December 31, 2009
New Year's Resolutions for 2010
My god, can we please put this recession-wrought year out of its (and our) misery? Not that 2009 didn't have its pleasures, especially when it came to film, as it was a fruitful year for the cinema. My own New Year's resolution for 2010—again, when it comes to film—is about the same as it was last year. I'm going to strive to be progressive, pragmatic and curatorial as a critic, innovative as a distributor, and motivated enough to write and direct a second feature. I thought it might be fun to ask fellow members of the film community to share their own pledges for 2010, and was excited that less than 24 hours' notice yielded responses from over 40 filmmakers, critics, distributors, publicists, and other noteworthy voices. Be safe tonight, friends... Nah, screw that. Get into some trouble, try something radical, and let's shake things up in the new year.
"To have no shame: no 'guilty pleasures,' only pleasures; no wish for do-overs, only excitement re: the next opportunity."
film critic, New York magazine
"To write (as much as my myriad obligations will allow). To ignore outside pressures and follow my own instincts (as foolish as that may be). To revisit favorite old movies. How many times did Orson Welles watch Stagecoach
to prepare for Citizen Kane
? Movie-watching is still the best film school."
filmmaker (Adventureland; Superbad)
"New year's resolution: Try to stay within budget. (Amazing how $60 balloons to $96.)"
filmmaker and star of Flooding with Love for The Kid, a one-man Rambo epic filmed in a studio apartment for under a hundred dollars
"Like Pauline Kael says, I hope to go deeper into movies—but especially into horror: besieged, underpromoted and loveably in transition (as ever). I also resolve to watch Russell Crowe's Robin Hood movie with a straight face."
film critic, Time Out New York
AH: "For 2010, I'm looking forward to celebrating Milestone's 20th anniversary (!) with a special night on TCM, and working on the re-release of the amazing Word is Out
, which will be screened at the Berlinale in February. Otherwise, we plan to stay small, work hard and keep the overhead LOW (pretty easy to do since we work out of our basement)."
DD: "The same as every year. To keep energetic and enthusiastic in distributing our films, and to hope that archives will continue to find and preserve more works that make our lives better."
Amy Heller & Dennis Doros
co-founders, Milestone Films
"When I began blogging about film and eventually settled into my niche as an aggregator, I consciously gave equal weight, whenever warranted, to views from nonprofessional critics. Resolved for 2010: Seek out more noteworthy opinions on movies from people who aren't critics at all, whose expertise lies elsewhere and who can bring something fresh to the conversation."
former editor of GreenCine Daily; now blogs at The Auteurs Daily
"I solemnly resolve to wage a one-man war on people that text during movies. I don't wave a flashlight around in your face when you go to your church, so don't do it to me, or 44oz of Diet Coke has your name on it."
president of Variance Films; former THINKFilm director of distribution and marketing
"In 2010, I resolve to WERQ."
freelance film critic, formerly of The New York Times and The Village Voice
"Projects shot on cell phones, projects shot in 4K or film, more organized shoots, more chaotic filmmaking—2010 will be all about embracing the extremes in filmmaking, and working in both fiction and non-fiction is no longer enough..."
cinematographer (Trouble the Water) and filmmaker (Trinidad)
"To put at least one moment on film I've never seen before. Preferably several!"
filmmaker (I Can See You)
"In 2010, I resolve to continue to give thanks every single day, and to remember to connect to the larger picture instead of rattling round and round my more limited neurotic mental landscape."
producer and director of programming, South by Southwest (SXSW)
"I resolve to fast-track my long-delayed transition from writing about other people's films to making my own. And I'd sincerely like to thank our economy for the kick in the ass."
freelance film critic, formerly of Esquire and Time Out New York
"My New Year's Resolution is to try to make some video essays as innovative and surprising as the best work done this year by Kevin B. Lee, Steven Boone and the Red Letter Media guy, whose Phantom Menace
review [on YouTube] is just mind-boggling."
Matt Zoller Seitz
critic, film editor and founder of The House Next Door
"I resolve to read more and faster, see less crap movies (and, implicitly, more good ones) and finish my film Revenge of the Mekons
. God willing."
filmmaker (How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company); former editor of Time Out New York
"To quote Craig Yoe: 'Resolving not to make any resolutions—life's too short.'"
filmmaker (Sita Sings the Blues)
AE: "Finish the script for The Living Day
, get it financed and into pre-production. Get really healthy without drinking any less."
AA: "Same as Audrey. Plus, record and release a new album."
Audrey Ewell & Aaron Aites
filmmakers (Until the Light Takes Us)
"After reading the new Robert Altman biography I resolve to make sure the next project has cinematic BALLS, even if it scares off the gatekeepers."
filmmaker (True Adolescents)
"Less je ne sais quoi
, more work. More production."
filmmaker (Medicine for Melancholy)
"2009 was probably the best artistic year of my life, so as the new year approaches, I'm trying to be more thankful than openly hoping for new and better stuff. But, that said, if 2010 wants to try and do 2009 one better, I welcome the attempt..."
editor (Humpday; Medicine for Melancholy)
"Not only production, but distribution. Innovation in a dynamic way, on every single film. Not expecting audiences to come to us, rather going to them. Telling not only the stories we want, but the ones the world most needs. Breaking traditionally-accepted boundaries of what is a film is, not only in terms of content and production, but in terms of audience engagement and collaboration. "New budget" filmmaking: high-value, low-cost. "Distribution partnerships," not "sales." Paying filmmakers for their work. Creative collaboration. Only good movies."
producer (True Adolescents; 2010 Sundance selection Bass Ackwards)
"Make another movie."
filmmaker (Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench)
"This isn't the first time I've made this resolution but: Spend less time watching new releases and more time brushing up on the classics. Don't know how I did it in 2009, but I saw 274 new features (38 more than '08) and still found time to watch all 61 Oscar foreign language winners. The latter project was by far the more enlightening."
associate editor (features), Variety
"My goal for 2010 is to help good films get released to audiences, and to help good filmmakers make as much money as possible."
head of programming and marketing, Cinetic Rights Management
"Cover more film festivals... and publish an epic piece about underground Japanese splatter comedy. And pay the rent doing it."
freelance film critic, formerly of the New York Sun
To see more made-for-TV movies with titles like Her Last Chance
. Also, to watch more Japanese sexploitation films. And to find my inner avatar."
filmmaker (You Wont Miss Me)
"My goal for 2010 is to find out whether Dr. Carl Weiss killed Huey Long."
"In 2010, I will direct my 2nd film and also develop six pack abs."
actor (The Hottest State) and filmmaker (Explicit Ills)
"Funny, my New Year's resolution is also: In 2010, I will complete my 2nd feature film and develop six pack abs."
visual artist and filmmaker (Stay the Same Never Change)
"First, do a documentary web series. And then make an IMAX movie. The latter not by 2010, but definitely by 2015."
producer (In a Dream)
"My biggest resolution is to get back in touch with the young man who voraciously devoured cinema of every stripe back in college—working through that dog-eared copy of Danny Peary's Guide For the Film Fanatic
—but has since been preoccupied by reviewing contemporary fare for a living. Basically, I feel like I'm drawing from a mental database that's about 15 to 20 years old, and need a refresher course—both to get new perspective and insight, and to remind myself why I care about movies in the first place."
film editor, The A.V. Club
"I'm finally going to get all my DVDs and CDs sleeved and shelved, to make my home less of a hovel."
freelance film and culture critic, The A.V. Club and The Los Angeles Times
"I'm going to finish and release a new EP, and an album of film scores if it kills me. (And it just might!)"
musician and film composer (The Windmill Movie)
"Hang out with Bill Ross more, work harder, and watch every movie that has 'Warren Beatty' written in the credits somewhere."
Jody Lee Lipes
cinematographer (Afterschool) and filmmaker (Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be the Same)
AS: "When a person proposes to make a documentary project about their life story, do the responsible thing and run in the other direction. Here's to 2010!"
DR: "My resolution is to recover from 2009."
Ashley Sabin & David Redmon
filmmakers (Invisible Girlfriend) and co-founders of Carnivalesque Films
"Back to Mono. (A lesson from P. Spector.)"
filmmaker (Modern Love is Automatic)
"My aim (while also hopefully true) in 2010 is to finish a new script I'm currently drafting out, revise a script I finished in '09, and going back to revise page-by-page the one script I'd optioned. I'd also resolve to see more films in '10. Not that I slacked this past year, but I really want to watch several a week. Lastly, I'd like to become backup point guard for the Lakers, but I think the scriptwriting thing probably has better odds. Slightly."
"To begin production on my next film, to make that a better film than my first, to write more and to do my damndest to keep my baby sister from growing up into a Right Wing Republican."
filmmaker (St. Nick)
"Since my 4-year-old daughter has recently declared—after watching Shaun the Sheep
(from the creators of Wallace and Gromit
)—that she no longer likes 'talkie movies,' I plan to make her discover the pleasures of my favorite silent comedy directors and actors, from Buster Keaton to Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin, all the way to Jacques Tati, who might as well be considered silent. My other resolution, harder to keep, is to try and stay awake one Saturday night in the year to make it to the opening monologue of SNL, and maybe beyond..."
film publicist, Gluck PR
"Kentucker Audley resolves to shoot for 12 feet down so even if he comes up short, he'll still be 6 ft. under... r.i.p. jokes."
filmmaker (Team Picture)
"My goal for 2010 is to simplify my life as much as possible and find a healthier balance between consumption and creation."
filmmaker (Silver Jew) and film blogger for Hammer to Nail
"To find one modern action movie that doesn't include at least one person screaming 'GO, GO, GO!' while running away from a fireball."
on-air host of IFC News
"Sorry Aaron, just no time! Happy New Year!"
actor and comedian (The Daily Show), creator of Childrens' Hospital
Posted by ahillis at 9:03 AM
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December 24, 2009
BEST OF 2009: Aaron's Top 32 Films
Why thirty-two? Because that's how many Christmas Eves I've been alive, and not a day more. Rather than just link to my indieWIRE
and Village Voice
poll ballots (oops, just did), I've given in to birthday indulgences with a more visually dynamic presentation, alphabetically ordered and with my Top 10 notated. Merry whatever-you-celebrate, GreenCine readers!
Honorable Mentions: Antichrist
, Harmony and Me
, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
, The Maid
, Next Day Air
, The Windmill Movie
Posted by ahillis at 12:19 PM
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December 21, 2009
PODCAST: Terry Gilliam
Beginning as a strip cartoonist and then animating member of the groundbreaking comedy troupe Monty Python's Flying Circus
(celebrating its 40th anniversary this year), Terry Gilliam
is most widely recognized today as the mischievous auteur behind such hallucinatory, darkly comic fantasies as Time Bandits
, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
, and 12 Monkeys
. His latest flight of surreal whimsy is The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
, credited with love as "A film from Heath Ledger and friends" since star Ledger unforeseeably died during its production:
Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) and his troupe make up an extraordinary traveling show where members of the audience get an irresistible opportunity to enter the world of their imagination. Blessed with the extraordinary gift of guiding the imaginations of others, Dr. Parnassus is cursed with a dark secret. Long ago he made a bet with the devil, Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), in which he won immortality. Many centuries later, on meeting his one true love, Dr. Parnassus made another deal with the devil, trading his immortality for youth, on condition that when his first-born reached its 16th birthday he or she would become the property of Mr. Nick. Valentina (Lily Cole) is now rapidly approaching this milestone and Dr. Parnassus is desperate to protect her from her impending fate. Mr. Nick arrives to collect but, always keen to make a bet, renegotiates the wager. Enlisting a series of wild, comical and compelling characters in his journey, Dr. Parnassus promises his daughter's hand in marriage to the man that helps him win.
Sitting down with Gilliam in New York, I promised to talk sparingly about Ledger's death ("Good," Gilliam joked, "He's boring anyway.") so that we'd have more time to discuss the devilishly entertaining Tom Waits, why working with his producer was "child abuse," the lost projects
he's most frustrated about, and all he really wants for Christmas.
To listen to the podcast, click here. (16:07)
INTRO: Tom Waits, "Way Down in the Hole"
OUTRO: Cornelius, "Brazil"
[The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus opens in New York and Los Angeles on December 25th, and nationwide on January 8th. For more info, please visit the official site.]
Posted by ahillis at 12:56 PM
December 15, 2009
Shaggy Dog Movies of the '00s
by Simon Abrams
Amongst other things, December is the magic time of the year when lists of the "Best/Most Important/Least Degrading/Most Thoughtful/Most Transgressive/Most Crowd-Pleasing Films of the Year" are compiled by critics and other buffs; once in a blue moon, you also find lists championing the "Best/Greatest/Most Entertaining/Artfulliest Films of the Decade." While there's certainly an argument to be made in favor of these self-important necessary evils, one of the many problems with these lists is that they exclude so many good, sometimes troubled films just because they don't end up where they start out.
These are the cinematic equivalent of "shaggy dog" jokes—stories that build and build only to leave the viewer with a preposterous anticlimax of an ending. Sometimes they drag the viewer along and build up the expectation that some central burning question will be solved when, in fact, it won't. Sometimes their creators bite off more than they can chew, delivering a film that's prematurely deemed an ignoble failure because it's too wrapped up in its own obtuse punchline to let us in on the joke. Whatever the reason, the fact that they don't add up in the end is what makes them so fascinating, confounding, irritating, bewitching and cruelly funny. A few of them involve God, outer space and/or other generic conventions, because nothing makes for a more enticing road to nowhere than a heady story about alien or celestial mother ships. Behold, my Top 10 Favorite Shaggy Dog Movies of the Decade That Was the Aughts. There are a good deal of SPOILERS
along the way; you've been warned.
10. Izo (2004)
By that year, Takashi Miike
) had already established himself as an international cult darling and a prolific provocateur. Nevertheless, what sets Izo
apart from Miike's other noodle-scratchers is its heartfelt (though clearly unbalanced) critique of the interminable cycle of universal violence and the indomitable psychic forces that make sure history repeats itself. Yes, really, Miike said all that. Izo
's titular hero tries to confront and kill the person or persons responsible for the world's problems and winds up confronting God. Miike begins with a crucifixion and ends with a legion of magnified sperm, leaving the viewer to wonder what the hell came in between the two.
9. Crank (2006)
As the film that put the endearingly spazzy co-writer/director team of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor on the map, Crank
came as a shock to unprepared viewers expecting a generic action film with a tweaked set-up. Like a sleazy parody of D.O.A.
follows Chev Chelios (Jason Statham
in what has retrospectively become his über-performance) as he tracks down the killers that gave him "The Beijing Cocktail," a synthetic drug requiring him to keep his heart rate up, lest he double over and die. The film is infused with its protagonist's convulsive energy, emulating and exaggerating the obnoxious, hyper-kinetic rhythm of its L.A. setting with hilariously crude results. Its spit-take-worthy non-resolution sets up this year's avant-retarde sequel
in such a way that you have to marvel at Neveldine and Taylor's ballsy and proudly juvenile sense of humor.
8. The American Astronaut (2001)
Writer/director Cory McAbee
's indie sci-fi musical western whatsit garnered a sizeable cult audience with good reason. The soundtrack, attributed to The Billy Nayer Show (a band led by singer/songwriter McAbee), is strange in the best way possible, and the film is wonderfully imaginative in its depiction of an intergalactic bounty hunter Samuel Curtis' (McAbee again) quest to deliver a real live boy to a planet of sterile women. At the same time, there's no real resolution of the film's biggest theme, namely how the alienation of space leads to sexual frustration and borderline psychotic obsession. Villainous Professor Hess is on Samuel's trail, has a crush on him, and uses a ray gun to turn everybody in his way to dust—while our hero begins to bond with "The Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman's Breast," a 16-year-old child raised as a deity on a planet of men that have never seen a woman before. In the end, "The Boy" gets delivered, his handler gets away and the bad guy just sort of disappears. If there is a moral to this story, it's that a lack of consummation can drive you crazy.
7. Frailty (2001)
What's misleading about actor Bill Paxton
's brooding directorial debut is how it solves its main theological quandary. The crux of the film is whether Paxton, playing a mild-mannered father who believes he must kill demons disguised as normal people with a holy log-splitting axe, is in fact God's liberator... or just a crazy guy with an axe. His two sons, one of whom he is asked to sacrifice a la Abraham, are the only ones that get to know that answer. We see that one is in direct communication with God, continuing his father's work without ever revealing if his father ever had a holy mandate in the first place. It's like answering, "Why did the chicken cross the road?" with "Because her chicks followed after her!" That doesn't compute, but by that point, Paxton has already led us by the nose down such a grim road that even if this were just a story about an abusive father, it’d be a memorable one.
6. Dante 01 (2008)
Tragically dumped direct-to-video in the US, the first feature directed solo by Marc Caro (City of Lost Children
) is a gorgeous, thoroughly perplexing, pseudo-religious space odyssey. It channels Alejandro Jodorowsky
's mystical, genre-mashed-up movies through the filter of Jodorowsky's broader space-opera comic book stories, creating a strange B-movie companion to Solaris
. A mental patient is sent to a remote space station to test a new cure for schizophrenia, except he is actually the cure. The mystery patient, nicknamed "St. George the Dragon-slayer," is imbued with cosmic curative powers that allow him to see a person's illnesses and remove them like a practitioner of holistic medicine would a chicken liver. Because Dante 01
mostly follows St. George's interactions with his fellow inmates, the fact that only a handful of the station's inhabitants realize he is the intergalactic messiah means that the psychedelic finale comes out of nowhere. In that sense, it's a spiritually hopeful, utterly perplexing headache of a film. Thanks to Caro's keen sense of style, however, it's a beautiful migraine.
5. Doppelganger (2003)
For all intents and purposes, Kiyoshi Kurosawa
was a way for the Japanese auteur to get some extra energy out of his system before returning to his heady, dour and all seemingly water-damaged horror films. Koji Yakusho
stars as a man who meets his exact double while working on a robot chair for the handicapped. At first convinced his mirror image is out to kill him, he discovers instead that he actually wants to help finish the chair, but why is anyone's guess. The doppelganger is easily Kurosawa's least complex abstraction, a figure whose tendency to say inappropriate and inexplicable things suggests he's a projection of the main character's repressed ego. He's more aggressive when it comes to winning over the girl of their dreams, and more proactive when the fate of their invention is threatened by a loss of funds. And yet, the shadow's secretive and flamboyant actions ultimately make him a generic threat and the chair—a project that both men agree must be finished—goes out of control and heads off for parts unknown. Never trust your evil twin, least you take your eye off the prize and it drives away with its robot appendages flailing in the air like Johnny 5
on a bender.
4. The Fountain (2006)
Arguably Darren Aronofsky
's greatest film, The Fountain
remains his most unsung because it's his least straightforward. Using a trifurcated structure, the film follows three ambiguously linked moments in time, centuries apart, leading up to a moment of revelation that forcibly prevents the viewer from achieving a coherent resolution. Granted, it's about the mysterious border between life and death and one man's passion quest to find the Tree of Life, so it works well in that sense. Still, seeing a man impaled on a root of said tree only to have a semen-like substance dribble out of his mouth is... not at all what viewers expected. Nevertheless, the film's vision carries the absurdities and grants it one of the most unsung, fitting, utterly romantic finales on this list.
3. Inland Empire (2006)
It's remarkable that a little less than three decades after Eraserhead
, David Lynch
is still making people confused as sin and more than a little ireful because of it. Inland Empire
split critics straight down the middle, with some loving it as ambling three-hour opus of hallucinatory skits that circuitously revolve around psychic violence and the repression of women. (The film's tagline is "A woman in trouble," after all.) Others dismissed it as self-indulgence for its own sake from a master, not unlike his Wild at Heart
. Yet there's something squirming about in Lynch's scattershot imagery that relates primal fears in a new format (this is, notably, the auteur's first dabbling with digital photography—and not high-end equipment). The last scene, a sock-hop from hell, recalls the eerie opening sequence of Mulholland Dr.
, but that cursory similarity is not meant to make the viewer feel comfortable. Rather, it's to induce the menacing state of déjà vu that the recurring characters in the film grapple with throughout its comically sinister vignettes. Inland Empire
fascinates and confounds Lynch-heads because it's so good at sharing its wealth of alienation.
2. The Wicker Man (2006)
Writer, director and playwright Neil LaBute
's remake of the cult-beloved 1973 horror film
is wickedly perverse. By unevenly re-imagining Anthony Shaffer
's original story of a missing girl on an island community of pagan hippies as a caricature of dueling patriarchial/matriarchial ideals, LaBute won himself few fans. But the ones that are in on the jokes and recognize the film as an intentional but lopsided black comedy—in which Nic Cage
plays a swinging dick in a world full of schizoid feminists—see it as an audacious failure. The original's much-hyped ending, which effectively invalidates the rest of the film's procedural plot, now actually feels satisfying thanks to Labute's spoof of that film's conservative paranoia. YouTube clips be damned
: there's something about the manic energy Cage puts in the film, mixed with LaBute's ill-advised zeal, that makes their Wicker Man
a lumpy treat.
1. Southland Tales (2006)
's sophomore feature was received with such fire and brimstone that it's easy to overlook how much more ambitious and successful it is than Donnie Darko
, his excellent debut. A gleefully puerile post-modern parody of the Information Age, Southland Tales
is a sprawling film full of allusions, backstories and Kelly's usual brand of questionable spiritual provocations. It's an incomplete text, one that strings viewers along with its promises of forthcoming answers, while showing through its endless tangential questions why no such denouement will ever appear. It's a stew of unglued, context-less historical and pop culture references, from the Pixies
to Norman Kefauver—the senator responsible for spearheading the 1954 Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. Too many characters, too many frathouse jokes, and an unhealthy smattering of the warped sense of humor rampant throughout Philip K. Dick
's more slippery stories make Southland Tales
hard to swallow. But its willingness to go over the top and refusal to explain most of its mysteries also makes it endlessly rewarding.
With all the great movies that came out in the past decade you might could use a cash advance to collect them all.
Posted by ahillis at 1:07 PM
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December 11, 2009
PODCAST: The Slammin' Salmon (Broken Lizard, Michael Clarke Duncan)
Jay Chandrasekhar, Kevin Heffernan, Steve Lemme, Paul Soter, and Erik Stolhanske together form Broken Lizard
, the irreverent comedy troupe behind such films as Super Troopers
, Club Dread
. In their new film and Heffernan's directorial debut, The Slammin' Salmon
, the Lizards are teamed with Oscar nominee Michael Clarke Duncan
"Slammin" Cleon Salmon (Duncan) is a former Heavyweight Champion of the World turned celebrity owner of a high end Miami seafood restaurant, The Slammin' Salmon. A terrifying bull of a man, Salmon uses fear to rule over his misfit wait staff and on this particular night, he takes his bullying skills to a new level. In an effort to pay off a gambling debt to the Japanese Yakuza, Salmon sets up a contest to "inspire" his wait staff to sell more food than they ever have before. The top selling server wins $10,000 while the waiter in last place gets served with a broken rib sandwich—courtesy of the Champ himself. Spurred on by greed and panic, the staff resorts to backstabbing, bribery and indecent proposals in an attempt to up sell their patrons while simultaneously sabotaging their co-workers. As the hours pass, the dining room action becomes more frenzied as the contest escalates into a brawl for first place in order to win the money.
Sitting down with all five Lizards at City Crab, a Manhattan seafood restaurant where Steve Lemme once worked, the boys rowdily discussed with me their illicit experiences in food service (did I really want to know that someone had sex in the very dining room I was sitting in?), what always makes for sure-fire comic material, their favorite films of 2009, and the worst part about working with Michael Clarke Duncan—who then turns up in a cameo appearance to keep the boys in check.
To listen to the podcast, click here. (20:47)
INTRO: 'Weird Al' Yankovic, "Eat It"
OUTRO: The Chemical Brothers, "The Salmon Dance"
[The Slammin' Salmon opens today in select theaters. For more info, please visit the official website.]
Posted by ahillis at 8:20 AM
December 9, 2009
AK 100: The Most Beautiful
by Andrew Grant
[In celebration of Criterion's AK 100: 25 Films by Akira Kurosawa box set, GreenCine Daily will be looking at four rare films only now available on DVD this week.]
Likely the rarest and least-seen title in the AK 100 box set, The Most Beautiful
(1944) is Kurosawa's second directorial effort, made one year after his successful debut, the Judo-themed Sanshiro Sugata
. A bit of a sophomore slump, this overt bit of war propaganda is hard to praise from both an aesthetic and narrative perspective, but it's not without its merits.
Opening with a title card that reads "Attack and Destroy the Enemy" and set entirely in an optical instruments factory that makes lenses for assorted Japanese weaponry, The Most Beautiful
is a self-described Information Bureau "Movie of the People," designed to stir up nationalist fervor for the Imperial war effort. After a rousing speech about spiritual power producing material might and a need to increase quotas, the film follows the lives of the female factory workers who are disappointed to learn that their expected productivity increases aren't as aggressive as their male coworkers. With youthful idealism and aplomb, they long to prove that their patriotism is unyielding, and are willing to make any and all sacrifices to meet their goals. When not working seemingly endless shifts at the factory, they are either back in their dormitory singing loyalist songs, or marching and singing even more jingoistic songs. They even talk proudly in their sleep about their jobs.
When illness, mishaps or tragedies occur, productivity slips (as shown by a frequently appearing animated graph), for what affects one affects all. When a woman must leave owing to illness—or another from falling off a roof—morale hits rock bottom, but a quick game of volleyball can fix that. The female group leader (played by Kurosawa's future wife, Yoko Yaguchi) decides to stay at the factory even though her mother is dying, while another hides her tuberculosis so as not to let down her country. Told somewhat episodically, these mini-melodramas don't amount to much, and are merely exercises in disseminating its propagandistic message. The closest the film gets to something resembling dramatic tension is an extended sequence about a misplaced lens, and the tireless, selfless efforts by one woman to locate it amongst thousands, for she fears Japanese soldiers will die as a result. It manages to be both illuminating and hokey at the same time.
Kurosawa takes a documentary-like approach, going so far as to have his cast learn how to use the equipment and live together in the factory dormitory during the entire shoot. The montage sequences are clearly influenced by both Russian and German docs, particularly in the editing: the shots incrementally decrease in length, resulting in an ever-increasing pace. There's a greater visual emphasis on people than place, the frame regularly filled with the faces (and on occasion, feet) of the female workers. The economical presentation he would become famous for is already evident here, and a scene where a woman is taking her temperature might be his earliest use of the jump cut, a technique he would master later in his career.
As Donald Ritchie points out in his book The Films of Akira Kurosawa
, it's interesting to note that the film's emphasis on group-thought (a particularly Japanese trait) and the belief in community action is something that Kurosawa would actively shun for the rest of his career, choosing instead to focus on the power of the individual, which would lead some Japanese critics to later accuse him of being too Western.
Neither pure documentary nor straightforward narrative, The Most Beautiful
is a curiosity at best. Kurosawa completists will no doubt be compelled to seek out this career stepping stone, but newcomers would be best suited to begin with one of his masterworks—which the AK 100 box features in spades.
Posted by ahillis at 7:49 AM
December 8, 2009
AK 100: The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail
by Vadim Rizov
[In celebration of Criterion's AK 100: 25 Films by Akira Kurosawa box set, GreenCine Daily will be looking at four rare films only now available on DVD this week.]
There's a moment early on in 1945's The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail
where you're looking not at Akira Kurosawa
's third film but peering 35 years into the future. Up to that moment, the tone's been one of busy comedy. Lord Yoshitsune (Shubo Nishina) and his retainers are fleeing from Yoshitsune's brother Yoritomo, who's trying to kill him. Disguised as itinerant monks, they're being trailed by a pesky, noisome porter (Kenichi Onomoto) whose chattering and urge to please/fear of death make him a stock counterpoint to the stoic samurai, who only have two modes: glowering bad-assery and hearty laughter. The porter has informed them that they're not going to make it across the border: Yoritomo's messenger is already there, knows their disguise, and is fully prepared to wipe them out. In that moment, the film—up to that moment lively, in motion and stylistically kind of anonymous—suddenly stops as Kurosawa pulls back to a master shot: all the samurai sitting in a semi-circle, the porter to their right, dwarfed by trees and the mountains in the background. We're now in the realm of Kagemusha
, Kurosawa's late-period masterpieces: serenity and ritual in the midst of violence, in the generic vicinity of Mt. Fuji.
That's no coincidence: before making Tiger's Tail
, Kurosawa was originally working on The Lifted Spear
, which was to be his first period film. As Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto writes
, "The last scene of the film was supposed to show the Battle of Okehazama (1560), in which the feudal lord Oda Nobunaga defeated his rival Imagawa Yoshimoto. In the last days of the war, however, no horses were available for the battle scene, and Kurosawa was forced to abandon the project at the preproduction stage. It took him thirty-five more years to show Oda Nobunaga engaged in a grand battle in Kagemusha
So the stylistic link is a harbinger, not a freak: even in 1945, Kurosawa had some very definite ideas about the formal idioms needed to show feudal Japan properly. For much of his career, Kurosawa was criticized for not being "Japanese enough"—in style and content—both at home and abroad: openly acknowledging his love of John Ford
, being fast and modern, not paying lip service to Japanese rituals and customs. You could, indeed, make an argument (in my opinion, a partially specious one) that Kagemusha
weren't so well-received just because of their obvious mastery, but because here, at last, was a truly "Japanese" Kurosawa, steeped in history and piety.
That was all nonsense. Tiger's Tail
wasn't released in Japan until 1952, in part because one of the wartime censors was angry Kurosawa had chided him about his lack of knowledge of Japanese customs, and the film is nothing if not embedded in a long historical/cultural tradition. This context is important because, without it, this is an awfully slight film. You should click and read on the Yoshimoto link above, which does much to place the film in a wealth of context that makes it clear exactly what Kurosawa was up to: it's a long and fascinating read (excerpts are, anyway) of how the film operates as a critique of Noh/Kabuki traditions and so on.
Pace the "Historical Context Shouldn't Matter" crowd, as a visceral/aesthetic experience Tiger's Tail
is engaging but utterly bizarre and almost impossible to make sense of. What actually happens is fairly straightforward: the men, aided by the porter, bluff their way through a border confrontation, drink some sake and do some dancing. When the porter wakes up from his stupor, the men are gone and he's left with his material reward. In different hands, we might be in "Was it all a dream?" territory—which is stupid, but suggests how disorienting this straightforward-seeming film really is. (Another unnerving thing: a raft of opening titles bluntly tell us we're coming way after the conventional stuff of drama—battles, brother vs. brother, et al.—has taken place, and the film ends after, essentially, one incident, filmed in a style that's partly prep for the later masterworks and partly expedient drama with blustery music cues.)
I have my problems with a lot of Kurosawa's filmography, but this is a crisp, watchable, well-acted hour that veers expertly between comedy and drama. But do I know what to make of it? Not really: the argument (and there is
one, something patently obvious even without reading one word about it) is too specifically local. Which isn't to say the film isn't watchable on "its own terms," but Kagemusha
this isn't; there, context fleshes out an instantly compelling drama. Here, the aesthetic battles Kurosawa's fighting really are
the narrative, more so than what's actually on-screen.
Posted by ahillis at 10:12 AM
December 4, 2009
PODCAST: Until the Light Takes Us (Aaron Aites & Audrey Ewell)
Pressed for time, since I'll be moderating tonight's 7pm and 9:15pm Q&As of Until the Light Takes Us
at NYC's Cinema Village
, I'll cut straight to my own LA Weekly review
from last fall, when co-directors Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell's doc played at the AFI Fest:
Heavy metal begat the speedy tempos of thrash, and thrash begat the double-kick drumming and extreme distortions of Norwegian black metal—an unexpectedly melodic subgenre that in turn begat a ’90s underground scene that was notoriously eclipsed by murder, suicide and large-scale arson. Filmmaking team Audrey Ewell and Aaron Aites spent two years in Norway investigating what’s left of the Black Circle, the "unholy cult" (as the newspapers stained them) of eloquent young musicians in corpse paint, who congregated at an Oslo record store opened by Mayhem guitarist Øystein "Euronymous" Aarseth, who was later stabbed to death by one of their own. Today, Burzum front man Varg "Count Grisnackh" Vikernes sits arrogantly and unrepentantly in a maximum security prison, the pioneer of a classically inspired, dark ambient sound, as well as a string of politically motivated Christian church burnings. Darkthrone's Gylve "Fenriz" Nagell, a doting follower of Vikernes (musically, at least), seems alone after the fallout, and mourns how black metal was commercially co-opted after all the negative press. As richly compelling and artfully shot as rock docs get, Until the Light Takes Us goes beyond charting black metal's underpinnings and the tabloid sensationalism of its fiery saga. Through smartly constructed reveals and blunt interviews that include many vulnerable moments, Ewell and Aites investigate the entanglement of art, terrorism, and the media that tried to define both.
Sitting down with Aites and Ewell in their Williamsburg, Brooklyn apartment, the three of us discussed how they embedded themselves in this volatile subculture, their theories on how showmanship spiraled into criminal activity, whether Aites' background as frontman of the band Iran
made him hypersensitive to a story about musicians, and how they manage to get along as both a couple and artistic collaborators.
To listen to the podcast, click here. (20:48)
INTRO: Darkthrone, "Quintessence"
OUTRO: Iran, "I Can See the Future"
[Until the Light Takes Us is now playing in New York, Detroit, Providence and Grand Rapids, with more dates to come. For more info, please visit the official site.]
Posted by ahillis at 10:46 AM
December 1, 2009
BEST OF 2009: Overheard at the Gothams
Not half an hour after The Hurt Locker
won the Best Feature prize at last night's Gotham Independent Film Awards
, hordes of awardgoers trekked from Cipriani Wall Street to the Kodak/indieWIRE afterparty at the Tribeca Cinemas. Free liquor still being one of life's great social lubricants, even those who headed to the party empty-handed were in pleasant spirits when I asked about their favorite films of 2009—Gothams-related or otherwise:
"Fantastic Mr. Fox was hand-made and the kind of care that goes in with that feels intimate. It's impossible to fake. Wes Anderson always has that ability to bring you into a world that you think you know but don't, and allows you an invitation. I haven't had more fun in the movies in a while."
- Ben Foster, "Breakthrough Actor" nominee for The Messenger
"I want this to read 'Damien Chazelle, over cocktails, said...' I like Two Lovers because it's unashamed about its romanticism. I loved that. It reminded me of
City Lights and
Seventh Heaven, movies like that that people don't make anymore. It just felt old-fashioned in the best way."
- Damien Chazelle, director of "Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You" nominee Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench
"Well, Gotham Awards-related and in general, The Hurt Locker. I thought it was amazing. I was floored the entire time."
- Ry-Russo Young, director of "Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You" winner You Wont Miss Me
"I have to say, I liked The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. To me, it's inspiring to see what I have to believe is a complete fearlessness to make something that sucks. It's only when you are one with that fear that you can truly make something good. You have to be prepared for it to completely fail before you can get stuff that's as utterly unique and magical as what's in there. I was sitting and watching with my mouth open."
- Alexander Olch, director of The Windmill Movie
"I typically like one or two movies a year. I'm one of these people who hates a lot of things. I'm not the 'love everything, celebrate independent film' type of guy. I'm more bitchy: 'Everything sucks, that movie's so overrated,' but this year I really liked a lot. I haven't ranked anything yet, but early in the year, I liked In the Loop and The Hurt Locker, and then there was a long stretch where there wasn't much. Then lately, I liked A Serious Man, An Education, Precious, The September Issue and The Messenger. I thought Adventureland was awesome, and I loved Inglourious Basterds—that's probably my number one. I fuckin' loved that."
- Robert Siegel, "Breakthrough Director" winner for Big Fan
"My two favorite films are the movies I've most recently seen: Fantastic Mr. Fox, which is so unique and strange and mesmerizing, and Ninja Assassin, which is completely psychotic and delicious."
- Jonathan Ames, novelist and creator of HBO's Bored to Death
[photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE.]
Posted by ahillis at 2:38 PM