Saturday, October 8, 2011

Wherein I chew over the idea that it's actually possible for a movie studio to be a century old.

It has been scientifically proven that adding snow to any action scene increases its badassitude, or sweetness level, by a measure of 10-12 mifunes, or 26.4-31.56 eastwoods, as in this example from Seijun Suzuki's 1966 Tokyo Drifter.
(Image: Nikkatsu and Nihon Cine Art)

For several years after moving to New York City in 1996, I attended the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center every fall religiously. I pored over the schedule ahead of time, joined the first wave of blinking, pasty-skinned shut-ins who lined up early in the morning to await the noon opening of the box office for the first day of ticket sales, and cleared my (of course, always bursting) social calendar for a couple of weeks.

That habit has gradually fallen off - the ticket prices have gone up dramatically, and I'm afraid I've grown a tad jaded after fifteen years in a place where I can devour rare and obscure cinema all year long as casually as I flip popcorn into my mouth. This might end up being the first year when I don't see any of the movies in the official main slate (it's even more true than usual that most of them have U.S. distributors already and will be hitting NYC screens in the near future, for less money).

But the sidebar events at the NYFF have only gotten more numerous and ambitious in recent years, and those tend to excite me more than the main slate now. Even my shriveled little soul shimmered and glowed inside my aging body at the prospect of "Velvet Bullets and Steel Kisses," a retrospective series that I would want to check out based on that title alone. Even better, it screens thirty-six movies, spanning the 1920s to this year, from Japan's oldest studio, Nikkatsu, as their 100th anniversary in 2012 approaches. Please notify the Film Society of Lincoln Center I will accept this offering as atonement for the fact that for the first time since I've been going (I think), the main slate includes no East Asian films.

I'm already finding, as usual, that I can't see as many of them as I'd like because of the exigencies of having to conduct a life outside of moviegoing, a circumstance which proves, by the way, that there is no God. But you can watch this space to see how I deal with that sobering yet freeing knowledge over the rest of the series.


(Image: The Van Winkle Project)

...zzzz... hmpf, huh, what?

Oh. Hi.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

"Transformers" - More or less what meets the eye.

Whoops, sorry, wrong one!
(Image: DEG and In the Grip of Hysteria)

"That was the worst movie I've ever seen," said my friend as we walked out of Transformers: Dark of the Moon last night. "Why did you want to see that again?"

Uh, it's a little hard to explain. Basically, I wanted to see it for academic reasons. No, seriously, bear with m... shut up.

I've been kinda out of touch with Hollywood blockbuster culture for years, since moving to a city where I can go to the movies all day every day without ever seeing one of the behemoths (though there are always a few each year that attract me). More specifically, I felt it was well past time I saw a Michael Bay movie, and this one looked pretty in the ads. And also it was 104 degrees yesterday and I was tired and gross and I wanted to sit in some air conditioning in the dark and not have to think, or even read subtitles, which I normally have to do when watching my preferred action movies.

Bay has spent the last decade as, on the one hand, the designated whipping boy for critics down on the modern American action film, and on the other hand, as possibly the most commercially successful director working - basically, he is the 21st century avatar of the blockbuster form, the way Spielberg was for the latter 20th century (sorry, James Cameron, you'll have to make more than a movie a decade before you're eligible for the title). In film geek circles, everyone has an opinion on the guy, except me. Yes, basically, it was peer pressure.

Don't you love it when directors turn out to look exactly
how you thought they would?
(Image: The MacGuffinMen)

Verdict? Not as bad as I thought it might be - certainly not the worst movie I've ever seen by a long shot. I enjoyed some of it. With all that I've read about Bay and his big toy commercials, there were few real surprises. I'd expected the migraine-level noisiness and busy-ness of it; the split-second ricocheting of tone among grim portentousness, continent-broad comedy, gauzy sentimentality and rah-rah fist-pumping; the script sodden with "wha? who?" expository dialogue on the series' mythology; the third-rate-comedy-club ethnic stereotyping. So just some random observations on aspects that caught my attention:

-When stuff was blowing up and robots were jumping around and smashing into each other, it was, I'm almost reluctant to say, kind of brilliant, sometimes. The possibilities of state-of-the-art digital effects are pushed to their limits of batty visual extravagance, with often strange and beautiful results (the intricate detail of the robots and all their tiny moving parts is astonishing). I've heard lots of complaints about Bay's typical epileptic-seizure-style shooting and editing, but, as others have observed, the 3D format seems to have tamed that tendency somewhat, as it requires shots to be smoother and held longer in order for the depth of field to register. So here Bay has a nice line in sweeping tracking shots that use the 3D well, and he displays surprising taste in largely avoiding the hurling of objects into viewers' faces (I wouldn't have minded a little more of that, actually). So sometimes Dark of the Moon is actually thrilling, though not nearly as often as the bombastic music tells us it is. It's at its best in an extended sequence wherein a team of human protagonists scrambles around the inside and outside of a slowly collapsing skyscraper pursued by the Bad Robots, especially a gargantuan, burrowing worm-like one that plunges into and out of the building with phallic glee. This is when this type of movie justifies its existence by making my jaw hang and my brain mutter, "I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like that before."

-I was also well-forewarned about the Maxim-photo-shoot treatment of the women in the movie, particularly the puffy-lipped model-turned-actress playing the Shrieking Love Interest. But I was still slightly shocked by the extent of the movie's crude objectification. Practically every woman onscreen looks, dresses and is photographed like she's in a hip-hop music video. The most notable exception is Frances McDormand as a semi-harridan Uniformed Authority Figure. Her face is made-up and lit to look as unflattering as possible - most of her shots seem like calculated insults, to the extent that I wondered if she ever asked Bay what the hell he was doing. Or maybe she knew without asking. I'm guessing Bay is too much of a real man to have a shrink, but if he does, I'd love to get a look at the notes about his relationships with women.

-Which leads indirectly to the question: What the hell are FRANCES MCDORMAND and JOHN MALKOVICH and JOHN TURTURRO doing in this thing? Besides cashing a fat paych... never mind.

-But what the hell is BUZZ ALDRIN doing in this thing?

-On paper, the weirdest aspect of the movie is the flesh-and-blood hero, uberdork Sam Witwicky, played by Shia LaBoeuf (much better cast than he was as a rough-and-tumble greaser in the fourth Indiana Jones). In the eye of Bay's perfect storm of macho attitudes and obsessions is this slight, high-voiced, yammering little dude whose tremulous inadequacy as an action hero is a running joke. It's almost subversive, although I'm not sure Bay is self-aware enough to intend it that way. As long as I'm psychoanalyzing the director from a distance, I'll speculate that Sam is the scared little boy inside him who wants to be surrounded by explosions, cool-ass machines and centerfold models so that he can forget that's what he is. But I'm probably making that up.

-Michael Bay is America's Wong Jing - the Hong Kong director, producer and Emperor of Crass who fills much the same role over there for critics and cineastes.

-I'll see a fourth Transformers movie if Tsui Hark directs it.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Tsui much is never enough.

"Actually, yes... yes, I have produced some of the most
entertaining films ever made. Why do you ask?"
(Image: Hong Kong Movie Database)

Tsui Hark Week continues... although I think this will be my last entry in this series. Or maybe not.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A picture by Tsui Hark is worth 2,000-3,247 words.

You can talk about movies all you want, but sometimes you just have to see them. Some images and clips from work directed and/or produced by the man.

Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983)
(Image: Golden Harvest and Daniel Yun)

The East Is Red (1993)
(Image: Newport Entertainment and David Bordwell)

The Blade (1995)  (Image: Golden Harvest and Cinekulte)

The Blade
(Image: Golden Harvest & Senses of Cinema)

A Chinese Ghost Story: The Animation (1997)
(Image: Golden Harvest and Teleport City)
A Better Tomorrow (1986)
(Image: Cinema City and LoveHKFilm)

A Better Tomorrow III: Love & Death in Saigon (1989)
(Image: Golden Princess and LoveHKFilm)

Peking Opera Blues (1986), my favorite Tsui:

A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), Tsui's best collaboration with director Ching Siu-tung:

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Tsui Hark likes to talk

Some more clips of the once and future king of Hong Kong cinema at the NY Asian Film Festival.

Post-screening Q&A for The Blade:

Tsui receives a Lifetime Achievement Award from his mentor, director Patrick Lung Kong:

The Dreamweaver: Tsui Hark, live from New York

Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain
(Image: Golden Harvest and Senses of Cinema)
I can't think of another living filmmaker I'd want to see in person more than Tsui Hark. And that little dream just came true, as you can read about in the third and final chapter of my coverage of the New York Asian Film Festival at the intrepid LoveHKFilm. Honestly, I'm so excited this happened that I still wet my pants a little just thinking about it. Damn, there it happened again.

OK, I'm back. Anyway, I decided to put up some supplementary materials here at my homebase - particularly videos of the post-screening Q&As with Tsui, even though Grady's blinding suit plays havoc with the picture. You might notice that I actually got some details wrong in my hasty note-taking.


Dragon Inn (three parts):

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Christmas in July for Asian movie cultists

My entourage and I arrive on the red carpet for opening night.
[Editor's note: That's actually Takayuki Yamada in Milocrorze: A Love Story.]
(Image: Milocrorze Seisaku Iinkai and Village Voice)
For the past couple of weeks, I have given over my body, my mind, my soul and my sleeping patterns, as I always do around this time, to the New York Asian Film Festival, the hinge of my moviegoing year and officially (officially, I tell you!) the Most Fun Thing That Happens in New York City. If you don't believe me, check out the official (actually official) NYAFF trailer:

This time around, I managed to threaten the intrepid webmaster Kozo (aka Ross Chen) of the bravely loyal, always entertaining and very necessary LoveHKFilm into letting me cover the festival at his blog. You can see the first two installments here and here. I hope a third and final will be up tomorrow. 

So big thanks are due to Kozo, from me if not from his regular readers, for letting me briefly borrow his sizeable audience. As for people coming here from his site: Hi. Stick around, it's not a bad place. Not always.

Suneohair in Abraxas.
(Image: Bitters End and Film Society of Lincoln Center)

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Collect them all!

(Image: Hasbro & MDVerde's Flickr page)

Some favorite Transformers 3 critical blurbs:

"I would say that this movie objectifies women, except for the obviously deep respect and affection it shows for objects." -Rob Thomas, Capital Times (Madison, WI)

"At some point merely extending an experience, whatever the attraction of the experience may be, doesn't add to it. It just makes you later getting home." -Steven D. Greydanus, Decent Films Guide

"Guys, stop telling Hollywood you want more story in your blockbusters. They don't get it. They think it just means adding more explanation. Each sequel has a BIGGER plot that overshadows the action by sheer magnitude." -Fred Topel, Screen Junkies

"The result is still like being urinated upon, but at least this time Michael Bay was considerate enough not to ingest asparagus first." -Garth Franklin, Dark Horizons

I should mention, in all honesty, that I've never seen any of the three movies. And that I kind of like the way asparagus pee smells.

(Go here for more: Rotten Tomatoes)

(Special Added Extra Transformers 2 Bonus: The Greatest Movie Review Ever Written)

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Ren and fan

Apropos of nothing, here is a picture I just stumbled across of the indispensable Japanese character actor Ren Osugi with a kitty-cat, courtesy of J-Film Pow Wow.

You're welcome.

Bad boy makes good: Takashi Miike on the border between trash and art

Don't you love it when directors turn out to look
exactly how you thought they would?
(Image: Subway Cinema News)
It's a small satisfaction to see that conventional wisdom is catching up to Takashi Miike, and realizing there's more to him than meets the punctured, fluid-leaking eye. He's reached a milestone with his latest to get a U.S. release, the samurai action-drama 13 Assassins, which has even earned him favorable comparisons with Akira Kurosawa - which has got to be a first with this guy, although as serenely self-confident as he appears to be, I'm sure he knew it was just a matter of time.

Miike's rep in the West has for a long time been based largely on two factors: his ridiculously prolific work habits - most counts credit the 50-year-old director with somewhere around 80 feature films over the past 20 years; and a predilection for outrageous grue and gag-reflex-inducing perversity.  The fact that he's a smart, talented and ambitious, if inevitably uneven, artist, if it gets mentioned at all, comes third (oops, there it happened again).  

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The other China, Part Deux

(Image: Hong Kong Movie Database)
It occurs to me that I never finished commenting on last month's "Taiwan Stories" series at Lincoln Center, and I know you're all tearing your hair out over it.  Fear not!  I return!  This time, two older classics (one of which is only one year older than I, a fact I'm just not going to think about).  I don't seem to have taken notes, so at this remove, I can't comment in as much detail as I'd like.  Bad blogger, bad!  

Both, unlike the previous two I reviewed, are full-blown studio melodramas.  What's more, interestingly, and perhaps queasily, each prominently features a woman who sacrifices herself emotionally and sexually for others.

Autumn Execution (1971) - Li Xing's film, apparently a revered classic, took some work for me to warm to (this reviewer was less able to than I), as it's a would-be heart-tugger whose two most prominent characters are quite repellent.  

Monday, May 30, 2011

Little girl lost... little movie bonkers.

(Image: Focus Features and
Brit director Joe Wright is best known for his Oscar-nominated movie of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (2005) and his Oscar-nominated movie of Ian McEwan's Atonement (2007).  But in what feels like a conscious move to avoid being pinned down as a maker of high-minded, awards-bait literary adaptations, he's turned out a truly weird B-movie action-thriller titled Hanna, a modestly-budgeted US-UK-German co-production which I saw on a whim the other night and enjoyed quite a bit.  It's the sort of derivative, smartass genre piece that makes a lot of intelligent people roll their eyes, and I couldn't really blame anyone for not liking it.  But I found its exuberance and willful eccentricity irresistible, with a big help from an engaging central performance.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The other China

A Time to Live, A Time to Die
(Image: Central Motion Pictures Corporation and Lincoln Center)
"Taiwan Stories" might be the most unimaginative title ever for a film series (how about "Straits from the Heart"?  - I kid, I kid!).  But I was still excited about the Film Society of Lincoln Center's long-promised showcase of "classic and contemporary" selections from a cinema that's been pretty neglected in the West (it didn't help that the Taiwanese industry was brought to its knees by imported Hong Kong blockbusters in the early '90s, just as Western appreciation of Chinese-language film was really catching on).  Partly because the planet's oldest civilization spent the 20th century undergoing change at an ears-pinned-back, nose-squashed, eyelids-flapping rate, Chinese-language film is, for me, one of the most fascinating, so any chance to fill gaps a little is cherished.  Below, pontifications upon two of the movies I saw (comments on two older '60s classics to come later in the week).

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Tiptoe through your subconscious fears with me: On the uncanniness of Tiny Tim

It's a little surprising that it's taken this long for it to happen, but a horror filmmaker has finally harnessed the demonic power of Tiny Tim.  Yes, I recently saw Insidious, the sorta-haunted-house sleeper hit from the makers of Saw (which I've managed to avoid to date), director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell.  On the whole, it's far from a great movie, but scary flicks have a way of slipping past one's critical faculties - I still walked out with the rubbery-legged, butterfly-bellied feeling that comes after a prolonged period of adrenaline and tension.  And I slept with a light on.  Shut up.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

"I'd like to see Paris before I die. Philadelphia will do."

The Devil's own: Mae West and W.C. Fields in My Little Chickadee
(Image: Universal Pictures and Hudson Square Bid

I have long intended to make a better acquaintance of the right honorable Mr. William Claude Dukenfield, better known as W.C. Fields.  As a kid, I repeatedly watched a cheap VHS tape of three of his shorts; ever since, I've tried to shoehorn into conversation whenever possible a line from The Golf Specialist, "Bringing a pie to a golf course!  It's like bringing... something or other... somewhere... or other."  (This is not easy to do, I would point out.)  And of course I couldn't help being exposed to the Fields clips and quotes that litter 20th century popular culture.  All of which was more than enough to let me know that he was my kind of guy, at least as a comic persona on the screen and not as someone I actually had to put up with in real life.

Film Forum's recent Fields series confirmed this - although none of the three movies I squeezed in were terrific in their own right, whenever he ambled onto the screen, he zapped them to life like a comedy defibrillator.  He was one of those personalities who was scarcely containable by the constricted structure of his industry - he comes across like an emissary from another world, stopping in to let us know that there are stranger things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in the Production Code Administration's philosophy, while at the same time he's always relatable as a human being.  

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Mad Pigs and Chinamen

(Image: dGenerate Films)

If you had access to many hours of footage shot on the streets of any major city, you could cull from it quite an assortment of weirdos, scuzzbags and bizarre or disturbing incidents.  I doubt, however, that my own lovely berg of NYC would, in any given year, be likely to yield the image of dozens of escaped pigs galloping and strolling around on a highway and disrupting traffic.

That's just one of the many indelible scenes in Huang Weikai's Disorder (2009).  This astonishing experimental documentary/collage piece is the only one of the features I managed to see in the Museum of the Moving Image's recent, all-too-brief series "Tales from the New Chinese Cinema," focused on the wave of independent filmmakers emerging in the People's Republic.  Huang's 58-minute work is distilled from something like 1,000 hours of journalistic and amateur video footage shot in Guangzhou, the southern city that's one of the ground zeros for China's volcanic economic and social upheaval.

If that sounds dry and academic, be assured that the screening was accompanied by almost as much audience gasping as you'd expect in a decent horror movie, and more than a few bone-dry chuckles as well.  Disorder is the unruly, chained-in-the-attic relative of classic "city symphony" collage films like The Man with a Movie Camera or Berlin: Symphony of a Great City.  In her introduction, film scholar and series co-curator Cheng Sim-lim said that the original Chinese title translates roughly as The Present is the Future of the Past, which she interpreted as referring to the way in which the strange or even unthinkable becomes "the new normal" in a rapidly changing world.  No doubt even Chinese viewers would feel like much of the movie comes from another planet, and not one you'd necessarily want to visit (funny enough, I've been considering a side-trip to Guangzhou when I visit Hong Kong this coming fall).

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Mad Dogs and Chinamen

Chow Yun-fat and hosts (Image: Emperor Motion Pictures and Kong-Cast)

I always feel guilty about not attending much of the Tribeca Film Festival, and I always vow that next year it will be different - but there's so much stuff!  I just get overwhelmed and kind of give up, seeing only one or two movies.  The must-see this year that cut through my option-induced paralysis was Let the Bullets Fly, which recently broke the record for China's highest-grossing domestic film ever, and, more to the point, was reputed to be very good and, perhaps even more to the point, marks the now-sadly-rare occasion of a major vehicle for Hong Kong supernova Chow Yun-fat, still quite possibly the coolest man alive.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Boys, girls and swords

Maisie Williams as Arya Stark (Image: HBO & Stellar Four)
Let me lay my bias on the table right away: I'm a huge fan of George R.R. Martin's series of doorstop-size fantasy novels collectively titled A Song of Ice and Fire.  And no big-screen cinema event this year eclipses, in my mind, the unveiling last Sunday night of HBO's new ten-episode, small-screen adaptation of the first volume, A Game of Thrones.  For the most part, it did not disappoint me - more on that in a few weeks when I put up a fuller review, after I've absorbed the initial installments. 

So clearly, I'm far from objective when evaluating criticisms of the series - especially the significant number of accusations floating around in the online chatter, from professional critics and blog commenters alike, that the grim, graphically violent and sexual show is misogynistic.  A pretty representative sampling includes pop culture columnist Whitney Matheson at USA Today ("a 13-year-old boy's wonderland"); an articulate-if-enraged Salon reader going by the handle of Setsuna777 ("Sexually violent, sexist, nauseating"); and, to a lesser extent, critic Ginia Bellafante in an already semi-notorious New York Times pan that didn't explicitly address issues of misogyny but dismissed the entire fantasy genre, and GoT in particular, as "boy fiction" that no woman she knows would bother with. 

My own pre-formed opinions notwithstanding, I think I'm on solid ground when dismissing these complaints, almost (but not quite) entirely - and I say that with full awareness that, given the pervasive sexism that still exists in contemporary entertainment, a feminist is well justified in approaching what she watches with some skepticism. 

Saturday, April 23, 2011

How do you say "Nouvelle Vague" in Cantonese?

(Image filched from Eigawatchlog)
Among the nice things about being really sick, besides the raw throatful of gluey phlegm and the sensation of having been beaten all over by hammers, is that you can sit around and watch a bunch of DVDs without feeling guilty about the other, practical stuff you ought to be doing or the people you ought to be out socializing with.  So this post comes to you courtesy of some sort of flu virus.  Thanks to said microorganism and its rapidly multiplying family, I was able recently to get through a few more of the Hong Kong movies in a stack I borrowed about a year ago from a friend, which remains embarrassingly unfinished (the stack, not the friend... although... well, anyway).

On a whim, I concentrated on rare, hard-to-find crime movies from the "Hong Kong New Wave" of the late '70s and early '80s, mostly in the form of DVD-Rs copied from crummy, full-screen VHS tapes, one of them without even subtitles.  Admirable dedication or masochism?  This question is left as an exercise for the reader.

The paradox of plenty.

Sometimes it's hard living in a culturally rich and diverse city.  Here are the film-related events that are competing for my finite time and money over the next week or so:

The W.C. Fields retrospective at Film Forum.  The late films of Indian master Satyajit Ray at Lincoln Center.  The retrospective of Japanese director Kaneto Shindo at BAM Rose Cinemas, including his never-before-seen-in-the-U.S. classic Children of Hiroshima.  The retrospective of pioneering Soviet master Dziga Vertov at Anthology Film Archives.  And of course the Tribeca Film Festival, with dozens of every kind of movie, including the latest blockbuster starring the great Hong Kong star Chow Yun-fat.  This is to say nothing of the new movies in general release that I actually want to get around to seeing, including Insidious, Hanna, Incendies, Meek's Cutoff, Blank City, Certified Copy, and I can't even remember what else.  Plus there's all those other things that aren't movies.  Yes, I do some of those things.  And only one of them is work.

So if you haven't seen anything in this space lately, that's my excuse: my brain is melting and I'm sinking into a slough of despair over all the things I have to abandon seeing in order to see any of the other things.  Expressions of heartfelt sympathy are hereby solicited.

(image courtesy of TVRecappersAnonymous)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Does everyone care about Uncle Boonmee? Should everyone?

(Image courtesy of Kick the Machine and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's blog)

In his rave review in the current issue of Film Comment magazine, Chuck Stephens makes the rather remarkable statement that "everybody who cares about cinema has already long been stoked about seeing Uncle Boonmee."  In case you are somebody who Just Does Not Care About Cinema, I shall inform you that he refers to Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, the latest feature by Thai avant-garde filmmaker Apichatpong "just call me Joe" Weerasethakul and the upset winner of the Palme d'Or for best picture at last year's Cannes Film Festival.  As usual for The Joe, it includes Buddhist and animist mysticism, animal transmogrifications and ruminations on reincarnation, references to Thai folklore and more oblique references to Thai history and politics, homey low-key humor, and lots and lots of jungle vegetation and chirping cricket sounds.  I suppose this is as good a paragraph as any to fulfill my obligations under the law governing all writers on Uncle Boonmee by mentioning the monkey ghosts with glowing red eyes and the disfigured princess who receives oral sex from a talking catfish.

Now, as someone who Cares About Cinema, and who is furthermore a fan of Weerasethakul's work, I was certainly stoked about seeing it long before I did last fall at the New York Film Festival, and was almost equally stoked about seeing it a second time, as I did last month at Manhattan's Film Forum when it was finally released for a U.S. run.  But the combination of that second experience and Stephens' above-quoted assertion got me thinking again about the gap between the quite small group of cosmopolitan-intellectual-professional film pundits and the more-or-less-casual paying audience, and how wide that gap often is even in the cineaste circles of a town like New York.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Better than the book. There, I said it. Don't like it? Talk to the guy in the bearskin.

"Either o' you in need o'... medical attention?"
Ed Corbin in the greatest performance in film history
(Image courtesy Paramount Pictures & Tattered Banners)

Earlier this month I finally got around to seeing the Coen brothers' latest, True Grit.  Even I was surprised at how long this took me to do, despite having wanted to see it since long before opening day, which was Christmas.  But that often happens with me and big mainstream movies - it feels like I'll have a million chances to see it, while every week there are tempting little rarities beckoning from every repertory screening venue in New York City.  There are Icelandic silent comedies and Iranian science fiction musicals to see, dammit!  (I've actually never heard of an example of either, but if they turned up, I would pay to see them without hesitation.)

Regardless of why the buildup took so long, the payoff did not disappoint.  Sue me, but I liked it even better than Charles Portis's cult classic 1968 novel, which I'd made a point of reading beforehand and found very fine.  The Coens faithfully retain most of the virtues of Portis, but the addition of thick layers of visual and aural texture just enhances them.  The author’s telling of the story in the deadpan first-person voice of Mattie Ross, the 14-year-old girl on a hunt after her father's killer through wild Western territory, was an inspired choice, exquisitely carried out.  But Mattie's matter-of-factness meant that there wasn’t much dwelling on atmosphere.  The Coens, remarkably, retain a sense of Mattie’s voice and point of view without much resort to voiceover narration from the novel - largely through the medium of Hailee Steinfeld, the 15-year-old outta-nowhere star.  Steinfeld inhabits the unnervingly self-possessed Mattie with, well, unnerving self-possession; she rules most of the scenes she's in even when she's sharing them with a Jeff Bridges or a Matt Damon at their respective bests, just as her character continually bends jaded, leather-tough adults around her finger through sheer will.  The paradoxically tough-as-tree-bark gaze of her big, soft eyes in her baby-fat-rounded face is the sound of Mattie's voice translated into an image.

But on top of this, the movie adds the feel of the dust on our skin and in our hair, the bite of the prairie wind, the smell of men, old and not-so-old, rotting from the inside and covered in the detritus of their hardscrabble lives.  Much of the credit for this, of course, belongs to the brothers' typically painstaking visual and sound design.  But no small part has to go to their seldom-erring instinct for casting, which as usual goes beyond the leads.  Even in bit parts, the Coens scatter around perfect faces and voices that don't look and sound like "movie people."

Best of all is some guy named Ed Corbin, who totally looks like an  Ed Corbin, and, as the bearskin-sporting, self-described doctor with just one brief scene, may be the greatest thing to happen ever (EVER!) in a movie aside from the monkey guard in Toy Story 3.  In a movie that's practically an essay in the many possible variations on “thick-tongued, rumbly-chested Western drawl” that can come out of the male human face, he towers above them all.

True Grit the movie is also a lovely demonstration of the way that authors and their screen adaptors, so often placed at odds by commentators, can help each other out.  Much of Portis’s dry humor is enhanced when presented through the voices and faces of these actors, while the Coens' often overweening love of cartoon grotesquery is reined in by Portis’s hard-eyed reserve.  On the evidence of this and the even more breathtaking No Country for Old Men, maybe the Coens ought to stick to hard-bitten literary adaptations and leave off the gooney comedies.  I might start to love them again the way I did back in the days of Miller's Crossing and Barton Fink.

[UPDATE: Here's a short, entertaining L.A. Times piece about Ed Corbin and his appearance in the movie.]
(Image courtesy Simon & Schuster and Encyclopedia of Arkansas)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

78 cents per minute, and cheap at the price.

(Image courtesy Studio Ghibli and Carnegie Hall)

I have a sickness.  It's called cinephilia.  The more specific sub-strain currently afflicting me is Miyazakiphilia.  Last night I spent $21 to see two short films that totaled 27 minutes together.  And I don't regret it.  In fact, I'd do it again if I could.  Unfortunately, I can't.

Last week I noticed that Carnegie Hall, as part of the JapanNYC arts festival, was somehow showing two of the eight shorts that animation god Hayao Miyazaki has made for screening exclusively at his museum in suburban Tokyo devoted to the work of his production company Studio Ghibli.

If you don't know who Miyazaki is, it's tough to explain succinctly why reading this announcement made me shriek like a four-year-old handed a new puppy and painfully clutch the arm of the nearest stranger (this interview piece in The Telegraph is a good start).  Within the world of Japan's animated cinema, and those in the rest of the world who pay attention to it, Miyazaki is the equivalent of, say, a Bob Dylan: an almost universally beloved popular figure who is also a singular, uncompromising, even eccentric artist who's innovated his own distinctive style and vision that remains inimitable while being hugely influential.  His child-friendly but not childish fantasies eat domestic box office records whole and also pick up awards from highbrow European film festivals and Hollywood's middlebrow Academy Awards alike.  And it's not as if his fans have a huge amount of work to choose from, or ever will - a painstaking creator with the financial success to set his own timetable, he's directed ten feature films total starting in 1979, and keeps announcing his retirement from directing and then taking it back.

And he's a stubborn old cuss who, as the Carnegie Hall program emphasized with sadistic relish, has never allowed any of his Ghibli Museum shorts to be shown outside that venue, and supposedly never will again - they must have drugged his drink, or kidnapped his grandchildren, or something.  However they did it, they had me there at "Miyazaki," and I probably would have paid $50 if I'd had to.

The evening began with a short introduction by American Ghibli executive Steve Alpert, who spoke simply and unsentimentally about the studio's reaction to the earthquake and tsunami disaster.  Miyazaki gathered the staff together and told them that the best thing they could do was keep making the work they did... besides, of course, fundraising and clothing drives and food drives, which they're also conducting, in addition to setting up DVD screenings for children stuck in shelters.  Then he gave some quick comments on cultural and other background to set up the shorts - which, given that most people will likely never have a chance to see them, I'll describe in more detail than I normally would.

(Image courtesy Studio Ghibli and Carnegie Hall)
The first, House Hunting (Yado-Sagashi), is a 12-minute story which sets a redheaded young girl off with a big, stuffed backpack, briefly hiking down the side of a deafening, crowded highway before setting off across the countryside, over streams and hills and through woods.  Along the way, she has glancing encounters with various nature spirits, each of which she greets cheerfully with an offering of an apple and a polite bow (in what I'm sure was an unintentional echo, the giant tadpole-like apparition in a stream reminded me of the much more dangerous water beast in the great Korean monster movie The Host, released the same year, 2006).  She eventually comes to an isolated cabin where she takes shelter from a rainstorm and shares her lunch with a scuttling host of wide-eyed, friendly bugs - not noticing the enormous black millipede-like creature (another spirit?) that zooms around out of sight, eventually exiting in apparent fright.  After a good night's rest in her sleeping bag, she awakes to the presence of a shuffling, vaguely Sasquatch-like spirit, and seems to realize that this is not her house to occupy after all.  Quickly packing up, she hikes back the way she came, although at one point the hairy occupant of the cabin tosses her a big sack of goodies over the trees, which she takes after leaving an offering for him.

Fans will instantly recognize in the narrative a lot of Miyazaki tradmarks - the intrepid prepubescent heroine, the skeptical view of technological civilization and the love of the natural world, the fascination with quasi-mythological mysticism, the superficially menacing creatures which would be typed as a threat in a Disney animation, but in fact turn out to be harmless.  Stylistically, though, it's pretty experimental.  The images are graphically simple and rendered in bright primary colors and deliberately rough-hewn animation.  The entire soundtrack - mostly sound effects with just a few brief phrases of dialogue - is created by two human voice performers, with the sound effects also represented in big onomatopoeic Japanese characters that fly, quiver and tumble across the screen.  The overall feeling of enthusiastic oral storytelling and naive, childlike play inspired butterflies of joy in my stomach, and I wasn't alone judging from the reactions around me.

The everyday glories of nature are also central to the 15-minute Mon Mon the Water Spider (Mizugomu Monmon), inspired by an actual species that apparently fascinates Miyazaki - an arachnid that lives underwater but breathes air which it collects from the surface in big (to the spider) bubbles.  We watch our hero Mon Mon's routine of gathering air and building bubble nests while trying to avoid being eaten by the many bigger carnivores in his pond.  Then he notices a cute female water strider zipping gracefully along the surface, in contrast to his scuttling, furtive existence, and is smitten.  He pines hopelessly and watches from a distance, eventually saving her from being eaten (by an awesomely scary-cool clawed crustacean of some sort).  Confused and frightened, she flees unceremoniously.  But she returns for a climactic brief encounter wherein he hangs onto her two front legs for a thrilling, dancelike zoom around the surface of the pond at top speeds.  After almost being eaten by a big fish, they inevitably part, returning to their separate worlds to the melancholy awwwing of the audience.

The second movie is a striking stylistic contrast to the first, marked by a startling re-creation of the story's natural environment so realistically detailed that it looks like an animated episode of Planet Earth.  The only "cartoon" stylization is in some of the details of the two main characters - a little too much in the case of the water strider: the pink bow on her head is an atypically clumsy stumble into cloying territory. But that's a tiny nitpick in a piece so beautiful and charming, and so full of remarkable sights that it would be worth watching multiple times in a row just to catch all of them.

When the lights came up after the pair's parting, there was an audible groan of frustration from the audience - we felt like Mon Mon being torn away from our water strider and forced to scuttle back down to our bubble nests in the depths.  At that moment, I was almost ready to say it would be better to see none of these shorts than just a tantalizing two.  Would it have killed him to let us have four?  But as my Great Uncle Lester used to say, look a gift horse in the mouth and you might get your nose bitten off.  So I'll keep my nose and my pleasant memories of an experience even most worshippers at the altar of Miyazaki never get to have.