29 February 2008

Buster Godard

Last night I watched a wonderful film by Agnes Varda called Cleo from 5 to 7 (1961). It focused on the a few hours of the life of Cleo, a young, vain pop singer in France who is waiting to hear about the results of a cancer biopsy. The film is shot in real time, so we are supposed to be experiencing an hour and half as Cleo experiences an hour and a half (despite the 5 to 7 title, it's probably more like 5 to 6:30). Through her we are led through the streets of Paris as she reflects on her own existence, allowing us to do so for ourselves as well as for this character whom we feel we know quite instantly. Cleo's brief, but significant, journey is cathartic and she is eventually able to find some kind of meaning or purpose to her life, though what it is exactly we can't be sure.

Cleo and Angele in Cleo's curious flat.

A real treat of the film, however, comes during a scene in which Cleo travels with her friend Dorothee to visit Dorothee's film projectionist boyfriend. From the projection booth they (we) watch a silent short. First we see a an upright young man in a porkpie hat with a pretty, young blonde girl. The man is not unlike Buster Keaton and at first he is unrecognizable, but then he puts on some dark sunglasses... it's Godard! Ha. Of course, then, the young blonde girl is Anna Karina. The little clip is great. I found a video on YouTube, though it's been altered a bit. In the film itself we don't see the title cards with film credits at the beginning or end. Also, in the film after Godard buys the flower wreath and he is shot in close up to turn his head, there are supposed to be some tear streams on his face, but in the YouTube video they are hard to see. It's surprising to see how endearing and earnest Godard comes across without his glasses. Hmm.. maybe I should buy myself some tinted shades too. In any case, enjoy!

25 February 2008

Oscars Recap

Overall, I was pretty happy with the way things turned out at the Oscars award-wise. I'm extra happy with a little extra money in my pocket due to some correct predictions. I didn't guess everything right, especially in terms of the ladies, but overall the favorites were the ones to take home the statue. I also switched my guess for Cinematography to There Will Be Blood at the last minute.

I'm glad that No Country didn't get trumped by something "safer" and that Juno didn't take home anything other than the Best Original Screenplay Oscar (which is even still a little questionable, but I suppose inevitable). The ceremony itself was a little lackluster, with some extra half-assed montages of years prior. I read a review in the NYTimes which mentioned that the montages of ceremonies passed only reminded us of what we're missing out on, since there didn't seem to be any real spark of excitement this year, or anything uber-memorable. The review even said that the clips of former acceptance speeches (especially an extra jovial one by Cuba Gooding Jr.) even made the recipients extra self-conscious as to have something to compare with. I don't know about that. The most moving speeches seemed to be from non-native English speakers, such as Bardem's Spanish shout-out to his madre or Marion Cotillard's heavily-accented thank yous. The speeches from the two sweethearts of Once were extra endearing.

Anyway, I'm not going to critique acceptance speeches, it's kind of pointless. In the end I'm happy that 2007 offered us such fantastic films with meaning and depth. I'm especially happy for the Coen brothers, those lovable weirdos.

Ethan and Joel Coen

17 February 2008

Oscar Predictions 2008

The Oscars are seven days away (seven days left to vote on my poll, get on it!) so it's time to make some predictions for winners in the major categories:

Actor in a Leading Role:

Daniel Day Lewis, no doubt. I think he's won every other award for this category, and deservedly so. The scene which this shot is from contains one of my favorite monologues: "This is my son and my partner H.W. Plainview."

Actor in a Supporting Role:

Javier Bardem. This one is another no-brainer, since Bardem has won the Golden Globe, the BAFTA award, the SAG award, and whatever else he was nominated for. Though I think Casey Affleck certainly deserves recognition for his role in The Assassination of Jesse James, he will get snubbed.

Actress in a Leading Role:

Julie Christie. I haven't seen the movie, but I know it's a sentimental one, which the Academy seems to love. Also, Julie Christie was awarded by her own peers during the SAG awards, so I have a feeling it will be her.

Actress in a Supporting Role:

Cate Blanchette as Dylan in I'm Not There. Honestly, I haven't seen the films of the other actresses nominated, but I figure this is pretty safe. They won't give Blanchett an award for Elizabeth: the Golden Age, so they'll throw her one for this role.

Animated Feature Film:

Ratatouille. C'mon!

Documentary Feature Film:

No End in Sight. Though Sicko seemed to connect with a lot of people with its issues on health care, the War is a much more pertinent topic, so I predict it to take home the award.

Art Direction
This one is kind of tough because it is a more technical category and less easy to predict with subjective opinions, but I'm going to say There Will Be Blood. The wooden shacks, the oil pump, everything soaked in the period of the film. Again, this is tough because I've only seen one other film nominated.

A friend of mine called this the toughest category, and I think that is pretty true. All of the films nominated are beautifully shot (4 of which I've seen) and it's hard to predict what the Academy will pick. Even so, I'm going to go with Atonement because of its sweeping, ambitious shots, including a very long single take on the beach. Then again, Roger Deakins is nominated twice.. would they rob him of both? Ah, who knows.

Original Screenplay

Diablo Cody for Juno. They gotta give the "indie darling" picture something. Besides, Cody won the BAFTA and the WGA award. It's in the bag.

Adapted Screenplay

Another tough one. I think it's either between The Diving Bell and the Butterfly or No Country for Old Men. Since I haven't seen the former my pick goes to No Country.


Dario Marianelli's score for Atonement was beautiful. Since Johnny Greenwood was disqualified from nomination for his amazing score to There Will Be Blood, I'm going to go with this one.

Best Director(s)

The Coen brothers! They've already earned all the accolades available, including recognition from the Director's Guild. It's time that they win.

Best Picture

This is probably the toughest for me. My gut tells me No Country for Old Men will win, but Atonement makes threats with its Golden Globe and BAFTA win. The latter also seems to be more Academy-friendly as opposed to the violent No Country. Nevertheless, I will stick with my guns and say that No Country will win.

13 February 2008

Film Posters!

Recently I was looking at a book of film posters from the 1960s. Some of them were really, really great. I forgot that film posters used to be works of art in themselves, now they're usually half-assed and dull. A big part of that has to do with the fact that the posters are no longer illustrations but photo stills. Anyway, I just wanted to put up a few nice ones for your viewing pleasure:

Red Beard (1965)

The Man With the Golden Arm (1955)

Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)

Psycho (1960)

Le Samourai (1967)

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

12 February 2008

Into that secret place that no one dares to go.

Despite the fact that the focus of this blog is writing on movies and my reflections on them, I have to veer a bit off track here. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was released ten years ago by Neutral Milk Hotel in 1998. Pitchfork Media did a little write up in commemoration of the album and had people reflect on how the album has affected them, inspiring me to do a little reflection of my own.

Just this past week at my (drab) job at Barnes & Noble I was walking around, as usual when there are no customers, straightening the CDs out, daydreaming, whathaveyou. Out of nowhere, I happened to find In the Aeroplane Over the Sea filed away, along with two other NMH recordings. On sight of it I nearly teared up. That instantly recognizable cover with the tambourine-headed woman in the ocean. Normally B&N doesn't carry Neutral Milk Hotel stuff, so I asked my manager if he had special ordered them in, and he did. Are you into their stuff? he asked me. Yes! I said, almost gushing. I told him how I listened to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea nearly straight for three years on repeat. He gave a little surprised look and then said, Yeah, good stuff. I waited for more to come out of him, to share in the glow of Neutral Milk Hotel's magical wonder, but the conversation ended there. Somehow I felt like he didn't get it.

Whether he did or not, I can't know. But the instant nostalgia of seeing that cover hit me powerfully. The following day I listened to the album straight through in the car, not having done so in what seemed like way too long.

There is a magical element to this album, an otherworldliness that transports you and so wholly surrounds you and blocks you from the rest of the world and reality that you feel as if for those moments you listen to these songs you inhabit some other dimension. A world with green fleshy flowers and wet, warm chests and pianos filled with flames. I remember listening to "Oh, Comely" in high school and weeping, listening to "Two-Headed Boy" and being convinced that the song was about me, though I had no idea what any of it meant. There is so much to tell about these songs, about the way they blend together, the way Jeff's voice is almost supernatural - brutal and beautiful - but in the end it's something beyond description, it's something personal.

I have a few favorite albums, ones that I can play over and over without getting tired of them (the first four Talking Heads albums especially), but In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is something else; it's an album that completely transports me every time I alone with it, it's that aural comfort blanket that I will always cherish.

02 February 2008

Kobayashi, the Master

I watched Samurai Rebellion last night thinking I was treating myself to an escapist swordplay film heavy on slashing and blood. Turns out I was delightfully wrong. Instead, Samurai Rebellion turned out to be an incredibly deep family drama centered around a samurai family in the Edo period, during which separate feudal societies were subject to the daimyo (regional leaders). In fact, the only fighting and blood is seen within the last 20-30 minutes of the film in a fantastic climax.

The pacing is slow and centered on domestic scenes regarding the marriage in the Sasahara clan. The main plot line is that the daimyo rejects his former mistress, Ichi, after she has slapped him and dragged his new mistress by the hair. The Sasahara family is ordered to take her in and be married to the son, Yogoro, Isaburo's (Toshiro Mifune) son. Since she is tainted with the stigma of being abandoned after bearing a child, she is initially rejected by Isaburo and his wife, only to be accepted by Yogoro. Eventually we learn that she actually has a heart of gold and she leads a happy life with the Sasaharas and even bears a child. Later, after the daimyo's main heir has died she is ordered to return to the daimyo's side as the heir's mother, which is a terrible, inhumane order. Yogoro and Isaburo reject the daimyo's orders and the story picks up intensely from there.

I have seen Kobayashi's Harakiri, which also impressed me to no end. I was reminded of that film as I was watching Samurai Rebellion because the theme of rejecting established order is prevalent and so is the attention away from sword fighting and towards dialogue. This makes sense since the same writer, Shinobu Hashimoto, wrote both films. However, there is a difference in the two. This is in the inclusion of the woman character, Ichi, who ends up being the most honorable, courageous character in the film, unusual for the typically manly chanbara (samurai film). The situation completely revolves around her, and the injustice and cruelty of situations she is put in is almost unbearable at times. It is no wonder that the original Japanese title translates more closely to Rebellion: Receive the Wife. The alteration to Samurai Rebellion is clearly geared towards attracting overseas audiences hoping to see swordplay.

Another element of the film that struck me was the mise-en-scene, particularly the composition of the shots. The geometric lines and shapes of the neat, ordered houses and castles add some great compositional symmetry and visual appeal. Not only that, but in certain scenes the very rigidness and confining nature of the structure can be felt in the film, addressing the thematic issue of the oppression of established order. When Isaburo and Yogoro strip their house of the tatami mats and walls they are visually rebelling against order. There is also a great scene in which the entire Sasahara clan visits with Ichi to advise her to obey the daimyo for the sake of their well-being and their family name, encircling her as they sit. When she refuses the family file out of the room one by one, leaving the symmetry of the circle disrupted, leaving only the nuclear Sasahara family, dissheveled and in disarray emotionally and visually. Donald Richie writes about these elements much more clearly in his essay for the Criterion release of the DVD.

What really attracts me to Samurai Rebellion and Harakiri, and thus to Kobayashi, is the totality of the story's message. "Everyone must live his own life," says Isaburo to his younger son as he prepares to fight to the death. It is a tragic beauty encapsulated by the willingness to die in the face of hopelessness in order to justify your own existence. This is a message more relatable to the feudal society, but surely can ring true in any situation of authority vs. individual. As the film comes close the end you know that it won't end happily - Kobayashi wouldn't stoop so low. It is a tragedy, but in it you find meaning. The heartbreak of it is that these are stories that wouldn't be recorded in the history books. Isaburo will die in the field and no officials will no of his story or the injustice he suffered.

I love this stuff.