Monday, July 09, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, July 2, 2012 - July 8, 2012


Leave Her to Heaven (1945)


Invisible (2011, Michal Aviad), seen on DVD at home in Brooklyn, N.Y.
This solidly absorbing Israeli drama begins a theatrical run at the Museum of Modern Art today; I reviewed it for Slant Magazine. A link to my review is forthcoming.

New York Asian Film Festival 2012, all films seen at Walter Reade Theater in New York:
Starry Starry Night (2011, Tom Lin)
Scabbard Samurai (2011, Hitoshi Matsumoto)
The King of Pigs (2011, Yuen Sang-ho)
The Lost Bladesman (2011, Alan Mak & Felix Chong)
Miami Connection (1987, Park Woo-sung & Y.K. Kim)  
I was originally going to award the distinction of this week's highlight to Starry Starry Night, an enchanting Taiwanese children's film that could be seen as a fitting companion piece to Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, with its equally acute (if perhaps more sentimental) depiction of the relationship between two young children who are both experiencing emotional and familial hardships in their own lives.

But the more I think about Hitoshi Matsumoto's Scabbard Samurai, the more I'm coming around to at least admiring it, despite my initial irritations. For its first hour, it seems for all the world as if it will be just a one-joke deadpan comedy about a weary, broken-down samurai (Takaaki Nomi) who is forced, upon capture for desertion, to complete an absurd 30-day sentence in which he is tasked to make a lord's eternally melancholy son crack a smile. It sounds stupid, and Matsumoto's initially ritualistic, repetitive treatment of the first few days of this sentence—in which the samurai tries to come up with all sorts of dumb tricks to try to make this kid laugh—was enough to make me dread the rest. And yet, gradually Matsumoto's deeper and more complex vision of personal grief and honor floats into view, and by the end I found myself more affected by the film than I thought I would be for its first half hour or so. I initially tweeted that I found the film "wildly uneven," but I'm starting to wonder whether that irritation I felt early on was, in part, intentional after all, rather than just being the product of a comic sensibility with which I just wasn't connecting. I mean, it's not like Matsumoto softens just how pathetic this "scabbard samurai" is, reduced to doing things like putting fruit in his mouth and eyes in a, uh, fruitless attempt to make someone laugh.

Scabbard Samurai plays again in the festival, at Japan Society on Saturday afternoon. If nothing else, you'll come out of it feeling as if you've seen something different.

Magic Mike (2012, Steven Soderbergh), seen at AMC Loews Lincoln Square Stadium 13 in New York
Channing Tatum is actually pretty solid in this, and Steven Soderbergh seems to show actual engagement with the story and characters as story and characters, rather than as just another one of his formal experiments. Overall, I enjoyed it. More interesting to me, however, are the shocked reactions I got from two of my female co-workers when I told them I actually went to see this film. Apparently, some people have a certain conception of my moviegoing tastes, and Magic Mike—even with Soderbergh's involvement—doesn't fit that conception. I love subverting expectations!

Unforgivable (2012, André Téchiné), seen at IFC Center in New York
For his latest film, French filmmaker André Téchiné, along with co-writer Mehdi Ben Attia, adopts a crime novel by Philippe Djian, and the result is a classic example of a kind of filmmaking that expands on standard genre elements to accommodate an artist's deeply personal, and deeply humane, vision. I don't really have much else to offer beyond that at the moment.

Leave Her to Heaven (1945, John M. Stahl), seen at Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn, N.Y. 
Oh my! Yes, Leon Shamroy's Oscar-winning Technicolor cinematography is eye-fillingly gorgeous—but the extravagant visual beauty is tied to the psychology of a woman (the equally eye-fillingly gorgeous Gene Tierney) for whom the word "love" has potentially dangerous and deadly implications. Not that her character can be easily reduced to an Alex Forrest/Fatal Attraction slasher-bitch type; Ellen Berent Harland is, as she describes herself, simply a woman who perhaps feels too much passion for people, to the point where it suffocates and even kills. In short, she's one of the more fascinating characters I've encountered in a movie recently, mysterious in the way most human beings with human emotions are mysterious. I mean, who can literally pin down a point in time when love with one person ends and love with another begins, as Vincent Price's jealous prosecutor essentially tries to do in a concluding trial sequence? I would say I love Leave Her to Heaven, but one of the great achievements of this classic Hollywood melodrama is to ask us to seriously consider what "love" actually is.


Bruckner: Symphony No. 5 (1993, Christoph von Dohnányi/The Cleveland Orchestra)
I had purchased this out-of-print Decca CD a while ago for about $5 at a street fair, and only this pst week did I finally get around to listening to it. It's a solid performance, reminiscent more of Bernard Haitink's straightforward freshness (in his 1972 Philips recording with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, at least) than of Herbert von Karajan's imposingly monumental approach in his 1976 Deutsche Grammophon recording with the Berlin Philharmonic. Those two still remain my favorite recordings of what is probably my favorite Anton Bruckner symphony (at least judging by how often I play it compared to the others).

All right, now I'm perhaps getting a bit too nerdy with the classical-music stuff. Time to move on to...

The Anthology 1961-77 (1992, Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions)
This Is My Country (1968, The Impressions)
Consider this preparation for the Curtis Mayfield tribute concert I'm seeing later this month at Avery Fisher Hall as part of the Lincoln Center Festival (you can find out more about it here). Yes, I bought tickets to a Curtis Mayfield tribute concert without having actually heard much Curtis Mayfield. I mean, hey, that's not a bad way to motivate me to finally explore the music of one of the premier singer-songwriters of the 1960s and '70s, am I right?

Thus, I started with The Anthology 1961-77, a two-disc overview of Mayfield's years with The Impressions before he went solo. As far as compilations of this type go, this one seems to chart an especially fascinating progression from the cheery love machine of his earlier years to the socially conscious and perhaps more world-weary songwriter of the late '60s and beyond (in which This Is My Country, his 1968 album with The Impressions which I also heard this past week, fits). It's all good stuff.


Anything Goes (1934, Cole Porter), performed at Stephen Sondheim Theatre in New York  
Many critics seem to have basically taken Cole Porter's 1934 musical as an enjoyably inconsequential good time, ignoring the bits of class/social critique and a general undercurrent of repressed passions churning underneath. It's like the way Stephen Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum keeps insisting it's just silly, lighthearted fluff, practically daring viewers to pick up on the crumbs of social satire he peppers into the brew. Still, let's not deemphasize the pure joy Anything Goes instills in one, especially in the terrific new Broadway revival that just ended yesterday. I'm glad I got to see it live before it closed, even if most of the original cast members were long gone (with the exception of Joel Grey as goofy gangster Moonface Martin and John McMartin as randy old-man banker Elisha Whitney, both there from the beginning). But at least director Kathleen Marshall's astounding choreography remains, turning "Anything Goes" and "Blow Gabriel Blow," especially, into exhilarating show-stopping Busby Berkeley-like feats. Also, the fast-paced comic timing was just about perfect throughout. Overall, it was a blast (even with the maniacal female laugher sitting next to me who was frequently threatening to derail my enjoyment); I'm grateful I finally got to see it before it, well, sailed away.

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