Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Season of Discontent: Ozu's Late Spring (1949)*****

Societal customs and early forms of feminism collide in Late Spring, a masterfully delicate family drama from director Yasujirô Ozu. Produced in 1949, this seemingly modest film set in the exurbs of Tokyo spins a narrative web that slowly entrances and captures, leaving the hearts of unsuspecting viewers hopelessly tangled in its cinematic snares. Newly available on a sensory rich – albeit far from perfect – Criterion blu-ray, Late Spring approaches a home delivery platform worthy of its subtle characterizations and visual intricacies, and a suitable showcase for the full flower of Ozu’s meticulous realization.

The story, like many other aspects of the film, appears rudimentarily simple at first glance. A 60-ish widowed economics professor named Shukichi (Chishû Ryû) lives quietly with his adult daughter Noriko (Setsuko Hara) in their traditional country home. Noriko attends to the housework and daily chores while her father entertains a steady stream of visiting family and former coworkers. However, late spring is not only a time of year but a time of life; a time Noriko, pushing 30, has squarely entered. Her biological clock is ticking loudly, audible to everyone except Noriko, who’s perfectly happy to remain at home washing her father’s shirts and cooking his meals. When meddling Aunt Massa (Haruko Sugimura) takes it on herself to find Noriko a suitable mate, a chain of events unfolds that slowly erodes the chemistry of this happy home. The weight of tradition becomes too much for Shukichi and Noriko, and soon they find themselves questioning the underpinnings of their lives.

Despite its apparent simplicity, Late Spring is given significant heft by Ozu’s patented – and often copied – techniques of dramatic enhancement. An air of familiar domesticity is evoked through his constant insistence on underplay. Ozu’s actors deliver their lines in meek mutters, with toothy grins couching every word in respectful pleasantness. These trifling conversations, easily dismissed as chit-chat, loom large later in the film as society’s walls begin to close in on the principals. The sharpness and detail of the disc reveal Ozu’s passion for building three-dimensional depth in the frame, as each scene contains multiple foreground and background elements. Exteriors of trains, sand dunes and ocean waves are filmed in such a way to create maximum penetration along the Z axis, sending the viewer ever deeper into Late Spring’s unique world. While Ozu is famous for formalism, analysis of his frequent locked off medium close-ups shows an obsession with visual complexity held in perfect compositional balance; like a choir of a hundred voices blending in harmony.

Both Chishû Ryû and Setsuko Hara would go on to long and successful careers in the Japanese film industry. Their work here is beyond reproach, creating one of cinema’s most convincing father/daughter dynamics. Ryû’s portrait of a world weary, easily manipulated senior is ultimately heartbreaking, while Hara – as of this writing still kicking at 92 years young – provides an infectious youthful zest that Ozu effectively exploits. Hara at times seems barely out of childhood; her trip into Tokyo for knitting needles rendered with a bubbly innocence that establishes her character more vividly than reams of dialogue could ever accomplish. But in the mind of Aunt Massa, and the whole of society, this vibrant young woman must not be left to her own happy devices. Hara proves to be the film’s driving energy; her performance starkly memorable and brimming with empathy. Even to the tradition-minded audiences of 1949, the sly efforts to force her into a preconceived notion of adulthood must have seemed vilely unjust.


Sunday, April 22, 2012

Anarchy in Argentina: A Week Alone (2008)*****

Reviewed by Shu Zin

A WEEK ALONE is an Argentinean gem whose surface is well-faceted, but not highly polished. It has a very consistent, charged atmosphere that is subtle and sometimes hilarious. Lots and lots of adolescent energy and intensity turn it into something a little ominous. Maria is a 23 year old staying with her cousins to take care of them and the hacienda while the wealthy parents (who never appear in this drama) are away for a couple of weeks' vacation.

Kids are left behind, under-supervised, to get into some interesting mischief in the gated community they call home. When Maria's brother Juan Fernando arrives unexpectedly, the dynamics change, and one senses instantly there's trouble to come. Actually, although the kids carry it over the top and probably would have continued to escalate their daring little adventures here, the sense of utter gloom that settles like a pall over them all struck me as oddly familiar. 

While I didn't go as far as these ones do, I think we've all felt that sense of despair and dread when our chickens come home to roost. Director Celina Murga does a fine job of observing mundane, ad-libbed chatter and weaving it into an increasingly dark slice of life. The ending, the last five minutes are simply brilliant. Droll, too. A portrait of gloom I shan't soon forget. I loved this movie, and I'd recommend it to anyone patient and adventurous. Happy to see they've acquired some new Argentinean films here. They are usually sophisticated, surprising, fresh and captivating.

Reviewed by Shu Zin

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Latkes and Lament: The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974) ****1/2

In between his star-making turns in American Graffiti and Jaws - the latter to be released on blu-ray this summer - Richard Dreyfuss appeared in this modest Canadian production. And while The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz has not obtained the iconic stature of the other two pictures – to put it mildly – in its own way this portrait of a hustling dreamer is an equally rewarding cinematic experience. 

Based on a novel by Mordecai Richler, Canada’s answer to John Updike and chronicler of that perpetually confused between-the-wars generation, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is an involving and entertaining look at Montreal’s Jewish community circa 1950, and the underlying fear, bitterness and guilt of its slightly traumatized residents. The film captures unique elements of self-loathing, here played mainly for laughs, as characters revel in traditional aspirations, yet occasionally chide each other for appearing “too Jewish”. 

Dreyfuss plays the title character, a 20ish hustler determined to make it as an entrepreneur and earn the respect of his gruff father (Jack Warden), a widowed cab driver and part-time pimp. Duddy’s older brother Lenny (Alan Rosenthal) is studying to be a doctor, a pursuit that qualifies him as royalty in this cloistered neighborhood, and Duddy is eager to eclipse his sibling’s star in record time. The film follows the manipulative Duddy through a number of money making schemes, ranging from the visionary to the hare-brained, and creates an unlikely empathy for this borderline gonif.  

Along the way, Dreyfuss links up with a number of  lost souls and these supporting characters give the film comedic and emotional richness. Denholm Elliott is a scream as a booze-addled British film director – a sort of minor league Ken Russell – who goes into business with Duddy creating abstract, allegorical home movies of bar mitzvahs. Impossibly young and slender Randy Quaid delivers a heartbreaking performance as a naïve epileptic, providing a reminder of the enormous talent that made him a household name before his career descended to its current state of public untidiness. Veteran character actor Joe Silver lends his compelling baritone to the role of Duddy’s surrogate father while Micheline Lanctôt adds just the right flavors of experienced sexiness as Duddy’s French-Canadian shiksa goddess and moral compass. 

But The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is made manifest by Richard Dreyfuss, in a performance so thoroughly laced with tics and physical business his energy bursts from the screen. Under the watchful eye of underrated comedy director Ted Kotcheff – check out his ageless North Dallas Forty sometime for a poignant and hilarious skewering of the NFL – Dreyfuss doesn’t caress the camera, he collides with it; his tendency to scenery chew a perfect compliment to his character’s explosive persona. Kotcheff carefully builds the sleepy atmospherics of mid-century Montreal, then introduces the ticking time bomb embodied by Duddy. The pace of the film immediately quickens, yet close inspection reveals no change in its editorial rhythm; the film’s increased intensity attributable only to Dreyfuss. In scenes where supporting characters deliver impassioned speeches, Dreyfuss kicks at the ground like an impatient bull, calculating his next move. Duddy’s moral lapses are always attributable to some high and noble purpose; the end fully justifying the means, and the end is always Duddy. It’s a tribute to Dreyfuss’ transformative skills that he applied radically different techniques to Marine Biologist Matt Hooper the following year in Jaws, yet each character projected stark believability. 

Like his costar Randy Quaid, Richard Dreyfuss has floundered in recent years, lost in an American film industry that has little use for his unique talents and, in truth, no longer deserves him. But in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Dreyfuss’ nervous nebbish ultimately gets exactly what he wants. Duddy also gets exactly what he deserves. And, tragically enough, the two things are identical.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Harvest Moan: Pauline et François (2010)****

Pauline et François is an airy, meditative drama built on fresh, chilly breezes and scaled perfectly to the human soul. Filmed in the sparsely populated Limousin region southwest of Paris - an area more famous for its cattle than its sophistication - the film captures the casual gentleness of human interaction and the hypnotic – at times disturbing - quietness of country life. Pauline et François is like a family scrapbook of intriguing moments; some small, some cathartic, over the course of a few months. Writer/director Renaud Fely, making his feature debut, carefully blends these seemingly unremarkable elements into a rich portrait that paints everyday life in subtly heroic hues. 

Laura Smet plays Pauline, a young widow from Paris who comes to Limousin to take a new job at a bank. She rents a farmhouse on a crumbling agrarian compound owned by the family of her coworker Catherine (Lea Drucker). Catherine’s hunky but sensitive brother François (Yannick Renier), a roofing contractor, lives across the way in a converted barn and the pair strike up a friendship laced with unspoken sexual tension. From this fascinating springboard, the story branches out to encompass the lives of François’ family and the tragic childhood event that forged a long standing dynamic based on deception.

The film’s scenes of rural life evoke the gray, windswept notes of Andrew Wyeth, reinforcing the story’s undercurrents of remorse. But Fely stages scenes of such catatonic realism the film often feels like a documentary, yet each conversation and interaction is perfectly timed with nary a wasted word or motion. He avoids any cinema verite artiness, favoring instead a simple presentation that scores with superb pacing and tonality. Smet, taking a break from her portfolio of home-wreckers, does a fine job as a woman with deep pain beginning to find her balance again while Renier emits such earnest conviction he appears ready to take his place among France’s top leading men. 

Pauline et François contains little in the way of emotive revelations or garment rending histrionics. Its dramatic climax, if one can call it that, is a relatively minor moment of moral weakness that’s quickly discovered and rectified. The film is neither artfully minimal nor flashily intense. But it is a haunting and compelling construction, built only with the most rudimentary of filmmaking tools. And Fely’s honest labor rewards his viewers with a memorable perspective of one family’s drift down the meandering river of time.

Monday, April 9, 2012

April Quickies

Rio Sex Comedy (2010)***

For the majority of its two hour bulk, Rio Sex Comedy is actually a fairly interesting movie; all about a group of European and American expats adapting to life in wild and wooly Rio. An American diplomat (Bill Pullman) goes thoroughly native and hides from the State Department in one of the city’s favelas (hilltop ghettos virtually abandoned by the local government; think Juarez with an ocean view), while filmmaker Irene Jacob has her marriage vows threatened by an attractive cameraman (Jean-Marc Roulot). Charlotte Rampling plays a relocating British plastic surgeon, and before long, everyone succumbs to the rampant horniness that seems to fill the air of this sensual city. It all gets a bit silly toward the end, especially a subplot involving a local hustler (Fisher Stevens) and his lust for a virtuous Indian girl (Dani Dams). Writer/Director Jonathan Nossiter is a documentarian at heart, and his Mondovino from a few years ago is recommended as an irreverent look at the ethically-challenged characters that control world wine markets. Rio Sex Comedy seems most alive during scenes of everyday life among the city’s residents; once the gringos start stripping off their clothes, not so much.

Park Benches (2009)****

This ensemble comedy takes a while to get going, but it’s worth the wait. Essentially a three act play with tangentially related storylines, the movie features cameos by a who’s who of French cinema: Catherine Deneuve, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Gourmet and Chiara Mastroianni, to name a few. The final act takes place in a Home Depot type store, where a variety of power tools run amok makes for a hilarious finale. Light, entertaining froth.

Room at the Top (1959)****1/2

The prequel to 1962’s Life at the Top, this bleak British New Waver shows how that blackguard Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey) weaseled his way to a good job and lasting unhappiness. It’s basically a soap - albeit a wonderful one - with all manner of seemingly respectable folks behaving badly. And Harvey, as usual, is nothing short of mesmerizing.


Running With Scissors (2006)****

Surprisingly good memoir of a particularly twisted upbringing, with unfailingly earnest Joseph Cross as a teenager lost in a sea of scheming and mentally unbalanced adults. Even if you find the story farfetched – which I didn’t – the film is delightful to watch for the great performances of Annette Benning, Brian Cox and Joseph Fiennes. Director Ryan Murphy does a very good job with this; so good I can almost forgive him for the Eat Pray Love screenplay.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Raging Bull II Only Tip of Iceberg

According to Indie Wire, the rumored sequel to Scorsese's 1980 classic is no joke. There will be a Raging Bull II.

While you contemplate this horrific news, here's a few of the other sequels in the pipeline...

Taxi Driver II: The patience of a withdrawn and alienated Atlanta cabbie (Tyler Perry) is severely tested when he volunteers to coach a little league baseball team.

Apocalypse Now II: A retired army captain (Martin Sheen) begins a new career as a stand up comedian in Las Vegas, where he falls in love with a former nuclear physicist (Emma Thompson) who now works as a cocktail waitress.

Battleship Potemkin II: The crew of a Russian navy ship feel threatened by tainted meat and the advent of sound motion pictures. Tom Hanks, Jean Dujardin and Jesse Eisenberg star.

The Shawshank Redemption II: Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman star as two aging beachcomers who fall in love with the same woman (Salma Hayek) while keeping one step ahead of a determined but sincere FBI agent (Ryan Gosling).

Of Gods and Men II: When their monastery faces financial problems, a group of monks enter a prestigious cheese-making competition with a $100,000 first prize. Ben Affleck and Keanu Reeves star.

The Shining II: Due to a scheduling mix-up, thousands of lingerie models descend on a remote Colorado ski resort for a convention, staffed only by a mentally unbalanced caretaker (Nicolas Cage).

Monday, April 2, 2012

R.I.P. Buddy Rich

The world's greatest drummer passed on to that great celestial orchestra 25 years ago today. In the tribute video below, he does things with his hands that are impossible for human beings...

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Art of Crime: Stolen (2006)*****

Reviewed by Shu Zin

STOLEN is well-filmed, well-conceived, and wildly exciting. This is a first rate documentary about the theft of  13 masterpieces from the Isabella Stewart Gardner collection in Boston in 1990, and it follows the efforts of a career art crimes expert, Harold J Smith, in his efforts to recover the paintings. Smith is a miracle. He describes how his nose once fell off. (sic) (yes, sic!). 

A particularly excellent aspect of this documentary is that it shows us how various people relate to and articulate their passion for art (including, through letters, Isabella S Gardner herself, and interviews with a number of "retired" art thieves consulted) as much as telling a story of the theft and attempts to recover these priceless works. Some of these people are visibly moved nearly to tears as they discuss the loss of the exceptionally precious Vermeer, which most would agree is the most heartbreaking loss. Vermeer painted so few – art historians disagree about the exact number, but they all estimate around 35 paintings - and every one is a masterpiece of incalculable importance. 

There's humor here, a good score and a brisk pace, as leads are followed. This is a great suspense and crime story as well as an instructive and sensual exposure to a few of the greatest pictures ever painted. Some of the rest of them still reside at the Gardner Museum in Boston. There's a wonderful "extra" on the dvd, as well: an interview with the director, Rebecca Dreyfus, wherein she charmingly describes how Mr Smith came to play such a big role in her documentary. Highly recommended to anyone, absolutely anyone! 

Reviewed by Shu Zin