Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Me, Myself and (Hurricane) Irene

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—After all the media-induced hoopla over the supposedly apocalyptic implications of an approaching weather system, and after said implications so spooked New York City officials that they decided to stage an unprecedented complete shutdown of the MTA public-transportation system, the hurricane ominously named Irene came and passed by New York, at least, with generally a whimper, as what had been a Category 4 storm as it approached landfall while coming up the Atlantic weakened into a Category 1 upon touching down on land and eventually became a tropical storm. (Neighboring New Jersey, however, wasn't quite so lucky; as of now, there is still serious flooding on some major roadways, and many areas are still without power.)

Nevertheless, all of us prepared for the worst...especially Wall Street Journal employees, some of whom, upon hearing New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announce the MTA shutdown midday Friday, immediately scrambled to make hotel reservations and/or other such last-minute accommodations in order to be in a more convenient position to be able to get to work on Sunday morning. As I've undoubtedly said before: Welcome to the journalism world, folks, where the news never sleeps and reporters and editors are always on call.

Actually, I was already preparing Thursday evening, when one of the editors I work with came over to my desk and suggested I start thinking about how I planned to be in the office on Sunday (because, it seems, they really really wanted me to be there! For once!). So that night I decided to be on the safe side and book a hotel immediately.

My company usually recommends Club Quarters, a discount hotel chain with which I assume Dow Jones has a special pricing deal or something like that. But when I tried to reserve a room there online, I discovered they  were all booked up for Saturday night. Then someone sitting near me suggested I look into the Marriott Marquis located in Times Square; "they always have vacancies," he said. He was right...but, even though this particular hotel stay would ultimately be on the company's dime, I figured I might as well see if there were cheaper or similarly priced options even closer to my office. So, through the Marriott Marquis website, I looked into other Marriott hotels in the surrounding area....and came upon...

...the Algonquin Hotel, legendary for being the daily lunchtime meeting place during the 1920s of a slew of writers, critics and actors including such luminaries as writer/critic Dorothy Parker, humorist Robert Benchley, comedian Harpo Marx and playwright George S. Kaufman. The price for one night's stay seemed pretty close to that being offered by the Marriott Marquis, so...I decided to stay there. At the Algonquin. With this...

Natalie Ascencios's The Vicious Circle

...and this...

First time I've been at a hotel that offered a complimentary issue of The New Yorker!

...and this...

This was on the door of my room at the Algonquin.

...and this...

A portion of the wallpaper at the Algonquin—a virtual museum of New Yorker cartoons!

...and this...

This is what my hallway looked like. Jokes related to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining popped up often.

...and this:

Apparently, the Alongquin has a famous cat named Matilda. Well, here she is.

Not a bad way to spend an evening gearing for a supposed hurricane apocalypse, huh?

Yes, I just conceived and executed a blog post as an excuse to post photos of my stay at the Algonquin. I hope you, um, aren't too jealous...

Monday, August 29, 2011

Artistic Consumption Log, Aug. 22, 2011-Aug. 28, 2011

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—This was a relatively spare week for artistic consumption; blame both my efforts to come up with a schedule for this year's Toronto International Film Festival (yeah, I'm finally going—not as a critic, though, but as a paying civilian) and the weekend hurricane (of which I actually have more to say in an upcoming post) for said spareness. But hey: quality, not quantity, right? Even when it comes to art consumption!

Onwards and upwards, as they say:

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972)


The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972, Rainer Werner Fassbinder), screened at IFC Center in New York
Honestly, I'm not sure I really have much to say about this much-written-about film, only the fourth Fassbinder film I've seen. If anyone could maintain a stagey, theatrical approach and make it play cinematically, it's Fassbinder, with his typically elaborate mise-en-scène brilliantly relaying all sorts of themes, ideas and characterizations through purely visual inflections. As a psychological tug-of-war between two women—one wealthy yet yearning for human connection, the other ruthless and conniving—it's an endlessly fascinating, pitilessly funny, unsparing yet strangely compassionate film.

The Future (2011, Miranda July), screened at IFC Center in New York
My admiration for the intentions behind July's latest film—a whimsical yet melancholy meditation on growing old and dealing with life's disappointments—is tempered by my impression of the two main characters—an aimless couple played by July and Hamish Linklater—as basically just walking repositories of July's brand of aggressively twee quirk, and by the frequent irritation their barely recognizably human behavior evokes in me. Am I just being too literal? With the many magical-realist touches July throws into the film (her second after Me and You and Everyone We Know, which I still haven't seen, by the way), I suppose The Future isn't meant to be seen in the same way as, say, one of those documentary-style "mumblecore" films about similarly aimless younger folk. That surely has to be the case, because no one can come off as this cut off from anything resembling the real world, right? I suppose my big question is: Is July at all aware of how insufferably self-absorbed these two characters are, or is she too close to the characters—or, perhaps, too committed to her brand of quirk—to have the necessary distance to truly interrogate them?

All I know, based on one viewing, is that, for every moment in which I was rolling my eyes (a lot of the inane never-ending conversations; the scenes with Paw Paw, the narrating cat sporting July's squeaky voice), there were other moments where genuine pathos broke through the conceits and touched upon something palpably real, and sometimes even devastating. I suppose I'll eventually give this film another shot to see if there are enough of those truly affecting moments to make this film more than the sum of its parts. 

House of Bamboo (1955, Samuel Fuller), screened at Film Forum in New York
I don't think this is a great film, but it's still a generally engrossing Japan-set crime drama with some gorgeously composed CinemaScope photography (courtesy of Joseph McDonald), interesting culture-clash elements and a terrific performance from Robert Ryan as the cold yet strangely magnetic villain opposite Robert Stack's relatively stiff hero. I must be dense, however, because the supposed homoerotic subtext between the two male leads that I kept reading about in reviews of the film (like this and this) afterward is something I didn't pay much attention to in the moment. Not that I think it necessarily adds to or takes away from the film significantly.


The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972, David Bowie)
Aladdin Sane (1973, David Bowie)
Here's yet another case where I'm finding myself slightly preferring the follow-up to a consensus classic. Aladdin Sane is, at least on the basis of one introductory hearing, a very strange album: full of extravagantly weird tunes wrapped up in a wildly eclectic array of styles. It's far less cohesive than Ziggy Stardust, but its messiness is part of what makes it more interesting to listen to and ponder than its more "perfect" predecessor. On the other hand, Ziggy Stardust can be seen as perhaps Bowie's most direct expression of his obsessions with fame and style, so that one has that going for it, at least. Both are certainly worth hearing, in any case. 


Zarkana (2011, François Girard), seen at Radio City Music Hall in New York
To a certain degree, I agree with Pia Catton, the Wall Street Journal critic/reporter who wrote a column about two months ago in its Greater New York section expressing her own befuddlement at Cirque du Soleil's continuing popularity and acclaim. I've only seen this one show of theirs, but, like Catton, all I see are a bunch of well-executed acrobatic stunts staged against the backdrop of some breathtakingly lavish and elaborate sets and costumes. It's not art, it's a glorified traveling sideshow, and those who claim that they're something more are, frankly, just being pretentious. But, notwithstanding some bland, ill-placed songs and extremely halfhearted attempts at a storyline, Zarkana—written and directed by Girard, who I know better as the director, among other things, Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993) and The Red Violin (1998)—mostly delivers the goods. It never pretends to be anything other than a virtuosically empty spectacle; on that level, though, it succeeds. I enjoyed myself.


The Sun Also Rises (1926, Ernest Hemingway)
This is such a legendary work—a novel about the so-called "Lost Generation" of expatriate writers and artists in the 1920s, the kind of artists Gil Pender (mindlessly?) idolized in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris—that I don't really have much to add to the vast amounts of criticism written about it. It itself is kind of aimless as a narrative, but that aimlessness is all too appropriate to the kind of lifestyle that Hemingway so tenderly evokes in his own tough, spare style. Its final sentence just slays me, with the sense of loss and regret it so eloquently evokes in just a single line of dialogue—more affecting than all of his posthumously published A Moveable Feast, for my money.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Artistic Consumption Log, Aug. 15, 2011-Aug. 21, 2011


Caught (1949)


Breakdown (1997, Jonathan Mostow), screened at 92YTribeca in New York
No need for me to actually write up something for this...because I already have! Here!

"Robert Ryan," all films screened at Film Forum in New York
Odds Against Tomorrow (1959, Robert Wise)
Caught (1949, Max Ophüls)
Clash by Night (1952, Fritz Lang)
The Wild Bunch (1969, Sam Peckinpah) [second viewing]
The most notable discovery for me in this quartet of films with Robert Ryan in them was Caught, a film I've been meaning to see for years, probably since first hearing about the film in the context of the release of Martin Scorsese's The Aviator in 2004; Robert Ryan's paranoid millionaire character in the Ophüls films is said to be based on Howard Hughes. The film was worth the wait; it's a terrific film that points the way toward the great German-born director's later investigations of class-based fantasies versus grim realities in something like The Earrings of Madame de... (1953). Alas, it seems to be near-impossible to find on home video, for some reason; here's hoping it finds its way to DVD eventually.

3-D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy (2011, Christopher Sun), screened at Village East Cinema in New York
The hit 3-D Category III softcore porn hit from Hong Kong has finally made its way to U.S. shores...and it turns out to be an occasionally amusing but mostly clumsy and even rather icky mess. This modern update of Michael Mak's 1991 hit Sex and Zen suffers mostly from a severe case of divided intentions. It wants us to have a good laugh over the outsize conceitedness of its main character, Wei Yangsheng (Hiro Hayama)—so obsessed with trying to become a better lover that he ends up divorcing his devoted wife (Leni Lan) in order to join the Prince of Ning (Tony Ho) at the Pavilion of Ultimate Bliss, bed a lot of hotties and get a transplant for a bigger penis—and then, in the considerably more violent and mean-spirited second hour, slap us in the face for enjoying the unabashed decadence. Frankly, though, it's hard to take its "love is all you need" moralizing all that seriously considering how entertaining it makes the spectacle of carefree sex. Plus, the sex isn't all the erotic, and the 3-D effects are generally of the "throwing shit at the audience" variety—which, by this point, I find more boring than fun. I'll take one memorable shot of a woman shoving her breasts in front of our faces in 3-D, but you can keep the rest.


Space Oddity (1969, David Bowie)
The Man Who Sold the World (1970, David Bowie)
Hunky Dory (1971, David Bowie)
My David Bowie explorations continue. It's strange in retrospect that I find Space Oddity an incoherent mess with some great moments, and that I find Hunky Dory far more cohesive even though it is just as stylistically adventurous. Somehow, though there's a sonic consistency in the later album that Bowie fails to locate in the earlier one—either that, or Bowie was just that much of a better songwriter by the time he made Hunky Dory (Space Oddity has more than its fair shares of go-nowhere filler). In any case, I pretty much have "Space Oddity," "Changes," "Life on Mars?" and even The Man Who Sold the World's "Black Country Rock" stuck in my head on an endless rotation these days. It's probably no coincidence that most of these I heard originally in Portuguese as part of the soundtrack of Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which remains my first gateway into the musical worlds of David Bowie, a bridge I've only recently decided to finally cross.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Short Take: Breakdown (1997)


For the most part—in its first half, especially—Jonathan Mostow's thriller has the lean, brutal efficiency of a B-movie thriller from the 1930s and '40s, crossed with the elegant widescreen framing and attention to landscapes of a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western. The characters aren't developed much beyond standard archetypes—with Kurt Russell and Kathleen Quinlan playing all-American yuppies (with the distinctly unremarkable names of Jeff and Amy Taylor) who, while on a cross-country trip moving to San Francisco, eventually cross paths with a band of ruthless redneck villains led by the genuinely menacing Red Barr (J.T. Walsh)—but they're sketched in with some welcome detail by the actors embodying them, so that you find yourself as drawn into the human drama, so to speak, as much as you are thrilled by the action, which includes all sorts of beautifully orchestrated cat-and-mouse mayhem with cars, trucks and even a child wielding a rifle.

It's all wrought so skillfully and paced so breathlessly that I suppose it'd be churlish to lament the much richer film that Breakdown occasionally (very occasionally) suggests it might become but never delivers on. When Earl (M.C. Gainey), playing one of Walsh's henchmen, taunts Jeff at one point about his yuppie-ness, there is, briefly, the suggestion of class resentment fueling the behavior of these baddies—a promising hint of social commentary that's entirely dropped once Jeff turns the tables on his tormentors, as Hollywood formula dictates he must. And what at first looks to be a subversive attempt to humanize Red when Jeff follows him to his family home ends up basically going for nought once Jeff wreaks his expected havoc in trying to rescue his wife from near death. Maybe it's only fitting, then, that the film ends with a curlicue of nastiness involving a truck dropping from a bridge without so much as a comment on whether such a gruesome gesture was ever necessary in the first place. The audience is prepared for the villain's comeuppance, and Mostow goes the extra mile to oblige.

As action craftsmanship, however, Breakdown is a breathtaking achievement—literally. It's been a while since I felt like I was actually on the edge of my seat from start to finish, and this film accomplished that feat brilliantly, the cumulative visceral effect akin to a coil ready to snap at any moment. If nothing else, if you want to know what Roger Ebert means by a Bruised Forearm movie, see this immediately. Just, you know, adjust your expectations accordingly.

Screened at 92YTribeca in New York on Monday, Aug. 15

Monday, August 15, 2011

Artistic Consumption Log, Aug. 8, 2011-Aug. 14, 2011


Cannibal Holocaust (1980)


"Essential Pre-Code," all films screened at Film Forum in New York
Jewel Robbery (1932, William Dieterle)
Trouble in Paradise (1932, Ernst Lubitsch)
The Bowery (1933, Raoul Walsh)
She Done Him Wrong (1933, Lowell Sherman)
Random thoughts on this quartet of pre-Code films:

1. Kay Francis...daaaaaamn! She makes craven materialism sexy in Jewel Robbery alongside the ever-debonair William Powell, but she shows more emotional depth in a similar character in the classic Trouble in Paradise. Either way...she's smokin'! I mean, just look at this photo:

2. The Bowery is by far the burliest and manliest of the pre-Code films I saw at Film Forum, dealing as it does with a rivalry between two (real-life) blowhards, Chuck Connors (Wallace Beery) and Steve Brodie (George Raft). It's also the most blatantly racist; it opens with references to "chinks" and "coons." But, of course, that was probably merely a reflection of its 1890s New York setting. For all that, it's all still pretty lively and entertaining. (This, by the way, is the first Raoul Walsh film I've seen. If all of his films are as full of testosterone as this, then sure, sign me up on the bandwagon!)

3. I had never seen Mae West in a film before seeing She Done Him Wrong. Now that I have...is it just me, or is there a numbing sameness to West's delivery of her admittedly clever lines that gets a bit grating after a while? Not all of her lines of dialogue sexual innuendo, but West apparently delivers just about every single line as if it were. (I'm assuming her performance in her other big film of 1933, I'm No Angel, is no different?) Personally, I found Sherman's film—an adaptation of a play West herself wrote—more interesting for Cary Grant, here in one of his earliest roles playing a not-too-characteristic Grant role...at least, not until its ending.

"Taking Head," all films screened at Anthology Film Archives in New York
Italianamerican (1974, Martin Scorsese)
American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince (1978, Martin Scorsese)
Numéro Zéro (1971, Jean Eustache)
Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (2007, Wang Bing)
All of these films are basically extended filmed interviews with one or two subjects. That doesn't sound too cinematic, does it? And yet...

The two short Scorsese documentaries—the earlier one about his parents' immigrant histories, the later one about a close friend and heroin addict—are the ones that feel the most like actual movies, Scorsese more than willing to illustrate certain moments in the interviews with cutaways to archival footage or still photographs. The Eustache and Wang films, however, deny viewers even the comfort of such conventional cinematic qualities, focusing almost entirely on their respective interview subjects as they talk, reminisce and emote. Both could arguably be just as effective as radio plays or audio books, but seeing the interview subject face-to-face does admittedly add a visual dimension—the possibly of scrutinizing a face as their words spew forth—to the enterprise that you wouldn't get from just hearing them.

Numéro Zéro, by dint of occasional bits of self-reflexive business—most memorably, a clapboard Eustache occasionally trots out during his interview with his grandmother to mark each reel change—comes the closest to turning into one of the film's main subjects the question of the validity of the talking-head approach as cinema. Wang Bing goes the other way in Fengming, however, and adopts an unobtrusive aesthetic of long takes and still camera set-ups that could almost be considered "literary," since it gives near-complete prominence to Fengming's words, trusting that her sometimes harrowing anecdotes will be enough to carry the film for all of its whopping 186 minutes.

I'm glad to have seen all four films, and the interview subjects are usually compelling enough to ride past questions of whether what we are watching are actual movies as opposed to merely filmed radio plays or audiobooks. Frankly, though, after seeing all of these films in close proximity to one another, I feel ready to swear off talking-heads documentaries of this type for a while. 

American Boy, by the way, is especially worth seeing to hear Steven Prince recount an anecdote that would eventually become the famous needle-in-the-heart scene in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction.

"Robert Ryan," all films screened at Film Forum in New York
Crossfire (1947, Edward Dmytryk)
The Set-Up (1949, Robert Wise)
Ah, Robert Ryan. I usually give less thought to actors in films than I'd like to admit, but Ryan is one major exception—I always look forward to watching his coiled intensity in any film he's in. So I was excited to see that Film Forum was programming a near-complete retrospective of his work. 

Crossfire is marred a bit by a turn toward heavy-handed preaching in its last act (in which Robert Young, playing a detective, lectures a young soldier about how discrimination is baaaaaad), but it's not enough to detract from the pungent atmosphere of Dmytryk's moody visuals (courtesy of director of photography J. Roy Hunt) and Ryan's chilling portrayal of an anti-Semitic soldier. He gives a richer performance in The Set-Up, though, as a down-on-his-luck boxer looking, just once, to relive some of his past glory. I had seen Wise's film previously on DVD, but revisiting it on a big screen Friday, I found it even better than I had remembered—a truly great film without reservations. (Plus, for all you 24 fans out there who think Kiefer Sutherland & co. pioneered the real-time format, here is arguably the earliest example of "real-time" cinema, with 72 minutes of screen time corresponding 72 minutes of diegetic story time.)

Here's to more Robert Ryan goodness in the coming weeks!

Cannibal Holocaust (1980, Ruggero Deodato), screened at Landmark Sunshine Theater in New York
Well, I didn't barf.

Actually, I do think Deodato's infamous exploitation film has genuine points of interest beyond its notoriety as an extreme gross-out. It's an early precursor to The Blair Witch Project, with its second half consisting mostly of footage of a bunch of unprincipled documentary makers exploiting Third World tribesmen for the sake of "entertainment." They end up getting their just desserts—but does the bloodlust this narrative inspires in us suggest that we in the audience are not that much better than the people on the screen? ("I wonder who the real cannibals are," star Robert Kerman didactically asks in voiceover as the film ends with a shot of the building in which I work.) Or is that just a cover to add a spurious intellectual patina to the filmmaker's own disgusting imagination? Me, I find the film fascinatingly thorny and genuinely thought-provoking in that regard; others will find Cannibal Holocaust indefensibly hypocritical and vile. It may well be an artistic failure (my ambivalence is reflected in the absence of a recommending star next to the title), but for those who are brave enough to try it, I honestly think it is worth experiencing...once, at least. (Those who are sensitive to animal cruelty, though, will probably want to avoid this movie altogether; animals were definitely harmed during the making of this film.)


劉美君 (1986, 劉美君)
Sorry, Shirley Kwan, but Prudence Liew—another Cantopop singing star from the 1980s—has officially captured my imagination more than you did in your first two albums. Here's a voice that isn't pretty in the conventional sense; "no-nonsense" might be the best way to describe it. But it feels almost soulful in spite of, or maybe because of, its occasional bits of awkwardness. Plus, she seems to have a thing for jazzy rhythms and harmonies, as the last two tracks of this legitimately great debut album most explicitly indicate (and which her later albums bear out more extensively). That's always a plus, in my book. Nevertheless, this album—still her most popular—is remembered mostly for its first track, "最後一夜 (The Last Night)" an evocative, dark-toned dance song that remains her best known hit. Check it out (if you're willing to put up with the blurry video quality):

David Bowie (1967, David Bowie)
I may not have been crazy about the Bowie-led The Man Who Fell to Earth when I saw it at Film Forum weeks ago, but Nicolas Roeg's film did, at the very least, re-awaken my interest in finally delving into Bowie's recorded musical output, of which I have only superficial familiarity beyond some of his major hits (plus Seu Jorge's Brazilian covers in Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). As usual, I started at the beginning with his eponymous debut album, a collection of theatrical-sounding numbers that bear only passing resemblances to the shapeshifting glam-rocker we would all get to know in the 1970s. Still, these songs are never less than tuneful, and some of them, like "We Are Hungry Men," are just straight-up bizarre—in a good way, of course. An interesting listen.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Literary Interlude, "Irony and Pity" Edition


As I [Jake Barnes] went down-stairs I heard Bill [Gorton] singing, "Irony and Pity. When you're feeling . . . Oh, Give them Irony and Give them Pity. Oh, give them Irony. When they're feeling . . . Just a little irony. Just a little pity . . ." He kept on singing until he came down-stairs. The tune was: "The Bells are Ringing for Me and my Gal." I was reading a week-old Spanish paper.

"What's all this irony and pity?"

"What? Don't you know about Irony and Pity?"

"No. Who got it up?"

"Everybody. They're mad about it in New York. It's just like the Fratellinis used to be."

The girl came in with the coffee and buttered toast. Or, rather, it was bread toasted and buttered.

"Ask her if she's got any jam," Bill said. "Be ironical with her."

"Have you got any jam?"

"That's not ironical. I wish I could talk Spanish."

The coffee was good and we drank it out of big bowls. The girl brought in a glass dish of raspberry jam.

"Thank you."

"Hey! that's not the way," Bill said. "Say something ironical. Make some crack about Primo de Rivera."

"I could ask her what kind of a jam they think they've gotten into in the Riff."

"Poor," said Bill. "Very poor. You can't do it. That's all. You don't understand irony. You have no pity. Say something pitiful."

"Robert Cohn."

"Not so bad. That's better. Now why is Cohn pitiful? Be ironic."

He took a big gulp of coffee.

"Aw, hell!" I said. "It's too early in the morning."

"There you go. And you claim you want to be a writer, too. You're only a newspaper man. An expatriated newspaper man. You ought to be ironical the minute you get out of bed. You ought to wake up with your mouth full of pity."

"Go on," I said. "Who did you get this stuff from?"

"Everybody. Don't you read? Don't you ever see anybody? You know what you are? You're an expatriate. Why don't you live in New York? Then you'd know these things. What do you want me to do? Come over here and tell you every year?"

—Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises (1926)

If "irony and pity" are what it takes to be a great writer, well...

I'd like to think I have a reasonable amount of "pity," if by "pity" one means a sense of humanity and empathy. I'm not sure any artist worth serious consideration doesn't have that quality, to a certain extent. "Irony," though...I dunno. These days, I feel like there's quite possibly too much irony out there, and too much of the distance, emotional or otherwise, that that kind of snark and sarcasm suggests. Sincerity almost seems undervalued these days. You have to be serious about something, not just crack wise about everything!

Maybe "detachment" is what Bill Gorton really meant? (But, of course, "irony and pity" as a phrase certainly rolls off the tongue easier.)

Monday, August 08, 2011

Artistic Consumption Log, Aug. 1, 2011-Aug. 7, 2011

NEW YORK—This past week was a rather light one in artistic consumption, mostly because I spent my weekend back home in East Brunswick, N.J., hanging out with a dear hometown friend back in the area for a week from Singapore. Still, I managed to expose myself to some good stuff, all of which I've recounted below, as usual.

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)


Dragon Inn (1992, Raymond Lee), seen at Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn, N.Y.
I missed this at New York Asian Film Festival last month, so I'm grateful to BAM—with, I assume, the blessing of the fine folks at Subway Cinema—for programming this last week. I can't speak to any similarities or differences of this remake to King Hu's 1967 Taiwanese original, having not seen the earlier film; on its own terms, though, the later Dragon Inn—produced by Tsui Hark, and with action choreography courtesy of Duel to the Death director Ching Siu-tung—is reasonably entertaining stuff. It might have been a masterpiece if the relationship between the two romantic leads—Chow Wai-on (Tony Leung Ka-fai) and Yau Mo-yan (Brigitte Lin)—didn't feel so rote; Maggie Cheung, as Jade King, the owner of the titular inn in which much of the action takes place, has the far more interesting character and story arc, as a conniving woman who grows out of her own political apathy partly as a result of her own personal attraction to Chow. There's no doubt about the action sequences, however, all of them as deliriously inventive as the best that Hong Kong cinema has to offer.

Sweet Smell of Success (1957, Alexander Mackendrick), seen on Criterion Blu-ray at home in East Brunswick, N.J.
Yes, it has taken me this long to finally expose myself to the manifold glories of Alexander Mackendrick's deliciously cynical noir satire of journalistic corruption and ruthless, power-hungry social climbing. But yes, it is truly brilliant, right down to Elmer Bernstein's fantastically multilayered score, by turns brassily ironic and meltingly sincere. If you haven't seen this film yet, Rupert Murdoch...

Beginners (2010, Mike Mills), seen at Montgomery Cinemas in Skillman, N.J.
Oh hey, I actually caught up with a new release this weekend! (Does it really take weekends back home in New Jersey for me to actually catch up with new releases? Maybe...) This is a good one, too: a complex, idiosyncratic and painfully personal evocation of one man's messy attempts to come to terms with his father's death—a father who, after his mother died, finally came out of the closet and tried to live life again, even in the throes of terminal cancer. It's true that Christopher Plummer's scenes as the father are generally more interesting than the "present-day" (it's set in 2003) scenes with his shell-shocked son (Ewan Macgregor) and the oddball love interest he meets (Mélanie Laurent)...but even in those scenes, writer/director Mike Mills (whose previous film was Thumbsucker) is able to generate a mournful, reflective vibe that I found often moving—so much so that its occasional lapses into preciousness (dog subtitles? really?) aren't enough to damage the whole. This film is so low-key that it feels fragile to the touch! Perhaps that's appropriate, though, because Mills is dealing with some emotionally fragile subject matter—and for the most part he's willing to stare at it right in the face rather than evade it with cutesy quirk.

I really should write at length on Beginners, because there's much to parse here. For now, allow me to suggest that Beginners might actually make for an interesting double bill with Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, at least as far as formally inventive, meditative approaches to grief is concerned. Mills's gaze may be less grand in scale than Malick's, but that doesn't mean it's no less ambitious. Maybe I'll develop this line of thinking in a later post. Maybe.

Games Gamblers Play (1974, Michael Hui), seen on Fortune Star DVD at home in East Brunswick, N.J.
Along with his brothers Samuel and Ricky, Michael Hui—especially with his commercially popular slapstic comedies for the Hong Kong film studio Golden Harvest, of which Games Gamblers Play was his first—helped shape the region's film industry into the juggernaut it became in the 1970s and '80s. Games Gamblers Play suggests why, at least in spots. This episodic, comic look at an oft-imprisoned con man (Michael) and a wannabe con artist who befriends and idolizes him (Samuel Hui) features an undercurrent of blue-collar frustration over the fact that this is the kind of criminal behavior that some working-class folk in Hong Kong are forced to engage in as a result of bureaucracy and poor working conditions. Some of the lightly subversive appeal of Games Gamblers Play comes in the way Hui slyly aligns our sympathies with these criminals, to the point that we're rooting for them to succeed, even as the authorities—or even their own character flaws—threaten to bring them down. I imagine that Hui's later films will develop these themes in a funnier, tighter and more coherent package than this one, which is a bit too uneven and slackly paced to be as great as it could have been. But it certainly isn't lacking in amusing moments—a sequence involving alligators and a TV game show is a particular highlight—and it has some great music in it courtesy of Samuel, who also scored popular success as a musician during the '70s and '80s.


難得有情人 (1989, 關淑怡)
Meh. This second album from Shirley Kwan (whose first album I briefly wrote about in last week's log) has a great first side (the title track is infectious) but a far less interesting second side. Maybe I just wasn't in the right mood for it (frankly, I was in a really crappy mood for much of last week). Anyway, her voice is still spectacular...and so is she, physically speaking.

Here's the title track, by the way, which roughly translates to "Happy Are Those in Love." Love? Yeah, I could use some of that these days:

EDIT (12:53 A.M., Aug. 9, 2011): As "The Social Media Guru" reminded me in the comments section, I did see a band named Root Glen perform a live show on Saturday night at Rolf's Restaurant in Warren, N.J. The Guru, however, is a good friend of mine from my East Brunswick schooling days, and his brother is a member of the band, so I don't feel I can offer comment as even a halfway objective party. So I won't, other than to say I enjoyed their set and that you can check out the band's website here

Oh, and this photo was taken at that show:

The band has an original song called "Dieting Bears." That partly explain the photo above.


The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1956, Yukio Mishima)
If there was one criticism I'd make of the stage adaptation of Mishima's 1956 novel that I saw a few weeks ago at Lincoln Center (and which I wrote about here), it's that, even at its most dazzling, it couldn't help but feel like a mere approximation of the seemingly bottomless psychological depths of the source material. The Temple of the Golden Pavilion is a very interior book (it's narrated by its main character, Mizoguchi, in the first person, after all), and thus contains a lot of specific nuances that the more visual/abstract medium of theater can't always be relied on to successfully convey. So while I enjoyed that stage production, I would add that one's appreciation for it would be enhanced by a foreknowledge of Mishima's novel.

As for the novel itself, one's reaction to The Temple of the Golden Pavilion will probably depend on your reaction to Mizoguchi; he isn't a particularly likable type, and Mishima rarely stoops to softening his more curiously neurotic edges. I think he's one of the most intriguing figures I've encountered in a work of art in quite some time: a man so warped by his childhood experiences, his stutter and his loneliness that he's developed a distinctly personal way of viewing the world around him, especially when it comes to what he considers "beautiful." Sometimes the man is just plain inscrutable—but for me, that just adds to the fascination.

This, by the way, is the first Mishima novel I've read. I look forward to reading his other work—and eventually getting to his film Patriotism and then Paul Schrader's 1985 biopic of the writer.


★ The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1944, Bertolt Brecht), performed at the Lion Theater in New York
"Brechtian" is a term I've heard tossed around a lot, especially in film and theater reviews...but until last week, I had never actually exposed myself to the dramatic work of Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), the German playwright who inspired the term. So when a friend of mine who lives in my apartment building in Brooklyn, N.Y., told me he was going to be in a production of Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle, of course I was intrigued. So I saw it last week, and the experience was...interesting.

Brecht's most famous innovation essentially had to do with tearing down a theatergoer's expectations of emotional identification in a play by introducing all sorts of distancing devices—characters addressing the audience directly, songs interrupting dramatic action, and so on. His driving thesis behind what he called "epic theatre" was that by placing such barriers, an audience member would be shaken out of his complacency and thus be more open to receiving political and social ideas, and possibly be more inspired to effect change on the outside world once one left the theater.

That is not to say that Brecht's plays are merely cold and intellectual in effect. In The Caucasian Chalk Circle, at least, Brecht imbues his intellectual ambitions with a playful sense of humor that is certainly entertaining even as it highlights the kinds of class and political inequalities he wished to highlight. And for me, at least, it even somewhat worked as an emotional drama—though the parts that moved me (anything involving Grusha, the peasant who is forced to care for a baby that a high-class mother carelessly leaves behind) may not necessarily have moved others in the audience. Maybe the most bracing thing about Brecht's conception of theater is its refusal to hold the audience's collective hand; what you get out of it depends on what you personally bring to it.

I can't say this generally fine production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle necessarily brought out the inner activist in me—but I found the experience genuinely scintillating and look forward to seeing more live Brecht.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Artistic Consumption Log, July 26, 2010-July 31, 2010


Dress, Widows of Culloden, autumn/winter 2006-7, Alexander McQueen


All That Jazz (1979, Bob Fosse), screened at IFC Center in New York
This was my first time seeing this legendary choreographer/filmmaker's own variation on ...and yeah, it's pretty brilliant. But then, this is the kind of extravagantly personal filmmaking that often moves me however successful or unsuccessful the end result: the kind of film in which its director dares to put all of his fears, hopes and contradictions onto the screen without giving a damn as to what an audience will make of it all. That last part is rather ironic in this particular case, being that Joe Gideon (the late, great Roy Scheider) is himself very much a crowd-pleasing entertainer and showman, with as much of an eye on his audience as on his own artistic obsessions.

The danger of this kind of deeply personal filmmaking is that an artist will make a work so insular in nature that it'll leave the audience out in the cold completely. Frankly, I've always thought Federico Fellini fell into that trap in —the film that pretty much wrote the book on this kind of confessional filmmaking, a canonical work that I've admittedly always admired without ever fully embracing. In the case of All That Jazz, however, I couldn't help but identify with Gideon's pursuit of artistic perfection, for all the serious defects in his personal life (his womanizing, his heavy drug use, and so on). He wants to create great art, but he also wants to be loved and admired—how to reconcile those two impulses? To Fosse's credit, he never hits upon a solution to that probably insoluble question. Instead, he just dramatizes those conflicting impulses with some of the most amazing theatrical spectacle ever filmed, all seductively captured by cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno (a frequent Fellini collaborator). Seriously: Why have I taken this long to finally encounter the famously raunchy "Air-rotica" number? It's awesome.

"Essential Pre-Code," all screenings at Film Forum in New York
Beauty and the Boss (1932, Roy Del Ruth)
The Mouthpiece (1932, Elliot Nugent & James Flood)
Possessed (1931, Clarence Brown)
Red-Headed Woman (1932, Jack Conway)
The Public Enemy (1931, William Wellman)
Blonde Crazy (1931, Roy Del Ruth)
This film series began earlier this month, but only during the past week was I finally able to catch some of these pre-Hays Code films at Film Forum. It's amazing just how potently racy these films remain even to this day!

That's all I'll say for now; I think I'd like to devote a bit more space to some of these films in a future post. For now, though...well, some of you may notice I didn't give a star of recommendation to The Public Enemy, the much acclaimed 1931 gangster classic with James Cagney playing the nasty, ruthless Tom Powers, a character who is supposed to epitomize a certain problematic strain of American society at the time that Wellman's film aimed to capture, as an opening and closing title crawl oh-so-helpfully makes explicit. Not that most viewers these days, I imagine, care all that much about the film's pretensions to social commentary; whenever Cagney is onscreen, we're surely not thinking about sociology, and instead thinking all about the electricity of a Hollywood idol in a star-making role. He is great, to be sure. And yet, Cagney aside, I'm not sure how well The Public Enemy has really worn. Maybe I've just seen too many gangster movies of this type since this one was made for me to find Tom Powers's rise and fall to be all that fresh or interesting to me personally.

So yeah, I honestly can't say I was all that crazy about The Public Enemy, despite its reputation. This showed on a double-bill on Saturday with another film with both Cagney and Joan Blondell, Blonde Crazy...and frankly, I preferred that lighter, sexier, funnier confection to The Public Enemy.

Die Hard 2 (1990, Renny Harlin), screened at IFC Center in New York
Readers of this blog will know that I hold this sequel to the indisputably great Die Hard (1988) in higher esteem than generally seems to be the case among most of the cinephiles/film critics I know (as I wrote here, I find this to be the wild-child Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom of the Die Hard franchise). So when I saw that IFC Center was screening this over the weekend as part of a new midnight-movie series of supposed "Sequels That Don't Suck" (a series that, at least so far, includes stuff like Back to the Future Part II, French Connection II, Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Escape from L.A. as part of its lineup—sequels around which there is no clear consensus, as far as I can see, as to whether they are, in fact, good sequels or not), of course I jumped at the chance to see it on a big screen, having only ever seen it on television.

It was slightly disappointing, then, to see that IFC Center chose to screen Die Hard 2 in one of their smaller theaters; a film as grand in scale as this demands as big a screen as possible, perhaps even more so than its predecessor. Considering how sparsely attended the screening was on Friday night, though, I guess the smaller venue made sense...but then, the sparse attendance was disappointing to see, too. This definitely had none of the electricity of seeing the original Die Hard on Christmas Eve at New York's Landmark Sunshine theater last year.

Thankfully, the print, though hardly pristine, was quite watchable (the print of Die Hard that I saw last year sometimes came perilously close to being unwatchable, alas). Seeing Die Hard 2 projected in 35mm enhanced my appreciation of the appropriately hellish look cinematographer Oliver Wood captures via its many low-light interiors and exteriors—a contrast to the purposefully industrial, earthy tones of Jan De Bont's cinematography in the original.

The film still holds up as a lean, mean action-movie machine, its second hour still smashingly effective as a furiously paced rollercoaster ride of thrills and spills. So yeah, I'll continue to defend it. That said, it's probably about time for me to take a looooong detox from Die Hard 2. After countless viewings over the years, there's only so many new facets to discover about this film, and the initial thrills have long since worn off. (I could probably do movie-oke with this film by now!)

I need a new Bruised Forearm action epic to obsess over. Oh hey, Tsui Hark's Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain is screening again at BAM, I hear...?

In the meantime: This is probably the most thorough defense of Die Hard 2 I have yet encountered.


BiRd-BrAiNs (2009, tUnE-yArDs)
W H O K I L L (2011, tUnE-yArDs)
The lettering of tUnE-yArDs sure looks insufferably twee, huh? Merrill Garbus: strange lady...but what amazing music! BiRd-BrAiNs has a lo-fi approach and vibe that I find quite bracing; apparently recorded on a cassette through a handheld voice recorder, Garbus wholeheartedly embraces the sonic distortion such relatively primitive means of recording bring, and the result is startlingly fresh and original. tUnE-yArDs's latest album, W H O K I L L, may have a cleaner sound to it than BiRd-BrAiNs, yet there's no sense of compromise here—and one listen to the lyrics of its opening cut, "My Country," suggests she's tackling more ambitious subject matter than previously. As for Garbus herself, her voice is utterly fascinating in its plainness and androgyny. "Fascinating" certainly describes these two albums as well.

 This Year's Model (1978, Elvis Costello)
Disappointing discovery: This album doesn't quite work as well as I expected as running music. With the exception of "Little Triggers" and "Night Rally," the beats are pretty hard-driving...but apparently not hard-driving enough while running at reasonably high speed on a treadmill. I don't generally need music to, um, pump me up to run harder, but I tried to adjust treadmill speeds to the various cuts of This Year's Model this past week; the experiment, alas, wasn't exactly the success I hoped for. Back to ignoring musical beats and just treating music as background noise, I guess. This, by the way, is still the English singer-songwriter's best album from his 1977-'86 Columbia glory years.

冬戀 (1989, 關淑怡)
"關淑怡" is "Kwan Suk Yee," or the Cantopop artist generally known as Shirley Kwan. Western viewers may know her best as the singer of "Forget Him," the song Leon Lai's disillusioned killer requests to be played on a jukebox as a good-bye message to his "partner" Michelle Reis in Wong Kar-Wai's Fallen Angels. (The song, by the way, is a sultry modern remake of a popular Cantonese tune from the 1970s recorded by another Chinese pop legend, Teresa Teng.) But Shirley Kwan has a catalog of albums that goes back to 1989 with the release of 冬戀 (Winter Love). And as someone who loves Fallen Angels to death, naturally I was curious to finally dip into the singer's back catalog. So, as usual when I start exploring an artist's work, I started right from the beginning.

is a solid album overall, with a reasonable amount of lyrical and stylistic variety among its 10 cuts (in other words, they ain't all love ballads). It's nothing truly remarkable, though, and for once some of the synth-heavy late-1980s production sounds rather icky to me. The only thing worth nothing about it, really, is that Kwan's voice was apparently much less breathy in her early years than it would become by the time she recorded "Forget Him" in 1995. It's no less alluring, however.

Kwan supposedly becomes a more interesting and adventurous artist from her next album, 難得有情人 (Happy Are Those in Love) onwards. We shall see...or, at least, I shall see. I'll leave it up to you to determine if you actually care about this or not.


Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, exhibition at Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York
When I heard that British fashion designer Alexander McQueen had died last year, my initial response was: Who is Alexander McQueen? I had never heard of the guy before; that's how little I have paid attention to the world of fashion over the years. So when I heard a few months ago that this exhibit was coming to the Met, I figured this would be a good opportunity to, at the very least, to get a sense of why this fashion designer was so celebrated, possibly even more so than other big names in fashion like Tommy Hilfiger, Gianni Versace, Christian Dior, Vivienne Tam, etc. Plus, it would probably be my first sustained exposure to the art of fashion ever.

So upon realizing that Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty was only a week away from closing for good, I finally decided, on a Saturday afternoon in which I found myself actually having no set plans to speak of, to go check it out.

It's perhaps too much to call this a life-changing experience...but after waiting on a long line for about 75 minutes to get into this exhibit and then spending the next 75 minutes going through one packed room after another, I walked out of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that night feeling that familiar but glorious high of having my senses refreshed and my worldview permanently expanded. In this case, I actually found myself paying serious attention to the clothes people—well, women, mostly—were wearing as I sat in front of the museum steps and watched them passing by. I can't remember the last time I actually sat down and reflected on clothing! In fact, I don't think I've ever done that!

The slippery dividing line between humans and animals was one of McQueen's major themes, and he expressed this in many different ways and styles, implicitly and explicitly. Some of his dresses and accessories lean toward the Gothic in style; others are lathered with extravagant animal designs (with some even featuring bird feathers and such to add to the animalistic nature of the design). All of it evokes a mind fascinated with the exploring the darker recesses of human existence and expressing his morbid obsessions onto clothing, a medium that we see in front of us everyday. I mean, really: What better way is there to get all of us to confront the darkness that resides within all of us? Much more so than books, films, music, sculptures, paintings, etc., clothing is something we all wear on our own person. You're wearing that darkness on you; until you take those clothes off, there's no escaping it. The more I think about that idea, the more brilliant I find it, especially with designs as boldly creepy and unnerving as McQueen's could be.

There's tons more to say about McQueen's art, but I'm not here to write a whole book about it. So I'll just end by saying: It runs until August 7. Don't let the large crowds stop you from taking in an overwhelming, eye-opening artistic experience.