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couch potato vs. writing urge

August 23, 2010

After reading a very good post today on Nausicaa, I feel tempted to write about some Studio Ghibli films in the near future, including that Ponyo review I meant to write ages ago. The only reason I don’t own the Blu-ray yet is due to the Studio Canal/Lionsgate fiasco that has me running around trying to find some of Criterion’s out of print titles that I really want to own. I recently picked up Grand Illusion, Tales of Hoffmann, The Milky Way, Touchez Pas au Grisbi, and Kind Hearts and Coronets, but I have several more titles to go and that has a stranglehold on my wallet at the moment.

This week I rented a bunch of dvds, mostly Criterion titles, including Orson Welles’ very unusual, but highly entertaining essay/documentary F for Fake, Antonioni’s La Notte and L’Eclisse (I’d already seen and liked L’Avventura)  and and the 5 Films by John Cassavetes boxset. That should keep me busy for a few days. Watching 15-20 films per week (plus the extras on the Criterion discs) has left me less time for writing, despite the backlog of reviews/essays I have half-finished, waiting to be edited into something more concise and comprehensible.


lazy days…

August 18, 2010

To anyone reading this page,

Yes I know I haven’t posted in ages, but you could say that I’ve been so busy trying to catch up on watching movies that I had even less time to write about them than usual. I’ve discovered library dvd and Blu-ray rentals and have watched over 80 movies in the past 6 weeks. I’ve been trying to catch up a lot on the Criterion Collection and Eclipse series, but have a long way to go still. Taking out armloads of free dvd rentals and trying to watch them in time to avoid late fees sometimes gets a bit hectic, especially when I want to see most of them on the nice big flatscreen tv instead of the old 19″ one that requires me sitting in the uncomfortable chair used for our computer desk. There are only certain hours of the day when I can take over the good tv to watch foreign films that nobody else living here wants to see.

Late Monday night I began watching Criterion’s boxset of Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales and watched all 6 films in less than 24 hours. It came as a great surprise to me that I’ve found a director from the Nouvelle Vague whose films I actually really like. I do like a few things I’ve seen from Truffaut (though The 400 Blows was not among them, as I despise the ‘my crappy childhood’ subgenre of European films as I call it). So far Godard has left me cold and sometimes seems more like an annoying hipster prankster than a filmmaker (Une Femme est Une Femme). I did actually see a Bresson film that I liked, but Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne isn’t typical Bresson (aside from some haunting cinematography, I didn’t care for the critically-canonized Au Hasard Balthazar). Among European directors, I seem to fare better with Fellini and Bunuel. I’ve also seen some great Fassbinder films in the past week or so and another Almodovar film — a lesser one for him, but still quite good.

Ponyo (Miyazaki 2009) ★★★★★ [5/5]

July 15, 2010

coming soon. no,  really. I mean it this time…

As a fan of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli since the early 1990s, I feel compelled to write about this most recent movie of his that I’ve seen. It was a nice antidote to the agony of sitting through Speed Racer last night at the request of someone who calls himself my friend.

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960, Naruse) ★★★★★ [5/5]

July 8, 2010

REVIEW COMING SOON-ish, until then let’s just say that it’s one of the best (1st viewing) films I’ve seen in the past 6 months.

I’ll probably be writing a quick review about Mikio Naruse’s excellent When a Woman Ascends the Stairs later today, assuming I don’t try to squeeze in finally watching all 7 hours of Bela Tarr’s Satantango this afternoon. I’m also tempted to write about Veronika Voss (which I also watched last night) since I haven’t gotten around to writing about any Fassbinder films yet.

UPDATE 11jul10: Re-watching When a Woman Ascends the Stairs and trying to watch the as-yet terminally boring Satantango has put me behind schedule. I’ve only made it through the first disc (2h10m) of Bela Tarr’s film and could barely stay awake. After taking such a long break, I’m debating whether to try to start over (assuming I can find 7 hours of peace and quiet in this household to watch it in one sitting) or whether to just pick up where I left off. I’m really hoping that Werckmeister Harmonies is better than this when I get around to seeing it. I also rented Kurosawa’s The Quiet Duel and Hitchcock’s Lifeboat to help finish up watching all the films made by 2 of my favorite directors.

(EDIT: I’ve now seen all 30 something of Kurosawa’s films and Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, but I still have a dozen or so early Hitchcock films to see — in cheap dvds that used awful looking public domain transfers. Satantango bored me senseless, but had a few good shots. I’m currently trying to catch up on some Almodovar and Fassbinder films.)

I’ve recently discovered that our local library system has lots of Criterion dvd titles and have vowed to try to watch all the unseen ones they have by Christmas if possible. My library dvd rental wishlist is already at something like 600 titles overall, many of which are Criterion or Eclipse titles, and I’m still just getting started on it.

working on more film reviews

June 19, 2010

coming soon-ish:

I also need to finish my long essay on The Night of the Hunter and reviews of a couple of Criterion titles (Make Way for Tomorrow and Tokyo Story, The Red Shoes), as well as my reviews of The Adv. of Robin Hood (the greatest popcorn movie ever?), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Johnny Guitar and Poltergeist. I’ve admittedly been lazy/preoccupied the past month with regards to writing, partially thanks to finishing watching the current season of Doctor Who and re-watching old ‘classic’ Doctor Who serials and re-watching new seasons 1-4 on dvd (Chris Eccleston’s and David Tennant’s years).

After seeing Dancer in the Dark in June on IFC, I felt compelled to write a review about it, to be posted here sometime this week once I can re-shape it into something  a bit more coherent than the semi-random brainstorming of thoughts scattered across a few pages that currently exists. Sentences need to be moved to other paragraphs. Paragraphs need to be re-organized. It is currently a mess as I try to read through it. I’ve had an ongoing bad habit of re-editing posts after they’ve been put up on my blog to fix parts I’m not happy with. This tells me I need to work on my editorial skills as well as my writing skills, such as they may be. I’d rather have posts that I feel are fairly well-written (within my own abilities) than merely voluminous.

I read an old article on another site about the choice between 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound for home theaters and compared that writer’s organization for clarity on a potentially confusing subject with my own post here ranting against pan & scan and I wondered if I couldn’t do some more work on that post to make it potentially less confusing for the uninitiated who might stumble upon it.

update 06JUL10:  Still have a little work to do on the Dancer in the Dark review, which I honestly haven’t gotten back to at all, except inside my head. I waited to watch it a second time to clarify some feelings about it (and thanks to a swipe I took at Matthew Barney in one part, was trying to see the Cremaster films before posting as it would seem foolish to invalidate the work of an artist whose films you haven’t seen. After seeing Cremaster  1,2,4,5 I feel that I was correct in my assumptions about MB’s nonsense moviemaking). Watching Dancer in the Dark also renewed my interest in Bjork’s music and sent me on a youtube search for all the music videos/singles I’d missed since ‘Army of Me’. This also sidetracked me a bit, which is one of the perils of having access to a variety of information only a few keystrokes away when you had planned to be working on writing something.

film review: A Very Long Engagement (2004) ★★★★★ [5/5]

June 2, 2010

A Very Long Engagement/ aka Un long dimanche de fiançailles (Jean-Pierre Jeunet 2004; France)

In a (lazy) move to finally post a film review on my blog, I’m recycling one that I wrote back in 2006 with only a few minor alterations to my original text.

This is another great film from Jean-Pierre Jeunet and one of the best-looking films I’ve seen in ages. Jeunet’s acclaimed “Amelie” was a revelation for audiences weary of typical Hollywood films and reminded us what a group of talented individuals could actually bring to the silver screen. With this film, Jeunet continues that tradition while taking on a different type of love story.

synopsis: Mathilde’s true love was been drafted into WWI’s dismal and hopeless world of trench warfare and, on charges of intentional self-mutilation of his hand to escape the horrors of war and visit a cozy hospital bed, was condemned to death along with four other soldiers in his trench. He has officially been declared dead by the French government, but even with the passage of much time and no word from him, his fiancée refuses to believe it so. If he were dead, she would know. Thus begins Mathilde’s long and complicated quest to discover what has become of her beloved Manech.

“A Very Long Engagement” is filled with gorgeous cinematography and visuals that look like beautiful paintings. It’s something one doesn’t expect from a war film, but this is really more of a ‘romance in the shadow of war’ film. There are shots in this film that look good enough to frame and hang on your wall. At the time I originally wrote this, it was probably the best-looking picture I’d seen since the storybook adventures of “Babe”, the talking pig. The trench warfare sequences are equally well-staged and lensed, allowing the ugliness of war to provide a stark contrast to the beauty of undying love and hope. It’s nice to see that some filmmakers have learned to control digital technology to improve the look of their film without it controlling them. Any filmmakers using CGI in this age should be forced to watch this film as a prerequisite and shown what the technology is actually capable of when it is not abused to blanket the screen and patch over the gnawing inconsistencies of many shoddy modern screenplays.

Audrey Tatou immediately elevates any production that she appears in. She is in the good company of a select few actresses in the history of cinema who have such an amazing luminous onscreen presence. She has the ability to make the audience emotionally invested in any character she plays. The rest of the cast also does a great job of bringing their characters to life, particularly Marion Cotillard.

In a world where too many films try to remind us their filmmakers think they are more clever than their lazy thrown-together scripts, it’s refreshing to see a film that goes the extra distance to provide us with a script that is every bit as clever as the talents behind its film and worthy of both them and the audience.

Indicative of the attention to detail given to its characters’ personalities, the film has invested Mathilde with the quirky character trait of being a person who makes those little ‘if/then wagers with fate’ and other characters with the type of appreciation of the type of simple little everyday moments in life that we saw previously in “Amelie”. I’m not sure why a canine passing gas warms the heart of the mother, but this is a film that takes time to tell us that it does without turning it into a childish joke.

The scenes of prostitute Tina Lombardi’s brilliant and unnecessarily complicated methods of revenge outdo most set piece sequences seen in top-notch gialli with their inspired inventiveness. She learns the names of those responsible for condemning her man to death and acts as self-appointed avenging angel. Her quest provides a good contrast to Mathilde’s.

There may be some subtitle-weary mainstream film-goers who found this to be ‘a very long movie’ (or so the joke apparently goes among the film’s detractors), but this film is a masterpiece. It reminds us of the wonderful worlds where film is capable of transporting us to and yet so rarely does these days.

-Yanagi Trebuchet

At the time of posting, this film is among my all-time top 100 favorite films.

“Not EVERYTHING Has to Be Kurosawa!”, or “You Just Don’t Like Good Movies!”

May 16, 2010

The former phrase, making the Kurosawa comparison in the sense of ‘artsy films’, was once said by a good friend of mine in reply to my lack of enthusiasm for what was most likely some mediocre popcorn movie, but I adopted this term as my catchphrase response along the lines of ‘Yes, I know, not everything has to be Kurosawa, but wouldn’t it be nice if more films seemed to actually try?’. Though Kurosawa is high on my favorite directors’ list, my favorite director is actually Alfred Hitchcock, but that wouldn’t have worked for the phrase, since Hitch is known for very accessible, mainstream, romance + suspense movies which could probably be called ‘popcorn movies’, his masterpiece Vertigo probably being the most notable exception where he seemed to go a bit more ‘artsy’ than usual. Hitchcock made mainstream movies, but – aside from some obvious matte paintings and rear projection on display due to his studio-bound preference for controlling the elements – he did it exceedingly well, which is more than I can say for a lot of ‘popcorn’ filmmakers working today. I would say the same of the 1938 Errol Flynn action-adventure-romance movie The Adventures of Robin Hood, which I think may be quite possibly the perfect popcorn movie and is currently in my all-time top ten. I avoided the mud-soaked, fun-deprived Ridley Scott/ Russell Crowe ‘Robin Hood’ movie (which I jokingly call ‘Gladiator 2’) and re-watched the Flynn swashbuckler movie on a gorgeous DVD transfer instead – it will most likely become one of my first Blu-Ray titles purchased when I eventually upgrade to the HD format (EDIT: Adv. of Robin Hood was actually the 2nd Blu-ray I picked up when we got an HDTV recently). I’ll be writing a short piece on that film soon (or so I keep telling my lazy self).

Trailers that shock and ‘awe’

The latter phrase about so-called ‘good movies’ is a knee-jerk reaction you will frequently encounter on movie forums like IMDb where the younger people using it are trying to defend bad movies by using blind fanboy arguments. Though I’ve had people paint me as a film snob, I don’t really have an automatic negative outlook on all popcorn movies. Granted, movie trailers full of loud noises, CGI and explosions don’t typically connect with me via a positive Pavlovian response. I’ve become desensitized to this type of marketing after more than a few too many bait and switch examples. I even dismissed the trailer for the first Iron Man movie for the same reasons when a friend e-mailed me the url to it, presumably expecting me to claim it ‘awesome’ since it was loud and ‘lots of stuff blew up real good’. I was pleasantly surprised upon finally seeing the film that it was much better than advertised. I saw Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on the same day and was hugely disappointed with Spielberg’s action movie by comparison — despite being a big fan of the previous Indy Jones trilogy. I was doubly upset about seeing Indy Jones IV because it meant I skipped seeing Tarsem’s excellent and visually stunning film, The Fall, which left local theaters a few days later. I fell into a worse trap last year, when, temporarily doubting him, I skipped seeing Inglourious Basterds in the theater based on the trailer while making some difficult moviegoing choices during a tough economy. I intended to see it on DVD, but the seemingly grindhouse exploitation QT movie depicted in the trailer was not at the top of my must-see list. Imagine my surprise when I saw a very different (and much, much better) movie from the one advertised. It has become my favorite film so far for 2009 of the few that I did get around to seeing. I have learned from these examples not to automatically not to write off a film based solely on the studio’s poor choice of advertising approach in its attempt to garner a large audience, but I still don’t squeal like a little girl and run to the nearest multiplex whenever a trailer is packed with CGI and explosions backed by really loud sound effects and I will still never see Transformers 2: ROTFL by conscious choice. It was bad enough sitting through the first hackneyed, dim-witted Transformers movie at the insistence of a friend.

Make me care about the characters.

The problem with movies isn’t that they like action scenes. Action scenes have been around since the days of silent films. The problem is that they keep choosing to go bigger (though not necessarily better) with constant chases and cramming the screen full of things — in attempt to appeal to those with short attention spans — to the detriment of the other elements of the film they’re making. I liked the first Pirates of the Carribean movie despite initially being concerned walking into a movie made by (Ring-ruiner) Gore Verbinski and (common Michael Bay collaborator) producer Jerry Bruckheimer. It was a lot of fun, but the sequels made the mistake of thinking that going BIGGER was the answer. The sequels obviously made bigger profits, but it didn’t really lead to better movies. Just because one element of a film is well-received – in this case Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow – does not make it a good idea to try to cram more of that element into the (horribly bloated) sequel. Good filmmaking requires a good balance of elements. When CG takes over opportunities of character development at every turn, it endangers the films ability for me to connect with the characters. Admittedly, it’s not a failing solely of the big Hollywood tentpole/blockbuster films. I’ve also seen foreign and arthouse films that have failed for one reason or another to give me a reason to connect with the characters, creating the same ultimate problem, albeit via rather dissimilar approaches to filmmaking. I’m not writing this simply in a curmudgeonly attempt to blindly trash mainstream big budget films, I’m just suggesting that there are things that filmmakers (and the studios that have control over final cut and make strong ‘suggestions’ to less powerful filmmakers) can do to give me a reason to care about what I’m watching on the screen. Throwing more computer-generated graphics into every corner of the screen is NOT the answer (yes, George Lucas, I mean you too). If I don’t care about the characters, I won’t care about sticking around to see their ultimate fate – something that has often ruined the horror genre in less capable hands. I’ve seen other horror fans upset at critics’ dismissal of ‘Dead Teenager Films’, but one of the big reasons is that the victims of said films are barely even paper thin characters and we have no reason to side with them. This has been said numerous times elsewhere, but I’m going to state it again to stress its importance: When a horror film is made in such a way that we gleefully side with the killer as he chops up victims, that film has ultimately failed its audience – unless they’re specifically aiming for the lowest common denominator. Neil Marshall’s Descent is an example of a great horror film of recent years. I’d say the same for Bong Joon-ho’s The Host and Kim Jee-woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters. These three movies are all examples where I actually cared what happened because the filmmakers knew what they were doing. Hopefully we’ll see more horror movies in that vein in coming years.

Thrills don’t have to be so disorienting to thrill the audience.

Action movie thrills have become less effective since they started adopting bad habits and general laziness. Sometimes the usual suspects of jarring shaky-cam and quick cutting can work alright, but it shouldn’t be the go-to technique to take over action scenes. The ‘Bourne’ franchise is probably one of the more effective uses of this approach and yet others have problems making it work for their movies. I loved Batman Begins to the extent that I would’ve been happy with the film even if he had never donned the Batman costume, but I was seriously disappointed with its action scenes and the same goes for The Dark Knight. I’m not the first person to point out that tightly-framed camerawork coupled with quick-cutting is oftentimes basically an easy cheat to cover up bad action choreography. I’ve seen some critics address this issue and it comes up on movie forums quite a bit too. You didn’t see this type of filmmaking in those great Jackie Chan and Jet Li action movies from Hong Kong in the 1980s-90s (and Bruce Lee’s films before that) because the talented crew involved actually knew what they were doing. It didn’t hurt that the stars of the films had superb athletic abilities. As someone who has never been particularly athletic, I love to see people perform impressive feats that I wish I could do. This is why I like watching talented martial artists doing crazy stunts, great dancers in old musicals, Olympic ice skating, etc. Yes, it’s easier to frame tight on an actress like Milla Jovovich to make it look like she’s an ass-kicking genius, but it doesn’t make Resident Evil: Apocalypse a good movie in any way whatsoever and, in fact, helped (in part, as that film had numerous bad elements) to achieve quite the opposite. Many of the ladies in Hong Kong martial arts movies seem to have a background in dancing, enabling them to pull off the good action choreography for which that film industry has been known worldwide. Compare the likes of Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou’s Hero to your average Milla Jovovich sci-fi action movie and the differences are quite obvious.

As somewhat of a cousin to the action movie, the thriller is another example of a genre mostly ruined in recent years. Compare most American thrillers to South Korea’s The Chaser, and you’ll notice something important (that Roger Ebert mentioned in his review): real people seem to be doing real things like running and jumping without the editor constantly cutting to fake it out. The ‘geography’ of the scene is maintained, which is something I can’t say of many recent Hollywood movies which seem to revel in disorienting the audience under the guise of ‘putting you into the action’. For example, if I was actually ‘in the action’, I would probably still have some general idea where I was in relation to a person throwing punches at me. The Chaser is also a movie that gave me reason to care about its characters and their fates.

Nobody sets out planning to make a bad movie.

Or so the saying goes…and yet it still happens quite often. It’s not easy for an unknown to get a movie financed if your project’s concept is outside the mainstream. There have been theories espoused on movie forums that Uwe Boll makes his living and that he doesn’t really care about making good movies: he gets investors by exploiting loopholes in German tax laws that ensure that they’ll never have to worry that they can lose any money in the process. Personally, I wish I was able to exploit such loopholes to get financing for movies outside the mainstream of what Hollywood investors consider ‘profitable’ genres. If someone is wasting this potential opportunity to make the type of films that they want to make without heavy studio interference and is just in it to make a buck, then it would make me more than just a little scornful of those individuals.

It takes a village (and a lot of time and money) to make even a crappy movie, so why not put a bit more effort into it and make something worth seeing? This is why the ‘it’s just a movie’ argument will never hold water with me. If someone just wanted to make brain-dead entertainment and get rich doing it, they might as well just work in television. Why clutter the cinemas with garbage? Even talented individuals can go wrong somewhere in the complicated process of making a movie and even the directors that I admire most don’t have perfect track records. It’s the repeat offenders that annoy me. When anyone tries to defend the ‘parodies’ of the unholy Seltzer-Friedberg ‘creative’ alliance, I take it as a personal offense. I cannot understand how someone can make a ‘comedy’ as lame as Date Movie or Meet the Spartans without realizing how pathetically unfunny it is. Throwing out random pop culture references and expecting people to find them funny because of the simple fact that you’re referencing something that the audience might recognize is ludicrous. This reminds me of another often recycled catchphrase batted back and forth with a good friend of mine: “That’s what makes it funny?” It can only be the result of absolute laziness or a complete lack of understanding of the nature of humor or what constitutes a parody for someone to make a movie like those made by Seltzer-Friedberg. Even Michael Bay, maker of absolute garbage like Pearl Harbor and Armageddon, has occasionally made movies that were entertaining, so it can’t be that difficult.

I’ve even encountered the “you only like old movies” defense from the younger generation — remembering that back in the 80’s I was once a teenager too and had generally mediocre taste in movies (for every Kurosawa’s Ran and West Side Story, there was a Labyrinth or The Lost Boys at the top of my favorites list)…and then I saw a wider selection of movies. I could counter with the reflexive argument “you only like new movies”, based on the regular posts of toplists by IMDb members and by the results of user voting for the infamously skewed IMDb Top 250, where every new blockbuster seems to have its 15 minutes of fame among what is theoretically supposed to be a public consensus of the best movies ever made. It’s become a common practice in the ‘rate my list of favorite movies/make suggestions’ topics on the movie forums for at least a few people to respond to each of these topics with something along the lines of ‘see some movies made before 1980 and watch a few foreign films’. As a regular viewer of Turner Classic Movies, I have to admit that bad movies are not a completely new trend and I could name a plethora of old movies that I personally found to be a waste of my time, especially the slapdash cash cow series cranked out by Hollywood, (including those generic Andy Hardy movies). I find a lot of great movies are still being made these days, so it’s not just that nobody knows how to make a good movie anymore, but rather that an assertion that I’ve heard a few times lately is probably closer to the truth: We have lowered the bar for mediocrity when it comes to movies.

So to clarify for things for those who habitually defend bad movies under the banner of “it’s just a movie”:

In addition to those arthouse and foreign films (and I dislike quite a few of those too), I love movies from ALL sorts of mainstream genres, including: horror films, musicals, melodramas, westerns and comic book movies. I just require that filmmakers create films that are worth my time and that hopefully give me characters that can make me feel something, anything. While bloated event movies (and their trailers) seem to be pathetically crying out “LOVE ME!!!” at the top of their lungs like Stanley Moon, it was Peter Cook in the brilliant 1967 comedy Bedazzled who probably summed up my feelings towards some recent Hollywood films best: “You feel me with inertia”.