31 October 2010

No, I guess not

Well, this blog is going out with a whimper. As much as I'd like to continue writing in here, it's been too much to keep up with on top of school, work, and my meager attempt at having a life. The fact that this front page has posts from half a year ago is a little embarrassing and I'm not going to pretend to keep up with it anymore. Thank you for those who've been reading every once in a while. I'll continue blogging little odds and ends through my tumblr (kazuwabe.tumblr.com) so please check in on me there. So long!

29 September 2010

Back on Track?

I took a vacation from the blog over the summer, and now that school has started and I am going to be busy (instead of just lazy, which was the excuse for not keeping up during the summer) I'm not sure I'll do much better. In any case, news that Arthur Penn passed away yesterday reminded me of all the films of his that I wrote about for class and this blog. He was a great, under-appreciated director who changed things for American cinema (with Bonnie & Clyde) and then got overshadowed by the rush of great directors during the '70s.

Bonnie & Clyde is my favorite, but it's a predictable pick. There are other greats, including Little Big Man (1970), Night Moves (1975), and the interesting early effort The Left-Handed Gun (1958), but the one I champion the most is the problematic, Sam-Spiegel-interrupted, fascinating The Chase (1966) starring Marlon Brando, Robert Redford, Angie Dickinson, Jane Fonda, and Robert Duvall (what a cast, huh?) A lot of these can be found in the backlog of this blog with small write-ups.

(Arthur Penn, 1922-2010)

11 May 2010

A Huston Sampler, Pt 2

The second half of my John Huston experience consisted of three films (again all literary adaptations) that range from mediocre to great, at least in my initial encounters with each. Though I often like to, I did not watch these films in chronological order, but in an order that coincidentally went from least good to best, which is the order I will approach these reviews.

Wise Blood is perhaps the only book I have read before watching Huston's adaptation (I read The Treasure of the Sierra Madre after seeing the film), written by Flannery O'Connor. I received some pleasure from the novel -- in the collection of absurdities that coalesce into the character of Hazel Motes -- though it's larger significance was largely lost on me and I found the drilled repetition of shrill hysteria from mostly all the characters to be a bit tiresome at times. I was thus quite interested to see how Huston would interpret O'Connor's work, especially in handling what is often a very ambiguous tone. I received, however, no such insight from Mr. Huston's film.

The novel is focused on a very serious son of a preacher named Hazel Motes who denounces his religious upbringing and purposefully sets out to sin and prove to himself that he is not afraid of God. He goes to a town nearby where he has never been and sleeps with a prostitute, but during his stay he encounters a blind preacher with whom he becomes obsessed. He sets out to undo the preacher by preaching against him and forming the Church of Truth Without Jesus Christ Crucified, meanwhile becoming entangled with the preacher's strangely amorous daughter and a local weirdo that works at the zoo. Eventually Motes uses extremist methods to prove his lack of faith, including self-flagellation and self-denial -- which are, of course, Christian methods of extreme faith. Whether Motes eventually becomes saved and at peace or pathetically doomed by the novel's end is somewhat lost on me, though I am sure it is a mixture of the two.

And perhaps the original text was lost on Huston, too, for the film was incredibly literal. There is a consistent use of religious imagery to playfully comment on the way that Motes cannot escape Jesus and religion despite himself, but the deeper meaning behind the rather simple ideas that religion is a hoax and Motes is delusional and doomed is absent. In O'Connor's novel the characters are so ridiculous that they go beyond realism to become absurdist symbols. Huston's film, however, is so literal and takes so much stock in treating the very unrealistic characters as real that it tends to fall flat. Which is a shame, though, I admit that my lack of understanding of the source text doesn't give much reliability to my criticism in comparing the two works.
Unlike Wise Blood, much of the action of Malcolm Lowry's novel Under the Volcano occurs within the head of the drunken protagonist -- or at least that's what I understand, as I have not read the book. But it is apparent in the film, which, if nothing else, is a showcase of Albert Finney's incredible talent. Not only does he have to grapple with a character that is severely drunk most of the film, but he has to make that character interesting, human, and likable enough for his death to be a tragedy. It is probably difficult to play a drunk without hamming it up a great deal, but Finney never overdoes it, and his performance in itself makes the film worth watching.

Finney plays Geoffrey Firmin, a British ex-Consul living in Mexico, drunkenly passing one day after another until his wife, Yvonne, shows up one day with the intention of saving their marriage. Geoffrey's inability to quit drinking and what seems to be layers upon layers of past hurt make Yvonne's attempt seem hopeless. The appearance of Geoffrey's half-brother, Hugh, with whom Yvonne had an affair, makes things even more difficult. The film starts in the morning and ends at night on the Day of the Dead.

As far as plot goes, there isn't much of one. The characters are also slim -- mainly three. Even the time of the film is limited to one day. All of these restrictions make Under the Volcano a difficult film to make, but Huston manages to keep us interested enough in Geoffrey's tragedy to keep watching. We are drawn to see what brought this man, who may have once been great, to the miserable state he is in in which he can say without irony that "Hell is my natural habitat." There are other issues in the background of the film -- such as the Spanish Civil War, Hugh's feeling of emasculation, etc. -- but they are not given enough time or space to be drawn out. We wait to see if Geoffrey can overcome enough of his resentment of Yvonne in order to love her, as we know he does, or if he will self-destruct, as we know he will. As Huston films it, Geoffrey is a very troubled but sympathetic character, and it is no wonder that Huston would choose to direct such a character as he reached the last years of his life.


The earliest of the three films here, Fat City (1972), is one of my favorite Huston films. It offers a precursor of sorts to the down-and-out alcoholic Geoffrey Firmin of Under the Volcano with Tully, played by Stacey Keach, a boxer way past his prime with a drinking problem and an inability to commit to anything. Upon meeting a young, promising boxer played by Jeff Bridges, Tully decides to give boxing another go, rejoining with his old manager, who he blames for his fall from grace. After a cut in pay for winning a big match, Tully ends up where he started, broke and having problems with his barfly girlfriend Oma, who is an even worse wreck.

Beautifully filmed by Conrad Hall, in that '70s haze that distinguishes the decade in American film, Fat City is really distinguished in its look. The weather-beaten buildings and faces of northern California give the film an authentic feeling of locale -- the sun is out but it doesn't make things shine; it dries things and makes them fade. Huston pays special attention to wrinkles in a face or the stains on the wall, establishing not only a type of realism in the film, but a visceral feeling of texture in person and place. It's hard to forget the opening scene of Tully in his trashy motel room, disheveled in his underwear with an empty bottle of whiskey on the bureau.

While this is appears to be a boxing film, it's more of a character study of the self-destructive sort. (You could even qualify it as a noir, as Film Noir of the Week does.) Tully is contrasted heavily to Ernie (Bridges), who takes everything -- a boxing loss, an unexpected pregnancy, poverty -- with a shrug and a willingness to keep trying. They have more or less the same circumstances, though decades apart, but Tully ends up unable to accept what he's been given. His resentment of his manager is briefly mentioned in the beginning, but ends up being a big deal for Tully towards the end of the film and it becomes clear that he cannot let go of being wronged, he can't accept the fact that he gets shit upon when he thinks he deserves better. This harboring of resentment and sense of entitlement guarantees he will keep floating on and on with no great change.

Here is a lovely video featuring scenes from the film set to the music of Lucinda Williams:

15 April 2010

A Huston Sampler, Pt 1

Over the last several weeks I have been watching a mix of John Huston films, at first coincidentally and then quite intentionally. I have always been interested in Huston, though up until this series of viewings I had only seen The Maltese Falcon. And while I love that film, my fondness for it is all Bogart and Lorre, not necessarily Huston, who I otherwise remembered as the actor who played Noah Cross. Even so, I've had a vague awareness of Huston's myth as a Hemingwayesque man's man kind of artist -- a cigar-chomping, hard-liquor-guzzling, self-destructive gambler that womanizes and hunts large game and WILL FIGHT YOU BECAUSE HE DOES NOT GIVE A SHIT -- an archetype of the American character that has always been intriguing to me (which Robert Altman seems to fit as well). Knowing this, I was especially interested to see the portrayals of masculinity and the internal conflicts of the protagonists within his films, both of which were nicely introduced by Key Largo, the film that I began with.
Key Largo, adapted by Huston and Richard Brooks, is a Bogart and Bacall vehicle (their last) in which Bogart plays Frank McCloud, a returning vet paying a visit to the family of a deceased war buddy in a Key Largo hotel only to find himself stranded in the middle of a hurricane with a posse of gangsters led by Johnny Rocco, played with gusto by Edward G. Robinson. McCloud is played with Bogart's trademark mix of cynicism and goodness, a man who does the right thing despite himself -- the reluctant hero. Though McCloud is a war hero, distinguishing him as brave, he doesn't want to bother with Rocco or his gang, making him looked down upon by Nora (Bacall), her father, and even the gang. As Rocco's abuse of the hostages gets worse, particularly the way he whispers dirty, inaudible things into the ear of Nora (a fantastic screen gesture I'm surprised not to have seen before), McCloud gets fed up and decides to take the gangsters out, reliving his war experience on a boat shoot-out. Only after he does this does he completely win Nora as a prize for his bravery and display of masculinity.

What makes the film more psychoanalytically interesting is that Nora's father, with whom she lives alone, is in a wheelchair, making him unable to act. Thus, McCloud's virility and violence allow him to take Nora's father's place in Nora's life as the true masculine figure. Ironically, the hyper-masculinity McCloud has to show by the film's end is not too different from the hyper-masculinity displayed by Rocco throughout the entire film, who waves his gun around in an perpetual state of threat. McCloud's smarter than that (at one point he says: "You don't like it, do you Rocco, the storm? Show it your gun, why don't you? If it doesn't stop, shoot it.") but, eventually, using a gun is the only way to get things done.
 Next, I watched The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, made in the same year (1948), which is probably Huston's masterpiece, or at least a masterpiece of American Hollywood filmmaking. Adapted from the novel by B. Traven (which I read and with whom I became very intrigued), the film concerns the attempt of three down-and-out Americans living in Mexico during the 1920s to strike it rich by prospecting for gold. The story exploits the greediness brought out of hungry and desperate people that have a taste for gold. The adaptation is faithful to the feeling of desperation and madness that permeates the original text. Again returning in a lead role, Bogart plays Dobbs, whose shit life leaves him bitter, short-tempered, and ready to burst at a moment's notice. He is paired with Tim Holt as his less-manic partner in poverty and the very excellent Walter Huston as the wise and weary old-timer prospector. It's pretty clear from the beginning of the film that Dobbs is doomed, especially when he overhears Howard (Huston) explaining how gold can change a man's soul, though not for the better. As Dobbs Bogart is fantastic, bringing to surface all of the snarling nastiness his screen persona hints he is capable of and then amplifying it to the point where you nearly detest him.
 This is probably the manliest movie I've seen since Clouzot's Wages of Fear, which paired together would make a great double feature. While the latter focuses on the bond that forms among men being manly in the face of peril, Huston's film investigates the dark, dangerous edges of that masculinity, particularly in the way the need to assert authority can lead to murder. Of course, it is his lust for gold that makes Dobbs the slimy creature he becomes, but it also seems to come from some need to compensate for his deficiencies as a man. In the film, Curtin (Holt) is taller, handsomer and has better eyesight and is thus a better shot. Curtin also saves Dobbs's life at one point, reminding him that he is not self-sufficient enough to survive the work of prospecting. Howard, though much older and less physically fit, possesses a wisdom that allows him to lead the group, putting Dobbs in his place enough to grate on him to the point of resentment. Meanwhile, Dobbs is a slightly stooped, not entirely handsome man with no particularly strong skills other than his ability to become angry within a second's notice. He is always the first to whip his pistol out in order to intimidate, and it's clearly in order to assert some qualities he naturally does not possess. It becomes hard to read a subtext such as this in the novel, but the way Huston plays the scenarios out on screen with the actors makes it a viable interpretation, or at least I think so.
Bogart pairs up with Huston again for The African Queen, again as a rough-and-tumble sort, but this time in Africa during the eve of WWI. There's not much I have to say about this movie except that it's a lot of fun, even if it's a highly conventional Hollywood romp with two big names hamming it up big time. The inclusion of a strong, female character is interesting though. It is she, Rose (Hepburn), who decides with absolute conviction that she and Charlie (Bogart) are to blow up a German vessel with the small ship they have, a suicide mission if anything. And though Charlie is a rough man's man character, his subservience to her in fear of offending her with his coarseness and his nearly-impotent attempt to refuse her command is a twist on male roles in the world of Huston (at least that I've experienced so far). Though once they fall in love she becomes more of a gushing, supportive wife, which I guess makes things less interesting. In any case, a good adventure movie. I heard that production was held up several times because Huston kept going away to hunt big game, which I certainly hope is true.

In the next post I'll go over the later films I saw, which include Wise Blood, Under the Volcano, and Fat City.

06 April 2010

Sticking Around

Would just like to let you know that I'm still married to Blogger, though now I have a little something going on on the side with Tumblr. Meaning: I'll have this blog for a while, as I re-registered the domain name -- but! I also have an outlet for my blogging impulses at kazuwabe.tumblr.com. Let's see how I manage with both, though I'll probably just end up doing a lot of nothing.

I've been watching some John Huston movies and getting some mixed results. Hopefully will come up with something to write about soon -- particularly regarding a new favorite:

12 March 2010

Yatta!

In a twist of fate, NYU Tisch accepted my application to their graduate film studies program! My spirits are high (until I have to figure out how I can afford it).

01 March 2010

To Serve the Public

 
An ill-tempered customer demands to be let into the sold-out show at "The Theater."

About two months ago I started a job at a certain well-established movie theater in Manhattan that hosts some films festivals and screens art-house, repertory, foreign, and esoteric films throughout the year. Let's just call it "The Theater." Well, since I started at "The Theater" -- ushering, selling snacks, working the box office, what-have-you -- I've been re-learning the pleasantness that is dealing with the public and serving their various insatiable needs. 

Now I'm no stranger to the public, not in the least. In order to earn some measly pocket money throughout college I took on several part-time retail jobs. I slaved at a bookstore (Barnes & Noble), a cafe (Barnes & Noble cafe), a restaurant (Red Robin), a clothing store (J Crew), a mall kiosk (selling some kitschy shit), and one summer I even worked at a women's sandal store, making custom-fit sandals for women! actually bending down on one knee and touching women's crusty feet! in an orange apron! in the middle of the hallway at the mall! It's safe to say that these jobs did nothing for my human dignity (and not much for my wallet either), but they did thicken my skin against the inconsiderateness and the many idiocies customers are capable of.

Even so, I was a little taken aback by the certain type of mania that specifically exists in film goers. I'm not talking about Average-Joe-weekend-blockbuster film goers, but cinephiles -- people for whom movies mean everything, for whom film-going is a lifestyle in itself. They are people that will wait in line an hour before the start of the show for a weekday afternoon matinee that maybe 30 people total will come to so they can get their specific seat; people who will insist on having the side of the ticket stub that is blank on the back so they can scribble notes (the usher is supposed to keep this side in "The Theater"); people who will yell at you without a second's hesitation for eating candy too loudly -- cinemaniacs. I was aware of these types from a documentary called Cinemania (featuring some regular patrons of "The Theater"), but seeing them in person is something else. It's fascinating. Some are nice enough, just a little kooky. Some I wish would fall down a deep, deep well.

Anyway, it's not only cinemaniacs that come to the theater, but all levels of cinephiles and, every now and then, an average multiplex movie-goer who would give a clueless shrug at the mention of a name like  "Fassbinder." But when they are all together waiting in line at a ticket window for a sold-out screening of some dead foreign director's rare film they can be terrifying! A week ago I swore that a lynch mob was going to form -- they were so angry! Never mind that they showed up at the last minute and didn't buy tickets ahead of time, they want what they want and they want it now! And how dare you make them wait! How dare you that the tickets do not materialize in their hands within a nanosecond of shouting the request through the box office window! Of course when the system freezes it's our fault and we do it on purpose because we intend to make them angry (we are basically asking for it!). Anyway, it's tiring to even recount the specific happenings, but let's just say I have seen hell and it is in the form of a mob of angry cinephiles.

During the worst times it's hard to think that these people even like movies; it seems they just like demanding things and belonging a place they can complain about. As if the movies are secondary to the privilege of acting like a baby and getting away with it. BUT. I know that's not completely true. I know that a lot of these people are tired and maybe have boring or underwhelming lives and the movies are their only escape, or that they are incredibly lonely and when the film is playing they feel part of something or at least a little wanted, or that they have a chemical imbalance in the brain and need medication that they forgot to take -- there is still a love for the movies somewhere deep in the hearts of these cinephiles, a love that is masked by grouchiness and anal retentive behavior in public. At least that's what I'll keep telling myself for now.

20 February 2010

A Handful of Hope, a Fistful of Hell!

The Criterion Collection, that beautiful oasis of DVD treasures, is releasing some films that I have been wanting for a while in premium editions. At the top of the list is this Nick Ray film produced by James Mason, Bigger Than Life, a '50s psycho-melodrama about an overworked father that gets hooked on a pill that unleashes his hyper masculinity and turns him into a terror for his wife and young son. Here's a great little intro by the producer and star, Mr. Mason:

16 February 2010

Red Riding, Part 1

It's been over a month since I have written anything on here, something that I hope doesn't turn into a habit this year. Perhaps I have unconsciously translated my New Year's resolution of taking myself less seriously into "don't even try." Well, whatever the case, I am compelled to return to this dusty blog in order to sing praises for the last movie I saw in theaters, which was the first installment of the Red Riding trilogy.


The trilogy -- originally made for British television, premiered at the NYFF, recently distributed in the US, and currently playing at IFC -- is composed of three separate films (titled by years 1974, 1980, and 1983), each with different directors and characters, but all revolving around the same set of mysteriously connected murders somewhat relating to the Yorkshire Ripper. IFC was offering a roadshow edition of the trilogy -- all three in one sitting -- but time and patience disallowed me from giving that a go. Instead, I decided to sample the first part to see how it went from there.

Directed by Julian Jarrold (Becoming Jane, Brideshead Revisited), the first Red Riding film stars Andrew Garfield (Boy A) as Eddie Dunford -- a baby-faced, hotshot rookie journalist with a strut in his walk and enough naivety to seek answers when others stop caring. He seeks out connections between various murders of young girls that happened within years of each other, thinking one man is behind everything -- at first in order to prove himself as a journalist, but eventually out of genuine curiosity and then sheer obsession. Encouraged by his friend and colleague, Barry, whose conspiracy theories Dunford laughs off, Dunford digs deeper until he meets his femme fatale, Paula (the excellent Rebecca Hall), the grieving widowed mother of one of the murdered girls. As can be imagined, the corruption and plain evil that Dunford becomes aware of grows to gruesomely overwhelming heights until it reaches a fantastically exciting and fatal climax -- of which we are immediately hinted at within the first few minutes of the film in Double Indemnity fashion.

 In noir fashion, the projected canvas is filled with shadows, with menace. Jarrold (I guess) made a very interesting decision to shoot in Super 16mm, giving the film a grit to the image that complements the seedy subject matter. But what left the biggest impression on me in this film is the fabulous camerawork by Rob Hardy -- smooth camera movements and meticulous framing that borders on the self-conscious and pretentious but that gives the film an overall affective style. The acting is top-notch from all the characters, each stomaching their own share of despair. One could say that Mr. Garfield is a bit too young-looking for the lead role, and I would be inclined to agree, but I think he does a fine job despite that (or maybe I am just identifying with looking much younger than your age and getting shit for it). He is able to convincingly go through the protagonist evolution of cocky rookie to obsessed professional to scared shitless loneman to vengeful badass convincingly, and the important part is that he is likable, allowing us to make each transition with him. Ah, the joys of a familiar genre done with style!

I am not sure if I will see parts 2 and 3 (movie tickets are expensive!) although I'd like to, but we'll see. If anything, I know I'll have a nice DVD box set to put on my Amazon wishlist eventually.

10 January 2010

Great Western Movie Images, Pt 2

The Wild Bunch
dir. Sam Peckinpah

03 January 2010

Top 10 for 2009 Redux (with some thoughts)

2009 was, somewhat unexpectedly, a year full of animated/3-D/adult-children's films. From early on in the year with Coraline to the yearly dosage of happiness that comes in the form of Pixar, to young, white male directors taking on children's classics (Where the Wild Things Are and Fantastic Mr. Fox, respectively) to the amusement park-like spectacle that is Avatar. Though I was still keeping up with arthouse films as well as the occasional big budget Hollywood fare, my theater-going experiences have been predominantly filled with talking animals, monsters, and children. And it's strange, because reflecting on all of these kiddie films, I always had a good time.

But is this a step forward or a step back?

There is a sense of abandon when you put on these aesthetically ridiculous 3-D glasses and sink into the plush megaplex seats, a surrender to the impulses of your inner child and the need to be filled with awe and wonder. Yet, where do these movies fit into the larger picture of Cinema (yes, with a capital "C"), and how much does the need to be thrilled like a child matter? At times I find it increasingly difficult to gauge what I think of a movie that I enjoyed in the way I enjoyed Avatar, which thrilled me the way a roller coaster would, but when analyzed critically is an amalgamation of cliches that depend entirely on its visual prowess. Or what can I say about Where the Wild Things Are? Is it good according to how much it makes me feel like a child when watching it?

Am I being dumbed down? Does giddiness and ooh-la-la graphics compensate for a lack of narrative bravery or creative editing or framing or shots? Or am I just being hyper-critical and missing the point?

Perhaps its a trend of nostalgia for simpler times and simpler entertainment amidst the complications of economic strife and the ever-increasing mess of a 6+ year war. Perhaps Pixar has shown other movie makers that old-fashioned storybook charm (and cutting-edge graphics) can still make money. Perhaps it's just coincidence. In any case, the surplus of kid cinema makes it difficult to determine what makes a movie good, or at least one better than the other -- as if every movie should make me giddy instead of thoughtful. It's not a new problem, but I feel the distinction between feel-good and just plain good movies is even more blurred this year.

So I present my list for fave movies of 2009, the criteria of which I haven't completely figured out yet. Kid cinema and serious cinema holding hands.

1. Inglourious Basterds dir. Quentin Tarantino

2. Fantastic Mr. Fox dir. Wes Anderson

3. Up dir. Pete Docter and Bob Peterson

4. A Serious Man dir. Coen bros.

5. The White Ribbon dir. Michael Haneke

6. The Hurt Locker dir. Kathryn Bigelow

7. Adventureland dir. Greg Mottola

8. Anvil! The Story of Anvil dir. Sacha Gervasi

9. Public Enemies dir. Michael Mann

10. Two Lovers dir. James Gray


Runners up: Coraline, Where the Wild Things Are, Star Trek, An Education, Police, Adjective, The Headless Woman, Bright Star, Avatar