Sunday, March 25, 2007

Watched March 19-25 2007

The Old Fashioned Way (William Beaudine, 1934)
Poppy (A. Edward Sutherland, 1936)

The new W.C. Fields box a veritable treasure chest. Alas, the only previously unseen film (Poppy) was no gem. Other than some vintage Fieldsian fooling about -- this was a wash-out in terms of dramatic interest, with mostly uninteresting supporting performances. "Old Fashioned Way" -- which I last saw almost 40 years ago -- was another thing entirely. Even better than I remembered. Practically perfect in every way. The kinship with Ozu (noted recently by Dave Kehr) was especially clear here -- as this seemed to owed a debt to Fitzmaurice's "The Barker" just as Ozu's "Story of Floating Weeds" did. On the other hand -- no Ozu lead ever stopped the show in mid-course to engage in a bravura display of inspired juggling. All in good fun.

High Sierra (Raoul Walsh, 1941)

How can a film with such lovely mountain scenery and good performances by great leads (Bogart and Lupino) be a near-stinker. Well -- a silly, improbable script and almost uniformly bad supporting performances was almost enough to sink this "classic". A dispppointment.

Mori to mizuumi no matsuri / The Outsiders literally Festival of Forests and Lakes (Tomu Uchida, 1958)

Rumor has it that Uchida's story of oppressed Ainu in Japan was inspired (in part) by the westerns of Anthony Mann. I can't verify -- as it has been many decades since I saw any of Mann's films -- but I find the claim easy enough to believe. The use of the landscape, the music, the character dynamics -- all seem to have a bit in common with Hollywood westerns. Unlike Indians in Hollywood films, however, Ainu were rarely the topic of Japanese films. The portrayal here seems to be generally sympathetic -- but pending further deciphering of the unsubbed dialogue, I will refrain from any more definite pronouncement. An excellent cast, featuring Kyoko Kagawa, Ken Takakura, Rentaro Mikumi and Ineko Arima (among many others). More pictures:

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Mahiru no hoshizora / Starlit High Noon (Yosuke Nakagawa, 2005)

A very low key film about a young Taiwanese hitman (WANG Lee-hom) who rusticates in Okinawa between assignments (it turns out he has dual citizenship -- as his mother was Japanese). While there, he goes for regular swims in a pool attended by Yu Kashii (who becomes smitten by him) and does his clothes in a laundromat where he sees (and becomes smitten by) Kyoka Suzuki (who works two jobs to make ends meet -- bento (box lunch) maker and evening-time road crew flag woman). The film flashes back in time -- and shows some hypothetical (wished for) scenarios -- making it a bit hard to hang on to the time line (at points). Meanwhile, his colleagues back in Taiwan are seemingly planning to double-cross him next time he returns there. Nice performances and good cinematography (too bad there were no subs on the DVD).

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Hura gaaru / Hula Girls (LEE Sang-il, 2006)

An utter treat (an happily THIS DVD actually did have subs). One of the biggest hit films of the past year in Japan -- a somewhat fictionalized version of the opening of Japan's first "theme park". Joban, a small mountain town north of Tokyo, had long been dedicated to one task -- mining coal. When that industry began to collapse, the town's business leaders hit on the idea of creating a "Hawaiian Center" to attract tourists (and replace at least some of the lost jobs -- allowing them to hang onto _some_ of their young people). The miners (and laid-off miners -- and soon-to-be laid-off miners) gave the plan a hostile reception -- thinking that money would be better spent keeping the mines alive as long as possible. Some of the young women of the town, however, see the chance to become "hula girls" as a decided step up from what their future would otherwise be. A dancer from Tokyo (Yasuko Matsuyuki) arrives (with plenty of issues in tow) to be the (rather unenthusiastic) hula instructor -- and her enthusiasm does not increase when she finds how unpromising her first batch of students appear to be. Both teacher and students deal with opposition. Our young protagonist (Aoi Yu) gets kicked out of the house by her mother (former action star Junko Fuji) when she refuses to quit the dance program. A sweet and moving film (with only a few trivial wrong notes).

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Sunday, March 18, 2007

Watched March 12-18 2007

Gan / Wild Geese / The Mistress (Shiro Toyoda, 1953)

Not quite the equal of Ozu, Naruse, Mizoguchi -- but well-acted and generally well-made. Hideko Takamine is wonderful (of course) as the deceived heroine.

Nagareru / Flowing (Mikio Naruse, 1956)

One of Naruse's most wonderful films -- with one of the greatest ensemble casts ever assembled -- a virtual who's who of Japan's greatest actresses: Isuzu Yamada, Kinuyo Tanaka, Hideko Takamine, Haruko Sugimura, Mariko Okada and Sumiko Kurishima (among others).

More pictures:

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Joze to tora to sakana tachi / Josee, the Tiger and the Fish (Inudo Isshin, 2003)

A sort of off-beat romance -- between college student Tsuneo (Satoshi Tsumabuki) and girl with cerebral palsy. Unable to walk -- and kept more or less hidden away by a rather loony grandmother, Josee (Chizuru Ikewaki) has educated herself by studying cast-off school books scavenged by her grandmother from the trash over the years. Tsuneo's course intersects accidentally with the that of the girl and her grandmother, and then becomes entangled in Josee's situation. Ikewaki is really excellent here. Definitely worth seeing.

Always san-chôme no yûhi / Always - Sunset on Third Street (Takashi Yamazaki, 2005)

Largely ersatz family drama -- set in the 50s, an era well-documented contemporaneously by Ozu and Naruse and their every fine peers. Some good actors (especially Hiroko Yakushimaru and Koyuki) -- but a somewhat mediocre script and quite mediocre direction. The viewpoint character of sort (a country girl moving to Tokyo to find a job), 16 year-old Maki Horikita shows promise -- but is required to do much. This film walked away with most of the awards at the Japanese Oscars during its release year. Not worthless -- but pretty unnecessary.

Dong (JIA Zhang-ke)

Made (more or less) along side "Still LIfe", this is a documentary about a painter working in the Three Gorges reservoir area (who also makes a vist to Thailand). At least for me, not quite so interesting as its companion work. More screen shots:

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Muk gong / Battle of Wits (Jacob CHEUNG Chi Leung)

Intriguing situation -- the small kingdom of Liang is beset by the invading army of a much larger neighbor, which is mainly interested in fighting a biger and more important neighbor. The city is on the verge of surrendering when a warrior/philospher of the Mozi Clan (Andy Lau) appears -- and convinces the King to defend his town. Despite being outnumbered, the town proves to be an obstacle to the would-be conquering army. As Liang's situation improves, it's king (and his court) become less and less grateful. The direction is passable -- but only fitfully inspired. I suspect this could have been a better film -- but it is still worth watching.

More screen shots:

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Watched March 5-11, 2007

Le temps retrouvé / Time Regained (Raoul Ruiz, 1999)

One watching of this is insufficient to follow Proust's protagonist's wanderings through his memories -- but Ruiz's presentation is so lovely that simply floating along the top of the narrative stream is rewarding. There are so many wonderful cast members, it seems unfair to single any out.

Some more pictures:
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Baak nin hiu gap / Love For All Seasons (Johnnie To & WAI Ka-fai, 2003)

The "silliest" To film I've seen yet. A martial arts teacher and mountain top healer, lovely (and goofy) Sammi Cheng, needs to experience heartbreak in order to master a defensive techique needed to protect herself and her little sisters from her deranged big sister (LI Bingbing). Playboy extraordinaire, Louis Koo, who comes to her retreat for treatment seems just the guy to break her heart (as he does to all the women he meets), but Cheng finds that getting her heart truly broken isn't all that easy.
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Fu zi / After This Our Exile (Patrick Tam, 2006)

A Hong Kong family drama set in an expatriate community in Malaysia. Aaron Kwok doesn't bring in much cash for the family coffers -- and gambles most of what he earns away. Charlie Yeung, the mother of his young son (Gouw Ian Iskandar) is getting tired of supporting the family. After an abortive first try, she manages to flee -- leaving Kwok and son to fend for themselves. The two spiral down the social drain. Lovely cinematography by Mark LEE Ping-bin. One problem for me -- while Kwok's performance in the central role is excellent -- his character is quite unappealing, mistreating his wife, son and post-abandonment girl friend (Kelly Lin). Nonetheless -- interesting film in a distinctive setting.

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Yureru / Sway (Miwa Nishikawa, 2006)

A younger son (Jo Odagiri) returns to his hometown for the funeral of his mother. While there, he causes strife between his older brother (Teruyuki Kagawa) and his sort-of girl friend (Yoko Maki) -- who has long had a crush on the younger brother -- and a desire to move to Tokyo with him. When the trio goes on an outing to a local gorge, Kagawa and Maki get into an argument on a rickety suspension bridge -- and she falls to her death. The bulk of the film involves an examination of what happened. How much did Odagiri see and hear -- and will he help or hurt his (comparatively dull and timorous) brother. Well filmed by Hiroshi Takase (one of whose last films this was).

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Seung sing / Confession of Pain (LAU Wai Keung & MAK Siu Fai, 2006)

A new film by the team that made Infernal Affairs. Tony Leung and Tony Kaneshiro are old police buddies, but Kaneshiro quit the force after the suicide of his girl friend. When Leung's father-in-law is brutally murdered, Leung's wife (XU Jinglei) hires Kaneshiro to investigate, as she is disatisfied with the police investigation. Along the way, Kaneshiro drafts bar hostess SHU Qi to help. Meanwhile, XU is feeling increasingly threatened by a stalker.

The strategy pursued by this film is very un-Hollywood-like -- one knows quite early who was behind the murder of the father-in-law -- and one senses that Xu's character herself has a pretty good idea herself. Nonetheless, the film maintains a sense of suspense (or ias it just a sort of dread) quite well. Despite an interesting enough story, and quite good performances, not much to show off in terms of screen shots. (This crew does not have the visual flair of Johnnie To and his team).

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Watched February 26 - March 4, 2007

Snezhnaya koroleva / The Snow Queen (Lev Atamanov, 1957)

A lovely adaptation of the Hans Christian Anderson story -- marred only by a Disneyesque frame (featuring an not very interesting Jiminy Cricket wannabe). Uses a boldly colored and simple style that would seem to have influenced a number of subsequent animators.

More screen shots:

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Sero hiki no Gôshu / Gauche the Cellist (Isao Takahata, 1982)

Takahata's lovely adaptation of a famed Japanese children's story by Kenji Miyazawa (story teller, poet, Buddhist scholar and agronomist). One of the rare films that that portrays the mid 1910s in Japan, it tells the story of a young cellist in a the movie theater orchestra of a provincial city (and market gardener in his day job). Visually quite stunning -- echoing both Western (e.g. Friedrich) and Eastern (e.g. Hiroshige) artistic influences.

Mou gaan dou / Infernal Affairs (LAU Wai Keung & MAK Siu Fai, 2002)
Mou gaan dou II / Infernal Affairs II (LAU Wai Keung & MAK Siu Fai, 2003)
Mou gaan dou III: Jung gik mou gaan / Infernal Affairs III (LAU Wai Keung & MAK Siu Fai, 2003)

Possibly an interesting comparison piece to Scanner Darkly -- featuring a mobster working as a mole in the police department and a police officer working as a mole in a gang. Andy Lau and Tony Leung both get well-deserved praise for the performances -- but the whole cast is simply stellar. All three films are good, but I'd rank the second (a prequel) a little lower (too much plot). The third, which jumps from tome to time -- from prior to the first film to after to during, etc. (not a stand-alone film - by any stretch of the imagination) is (in some ways) the most intriguing (and the most PK Dick-esque).

Fune o oritara kanojo no shima / Getting Off the Boat at Her Island (Itsumichi Isomura, 2003)

A very Takahata-esque live action film about a young woman (Yoshino Kimura) coming to her hometown (on a small island in Ehime prefecture, Shikoku) for one last time prior to her impending marriage (which she dreads telling her parents about) to a young Tokyo-ite. While there, she is drawn into a search for her first middle-school love. Ren Osugi, as the woman's father (a retired school principal) is especially wonderful (evoking memories of Chishu Ryu). More images:

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

Re-watched on DVD -- which is not quite the same as seeing this in a theater. It seemed _more_ over-the-top in some ways on the small screen. But GONG Li's performance stands out just as strongly -- regardless.

Toki o kakeru shôjo / The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (Mamoru Hosoda, 2006)

Hosoda is the director Miyazaki fired from the "Howl's Moving Castle" project. With this film, Hosoda seemed to want to show he can make a better "Ghibli film" than Studio Ghibli can these days. And I'd say it is quite possible he succeeded. Stylistically and thematically a mix of Takahata and Miyazaki (with a tiny bias towards the former), this adapts a famed children's science fiction story (the most famed prior adaptation being a somewhat dated 1983 film) about a high school girl who suddenly begins experiencing time disruptions -- faced with bad events, she jumps back in time and tries to avert them.

Kamome shokudo / Seagull Diner (Naoko Ogigami, 2006)

Ogigami, a young Japanese woman director -- and fan of the work of Aki Kaurismaki -- goes to Finland -- and shows us the story of three Japanese women running (and working in) a Helsinki diner. Markku Peltola (The Man Without a Past) plays a small (but essential) part. A charming and interesting "little" film that deserves to be more widely known. (It reminds me a bit of "Take Care of My Cat" or "Linda Linda Linda" -- but featuring middle-aged ladies instead of young women).