Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Life During Wartime (2009) **** Blu-ray

As we approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11, this disc should rank among the most significant, and certainly the most truthful, commemoratives of that terrible day. For as Life During Wartime clearly shows, Americans, through paranoia, greed and hubris, are doing a much better job of destroying their society than any terrorist could ever hope to accomplish.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Tigerland (2000) ***Blu-ray

And Farrell is worthy of awe. In the year 2000, fresh from the set of the popular BBC series Ballykissangel, Farrell stepped in front of Tigerland’s cameras for his American debut, and never looked back. His performance is taut and spare with every word, glance and movement sharply homed into Bozz’s rebellious soul.

Full Review Posted at IONCINEMA

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Criterion Collection: Beauty and the Beast (1946) blu-ray***1/2

Influenced by the avant garde artists of the early 20th Century, Cocteau developed an eerie surrealistic visual style; rich with symbolism, magical settings and photographic effects. But, thanks to his background as a writer, Cocteau would employ his signature stylistics in the telling of generally coherent narratives – regardless of their underpinnings in fantasy – and his films achieved worldwide recognition and critical success. It’s not a stretch to describe Jean Cocteau as the Julie Taymor of his era.

To Read the Entire Review

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Criterion Collection: Naked ***(1993) Blu-ray

Naked made quite a splash at Cannes in 1993, gaining Best Director and Best Actor recognition for Mike Leigh and David Thewlis respectively. In a way, the success at Cannes represented not only enthusiasm for Naked, but a belated acceptance of the British director and his quirky tales of a working class fully engulfed by quiet desperation. When Leigh returned to Cannes three years later with the smoother, more polished Secret and Lies, all remaining critical resistance buckled like wet cardboard. This time he walked away with the Palme d’Or and, a few months later, five Oscar nominations to boot.

If Secrets and Lies stands as Leigh’s mainstream breakthrough, then certainly Naked is his touchstone for the cinema cognoscenti. Prior to Naked, Leigh’s career consisted mainly of TV work – much of it critically well met but TV work nonetheless – and two grittily brilliant British life-slicers: High Hopes (1988) and Life is Sweet (1990). Both films dealt with working class families who, despite limited prospects and full immersion in the bleak air of Thatcherism, maintained a sunny optimism and an almost heroic sense of responsibility. The films also shared meticulously observed details that produced moments of startling resonance, all while retaining enough humorous drive to keep them firmly staked to the comedy genre. 

No such genre encumbrance afflicts Naked. While the film has a number of hilarious moments, it can only be considered a comedy in the broadest sense. The film is like a dark plunge into icy forbidden waters; the resultant shock heightening the senses just enough to make one fully aware of the disorienting perils that lie ahead. The London Town depicted here is not a charming cloister of regal palaces and fine tailor shops, but a forlorn purgatory of rancid smells, tawdry temptations and perpetual insolence; a besotted city whose morals are crumbling as fast as its bricks.

Into this empire of excreta steps Johnny (David Thewlis), a scruffy, penniless hedonist from Manchester, whose exceptionally high I.Q. is matched only by his exceedingly low ambition. Johnny has fled Manchester in a stolen car in order to escape a good, sound thrashing and hopes to reconnect with his former girlfriend Louise (Lesley Sharp) in the process. These early scenes give little indication of Johnny’s slashing wit and oracle-like perceptions; indeed, Leigh deceives his audience by implying Naked will be the tale of a slovenly small time hood beneath London’s gray winter skies. But like slowly peeling an onion, through word and through deed, Johnny is eventually revealed to be much more sympathetic, yet paradoxically much more dangerous, than we could ever have imagined.

While awaiting Louise’s return from work, Johnny elects to pass the time by sampling the sexual wares of roommate Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge), a spacey quasi-Goth who always seems a beat behind the reality unfolding around her. Sophie is a mellower, less angry version of Jane Horrocks’ character from Life is Sweet, but the two lost souls share a confusion of love with sexual subjugation. Sex as sport is a recurrent theme in Naked, as Leigh presents a British society that seems to have given up entirely on romantic notions. When Louise returns, the walls of the modest flat begin to close in on Johnny, whose place in the universe is now reduced to a small spot on the sofa; a musty perch from where he issues biting wit while the women scurry about like worker bees.

Unable to deal with the increasing claustrophobia, Johnny steps out into the freezing mists of a dark London night, and in the ensuing 48 hours he will encounter a cross section of blindly adrift humanity. Despite the film’s frequent jabs at Catholicism, Johnny’s adventure in the degenerate underbelly of the British capital takes on Biblical characteristics; a theory supported by visual clues from Leigh’s cameraman and long time collaborator Dick Pope. After an amusing – some could say Pentecostal - encounter with an angry, barely comprehensible Scotsman (Ewan Bremner), Johnny is left deserted in an alley, his tattered overcoat creating a shroud-like silhouette illuminated by a back lit halo. In a motor-mouthed conversation with a security guard (Peter Wight), Johnny colorfully explains his interpretation of the book of Revelations while gesturing toward an installation of tropical plants, a not too subtle allusion to Gethsemane. In a Woman at the Well moment, Johnny faces the temptations of a desperate exhibitionist (Deborah MacLaren), and he eventually seeks sanctuary from a mysterious and skeptical waitress (Gina McKee).

Furthering Naked’s ecumenical ethos, Leigh constructs a concurrent storyline involving the Anti-Johnny, a smug upper class twit named Jeremy (Greg Cuttwell), who embodies an intensely selfish evil that puts Johnny’s transgressions into a more favorable perspective. Jeremy darts about London in a flashy black Porsche, ever in search of new flesh to conquer. His insatiable appetites ultimately lead him to add home invasion and rape to his sordid list of perversions, and his insufferable grin will make viewers realize that Satan truly walks the Earth. Meanwhile, an incident renders Johnny beaten and battered, while a nurse with amusingly confused thoughts (Claire Skinner) tends his wounds and washes his bloodstained feet. And the audience can only wonder if Leigh will roll away the stone and attempt a resurrection .

Disc Review
The film is presented in its full 1.85:1 aspect and the transfer, executed under Leigh’s guidance, is rich, clean and sharp. In other words, exactly what we’ve come to expect from Criterion. Considering the extensive restoration some of the recent Criterion blu-ray releases have required, this fairly young negative must have been a welcome break for the production staff.

The audio track, offered in Dolby 2.0 surround, is effective if occasionally marred by overmixing of Andrew Dickson’s suspenseful score. Since Thewlis delivers his pivotal, rapid-fire monologues in a thick Manchester patois, use of subtitles is highly recommended. You won’t want to miss a syllable of the film’s clever wordplay.

Audio Commentary
The commentary track is lifted from the DVD release of 2005, and features the insights of Leigh, Thewlis and the late Katrin Cartlidge, who tragically died of a lung infection in 2002. We get some interesting tidbits about Leigh’s techniques and philosophies, and the surprising revelation that he’s always apprehensive about shooting the opening scenes of his films. Thewlis describes his intense preparation, including being commanded by Leigh to walk around for an hour in order to appear properly cold and weary for his night exterior scenes. Although Johnny and Louise’s former relationship is never shown on screen, Leigh had Thewlis and Sharp spend several months going out to dinner and bars together and behaving as a struggling couple to give their interactions in the film an authentic ring of shared backstory. The director offers his thoughts on the entire cast and crew, and is especially complimentary of Cuttwell, who was so convincingly despicable in this role he found other parts difficult to get, and eventually had to retire from acting. At times, Leigh comes across as exceptionally pleased with himself, but given his impressive filmography who can blame him?

Video interview with director Neil LaBute
LaBute, who has made a sort of cottage industry out of commenting on other directors' work, offers his analysis of Naked’s complex thematics. To LaBute, Naked is a film all about human connections, or perhaps humans failing to connect or something. At 12 minutes, it’s a sizable investment with little reward. Skip it.

Episode of the BBC program The Art Zone in which author Will Self interviews Leigh
This 40 minute program – after scenes of the host making coffee – eventually settles into an interview with Leigh, who seems as baffled by Self’s rambling questions as we are. The interviewer is clearly a big fan of Leigh; perhaps too much so as he often seems on the verge of fawning. Leigh keeps his good humor through it all, and manages to deliver a few juicy nuggets; the most notable is the admission that he developed his collaborative style largely due to the extreme loneliness he felt when trying to write. This inclusion will appeal mainly to diehard Leigh enthusiasts.

The Short and Curlies, a short comedy from 1987 directed by Leigh and starring Thewlis, with audio commentary by Leigh
This hilarious obscurity is the real star of the supplements and frankly, it’s worth the price of the disc to include this gem in your collection. The Short and Curlies chronicles the burgeoning romance between a talkative dork (Thewlis) and a dour, hypochondriac druggist’s assistant ironically named Joy (Sylvestra Le Touzel). The former Mrs. Leigh, Alison Steadman, lends brilliant support as a jittery hairstylist who regards Joy’s tresses as a sort of laboratory, and experiments accordingly. A number of amusing scenes follow, including Thewlis’ hysterical attempt to purchase condoms with his would-be girlfriend on duty at the cash register. In all, the piece combines the best elements of cinema verite with cinema of the absurd, in a highly enjoyable 17 minute package. Commentary from Leigh is provided as well, with an emphasis on the similarities between Thewlis’ character here and Johnny from Naked. Both characters, according to Leigh, suffer from “verbal diarrhea.”

Original theatrical trailer
The trailer clearly attempted to sell Naked as a rather straightforward comedy, with only a few hints of its darker edges. Overall, the teaser is a brisk, lively and entertaining construction.

A booklet featuring essays by film critics Derek Malcolm and Amy Taubin
A high quality 16 page compendium of stills, credits and production notes from the disc. Two essays are included. The first, Desperate Days by Derek Malcolm of The Evening Standard, deals mainly with Naked’s place within the sphere of Leigh’s filmography. It’s followed by The Monster We Know by Film Comment’s Amy Taubin; a thorough analysis of Johnny’s character as expressed by his sexual attitudes. Both pieces are perceptive and well written, and fans of the film will want to devour every word.

Mike Leigh’s famously unconventional technique – defining characters through long periods of improvisational rehearsal– is highly effective at creating stunning social realism and characters of rich, almost three dimensional eccentricity. It’s also a technique that works best for intimate-scale films with restricted narrative palettes, and there lies Naked’s downfall. Its scale is too big, its ambitions too broad, to fit comfortably within the sweet spot of Mike Leigh’s directorial wheelhouse. Still, the film earns a recommendation for the masterful and amazing performance of David Thewlis. His turn as a Jesus/Ulysses hybrid demanded chops of enormous range, and there isn’t a single frame here where Thewlis doesn’t deliver. Naked would be considered a signature achievement by almost any other director, but for a Mike Leigh film it comes up empty and, most uncharacteristic of all, a bit contrived.

Reviewed by David Anderson

Monday, July 11, 2011

Briefly Noted 7-11-11

Walk on the Wild Side (1963)***1/2

Delightful early 60s trash that starts with the oppressive bleakness of High Art, then about halfway through remembers  it’s an American film and says to hell with it. An unconvincing Laurence Harvey stars as a Texas dirt farmer – yes, you read that right – who comes to Nawlins’ to track down a fetching young miss (Capucine) who somehow escaped his affections and his dried up cornfields. Along the way, he meets a runaway slut-in-training (fabulous Jane Fonda) and captures the heart of Anne Baxter, who for some unknown reason plays a Hispanic café owner. Barbara Stanwyck, whose voice at this point had reached an Orson Wellesian deep timbre, plays a cathouse proprietress with a look that could kill….and does. Directed with a cunning brilliance by Edward Dmytryk - at least until the second act when he seems to lose interest. Perhaps he was distracted trying to figure out what a French fashion model was doing in Bumfuck, Texas.

Secretariat (2010)****1/2

A good horse racing movie is hard to beat; almost as hard to beat as that amazing creature known as Secretariat. Diane Lane does some very good work here as spunky owner Mrs. Tweedy, who used her untrained instincts about horses – and people – to develop a racing legend. This Disney production is quite effective at capturing a feel of the early 70s, and director Randall Wallace tells the story without sentimentality or syrupy embellishments. Wallace, like jockey Ronnie Turcotte at the Belmont, releases the reins and lets this wonderful story run.

Life at the Top (1965)****

Larry Harvey again – I’m getting a bit OCD in my dotage – this time as a sales executive at a grimy widget factory somewhere in the freezing north of England. Married to the boss’s daughter (Jean Simmons) and heir apparent to Widget World, Harvey decides to risk it all in pursuit of a hotcha London news reporter (Honor Blackman) and frankly, who could blame him. But Harvey will learn that his success with widgets had a bit more to do with diddy-in-law's influence than any innate business acumen. Apparently a sequel to 1959’s Room at the Top, it’s not necessary to have seen the former to understand the latter. Filled with murky gray fog, rusting buildings, moral decay and tinkling cocktail glasses, Life at the Top is a sort of John Updike novel gone limey. So pour yourself a Rob Roy and relax with other people’s problems.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Makioka Sisters (1983)****

The Makioka Sisters is a story as spare and delicate as rice paper, told with an ethereal silken shimmer. Through the complex machinations of an upper class Osakan family circa 1938, director Kon Ichikawa builds a flashpoint in the conflict between the staid traditions of Japanese culture and the liberated yearnings of the modern world. The film’s surface features the placid opaqueness of a formal tea ceremony, but simmering deep within the pretty porcelain are the fears and confusions of a family, and a national culture, in the midst of profound transition. 

The subjugation of individual identity and the struggles of those who quietly rebel is a recurrent narrative motif. Ichikawa constructs a visual cognate with gorgeous scenes of the changing of the seasons. Just as springtime cherry blossoms will eventually give way to gently falling snow, the conflicts within Japanese life – unwanted responsibilities to the long dead and adherence to prescribed patterns of living – will inevitably cause increasing friction and slow, lingering heartbreak. While some of the protagonists mourn their ultimate sense of loss over what might have been, others find comfort and strength in traditional methods and priorities. And, as viewers will learn, making one’s life choices based on community opinion may appear clean and simple, but it requires a spiritual servitude starkly at odds with the individualist ideals of the 20th Century. 

When their parents died years earlier, the Makioka family’s successful kimono factory was passed down to the four female children. 40-ish Tsuruko (Kieko Kishi) was thrust into the role of leadership along with her impassive, distant husband Tatsuo (Juzo Itami). The arrogant couple wears the many efforts they have undertaken on behalf of the family like a martyr’s badge of sacrifice. Second oldest daughter Sachiko (Yoshiko Sakuma), a woman of great empathy, often finds herself pulled in a variety of directions, as she attempts to balance the needs of family honor with the questioning nature of a new, ascendant epoch. That creed is personified by the two younger sisters Yukiko (Sayuri Yoshinaga) and Taeko (Yuko Kategawa), who only faintly remember their revered parents and feel little allegiance to ancestral imperatives.

With this broad spectrum of ages and ideologies, Ichikawa sets an appealing table for his tale of generational conflict; a tale replete with shifting alliances and clearly demarked symbolism. The bulk of the family’s inner-intrigues take place in the dark, mystical setting of their living quarters, complete with shoji screens and tatami mats, while they greet visitors and execute their carefully hatched schemes in a sunny, Victorian-furnished drawing room. While the stern Tsuruko holds on to her sisters’ dowries under the guise of safekeeping, she’s not above using the money as a weapon, bludgeoning any rebellious sibling into line. It’s also her last remnant of authority, as the young girls she was forced to raise have now grown into full womanhood, and reward her perceived sacrifices with tacit resentment. Young Taeko, whose thirst for independence is manifested by a string of secret lovers, risks the family’s public pride in a bid to escape Tsuruko’s dominance, while Yukiko retreats to extreme introversion and daydreams of forbidden romance.

According to societal rules, the painfully shy Yukiko must marry before the youngest sister Taeko, and the exhausting efforts to find her a husband comprise a number of subtly amusing scenes. This project is led by Sachiko’s kind hearted husband Teinosuke (Koji Ishizaka), and he travels hither and yon to find his sister-in-law a socially acceptable mate. But his search is layered with quiet guilt and poignant irony, for inside Teinsuke’s heart resides the real reason for Yukiko’s impending spinsterhood. And for a story nominally about the tribulations of four sisters, it is actually Teinsuke who emerges as The Makioki Sisters’ most compelling and tragic character. After years of suppression of his own identity – as social inferiors, the husbands were required to adopt the Makioki surname – Teinsuke has slowly made room for his own modest, subdued revolts. The revelations hidden beneath his quiescent exterior make him a flawed hero of surprising complexity and a resonant illustration of the perils of deferred happiness. 

Ichikawa draws flowing thematic lines that both equate and contrast the changes of the natural world with the changes in human society. His thesis is validated by the matronly Tsuruku, who welcomes and enthusiastically celebrates the changing of the seasons, but is wholly resistant to any degree of transition within her family. When faced with a momentous change she is powerless to stop, Tsuruko’s emotional armorplate becomes even thicker, and she risks the tranquility of her clan out of an outdated and pointless notion of civil propriety. Ichikawa is able to balance these concurrent storylines with the leisurely control and confidence of a consummately skilled artisan. He is on no schedule except his own, and the film’s slowly unfolding exposition will be a challenge to some viewers. But, like a chess master about to pounce, once the director has painstakingly deployed his narrative elements, the film begins to immerse and absorb, and the viewer is captivated by The Makioka Sisters’ austere images and relentless, hypnotic rhythms. 

Disc Review
Presented in the original aspect of 1.85:1, the transfer is luscious and pristine, capturing the jeweled tones of the sisters’ handcrafted silk kimonos with glistening detail. Cinematographer Kiyoshi Hasegawa’s recreation of natural light is extremely convincing, and he imbues the close ups with a luminous quality that makes skin tones seem to glow against his subdued backgrounds. In keeping with the principles of Asian design, the frames are simple and uncluttered, with even the most dramatic scenes evoking a sense of visual harmony. The Makioka Sisters is a film of primal visual pleasures, and the transfer ranks as another fine effort by Criterion. 

The track is available only in the original mono, and it’s well balanced and appropriately spartan, as The Makioka Sisters is a story of respectful silences, hushed whispers and subtle subterfuges. The score, by composers Shinnosuke Okawa and Toshyuki Watanabe, is synthesizer driven and seems a bit out of place by today’s aesthetics. However, such was the style in the early 1980s as the influence of Vangelis reached far and wide. But Ichikawa inserts the music sparingly, so there is no major distraction.

Original Theatrical Trailer

The trailer comprises the disc’s sole extra, and it’s an accurate condensation of film’s feel and tone, if a trifle over dramatic in spots. It too is a new transfer and looks quite sharp and clean.

A Booklet Featuring an Essay by Film Scholar Audie Bock

This in-case pamphlet is an attractive 16 pages; complete with film stills, cast and crew credits and an in depth article entitled Of Love and Money by Japanese cinema expert Audie Bock. Bock draws convincing parallels between The Makioka Sisters and the American classic Gone with the Wind and, indeed, the films share a number of thematic commonalties. This essay will greatly add to one’s understanding of Japanese society in the early 20th century, and is recommended reading.

Final Thoughts

The feudal Japanese ideal of life governed by ritual and cold formality no longer provides a functional template as the nation grudgingly shifts into modernity. The Makiokas continue to adhere to traditions that have become quaint anachronisms, just like their sumptuous kimonos. And, like the generation of young men seduced by Japan’s cavalier militarism, the Makioka family must learn that honor is not an inflexible concept, and its blind pursuit has destructive consequences. They may be financially well heeled, but their long term survival as a family will depend on philosophical revisions and nimble responses to the volatile market of changing ideas. Ichikawa’s sensitive and beautiful film captures a pivotal moment in Japan’s sociological history, with a unique elegance perfectly suited to this material. While The Makioka Sisters consume themselves with trivial appearances, an express train to the future threatens to leave them in the acrid dust of a dynamic new world.

Reviewed by David Anderson

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Favorite Films of Summer

Here's some movies I try to revisit every summer. They just seems to go with the season....

Pauline at the Beach (1983)
Regardless of your chronological age, this look at summertime romance will make life feel young and fresh again. And it will make you realize that youth isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Meatballs (1979)
Bill Murray, a bunch of dorky kids and some fetching young camp counselors make for a gloriously goofy ode to summer. In those days Bill Murray was the God of Cool.

Bull Durham (1988)
It's not summer until I see this one. Bull Durham captures to relaxed spirit of minor league baseball in sleepy southern towns in a way never equaled. I used to live not far from Durham, and attended a few games at the funky old Durham Athletic Park, where the game scenes were filmed. There's a new stadium now, full of the ersatz charm of a shopping mall.

A Summer Place (1959)
Not a particularly good movie, but fun none the less, with the corniest - and therefore most memorable - score in cinema history. The story doesn't make much sense, but for some reason I love the scene in the fantastic Frank Lloyd Wright beach house where everyone is eating off of TV trays.

Jaws (1975)
Spielberg had tremendous clarity of vision in those days, and stripped down every shot to its compelling narrative essentials. A film without an once of flab, with wonderful flourishes of humor within a harrowing, nail biting progression. American movies don't get much better than this.

Spider-Man 2 (2004)
My fave of the franchise, and seen during my introduction to Arizona summers. I came out of the theater on a blazing Sunday afternoon and got into my car where the dashboard thermometer read 135F. Good Times.

What are some of your summer favorites?

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Misfits (1961)****

John Huston’s The Misfits has attained a historical stature that dominates any discussion of its merits as cinema. Known mainly as the last screen appearance of icons Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, the film is a breathless encyclopedia of lurid behind-the scenes lore – chock full of the stuff that made Hollywood gossip such a profitable industry. The whispered tales of binge drinking, petty jealousies and devastating emotional breakdowns were exposed and exploited by the media when Gable suffered a fatal heart attack a mere 10 days after the film wrapped. When Monroe died from an apparent suicide 18 months later, The Misfits’ decadent tinge only grew darker; her legions of grieving fans left to hopelessly wonder what had really gone on out there in the Nevada wilderness....

 Read the Full Review

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Days of Future Passed - Part 6

Programming Flyer from The Biograph Theatre circa 1975
Used with permission
To read more about The Biograph click here