Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Hakuchi (The Idiot, Akira Kurosawa, 1951)

In tribute to Setsuko Hara 1920 - 2015

Forgotten masterpiece

Akira Kurosawa's 1951 film Hakuchi (The Idiot), his adaptation of Dostoevsky's novel, is pretty much forgotten now, or is rarely mentioned when talking about the filmmaker or his masterworks. The work is seriously flawed--about a hundred minutes were chopped off before the film was released, and you can see Kurosawa trying to make up for this with lengthy expository titles and voiceover narrations, trying to explain the characters' complex relationships in a few minutes of screen time. Critics who do get past the rushed, awkward beginning note the film's literalness, its director's apparent need to get as much of the novel as possible up on the big screen.


Friday, November 20, 2015

Violator (Eduardo Dayao)


The horror genre is experiencing some kind of renaissance, interesting premises hurled at our faces right left fore aft, with varying degrees of success. Leo Gabriadze's Unfriended (2015) had a brilliant idea--tell its story entirely through a computer's many popup screens--but dissolves quickly in a sea of tired cliches, of the 'found footage' variety. Jennifer Kent's The Babadook (2014) starts out strong as a harrowing portrait of a single mother and her troubled child, but doesn't seem to know how to direct its focus properly (who's in danger, who's the danger: mother or child?). Genre outlier David Robert Mitchell's It Follows takes its cue from John Carpenter's gliding-camera sense of menace to record the constant approach of a vengeful shape-changing wraith, only to stage a silly swimming pool climax that undercuts much of what went before (to its credit the victimized teenagers are fascinating fatalists--if anyone can survive or even thrive under such circumstances they probably would).  

Best of the lot is relative old-timer M. Night Shyamalan's The Visit, who uses the aforementioned found-footage cliches--done with a more stylish camera than is standard for the genre--to tell the touching story of a fragmented family's attempt to pull together. The plot's all kinds of nonsense--if you look too closely it immediately falls apart--but the movie's emotional thread, at least, feels strong.   


Thursday, November 12, 2015

Far From the Madding Crowd (Thomas Vinterberg)

Far 'nuff

Thomas Vinterberg's adaptation of Thomas Hardy's first real success is, well, middling fair. The producers must have thought: "If we're doing a smart stylish update of a staid overfamiliar English novel we need a Dogme 95 filmmaker to shake things up literally (Vinterberg is fond of the handheld shot) and figuratively (Vinterberg's The Celebration involved incest while The Hunt told the story of a man accused of child abuse)." Vinterberg's not a bad choice--he has the grave, gravid approach to storytelling that Hardy seems to demand, with the kind of unflinching eye willing to capture the novel's more disturbing nuances.


Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Intramuros (The Walls of Hell, Gerardo de Leon, Eddie Romero, 1964)

For Veteran's Day, my short piece on a film about the Pacific War:

Hell on earth

Gerardo De Leon and Eddie Romero's Intramuros (The Walls of Hell, 1964), a fairly big-budgeted (for a Filipino production; as far as Hollywood goes it's in the B movie range) war epic set inside the actual Intramuros, outlines the story of how Japanese soldiers made a suicidal last stand within the walled city during the final days of the Second World War. Perhaps not that suicidal--Intramuros was designed and built to act like a massive city-sized fortress, with walls of solid rock twenty feet thick; as one American officer so vividly describes it, they hurled a hundred thousand shells against those walls, and still haven't breached them.


Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Spectre (Sam Mendes)

Spirited away
Word has it this latest Bond flick doesn't live up to the promise of the previous, better-regarded installment; that in fact this is the worst Bond movie in thirty years. Word-of-mouth like that will make you walk into a theater with head held low, in case the sheer awfulness onscreen catches you full in the face. 

Well paddle my butt cheeks with a brass carpet cleaner--tain't bad at all. 


Friday, November 06, 2015

Sicario (Denis Villeneuve)

The hired assassin's trade

Denis Villeneuve's latest film begins with an FBI raid to rescue what are supposed to be drug hostages in an empty house in Chandler, Arizona; the raid ends with two officers dead, and the discovery of the mutilated corpses of men and women, wrapped in plastic, sealed up in the walls--a grim and silent reminder to Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) that war is being waged with unprecedented violence but elsewhere. These are just detritus, leftovers from past battles. 


Friday, October 30, 2015

Black Mass (Scott Cooper)

Earl Grey

Scott Cooper's Black Mass is working on terrific material: the rise and fall of one James "Whitey" Bulger, who terrorized Boston in the Eighties and early Nineties. As played by Johnny Depp in thick makeup Whitey is a ghoul, a walking dead with lifeless fish eyes, a rotted tooth, a freckled sharkskin forehead that stretches almost to the back of his skull. He whispers in his most gravelly Don Corrado Prizzi voice, glowers his most intense Michael Corleone glare and we can believe he's the head of a gang: only a mob boss can look like that and not get laughed off the street for trying too hard.

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