his career best). The only reason the senile actor can marginally perform his Othello, Macbeth, Richard III, King Lear night after night without fail is because of Norman. He dresses, washes, coerces, pep-talks, encourages, feeds lines to, takes insults and rants from the old man.

Sir has a close call and ends up in a hospital after he throws a fit in the bombed out London street. As the theater staff contemplate on shutting down the production, they find him returned to his dressing room and being incoherent. Is he going to be somewhat ready for tonight's performance of King Lear?

With Ronald Harwood (The Pianist, Diving Bell and the Butterfly)'s blistering script, the two of the most gifted British actors go mano-a-mano. Watching them in real time as Norman harangues downright deranged Sir to get ready is an exhausting experience. Norman is at once Salieri to Sir's Mozart, Felix to Oscar, Ratso to Buck, King to Fool. Thanks to Courtenay, Norman's affection and devotion for his master is real and heartfelt. Very awesome.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Feline Curse

Kuroneko/Black Cat (1968) - Shindo
The film starts with the farmers- mother and her daughter-in-law, gang raped and their house burned down by a band of lawless samurai. The women's black house cat ringers around their charred corpses. The setting is warring medieval Japan.

When they appear again, they are beautifully dressed courtesans luring the samruai in to the bamboo forest in the middle of the night and sucking their blood dry. Distressed leader sends the rising young samurai to destroy these monsters. The fate would have it, the young samurai happens to be the son and the husband of the two farmers who were raped and killed.

As shown in his Onibaba, Kaneto Shindo again, shows his hatred for the ruling warrior class and greed. Black Cat follows the best Japanese ghost story traditon, a la Ugetsu. Also it is the rape revenge story that is far more artful and elegant. The theatrical set and dramatic lighting are beautifully composed. It also features some great wire work and beautiful day for night shots. Very worth checking out.

Friday, June 10, 2011

What is Flesh Alone?

Je Vous Salue, Marie/Hail Mary (1985) - Godard

Godard's take on Virgin Mary might have been seen as an assault on Christianity and the idea of Immaculate Conception but it's actually about one of his usual themes- body/soul dichotomy. What's refreshing about Hail Mary is it's also about relationship between two young people being tested: can they love one another without touching? I can see the film's influence on many younger filmmakers whom I once religiously followed, namely Leos Carax and Hal Hartley with their brooding anti-heroic archetypes.

Hail Mary is perhaps the most beautiful color film I've ever seen. Punctuated by amazingly graceful nature photography and anchored by Myriem Roussel's Marie, a high school basketball player and a virgin who finds herself being pregnant. Marie's questioning "what is flesh alone...?" and her struggle to keep herself chaste is touching and deeply felt. It's the presence of Roussel that differentiates Hail Mary from Godard's post-Anna Karina cynicism.

From what I hear, Hail Mary is one of the last films before Godard turned his direction toward visual essays of the 90s which I find dry and uninteresting. Call me old fashioned, but for me ideas are still best conveyed through stories and characters, not in the lecture halls(movie theaters) that Godard still seems to preside over. Cinematically no one can top Godard's playfulness in the 60s, not even Godard himself. But this is a gorgeous stuff. Easily a top ten material for me.

To Hellman and Back

Road to Nowhere (2010) - Hellman
As a fan of Monte Hellman, the famed director of the 70's seminal counter-culture classics such as Two Lane Blacktop and Cockfighter, it is very hard for me to report to other Hellman fans that Road to Nowhere, his new film in more than twenty years, is...umm...absolutely...dreadful. There I said it. Such is the burden of being the messenger of bad news.

Prior to the screening Hellman told the audience the advice he got from someone once- 'never explain your film, never apologize for your film and never reimburse tickets.' He succeeded in getting couple of laughs out of that. In retrospect, he wasn't joking. It was his ominous preemptive strike.

The film concerns a young, esteemed Hollywood director Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan) adapting a real life story involving intrigue, corruption and double suicide, dug up and sold by a young blogger (Dominique Swain). Haven finds his muse in an amateurish actress named Laurel (Shannyn Sossamon) and becomes infatuated with her while the rest of the cast and crew get increasingly frustrated by his devotion to her.

Road to Nowhere fancies itself to be a meta movie of sorts. It's a movie within a movie, life imitating art imitating life. Laurel might be the real person she is portraying, so is the film's co-star (Cliff De Young). There is an insurance investigator/film consultant (Waylon Payne) who can't seem to distinguish fiction from reality.

Written by Steven Gaydos (executive editor of Variety), the film's Hollywood savvy, corny dialog is just too earnest to be taken as ironic. All the actors involved are not skilled enough to improvise with the given material, making their characters unbearably vapid.

Hellman's contemplation of filmmaking as realizing one's dream in the age of internet and HD photography, gets lost in its trite, tabloid worthy premise. As the film ends with an amazingly terrible song sung by some Bruce Springsteen impersonator, one realizes that even the greatest director needs a good script (doesn't have to be written by Rudy Wurlitzer) and good actors to pull off a DIY style vanity project to be halfway decent.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Splatter from The North Pole

Play God (2010) - Nikki
[Play God plays as part of DocPoint NYC, a program of 47 films hosted by its New York partners: The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Scandinavia House, 92YTribeca, UnionDocs and the Tribeca Film Institute, on June 10th at 7pm]

A successful Helsinki based commercial director, Teemu Nikki looks back on his failed attempt at making the first Finnish splatter movie, Play God. This 38 minute, behind-the-scene, inside look at filmmaking gone awry doc is sort of 'making of' featurette on a movie that never happened.

There have been quite a few documentaries in the past that highlighted the trials and tribulations of filmmaking. Burden of Dreams: Making of Fitzcarraldo and more recently Best Worst Movie: Making of Troll 2, immediately come to mind. Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's Lost in La Mancha chronicled the disintegration of Terry Gilliam's Don Quixote. However entertaining that documentary was, it depressed a lot of burgeoning filmmakers including myself. I mean, what chance did we have if no one was willing to finance a Gilliam movie? The process of the making Play God documented here seems like a therapy for the director- to be rid of the omen that's been gnawing at him for several years. And he seems to have a sense of humor about the whole experience.

Growing up with the steady diet of splatter films on VHS, Nikki's foray into filmmaking is akin to that of many American indie filmmakers. Seeing homemade footage of Nikki and his Finnish compatriots making their own brand of splatter movies with their dad's video camera in their backyard reminded me of how universal the film geekdom is.

Play God, a shoot'em-up chop'em-up superhero movie in epic proportions (Sci-Fi backdrop, large number of extras, battle scenes and a chainsaw wielding Evil Santa) with an incomprehensible storyline and the puzzling English dialog, was all enthusiasm and not much else. Nikki's plan was simple: shoot the first 20 minutes of the film, show it to the possible investors who would then naturally be blown away by its brilliance and would dole out the money to make the rest of the film, then off to a successful career in Hollywood.

With extremely bad weather conditions (minus 40 Celsius degrees) and everything else going wrong, the production of the movie hit the wall from day one and never really got off the ground. The cast and crew, all Nikki's friends and family members, just as enthusiastic but all novices in filmmaking, faced some very treacherous working conditions. Without the script and direction to guide them while working hard for free, they slowly lost faith in Nikki. Then people started turning on each other. Yes, it can be frustrating when you're not able to cut Evil Santa in half with a chainsaw. But stop crying forgodssakes!

Interviewing various cast and crew members, Nikki faces some biting criticisms from his friends and family face to face. The movie didn't happen. The project was way too ambitious to pull off. And he blamed everyone but himself. Thankfully, the doc is also filled with plenty of awesome footage from Play God. There are definitely times in the film that you wonder whether it is a mocumentary or real. It is a playful, funny as hell and endearing documentary. And by the slick look of the trailer Nikki finally made, Play God could've been really an awesome splatter movie. I am hoping that Hollywood will take notice of now 'mature and competent' Teemu Nikki, and actually help him make Play God for real, starring, Mickey Rourke perhaps.

For tickets and more information please visit MoMA Presents: DocPoint

Monday, June 6, 2011

First Contact

The Andromeda Strain (1971) - Wise
The Andromeda Strain 1
The Andromeda Strain 2
Wasn't too sure about watching this. I remember it as boring ass movie as a child and indeed, the 2/3 of the film is purely procedural - in Michael Chrichton's 'I have to explain this made up world to you in detail' way. But once you settle in, it is a very enjoyable ride.

What if our first contact with alien species is with a too small organism our naked eyes can't see(which is the most probable scenario anyway) and deadly to us? After a satellite probe crashes into small town Nevada and kills off townspeople in their daily tracks, the US gov't assembles top scientists to an undisclosed superslick Nevada underground facility to determine whether to nuke the town. It's the usual gambit- the time is running out, perspiration, contamination, red lights, countdown, laser beams, the key...

Robert Wise goes town with the whole gov't top secret mumbo-jumbo stylings here - split screens, color coded floor corridors, mechanical arms, plus Doug Trumbull's innovative, pre-computer graphics FX. Now I can see where all the SCI-FI/spy films parodies originated from. It is super silly but at the same time, awesome.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Defiant One

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1961) - Richardson
Colin (Tom Courtenay) is a bitter young man from a poor household. His dad is dead and his mom is blowing dad's insurance money while his body's still warm. He is sent to a reform school for stealing 75 quid from a bakery. The governor of the institution (Michael Redgrave) takes a shine on him because of his running ability. He unwittingly becomes enemy of many people in there but he doesn't want to play anyone's game. As the film builds up to its climax where he and the lads go up against privileged public school running team, we get to know more about Colin. It's his stare that pierces one's heart.

Richardson's British class observation is very acute. At one point, Colin retorts when asked about getting a job, "It's not that I don't like work. It's just that I don't like the idea of slaving me guts out so the bosses can get all the profits. Seems all wrong to me."

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is the ultimate F U to the system movie and I really loved it. Glad finally got to see the greatness of Courtenay. Compare to Malcolm McDowell's all-knowing cynicism, his anger and loneliness seem genuine and all the more innocent. Gotta seek out more of his performances.

The film also features twitty (even back then) James Fox as the nemesis runner at the end.

Saturday, June 4, 2011


Alice in Wonderland (1966) - Miller
This trippy BBC production of the Lewis Carroll's classic tale of a girl's journey to womanhood is quite remarkable in its subtle ingenuity and weirdness that could only possibly be produced in Britain in the 60s. Its B&W photography is no hindrance at all to tell this colorful story. And it's pretty straight forward in presentation(no costumes or masks). There are many familiar faces making appearances here- Michael Redgrave as Caterpillar, Michael Gough as March Hare, Peter Sellers as King of Hearts and John Gielgud as Mock Turtle. And it's a beauty to behold. Oh and Ravi Shankar provides the groovy soundtrack.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Growing Pains

Mary Marie (2010) - Roxo
In the beginning of the film, Mary (Alana Kearns-Green) and Marie (Alexandra Roxo) spend the night at the grandpa's house at the wake of their mother's passing. Mary insists on sleeping in the same bed with the old man. This sweet, innocent gesture sets the tone of Mary Marie, an erotically charged yet gentle 'growing up' film by writer/director/star Roxo.

The two girls resume their lives in a suspended state of childhood in a big house filled with the family artifacts and memories. They take baths together, sleep in the same bed, and play dress-up. This fragile, temporary/eternal tranquility is disturbed as Peter (Tim Linden), a local handyman hired to take care of the house, enters the picture. After initial flirting, Peter and Marie hit it off and leave Mary in the lurch. Is this just a summer fling or the beginning of the end of the unnaturally tight bond between the girls?

With its scenic summer pastoral backdrop, Mary Marie's ethereal world is stunningly photographed by Magela Crosignani (The Imperialists are Still Alive!). The film resembles, in many ways, Sophia Coppola's enigmatic Virgin Suicides. But whereas the Lisbons are unreachable fantasy creatures admired from afar, here we are invited to share the intimate moments between Mary and Marie. Their lives are otherworldly but not impenetrable. The strength of Mary Marie lies in its intimacy created by its two brave principal actors without much dialog. They are at once immature and wise, prude and sweet, secretive and open, seductive and silly, delicate and bold. Building on a seemingly simple love triangle premise, Roxo and her team successfully realize the state of the two young women with burgeoning sexuality (still teetering on the edge of childhood) and their desire not to let go.

Mary Marie is a competent and beautiful first feature by a new major talent and I'm very much looking forward to see more from Roxo and Kearns-Green in the near future.

Mary Marie screens on June 4th and 10th at 8pm as part of Brooklyn Film Festival, for more information and tickets' please click here

Mary Marie trailer from Alexandra Roxo on Vimeo.