Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Watched January 22 - 28, 2007

Susana (Luis Bunuel, 1951)

A lovely but very naughty young woman (Rosita Quintana) escapes from a reformatory and insinuates her way into the bosom of a well-to-do family (owners of a ranch and farm). She entices the ranch's overseer, the rancher's son and then the rancher himself. Only the family's elderly housekeeper distrusts her -- and even the rancher's wife disregards her warnings. Nothing extraordinary plot-wise, but Quintana sizzles. A good looking and entertaining, but surprisingly conventional Bunuel film.

Les trois couronnes du matelot / Three Crowns of the Sailor (Raoul Ruiz, 1983)

Another very strange film by Ruiz. A somewhat scary student intent on fleeing the rather sinister town he is in, encounters a sailor who promises to help him escape if he listens to the sailor's long and rambling story thoughout the night -- and gives him three Danish crowns in the morning. Sort of a wandering dutchman tale, involving a rather unusual freighter that travels the world. The current portion is filmed in black and white, the reminiscences in color. Jean-Bernard Guillard is quite good as the mysterious sailor.

Laitakaupungin valot / Lights in the Dusk (Aki Kaurismaki, 2006)

Even in the lowly job of security guard, Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen) doesn't seem to fit in. He accidentally catches the attention of mobsters, who delegate Mirja (Maria Järvenhelmi) to win his affection and lure him to destruction, by stealing his keys and codes -- so they can burglarize a jewelry store on his nightly route. The only person who seems to care about Koistinen is Aila (Maria Heiskanen), a plain and reticent food stand operator -- and he barely notices her. Once again, Kaurismaki observes the bottom of the Finnish social order -- but for once his trademark flip humor is almost entirely absent. The tone here is gentler and sadder than Kaurismaki's norm. Visually very beautiful, with wonderful, understated performances by the principles. It is possible that this will ultimately become my favorite film by this director.

Gwoemul / The Host (BONG Joon-ho, 2006)

Seen three times in about 10 days -- on DVD, screened (with a reception by the Korean Consul-General afterwards) and on DVD (on a screen capping rampage). Curiously, while seeing this screened had its virtues, I think I like this neo-moster/family drama more seen at home.

The Park family (father Hee-bong -- Byeon Hee-bong / son Kang-du -- SONG Kang-ho) runs a tiny convenience food stand on the banks of the Han River in Seoul. On the same day that Hee-bong's daughter (BAE Doo-na) is competing in an Olympic archery competition, his grand-daughter Hyeon-seo (14 year old KO Ah-sung) is carried off by a giant mutated salamander (?) on a rampage (that kills many other folks). While the family (including another son, a perpetually-unemployed and often soused college graduate) is in quarantine (American military doctors have decided that the monster might be the carrier of some deadly disease), a fleeting cell phone call from Hyeon-seo indicates she is not dead yet (the monster keeps a sort of "pantry" for between rampage snacks). The family's task -- escape and rescue Hyeon-seo themselves (as the authorities are disbelieving -- and unconcerned).

Bong bent (and broke) genre lines in his two preceding (and very fine films -- Barking Dogs Never Bite and Memories of Murder. He does it again here. While much of the mass audience focus is on the monster, the real core of the film is on the kidnapped girl's rather dysfunctional family -- and their coming together to try to help her -- in the face of daunting odds. Bong also tosses a large dose of black political satire into the pot (aimed at Korean governmental stupidity at least as much as American governmental arrogance). It sometimes seems that Bong has thrown a few too many balls in the air for him to juggle successfully --- but, in the end, (almost) everything seems to work. The performances are all fine -- but those of the old codger (BYEON Hee-bong) and schoolgirl (KO Ah-sung) are the ones that make the strongest impression. My biggest problem with the film (as with Memories of Murder), the lingering (and hard to shake) sense of sadness it leaves me with.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Watched January 15 - 21, 2007

Asakusa no hi / Lights of Asakusa (Yasujiro Shimazu, 1937)

An astonishing blend of East and West, just before the point when militant nationalism began frowning seriously on (non-German) Western influences. Heart throb (both as singer and actor) Ken Uehara is an opera singer in Tokyo, who models himself (offstage) on Gary Cooper (in dress - and in deed). He is loved by the young proprietress of a shooting gallery around the corner from the opera house (Yoshiko Tsubouchi) -- but is in love with one of his fellow singers (Mieko Takamine). When her wicked relatives connive at selling her off to a wealthy mob boss (with the aid of the opera company's prima donna, played by Haruko Sugimura), he and a friend (a foreign painter) go to her rescue.

Shimazu does not seem to have been as stylistically audacious as his colleagues, mostly he demonstrates an excellent grasp of contemporary Hollywood style. Still, his pacing is very good and the performances are quite engaging. The young Sugimura (in what would appear to be her first significant film role -- she was already famous on the stage, however) is quite interesting to watch -- especially when rendering extracts from Bizet's "Carmen"! Not on quite the same level as the work of Ozu, Naruse or Shimizu -- but a treat nonetheless.

La vocation suspendue / The suspended Vocation (Raul Ruiz, 1978)

A theological "spy film" -- where all the characters seem to be priests and nuns. Shot in alternating color and black & white, and with two alternating casts. Maximization of mystification seems to be a prime consideration, but this is still quite entertaining (at least for Catholics -- or ex-Catholics -- with a sense of humor about religious matters).

Rupan sansei: Kariosutoro no shiro / The Castle of Cagliostro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1979)

An enjoyable adventure film (involving a master thief and an imperiled Princess) by the still young Miyazaki. Not on the same level as his best work, but enjoyable.

Daiyaukai / Rainbow Kids (Kihachi Okamoto, 1991)

Three young would-be thugs kidnap a rich (but bored) old lady (played by redoubtable 80 year old Tanie Kitabayashi). Once she realizes that her captors are actually good-natured but rather hapless, she takes charge of her own kidnapping. Her biggest challenge, the rescue efforts are being led by the local police chief (played by Ken Ogata), a very canny friend of hers. Not great art, perhaps, but wonderfully entertaining.

Linda Linda Linda (Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2005)

My favorite film of the last year or two. Since I've already written about it, this time I'll just link to some screen shots:

Fong juk / Exiled (Johnnie To, 2006)

One of my favorite films of the past year. An exiled gangster (Nick Cheung) returns to Macau with his wife (Josie Ho) and new baby. His former boss (Simon Yam) sends two men to kill Cheung (Anthony Wong and LAM Suet), who bump heads on arrival with two former colleagues determined to protect Cheung (Francis Ng and Roy Cheung). As it turns out, all five men are childhood friends, so it proves difficult for Wong to carry out his orders. Gorgeously shot, wonderfully acted -- with ample gunfire and explosions for action lovers (but lots of mood and atmosphere for us more arty types).

Monday, January 15, 2007

Watched January 8 - 14, 2007

Subida al cielo / Mexican Bus Ride / Ascent to Heaven (Luis Buñuel, 1952)
Nazarín (Luis Buñuel, 1959)

Mexican Bus Ride is the first Bunuel film I've seen that can (arguably) be called minor. Entertaining, with a few bits of amusing weirdness mixed in -- but minor. Like Hiroshi Shimizu in Arigato-san (Mr. Thank You), this mainly involves a rural bus trip -- but Shimizu's film (from the early 40s) is a much more remarkable affair (paradoxically because Shimizu found no need to spice the proceedings up with "dramatic" events).

Nazarin is in a whole other class -- clearly in Bunuel's top tier (and, thus, in the top tier of all movies ever made). Francisco Rabal is superb as the well-intentioned, but stubborn Father Nazario -- who insists on trying to live and behave like Jesus (rather than like a "proper" Mexican Catholic priest). His virtuous intentions sometimes lead to positive results, but often precipitate disaster instead. A complex film about an ostensibly "simple" character. Wonderful performances -- and superb cinematography.

Duelle (Jacques Rivette, 1976)
Noroît (Jacques Rivette, 1976)

Rivette's neo-pirate movie Noroît is certainhly one of his most visually stunning (along with Hurlevent / Wuthering Heights). This starts out as a loose adaptation of the blood and thunder Jacobean era Revenger's Tale -- and moves into a cosmological battle for its finale. Looking for conventional story logic is probably pointless here. Simply enjoying the sights and sounds (an excellent -- if intermittent -- score, performed by musicians on the set, who are nonetheless rarely if ever seen by the rest of the cast).

Paradoxically, while cosmological dueling is more central to the story of Duelle, this is a much smaller-scaled film. Juliet Berto and Bulle Ogier are suitably enigmatic (and wonderful) as the dueling goddesses -- as is Hermine Karagheuz, who gets embroiled in their struggle. In some respects, this film anticipates later Rivette films like Haut bas fragile and Marie and Julien -- both in its visual look and its mostly intimate scale. Shot in a Paris that is often surprisingly empty-looking (like that found in Rivette's own Pont du Nord -- and Feuillades Les vampires).

Osaka monogatari / Osaka Story (Jun Ichikawa, 1999)

Teen-aged Chizuru Ikewaki is excellent here -- as a girl from a lower working-class Osaka family. Her parents are, at their height of success, a moderately successful standup comedy duo (an Osaka specialty known as manzai). But the father's drinking and womanizing take a toll on the family (and the parents' success as entertainers). When her father disappears, our heroine sets after him (into the underside of urban Osaka).

Jun Ichikawa is one of Japan's least well known great contemporary directors. This is a more exuberant film overall than Ichikawa's typically restrained norm (as seen in his more recent Tony Takitani). Some of the most charming scenes show our heroine and her little brother enacting their own manzai performances for friends (and passers-by) at school and on the playground. Unfortunately, no subtitled version is available (the unsubbed version I watched was taped off Japanese TV).

Monday, January 08, 2007

Watched January 1 - 7, 2007

They Drive by Night (Raoul Walsh, 1940)

As usual for early-ish Walsh, an excellent film overall. George Raft and Humphrey Bogart made a fairly convincing set of brothers, trying to stay afloat as independent truck drivers. Ann Sheridan was quite decent as a young waitress who catches the eye of Raft (and vice versa). Ida Lupino was generally fine as the black widow-esque spouse of a more prosperous friend of the two brothers (who ran a trucking business -- and wanted them to work for him -- played by the redoubtable Alan Hale). The script (based on a book by the just-deceased A. I. Bezzerides) is also good. Only a couple of niggles -- the use of a whizzing clock to show passage of time seemed pretty trite -- even for a 1940 film) and Ida Lupino's climactic court scene didn't quite work (was it script, direction, acting? or some combination?).

Ce jour-là / That Day (Raoul Ruiz, 2003)

Reviewed a few weeks back -- but watched with a bigger audience. Most of whom were quite appreciative. One of the greatest romantic comedies of the past decade (at least).

The Last Samurai (Edward Zwick, 2003)


Thursday, January 04, 2007

Watched December 25 - December 31, 2006

Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia / Curse of the Golden Flower (ZHANG Yimou, 2006)

One viewing was insufficient to assess this -- the most visually opulent film ever made by Zhang Yimou -- but I may not get a shot at another viewing until the DVD eventually appears. Based on my first viewing, though, I liked this film -- a lot. The most impressive aspects of this tale of incest and betrayal in 10th Century China (based on CAO Yu's classic play Thunderstorm) were the cinematography (by ZHAO Xiaoding) and GONG Li's lead performance as the oppressed and resentful (and scheming) wife of the suave but utterly treacherous emperor (CHOW Yun-fat). LIU Ye as Crown Prince Xiang also turned in a remarkable performance. Really though, there were no weak links in terms of acting.

This is probably ZY's darkest film (in mood) since Raise the Red Lantern -- and I found it quite unsettling to watch (and reflect upon). It is quite reminiscent of a Jacobean revenge tragedy, but with an even higher body count. The darkness in tone is (deliberately) at odds with the exuberant visual style. As much as I loved House of Flying Daggers, I would not be surprised if this ultimately became my favorite of ZY's wuxia trio.