Monday, July 25, 2011

Artistic Consumption Log, July 18, 2011-July 24, 2011


World on a Wire (1973)


Five Dedicated to Ozu (2003, Abbas Kiarostami), screened on DVD at my apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y.
I'm taking part in a "directrospective" of Kiarostami's work over at this site run by one of my roommates, so a proper review of this will be forthcoming.

"Prince of the City: Remembering Sidney Lumet," all films screened at Walter Reade Theater in New York
The Offence (1972, Sidney Lumet)
The Pawnbroker (1964, Sidney Lumet)
Honestly, I could never really work up much of an interest in The Pawnbroker, which is about a Holocaust survivor (played effectively by Rod Steiger) who has developed such a cynical view of humanity that he has basically shut himself off from any meaningful human relationships. It felt too much like filmed theater at the start, and even when Lumet tries to jazz it up stylistically with fancy editing tricks, even those felt too much like Alain Resnais-lite for me to find it all that interesting. Plus, what is up with the Quincy Jones score, which often works at cross-purposes with the material in ways that seem almost counterproductive to the fundamental seriousness of the material?

The Offence, which Lumet made in Britain, is a more impeccably crafted work, and a lot more engrossing both in style and substance. It's a somber examination of what led Detective Sergeant Johnson (a gritty and intense Sean Connery) to kill a suspected child molester during an interrogation; it doubles back and forth in time to explore the circumstances, psychological and otherwise, building up to that fateful moment. In some ways, it anticipates Lumet's last film, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007), in both its temporal hopscotching and in its final shot, in which a tragic event becomes engulfed in a bright white light before the end credits roll. Is this Lumet's way of suggesting a subtle spiritual dimension to these two films—the possibility of a higher power that will ultimately be the judge of these troubled human beings?

World on a Wire (1973, Rainer Werner Fassbinder), screened at IFC Center in New York

Having already seen the film during its North American premiere run at the Museum of Modern Art last year (I wrote about it briefly at my blog here), I went to see this again mostly to accompany a friend of mine from East Brunswick, N.J., as he had been dying to see Fassbinder's fascinating made-for-TV science-fiction epic for a long while. It remains an impressive achievement, though this time I found myself less fascinated by the sci-fi and philosophical aspects than simply by its human and formal elements. Apparently one can always count on Fassbinder to find endlessly inventive ways to stage, frame and shoot a scene; his mise-en-scene rarely lacks for inspiration. His frequent use of mirror reflections is especially interesting; I really ought to do, like, a video or image essay about Fassbinder's use of mirrors in World on a Wire.

Plus, thanks to this film, I now have this stuck in my head:


Helplessness Blues (2011, Fleet Foxes)
With maybe a couple of exceptions, this Seattle-based American indie folk band doesn't really do a whole lot in this sophomore effort that they didn't already do in their even finer 2008 self-titled debut. It's still a pleasant listen, though...and in its two longest tracks, "The Plains / Bitter Dancer" and "The Shrine / An Argument," both featuring suite-like structures and fairly abrupt changes in time signatures and styles, Robin Pecknold & co. show a greater lyrical and musical ambition than anything on Fleet Foxes. Their sounds retains a charming retro quality that satisfies this particular old soul plenty.

Lucinda Williams and Amos Lee, seen live at the Beacon Theatre in New York 
Terrific show overall, with Williams on generally fine form (with the exception of a few bum high notes in "Hot Blood"), and with about half her set devoted to songs from her 1998 album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road—still her best to date.


The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (2011, Amon Miyamoto), performed at Rose Theater in New York
As a theater piece, Amon Miyamoto's adaptation of Yukio Mishima's famous novel is loaded with dazzlingly imaginative stage effects...but, rather than just being empty flash, they are all put in the service of conjuring up an interior portrait of a deeply obsessive, neurotic character, obsessed by the elusive beauty of the titular temple for reasons that not even he himself can quite fathom. Though there is some voiceover narration here, Miyamoto, for the most part, trusts the material and his actors to suggest a lot of what Mishima explains, psychologically speaking, in his book. Still, a knowledge of the book—a book I started but didn't finish in time for the Friday night performance I went to—would probably be helpful in fully appreciating Miyamoto's achievement here. (This, by the way, was an all-Japanese production, so it was performed in Japanese with English supertitles.)  

Thursday, July 21, 2011

New York Asian Film Festival 2011: The Second, and Final, Dispatch

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—This year's New York Asian Film Festival came to an end last Thursday...though for me, it ended even earlier than that, on Saturday, July 10, because I ended up not being able to see any more films beyond that date. (Blame Anton Bruckner, John Adams, Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra, I guess.)

The amount of films I saw this year was paltry compared to the intake of some of the folks I saw regularly at the 12 screenings I attended; I think three films in one day was the most I managed. Still, I saw a pretty strong selection of films: nothing outright awful and even a handful of truly outstanding films, old and new.

Among the great ones I saw this year was a classic of Hong Kong cinema: Tsui Hark's 1983 martial-arts/special effects extravaganza Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, an epic of seemingly inexhaustible visual invention that starts with action right off the bat and never looks back. To attempt an actual, in-depth review would be meaningless, really; a work of such devil-may-care imagination, visualized within an inch of its life and paced with such breathless momentum almost defies intellectual criticism.

The first 10 whirlwind minutes brilliantly set the tone of the film. Hark hastily dispatches with set-up with a dramatically delivered voiceover narration, and right off the bat we're thrust into a decades-long civil war in China between warring clans. Ti Ming Chi (Yuen Biao), a scout for two warlords, finds himself thrust in the middle of it all when, after the warlords can't decide on the best way to proceed, both of them turn against him for being unable to take a side. He jumps onto a horse and flees the scene, finding a boat near a cliff and leaping onto it—only to discover that the sailor is being held hostage by a fat man (Sammo Hung) from an opposing faction. They both fight and quickly air out generations-long grievances toward each other—but arrows fly in their direction and they soon discover a whole different tribe is attacking them. Ti and the fat man escape from the boat and into a nearby forest, where they reconcile and take about two seconds to get to know each other...and then three different-colored tribes converge on the vicinity and start to fight, leaving them to try to figure out how to get out of this situation.

Whew! I said a mouthful...but yes, all of that action—which, in a more story-driven enterprise, might have taken maybe half an hour of screen time to dramatize—takes place in the span of maybe five minutes, at most. And we haven't even gotten to all the supernatural stuff yet—that's still set-up! But that's how all of Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain operates: unapologetic, reckless excess, with Hark throwing in as much visual and thematic ideas as he can, without much concern for plot comprehensibility. That's not to say it's all sensation and no substance: those opening 10 minutes, for instance, offer a stinging satire of the absurdities of war, and the rest of the film features the usual wu xia journeys toward maturity, heroism and enlightenment. All of this, though, is sketched in lightly, in order to not detract from the wall-to-wall surface thrills—the characters weightlessly flying through the air, the charmingly dated special effects, the awe-inspiring production design that truly envelops you in an unfamiliar fantasy world. It's exhausting and exhilarating—an unhinged and often beautiful journey into Hark's own childhood fantasy id.


More recent samples of Chinese popular cinema came in the form of two big-budget Chinese epics that received their New York premieres at the festival, Benny Chan's Shaolin (2011) and Reign of Assassins (2010), directed by Taiwanese filmmaker Su Chao-pin with Hong Kong legend John Woo receiving a co-directing credit. Both are solid crowd-pleasers, offering the usual plate of impressively choreographed action sequences and mystical mumbo-jumbo. They both also share redemption as one of their mainthemes: In Shaolin, General Hou (Andy Lau) suffers a personal tragedy as a result of his ruthless, bloodthirsty ways, and decides his path to redemption lies with Buddha; in Reign of Assassins, for Drizzle, an assassin with a deadly way with a knife, redemption lies in a brand new face (shades of Woo's 1997 American action epic Face/Off?) and a nondescript existence in a village (Kelly Lin plays her pre-surgery, Michelle Yeoh plays her post-surgery). Anyone looking for the kind of nutty intensity and almost avant-garde inspiration of something like Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain will be disappointed; these films are almost classical in their visual elegance and focus on credible characterizations and coherent storytelling.

The aforementioned Su Chao-pin was the focus of a brief retrospective of his work during the festival, and while I wasn't able to see his 2002 film B.T.S. (Better Than Sex), I did see The Cabbie (2000), a comedy he wrote about a cab driver with an eccentric family and his even more eccentric attempts to woo a traffic cop (Rie Miyazawa). I sat through about half of The Cabbie thinking that I was watching tailor-made Sundance bait, its one-quirk-per-character preciousness bringing back not terribly fond memories of something like Little Miss Sunshine (2006); an English-language version of this film would, I bet, be a huge breakout hit. But the film offers some fascinating insights into the life of a cab driver—a passage in which the main character explains his way of determining what kind of passenger he's dealing with in each ride is especially funny and intriguing. And about halfway through, when the female traffic cop appears on the scene, the film finally latches onto a more interesting plot thread, about the titular cab driver's essential inability to relate the world outside the confines of his taxi in any "normal" way. Though his neuroses and naivete are generally played for lighthearted laughs, the film, in its last five minutes, takes a sudden turn toward darker waters (with an ending not unlike the last-minute shooting death that closes Jiri Menzel's Closely Watched Trains; the effect, in both cases, is akin to a filmmaker shaking its audience out of a collective complacent fog). When Su and directors Chang Hwa-kun and Chen Yi-wen decide to drop the cutesy stuff, The Cabbie becomes a briskly enjoyable human comedy with gestures toward territory more psychologically unsettling than its pleasant surface might indicate.

There's no hiding from the darkness of human nature, however, in Jang Cheol-su's Bedevilled (2011), which, from a plot summary, only seems like yet another revenge drama from South Korea (genre territory that was already playing out to diminished returns in Kim Jee-won's endless and nauseatingly nihilistic I Saw the Devil, released earlier this year in the U.S.). Oh, there is certainly vengeance in this film—sweet, brutal, gruesome, morally ambivalent vengeance. But the revenge Bok-Nam (Seo Yeong-Hee) eventually takes on her backwards hick clan is but one facet of a film that eventually reveals itself to be something of a parable for the dangers of passivity.

Though Bok-Nam is the most memorable character of the film by far, Bedevilled actually begins with Hae-Won (Ji Seong-Won), a childhood friend of hers. She's a city woman who has come upon some of her own professional and personal troubles, all of which come to a head in the film's opening 15 minutes, as a confluence of events eventually leads her to be fired from her bank-clerk job. The most telling thing that occurs in this opening passage, however, doesn't necessarily have anything to do with her personal problems. Right at the beginning, Hae-Won witnesses a mugging...but when the female victim runs up to her car to try to get help, she closes her window and drives on. She's later fingered as a witness and is forced to go to a police station and identify potential criminals in a lineup. When she sees the two muggers, what does she do? She lies to the police and pretends that those aren't the criminals, then demands that the police leave her alone regarding the mugging. Hae-Won embodies a familiar type: the tough-as-nails city dweller who has taken the idea of keeping to herself to an almost callous extreme. This turns out to be a necessary prologue, setting up a crucial decision she makes on Bok-Nam's behalf midway through the film that tragically paves the way her friend's violent mental collapse. If anything, though, Bedevilled is really Hae-Won's journey from self-interest to selflessness, summed up with a concluding dissolve that matches her torso with the shape of that fateful island.

Speaking of islands, Xue Xiaolu's Ocean Heaven (2010) details a more warmhearted emotional journey, centering around one father's (Jet Li) attempts to prepare his autistic son (Wen Zhang) for life without him after he dies. It's both as sentimental as the premise sounds, and not. With its sobbing Joe Hisaishi score (less insistent in tugging at your heartstrings than his music for the Oscar-winning Japanese films Departures, but still at times a bit more than necessary), its rather cheesy alignment of the son's autism with the freedom of sea creatures (however beautifully photographed by the great Christopher Doyle), and its too-neat resolution, Xue's conception of the disease often threatens to verge on Rain Man/A Beautiful Mind triteness. That it doesn't entirely to do so is a tribute both to Xue's low-key, straightforward direction and to the excellence of Li's performance; in his first non-action role, Li brings a quiet dignity and emotional honesty that occasionally elevates the sappy material into something more deeply moving. Ocean Heaven is ultimately more bland and inoffensive than actively terrible...but its opening scene—the father's failed attempt to kill both himself and his son—suggests the far edgier film this might have been.

Thankfully, the rest of the films I saw in this year's New York Asian Film Festival offered edge aplenty, whether visual, thematic, violent or otherwise. I'm already eagerly chomping at the bit to see what delirious wonders the guys at Subway Cinema have in store for all of us next year!

In the meantime, enjoy this year's festival trailer, which I saw about 12 times and which never failed to bring me to a smile or a chuckle:

Monday, July 18, 2011

Artistic Consumption Log, July 11, 2011-July 17, 2011

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Sorry, folks, I'm just putting up titles for this week's artistic consumption log; I was too busy this weekend to have time to add my usual short commentaries. Hopefully next week's log will be more fleshed out.

To sum up this past week, though: For the most part, it was all live Bruckner, all the time. And much of that live Bruckner was sublime.

The Cleveland Orchestra warming up before Sunday afternoon's performance of John Adams's Doctor Atomic Symphony and Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 9 at Avery Fisher Hall


Ici et ailleurs (1976, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin and Anne-Marie Miéville), screened at Gladstone Gallery in New York

Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982, Robert Altman), screened at Walter Reade Theater in New York

Limelight (1952, Charles Chaplin), screened at Symphony Space in New York


塵緣 (1985, 蘇芮)

Bruckner: (R)evolution, a series of four concerts with the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Franz Welser-Möst, all performed at Avery Fisher Hall in New York
John Adams: Guide to Strange Places / Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 5
John Adams: Violin Concerto / Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 7
Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 8 (original 1887 version)
John Adams: Doctor Atomic Symphony / Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 9

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Self-Promotion Alert! New Writing and Video from Yours Truly


Tonight, the Cleveland Orchestra comes into town with their music director, Franz Welser-Möst, for a series of four concerts juxtaposing four symphonies by the Austrian late-Romantic composer Anton Bruckner with works by American 20th-century composer John Adams. Apparently, Welser-Möst, at least based on a short video interview I saw with the maestro on this site, sees a progression from Bruckner's penchant for symphonic patterns and repetition to Adams's brand of dynamic minimalism. It's an interesting premise, and I'm looking forward to hearing some more of John Adams's music through these concerts, if only to figure out where exactly I stand on the composer's music (I admire On the Transmigration of Souls—his Pulitzer Prize-winning evocation of Sept. 11—and absolutely love the music of his featured in the soundtrack of the film I Am Love; his score for the opera Nixon in China, on the other hand, struck me as chilly, inexpressive and unworthy of Alice Goodman's brilliantly poetic libretto). But the main draw for me is the chance to finally hear the music of one of my favorite composers, Anton Bruckner, performed live.

To mark the occasion, I wrote up this brief preview of these concerts for The House Next Door...although, really, I just wanted to write about Bruckner, and also take an opportunity to express one of the thoughts I've had in my head regarding Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life: that, in some ways, Malick's latest near-masterpiece is perhaps the closest I've come to experiencing the feeling of a Brucknerian adagio—in both its sense of lyricism and in its epic length—in cinematic form.

Enjoy...and then go find some recordings and listen to some Bruckner! You may well have a life-changing experience with them. (Herbert von Karajan's various recordings of Bruckner's symphonies are generally a sure bet, if you're looking for record recommendations.)


On a completely unrelated note...I have a new video up on YouTube! It's kind of a strange one, too, actually. 

Let me explain...

A few weeks ago, while sitting at my desk here on the sixth floor in the News Corp. building, I and everyone else in the immediate vicinity started hearing what sounded like drilling noises above us. It seems some construction crew didn't get the memo that there were still people in the office after 5 p.m.? In any case, I and others around me found it incredibly annoying...but hey, what were we going to do? We all had stories to edit. (Well, the others had stories to edit, at least.) 

After a while of hearing this buzzing noise, though, I started to allow my mind to free-associate a bit and found my mental wanderings gravitating toward a really random collection of sounds/noises: a scene in Pulp Fiction, some of the electronic soundscapes of Japanese composer Ryoji Ikeda that I had been listening to recently, and the famous opening of Richard Strauss's tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra (you know, the majestic music that opens and closes Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey). 

I decided to turn all of these, plus a few appropriate noises courtesy of iMovie, into a video that's meant to be a playful representation of said free-associational mental wanderings. 

I guess you could call this my attempt at an experimental short film? Maybe? Feel free to let me know if the experiment was a success or just a stupid waste of my time and yours.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Artistic Consumption Log, July 4, 2011-July 10, 2011


Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983)


The Tree of Life (2011, Terrence Malick), screened at AMC Empire 25 in New York
I decided to take a brief break from my New York Asian Film Festival immersion and see this film again...and now I feel even more confident in speaking up in its defense, which is something I aim to do in a future blog post...someday soon, I hope.

10th New York Asian Film Festival, all films screened at Walter Reade Theater in New York:
Bedevilled (2010, Jang Cheoul-su)
Shaolin (2011, Benny Chan)
The Cabbie (2000, Chen Yi-wen & Chang Hwa-kun)
Ocean Heaven (2010, Xue Xiaolu)
Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983, Tsui Hark)
Reign of Assassins (2010, Su Chao-pin & John Woo)
More on all of these in a later New York Asian Film Festival dispatch. Allow me for a moment, though, to bliss out on the overwhelming experience that was Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, a martial-arts special-effects extravaganza that immediately takes a spot in my personal pantheon of the kind of breathless action film Roger Ebert has so affectionately called Bruised Forearm Movies—a pantheon that includes, among other films, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Die Hard 2 (1990), Speed (1994) and Unstoppable (2010).


Bruckner: Symphony No. 7 (1989, Herbert von Karajan & the Vienna Philharmonic)
Bruckner: Symphony No. 8 (1988, Herbert von Karajan & the Vienna Philharmonic)
Bruckner: Symphony No. 9 (1989, Carlo Maria Giulini & the Vienna Philharmonic)
Later this week, Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra come into town for a four-concert series featuring music by Anton Bruckner and John Adams. I'm working on a piece for The House Next Door previewing those naturally, I decided to give another listen to some of the Bruckner albums I have on my iPod. If anything, The Tree of Life could be said to be the cinematic equivalent of a Brucknerian adagio, full of spiritual striving and melting beauty. I will try my best to elaborate on this in the upcoming piece.

第六感 (1986, 蘇芮)
More Chinese pop, this time from Taiwan courtesy of one of Jia Zhang-ke's favorite pop singers from the 1980s. Remember the ballad Zhao Tao dances to by herself in Jia's Platform (2001)? That's the voice of 蘇芮 (su rey) you're hearing. Oh, and that song that fat guy sings to a crowd in the last third of Still Life (2006)? 蘇芮 originally sang that one as well. I'll say more about her in next week's artistic consumption log.


A Moveable Feast (1964, Ernest Hemingway)
I already wrote a bit about Hemingway's posthumously published memoir about life in 1920s Paris in relation to Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris in this recent blog post. At the time, though, I hadn't read the entire book. Now that I have read the whole thing...well, I might as well admit that I didn't find this as consistently compelling as I hoped it would be after its evocative opening few chapters. Maybe people who have read more Hemingway than I have will find this to be a genuinely revealing look at how his experiences as a struggling writer in Paris shaped his literary art; personally, all I got out of it were a lot of loosely connected gossip-y anecdotes, some more interesting than others. I read the Restored Edition, by the way, which includes a lot of chapters and fragments Hemingway left out of the published version—and frankly, I found a lot of the stuff that he decided to nix more fascinating than the chapters he left in.

For those who have seen Midnight in Paris and haven't read A Moveable Feast, though, I'd still recommend reading it, despite my general dissatisfaction, for all the reasons I outlined in that aforementioned post.

Friday, July 08, 2011

New York Asian Film Festival 2011: The First Dispatch

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—[This was originally supposed to go up on Wednesday, but thanks to extenuating circumstances like a dead hard drive that needed to be replaced on my computer, I'm only getting around to posting this now.]

There are film festivals all year round in New York, but the one currently going on right now may be the most sheer fun of them all.

The New York Asian Film Festival is back in town, celebrating its 10th year of showcasing some of the best, brightest and craziest in Asian cinema, new and old, popular and art-house, from China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, the Philippines and Malaysia, among others. This is the kind of festival that is bold enough to include films about transforming robots, porn stars and kiddie ninjas in its lineup; this year even features whole sidebars focused on Korean revenge thrillers and wu xia martial-arts extravaganzas. And all of this, for the past two years of its existence at least, has taken place in the stately—some might even go so far as to call it stuffy—institution of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater.

The first 10 minutes of the very first film shown at this year's festival, a Malaysian film called Sell Out! (2008), could function as a mission statement of sorts for the festival. In it, the film's director, Yeo Joon Han, casts himself as an acclaimed art-house filmmaker who has just completed an award-winning digital short. As he's prodded by a TV interviewer about why he makes such purposely inert films, full of long takes with haltingly delivered dialogue in which nothing much happens, gunshots are suddenly heard around them, and we see civilians being randomly gunned down and fresh, bloody corpses shoved into our faces. Finally, Han explains the method behind his slowness: Life is boring, he declares, and he wants us all to share in his despair.

The film that follows this opening comic volley, however, wages a defiant fight against the art-house trend of "slow" cinema, finding endless invention amidst bleak material. It's as if Han was giving internationally acclaimed art-house auteurs like Cristi Puiu, Jia Zhang-ke and others a long, sustained middle finger.

In many ways, that's what the New York Asian Film Festival is all about, at least within the realm of movies from Asia: shining a light on the kind of fare that doesn't usually make it to international festivals; restoring a sense of worth to the popular hits of these countries; fighting the kind of art-house ghettoization that can happen when festival tastemakers decide, however unintentionally, which kinds of films from individual countries get wider exposure and which don't. Hey, I like Jia Zhang-ke as much as the next guy, but surely there's room for American audiences to see something like, say, the wacky and wildly stylized three-story feast Milocrorze: A Love Story (2011). Chances are, you might get more sheer pleasure out of a film like that than, say, yet another drably miserablist Romanian drama.

Plus, the audiences I've sat in for New York Asian Film Festival screenings have been among the more enthusiastic and receptive as any I've sat in at other festivals I've been to—perfect for something like Duel to the Death, Ching Siu-tung's 1983 Hong Kong martial-arts classic, the kind of film which almost demands a crowd to share one's excitement at the death-defying wonders before one's eyes.


Here's a brief round-up of some of the films I've seen so far at this year's festival:

Lest anyone get the impression that Hollywood is the only national cinema in the world that greenlights lavish big-screen revamps of vintage television shows, witness Karate-Robo Zaborgar (2011), Noboru Iguchi's exuberant modern update of a popular series from the 1970s, one featuring a vengeance-driven civilian hero named Yutaka Daimon (played in his younger incarnation by Yasuhisa Furuhara) and his sidekick, a robot who can transform into a motorcycle, among its many other talents.

Transform? Yes, that's right. I haven't seen the past weekend's big U.S. box-office attraction, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, yet; in fact, I haven't seen any of the Transformers films yet. But if many of the reviews I've read suggesting that those films—based on a beloved toy line that eventually spawned comic books, television series and other films before Michael Bay got his hands on the franchise—are basically soulless rah-rah spectacles of special effects and machinery are to be believed, then Iguchi's film offers a welcome corrective, offering genuine wit and soul to a film that could have come off as just another campy nostalgia machine. Its opening 15 minutes of set-up comes perilously close to suggesting otherwise, featuring as it does a scantily clad female cyborg, robots with oversized lips that kiss people in order to suck out their energy, and the hero making all sorts of Bruce Lee-style noises as he kicks villainous ass. But then, the plot begins to unfold, and Karate-Robo Zaborgar becomes more serious (relatively speaking) and involving.

Iguchi's method is to pile on a host of emotional and thematic complications atop standard plot elements. Daimon, of course, has a vengeance-driven personal stake in bringing down the film's main villain, the half-cyborg Dr. Akunomiya (Akira Emoto), having seen his own father killed in front of his eyes at the hands of the doctor—but we see glimpses of that father-son relationship, and it is not a harmonious one, to say the least. (This is a thread that will eventually come full circle in the film's second half, in ways I won't spoil here.) And Dr. Akunomiya's female henchmen, the aforementioned cyborg oh-so-creatively named Miss Borg (Mami Yamasaki), turns out to have a feminist streak that leads her not only to occasional derail her master's plans, but also develop romantic feelings toward the idealistic Daimon. Iguchi's plot also veers into moral dilemmas, topical and political commentary, and, in its second half, themes of aging and family—and, thankfully, all of it is played without distancing irony. The robots become almost secondary to the human dramas that play out in this big-budget, CGI-heavy extravaganza.

Human drama takes more of a backseat in Duel to the Death; in fact, as a story, it's near incomprehensible. It has something to do with a contest held every 10 years among Chinese and Japanese martial artists to determine who will dominate the field in the upcoming decade; the focus here is on one Chinese fighter, Ching Wan (Damian Lau), and his Japanese nemesis, Hashimoto (Norman Chu). Though opponents, they are eventually forced to team up when they uncover an attempt to rig the contest...but that is not to say that Hashimoto has forgotten the fight they are supposed to have. Traditions are traditions, after all...

From one scene to the next, characters change locations without so much as a transition to explain how they got there; storytelling coherence, in general, barely seems to be of any concern to Ching Siu-tung, making pretty much a hash out of the various reversals that supposedly happen. And yet, just look at what this choreographer-turned-director puts on the screen as far as wu xia action goes, and it almost doesn't matter. Ninjas burrowing underground like moles and popping out to surprise their enemies; combatants being imprisoned in an endless void by spiderweb-like nets; a giant ninja that turns into a lot of human-sized ones: The laundry list of feverishly inspired, gravity-defying visions goes on and on, briskly working its way toward an awe-inspiring climax atop an ocean-side cliff in which Ching Wan is forced to finally do battle with Hashimoto despite having lost the will to do so. For all the exhilarating stunts and wire-work on display in Duel to the Death, does Ching Siu-tung go so far as to suggest a possible anti-violence message at the end? It's fitting that the film ends not in the flush of victory, but with two bruised, battered and maimed warriors looking out into an uncertain future, a sense of triumph remaining elusive even as the film ends with an obligatory Hong Kong pop song.

Such stealth subversion exists, I would argue, in 13 Assassins (2010), Takashi Miike's recent remake of Eiichi Kudo's samurai classic from 1963 and screened at the New York Asian Film Festival in a director's cut that is about 17 minutes longer than the international theatrical version. It exists not only in the seemingly eternal length of its climactic battle sequence—exhilarating at first, but then the initial excitement drains away as the dead bodies start piling up on both sides—but in its unflinching look at a dying way of life: that of the samurai, with all of its out-of-vogue customs and codes of honor. But it's not only callous Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) who, in his own ruthless way, looks ahead to a way of life beyond that of the samurai; his counterpart on the side of the 13 assassins is Koyata Kiga (Yusuke Iseya), the wild man of the group who seems to take perverse pleasure in beating up on Naritsugu's minions in the climactic battle, and is constantly heard cracking wise about how samurais are "no fun." At least Naritsugu has his own personal principles driving his cruelty; Koyata doesn't seem to have any principles to speak of.

The one lengthy new scene in the director's cut of 13 Assassins is a rather crude and ill-placed scene of "comedy" that is meant to emphasize the parallels between Naritsugu and Koyata, one that negates the genuine pathos Koyata betrays in the previous scene as he wistfully recalls a woman he once loved long ago. Then we see him fucking a lot of women, to the horror of the village elder, who eventually gets ass-raped by Koyata's "spectacular member." Yes, folks, you read that right: anal rape is featured in this extra scene, and it's played for laughs. Sure, that is not objectionable in and of itself, but not only does it break the generally serious and sorrowful mood of the film surrounding this scene, but it also seems to be aiming for a vrai-Miikeian mixture of sickly funny and disturbing that the rest of the film fails to build all that much upon—and so the scene end up merely sticking out like a sore thumb. The other additions in the director's cut are mostly character-building moments; they're interesting but inessential. The rest of the film, thankfully, still holds up quite handsomely.

Those who know Miike's vast body of work, though, will recognize 13 Assassins as relatively restrained for him. One of his latest films, Ninja Kids!!! (2011)—which received its world premiere Sunday evening at the New York Asian Film Festival—however, just about bursts wide open with mad bits of comic invention—not enough to fully sustain its 100-minute length, but still, when it hits, it hits.

As the title, with its three whopping exclamation marks, suggests, this is a lighthearted kids' fantasy, more along the lines his 2005 film The Great Yokai War than his more notoriously violent Audition (2001), Ichi the Killer (2001) or Gozu (2003). Much of the film is given over to a relentless barrage of gags parodying genre clichés, with the bulk of the satire put in the hands of the titular kids, all of whom are attending a school to train to be ninjas. Miike and cinematographer Nobuyasu Kita employ a bright color palette to give the proceedings an appropriately surreal, cartoonish bent (the film is based on a popular anime series, after all). And the spirit of the film is appropriately playful and childlike: Miike pretty much throws whatever images and gags comes into his head onto the screen, from a recurring joke about dog shit to a fancy musical number that offers character backstory in entertaining fashion. In short, Ninja Kids!!! is a very unruly movie, and for about an hour or so, it coasts on sheer blast-from-the-id creative energy. Like most unruly kids in real life, though, it gets frankly exhausting after a while, especially losing creative steam once Yoshio Urasawa's script decides to finally drag in a not-particularly-compelling plot in its last half hour. I'm not usually bothered by movies that don't foreground plot, but in this case, I do wonder if an actual story might have made Ninja Kids!!! more tolerable; as it is, there's very little to latch onto emotionally, so that when it does try for pathos at the end, it completely fails to come off.

Thankfully, two of the New York Asian Film Festival's opening-night selections featured more enjoyable blasts of what-the-fuck cinematic ingenuity, one of them also from Japan.

As I briefly mentioned above, Yoshimasa Ishibashi's Milocrorze: A Love Story features three stories packed into one brightly colored pop confection, with none of them having anything to do with one another, at least on the surface. It begins as a whimsical kids' tale about a young boy with the tongue-twisting name of Ovreneli Vreneligare who falls in love with the titular dream girl, to the point of spending beyond his means just so he can provide a roof over her head with him by her side. But their relationship hits an inevitable rough patch, leading Milocrorze to leave him for another man, and leaving poor Ovreneli heartbroken. That, however, is when Ishibashi suddenly thrusts us into Story No. 2, revolving around Besson Kumagai (Takayuki Yamada, in one of three roles he plays here), whose claim to fame is giving hilariously chauvinistic advice to lovelorn youths and also, apparently, randomly dancing around like Michael Jackson. And then Story No. 2 gives way to Story No. 3—set in a more familiar samurai-movie landscape—which follows Tamon (Yamada) as he risks life and limb to rescue his long-lost love from the iron grip of a geisha house. (The highlight of the latter story—the one that gets the most screen time, by the way—is a swordfighting sequence in which Tamon demolishes bands of samurais in super-slow-motion.)

Milocrorze: A Love Story only seems random. In fact, unrequited love is the overarching theme that binds all of its wacky digressions together—and it all comes full circle in its epilogue, with a now fully grown Ovreneli—still smarting from Milocrorze's rejection as an adult—randomly running into his childhood sweetheart again, the encounter producing a less-than-desirable outcome. It is in this epilogue that Ishibashi's film reveals real depths to its surface playfulness: a rather profound wisdom about the ways we all have a tendency to deceive ourselves when it comes to the game of romance. Maybe, in a sense, the whole middle portion of the film separating the opening and closing sections could be seen as Ovreneli's own fantasies borne out of his heartbreak: pop-inflected expressions of his deepest desires and his self-loathing.

Even Milocrorze's narrative experimentation, however, can't help but pale just a tad next to the even more reckless imagination at work in Sell Out!, the best thing I've seen at the New York Asian Film Festival so far, a concoction so savagely hilarious, so overflowing with stylistic creativity and so rich in ambition that it takes a while for the full weight of its misanthropy hits you in the gut like the bullets that spray those anonymous innocent bystanders in its opening sequence.

Yeo Joon Han's grand subject is no less than capitalism itself and the ill effects it inspires within a entire society: how it chokes off innovation in the race for higher profits; how it turns people into corporate drones who may well come to believe that being a corporate drone is the be-all and end-all of their lives; how it encourages callousness and inhumanity; how it creates wide chasms between rich and poor. In the world Han creates in Sell Out!, corporate head honchos punish an employee (Peter Davis) for being ambitious; a cutthroat TV personality (Jerrica Lai) thinks nothing of exploiting people's deaths for entertainment; and even bored department-store employees would rather run away from customers—in a throwaway scene Han turns into the equivalent of a game of hide-and-seek—than actually help them.

All of this is pretty pessimistic stuff, to be sure, and a more serious-minded director—someone like Michael Haneke perhaps—might have mined this material for mere finger-wagging. Han, however, seems to have said at the outset, "We know all of this selfishness exists in the world; why not have some fun with it?" And so, Sell Out! sells its generally unredeeming view of humanity in an invigorating mishmash of genres, styles and running gags; Han seems to be working from his gut the same way Ishibashi seems to have worked from his in Milocrorze and Miike worked from his in Ninja Kids!!! (What other movie have you seen that features a faux-karaoke sequence in the middle that actually invites us to sing along?) There's constant comic and aesthetic elation to keep its pessimism from becoming oppressive; it may not offer much in the way of answers to the problems it explores in the end, but damned if Han doesn't have an irreverent blast elucidating those issues in the first place.

Films like Sell Out!, Milocrorze and much of the rest of what I've seen so far at the New York Asian Film Festival once again remind us of what those Cahiers du cinéma boys in the 1950s discovered as they wrote about all those Hollywood films and filmmakers many in the U.S. took for granted: that some of the most fascinating of artistic visions could be glimpsed not in the respectable prestige pictures, but in "disreputable" genre offerings, where filmmakers were often free to cut loose and express themselves more freely, whether within those imposed genre boundaries or without.

The festival runs until July 14; I can't wait to see what other crazily inventive wonders are in store for me in the coming week!

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Video for the Day: My First Macy's Fireworks Show Up Close and Personal!

NEW YORK—Last night marked the first time I got a chance to see the Macy's annual Fourth of July Fireworks Spectacular show up close...and so I took some video on my iPhone to mark this milestone (or, at least, it's a milestone to me):

I know, I know: Independence Day is over. But surely America's independence is something that ought to be celebrated all year round, right?

Anyway, enjoy.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Artistic Consumption Log, June 27, 2011-July 3, 2011

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Happy Independence Day, America!

Naturally, how am I celebrating America's independence? By...working, of course! Yes, how independent of me!

Anyway, just wanted to get that out there before proceeding to my artistic consumption log for the past week. Thanks both to the New York Asian Film Festival—a cornucopia of Asian cinema, both popular and art-house, which started on Friday and runs until July 14; check out details here—and an extra day off from work because of the holiday, I saw more films than usual...and you all probably know by now I see a lot of films week-in and week-out.

Sell Out! (2008)


Pirates (1986, Roman Polanski), screened at Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn, N.Y.
The Tenant (1976, Roman Polanski), screened at Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Cul-de-Sac (1966, Roman Polanski), screened at Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Brooklyn Academy of Music screened three Roman Polanski films this past week, all of them collaborations with co-writer Gérard Brach. I wish I could say the notorious box-office bomb Pirates was some misunderstood masterwork in disguise; maybe it is (film critic Fernando F. Croce has a somewhat persuasive defense of it here), but, despite moments of subversive humor, one gross-out scene involving rats being served as food, and an unexpectedly downbeat finish, I found myself too bored by it to work up much enthusiasm either way. But The Tenant, with Polanski himself playing a character gradually going nuts in his new Paris apartment, suggests the kind of feverish psychological thriller Darren Aronofsky was trying for in his own crude, blaring way in Black Swan. As for Cul-de-Sac...well, in some ways it may be even more unsettling than The Tenant, if only because of Polanski's refusal to fully connect the psychological dots; it's also much funnier and more insinuating. Cul-de-Sac will be released on video by the Criterion Collection in August, so viewers will have a chance to see this seemingly forgotten gem.

10th New York Asian Film Festival, all films screened at Walter Reade Theater in New York
Sell Out! (2008, Yeo Joon Han)
Milocrorze: A Love Story (2011, Yoshimasa Ishibashi)
I'll say more about these two in a future New York Asian Film Festival round-up. For now, I'll say that while I think Sell Out!—a nasty Malaysian satire of capitalism, interspersed with musical numbers and a lot of filmmaking jokes—is the richer of the two, both exemplify the kind of impassioned, go-for-broke pop filmmaking that I wish I saw more of here in the U.S.

13 Assassins: Director's Cut (2010, Takashi Miike) 
The international theatrical version made my recently published halftime-cinema-highlights list; it's superb. Miike's director's cut, longer by about 17 minutes, isn't really a patch on it, and it has one unfortunate scene involving wild-man assassin Koyata Kiga (Yusuke Iseya) and anal rape. Yes, you read that right: anal rape. And it's played for low comedy! It's interesting only insofar as it brings out potentially disturbing parallels between Koyata and the equally principle-less villain Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki)—but, as Miike directs it, it completely breaks the mood of the film and is not really as funny as he seems to think it is. The rest of the additions are fine but inessential. Stick with the theatrical cut, I say.

Duel to the Death (1983, Ching Siu-Tung)
Karate-Robo Zaborgar (2011, Noboru Iguchi)
Ninja Kids!!! (2011, Takashi Miike)
Again, I'll save detailed thoughts on these three in a future New York Asian Film Festival round-up post. One thing I'll say for now about Duel to the Death is: I would strongly advise first-time viewers to go into this film without any expectations of encountering a plot that you can actually follow. Or at least, I had trouble following the details of it. Forget about those literary qualities, though; just bask in the glories of its wu xia action, which, in its ceaseless, manic invention, outdoes even King Hu's A Touch of Zen (1971) in the exhilaration department. And its final showdown truly is one for the ages.


Dakar-Kingston (2011, Youssou N'Dour) 
Joko (The Link) (2000, Youssou N'Dour)

Blessed (2011, Lucinda Williams)
Because of my recent Youssou N'Dour explorations, I put aside my Lucinda Williams listening explorations for a while and only returned to the great country singer's music this week, when I finally listened to her most recent album. Is it just me, or does the heavy Southern drawl she spotlights throughout Blessed seem more mannered this time around than it has in her previous work? Not that it's a dreadful bother or anything, but it's more noticeable here than I remember it in even West (2007) and Little Honey (2008). Anyway, I don't think Williams has ever put out anything less than a solid album, and while this one is more of a mixed bag than those aforementioned recent two, even the weaker songs still have an attractively low-key, world-weary vibe that makes them at least listenable. And has she ever been as tender as she is in "Kiss Like Your Kiss," the album's wonderful final cut?


The Normal Heart (1985, Larry Kramer), performed at the John Golden Theatre in New York 
Larry Kramer's prosaic, angrily polemical 1985 stage drama ends where Tony Kushner's poetic, spiritually striving Angels in America would later begin as far as portraying the effects of the AIDS crisis in the U.S. is concerned. Still, after a clumsily written opening scene of exposition, Kramer manages to infuse his political anger with enough of a sense of personal inquiry that The Normal Heart ends up working—powerfully, in fact—as human drama, too. I've never heard so many sniffling theatergoers around me as I did at the John Golden Theatre towards the end of Thursday night's performance; I wasn't among them, but that's not to say that I didn't feel that sense of a heart swelling with emotion inside me.


Swan Lake (2000, Kevin McKenzie), performed by the American Ballet Theatre at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York
Speaking of Black Swan...there are no White or Black Swans in Kevin McKenzie's version of this popular, Tchaikovsky-scored work, and no heavy psychological anguish. Instead, there is a marked emphasis on grace and fantasy—seen not only in McKenzie's choreography, but especially in Zack Brown's wondrous sets and costumes—that successfully draws you into an enchanting world of its own. In general, I found this to be an elegant and thrilling production, possibly the best thing I saw this spring season at the American Ballet Theatre.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Midyear Film Reckoning 2011, In Images

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—I admit, I've been somewhat derelict of my duties as far as keeping up with the new theatrical releases is concerned. The New York repertory-cinema scene is just so abundant in interesting programming that that's often taken priority over always being up to date on the new stuff. (Now, If I had a regular paid film-writing gig, the situation might be different...)

Thanks to some of the various film festivals, both here in and outside of New York, I've attended over the past year, however, I was able to get a bit of a head start on this year's new movies—so, combined with the first-run films I actually managed to see so far in 2011, I was able to come up with 10 that I liked most up to this midyear point. The fact that I have a lot of blind spot probably goes without saying.

Oh, and I include some of my favorite repertory film discoveries so far this year, as well as a bunch of other miscellaneous stuff at the end. Enjoy!

New Releases (feature length, weeklong run or longer)

Repertory Discoveries (feature length, seen in theaters)

The Big Heat (1953)

Deep End (1970)

Miscellany (films of less than feature length; or feature-length films seen on DVD or TV, screened for less than a week theatrically, or seen at festivals and currently without theatrical distribution)

Disorder (2009)