Thursday, July 30, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, 2009
Dir: David Yates
July 29, 2009

OK, who is this David Yates? This is way better than Order of the Phoenix (2007), also directed by Yates, which, honestly, can not hold up on its own. This interpretation of The Half-Blood Prince, while not perfect, shows a director trying to do something different with a huge cash cow like the Harry Potter series.

Harry needs to find out more about Voldemort, and most of the things he needs can be found at Hogwarts, including memories, some incomplete. YEAR 6, REPRESENT. Honestly, it's the best book (IMO), and Yates did a good job of getting most of the important things in there, and some of the added stuff actually worked well (Harry ogling a black waitress, tryin to "chat up birds" freal). The whole atmosphere of the movie is well done, and the toned down action let's some interesting things, like nonchalant magic (not done well since Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)), breathe.

So the acting. While the big three have gotten a lot better, they all have their wince moments. None suffers as badly as D. Radcliffe. Rupert Grint is probably the best actor of the three, while Emma Watson is somewhere in the middle. I was not impressed by Bonnie Wright as Ginny, in her new "flame" role. The one big surprise was Tom Felton as Draco, who honestly played the conflicted, frightened and desperate card to a tee. His weeping is way more convincing than Radcliffe's. The adults are all pretty much awesome, especially Rickman and Gambon, though Helena B.C. is a little too silly to be scary as femme-psycho Bellatrix LaStrange. Jim Broadbent as Horace Slughorn is equally good too, adding a bit more flair to the contrived character of the book.

This is up at the top with Azkaban as the the best HP films; all the others are at the bottom of the hill. I'm glad that Yates is coming back, especially with 2 movies to do his thing for one book. I'm actually kind of intersted now to see how he will turn that seriously flawed last novel into visual format.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Harakiri (Seppuku), 1962
Dir: Masaki Kobayashi
July 27, 2009

The first thing that you realize when watching Harakiri is that the cinematography is perfect; every scene is meticulously crafted and what Kobayashi shows you always seems right. The symmetry of traditional Japanese architecture plays a fair role in this, but you simply cannot ignore the genius of each camera angle and the choreography throughout. It is an impeccably beautiful film from an aesthetic standpoint. In this sense, Kobayashi seems like a much more native film-maker than Kurosawa, and from this, it certainly seems like he deserves the praise he gets as a Japanese "master."

Harakiri is a samurai film with a dark, dark heart. And not in the way Yojimbo (1961) is dark (humor), but as a scathing attack on the fuedal system that dominated Japan for so long, and also of the samurai code, or bushido, itself, which isn't just alluded to, but specifically called out as a "facade." This is shown most potently by the daiymo and the clan, which uses honor as a pretext to keep it's power. When a hard-on-his-luck ronin (with his beard, an almost unrecognizable, yet still awesome Tatsuya Nakadai) shows up at the house of a feudal lord and asks for the honor of committing harakiri (seppuku) in the clan's courtyard, the lord (Rentaro Mikuni) can't help but notice certain similarities to a ronin that asked for the same honor earlier in the year. When the similarites start to add up, you realize that the ronin isn't there just to kill himself.

Knowing exactly what harakiri ("cutting the belly") is, you understand why the second is there to decapitate the unfortunate samurai so quickly. Disembowelment is definitely in my top five ways of not to die. You also understand exactly what is happening when the young ronin who first came to the clan is forced to use his own "sword," and the time the second wastes to make sure the ronin does it right.

Like I said earlier, this underrated masterpiece is overshadowed by Kurosawa's equally astonishing works. It offers insight into the philosophical mind of the Japanese soul, whole heartedly and pure, and questions the role of honor through straightforward storytelling and brilliant direction. The story is akin to the works of Dostoevsky, exploring the darkest moments of humanity through suffering and redemption in a desperate search for meaning and justice. Intense and beautiful, Harakiri is a true work of art, no doubt about it.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Images, Memory and Experience

What's the boundary line between a film actually being good and only being good because it reminds you of some fond personal memory; some state of mind that makes you feel better, if only for a moment? Is there even a boundary? Does it all blur with that string of images anyway?

For me, what the spectator brings to it and makes of the connection is just as integral in making a film good or bad. I was having a conversation about Lost in Translation (2003), and I said that I liked it when I saw it in theaters, which was only once. The ending was great, and it struck a chord, even if I couldn't verbalize, or even really analyze why then. This person whom I was talking to thought that the film was just a celebration of incredibly shallow people. I thought that there was some merit to that statement in that the acting was not the reason why I liked he film. I could only sputter that I really enjoyed the photography and the whole premise of the film. I suppose the thought of traveling to a country far from my own, meeting a random face, spending time with that face, and then to leave without any expectation of meeting that face ever again has always felt like something that would excite me and make me feel sad all at once, which is what a great film can do too (me being terribly cinematic in my head again). But it got me thinking, "Was the film actually bad? Where does opinion start and end, or is that just another circle? Was the film itself shallow? What does that say about my gut-instinct/inclinations?"

I'm not sure that there are proper answers for any of those questions. What I might have said to that person is, "I think you have a valid point; the acting left a little to be wanting. You should trust your gut instinct on it. However, we are all exposed to a lot of disposable culture, and it's easy to write off things at face value, or shallowness. For me, I responded to the theme of being "lost in translation" in a culturally-bankrupt world, unable to communicate with kindred spirits. I have always had trouble with this; it might be my greatest flaw. I was 18, and the insecurities that I have were extremely exacerbated at that time in my life. Seeing something like that on screen left an impression on me because it had to; it's the way I am. I am not a fan of any of her other films, but I will stick by my statement that this is worth watching more than once, and worth taking five minutes to actually think about."

So in the end, is it all relative? Probably is about the best thing I can say.

Friday, July 17, 2009


Sanjuro, 1962
Dir: Akira Kurosawa
July 16, 2009
Netflix Wakefield MA

My first impression of this sequel to Yojimbo (1961) is that it is a great, yet slightly inferior film to it's predecessor in that it simply reprises an awesome character, which of course is good enough for me. Sanjuro might actually have the better final showdown, which is off-the-charts intense, and then phenomenally quick and jaw-droppingly awesome.

The samurai-with-no-name (Toshirō Mifune) is back, and again he's in a town where evil men are trying to oust the Chamberlain, who is a good man, from his position of power. He agrees to help nine young samurai, one of whom is the Chamberlain's nephew, deal with the growing corruption in their clan and rescue the Chamberlain and his family, who have been taken captive. He agrees to do this only because he believes they are "naive and stupid." So yeah, he is that awesome.

Mifune continues to dish out out his bizarre philosophy and then sometimes contradict it ("You made me kill those people!"), and the young samurai are sometimes confused by his actions and words, not believing that a proper samurai would behave in such a way. He also continues to use is wits to outsmart his opponents, eventually getting Hanbei (Tatsuya Nakadai, back for more baddie action), a samurai henchman, to believe he is on their side. The fact that Hanbei is made of fool of, something that he cannot live with, is the cause of the final showdown, which the wandering ronin had wanted to avoid. He then leaves, left to wander to good earth again, still the coolest man ever.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


Yojimbo, 1961
Dir: Akira Kurosawa
July 15, 2009
Netflix Wakefield MA

I think it is impossible to say what is the best "samurai" film ever (there are so many good ones), but Yojimbo (The Bodyguard) has to be up there. Kurosawa, with his great love for the American Western and the films of John Ford, created a darkly comic tale of a wandering ronin with no master or money who, after coming to a town where rival gangs are vying for control of the silk industry there and the profits from gambling, plays both sides and restores order to the town.

"Sanjuro"(Toshirō Mifune), which is the name the ronin gives, is a great usage of the "man-with- no-name" character, probably made most famous by Clint Eastwood in all the Westerns and Spaghetti Westerns that were just remakes of Kurosawa's best films. Despite that, Mifune's is way cooler than anything Eastwood ever conjured up. As soon as he "shows his worth" to one side, you know the movie is going to be awesome. His seeming ambivalence to the madness that surrounds him and his lack of fear make him far more menacing than the ugly thugs the gangs have hired, which is why most of them give him a wide berth whenever he ventures into the town. At the very beginning of the film, Kurosawa's camera sits behind Toshiro Mifune's man-with-no-name, inviting us to look up at the back of his head as he walks the earth, inviting us to be in awe of this man. And as he walks, super-cool walking-the-earth music plays. There is nothing left to think about with this man. He might be the coolest film character ever.

The lone wolf's only seeming threat in the film comes when Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai, who plays the main character in Sword of Doom (1966), and I knew he looked familiar but could not place it while watching), the youngest brother of one of the gang's boss, comes back, and in true Western style, is actually a "gunfighter" instead of a samurai. They play off each other nicely; Kurosawa actually told Mifune that he pictured the ronin as a wolf or dog and Nakadai that he pictured him as a snake. If you watch the film, you can see both characters actually displaying traits of these animals, particularly Mifune's famous shoulder twitch, as if he were trying to shake off some fleas. Unosuke, in the end, of course, is no match for the awesome of "Sanjuro."

Kurosawa actually uses a ton of Western techniques, like wide shots for showdowns right down to the town crier motif (like in High Noon (1952) ). The moral ambiguity of the ronin is actually far more in tune with the Spaghetti Westerns that this movie spawned, as opposed to the black and white (good vs. evil) value system of the traditional Western. Most of the comedy is universal, such as ugly dumb thugs who get played for suckers and skulking swordsman trying to intimidate each other but retreat in comic fear every time the other group make an aggressive move forward (this scene is done so well, you can't help but laugh). The music is incredible, and very few directors create atmosphere as well as Kurosawa. Yojimbo is cool any day of the fuckin' week, kiddies.


Cul-de-sac, 1966
Dir: Roman Polanski
July 13, 2009

So I've really wanted to see this for a long time, being a big Polanski fan, and there is no DVD release in the US, I'm pretty sure. Anyway, I'm cruising along Hulu, just browsing the movies they have (some really bad, others phenomenal) and there it is. I almost thought it might be a movie of the same name by a different director. But I am happy to say that is the real deal, so props to Hulu for uploading a decent version of it.

Cul-de-sac, for intents and purposes, is a psychological thriller, but I'm sure that Polanski thought that it was a black comedy. It's full of his school boy humor and his penchant for the sexually perverse. Two gangsters botch a job and have to hide out on a tidal island off Northumberland, England (think Scotland, or Tyneside), cut off by the rising tide. One (Jack McGowran, who is a dead ringer for The Professor from Tintin) has been shot in the belly, so the other gangster, Richard, or "Dickie" (Lionel Stander), who only got it in the arm, goes to the dark castle on the island hilltop to phone for help, and take hostage the couple living there (Donald Pleasence and Françoise Dorléac). The couple must then deal with Dickie's gruff manner and then uninvited guests until they hope a time that the gangsters will leave, rescued by their mysterious boss Katelbach.

Pleasence is particularly brilliant as the effeminate George, who is constantly berated and emasculated by his young wife, and also has no wish to stand up to Dickie or even protect his wife from him. His eventual collapse and downfall, as he screams "I'll break your legs!" over and over again as he smashes everything in sight, even when there is no point anymore and no one is there to see his manly outburst, and Teresa's leaving the castle with a "real" man signify a lot about things that Polanski is particularly interested in. Dorléac, as the beautiful young French wife Teresa, does a great turn as an ice queen (to George) and prissy bitch, just as her little sister Catherine Deneuve did in Polanski's Repulsion (1965) the year before. As you can tell, Polanski was movin' through them pretty fast. She is brazenly cheating on George with a young neighbor, and flirts constantly with a handsome man that comes unexpectedly (The summary that I read actually labeled her as a nymphomaniac). The two eventually come to a strange understanding with Dickie, who immediately lets George know who's in charge with his gravelly voice and aggressive demeanor, until the guests come and they all have play a part to get them to leave.

While not his best film, it is very Polanski, and if you dig that, you will dig this. The themes of masculinity and femininity play a huge part of the film, as is being trapped in an enclosed place (a typical Polanski usage), making the setting of the "dark island castle on a tidal island" pretty friggin' awesome. It's also a great way to see the superbabe Dorléac in action, who was sadly killed in a car crash in 1967 at 25. One of the best things about the film is that the usual ending, in which George would finally find his courage and become a "man" by killing Dickie, is completely subverted by Polanski, as George's neurosis and shock cause him to lose all. Hilaroius, Roman.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Public Enemies

Public Enemies, 2009
Dir: Michael Mann
July 8, 2009
AMC Theaters Danvers MA

The updated gangster flick can, as previously exampled, reinvigorate or simply replicate. I am not really sure what Public Enemies does. It doesn't have a whole lot of fresh life about it and it doesn't have a lot of interesting things to say. That's not to say the film was not entertaining; at points, I suppose it was. But how many times do you have to see a bank robbery? In the end, what John Dillinger's life was all about never really got across to me, though Johnny Depp thought he was a pretty cool cat.

John Dillinger robbed banks, and wouldn't take the money of the people there who were patrons. Just the banks' money. Dillinger certainly could be charming, and the aura that surrounded him during the Depression certainly helped him achieve a favorable public opinion despite being Public Enemy #1. After doing some reading, 'cause frankly the guy is interesting, it turns out that John Dillinger was a psycho killer when he had to be. Depp's performance is adequate, but leaves something to be wanting. A few bursts of anger, but nothing torrential. The Dillinger in Public Enemies is all easy smiles and clever zingers, accompanied with a "live for today" attitude that most impulsive criminals must live with.

Christian Bale again acts stoically as if his life depended on it, and the seeds of doubt that must have come across Melvin Purvis's mind about the brutal methods being employed by the Bureau of Investigation get lost in Bale's Bressonain visage. Dillinger's girlfriend is meant to be an outsider because of her Native American ancestry, but Marion Cotillard just can't keep the accent she wants down, and spews forth this bizarre midwest/french weirdness that just distracts from anything that she might have been able to do. One of the better, though small, performances in the film is that of Billy Crudup as master of G-men and creepshows, J. Edgar Hoover. His wacky relentlessness to get the FBI off the ground is evident, as is his relationship with all things masculine. At this point, Hoover isn't the cross-dressing psycho that he would morph into, but slight hints are dropped at his alleged homosexuality ("Tell him he can call me...'J.' ")

The rest of the public enemies (note the plural) are barely in it. Pretty Boy Floyd dies right away, Stephen Graham's Baby Face Nelson is goofy when it should be fucking insane, and the rest of the Dillinger gang never really get to assert themselves. Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi) also is pretty much a cameo, and Ribisi doesn't really create a character, especially not the creepy menace that Karpis was.

I shouldn't really compare this to Band of Outsiders though, so I won't. The film is basically a docudrama with some bank robberies and a shootout. There is nothing about the restlessness of poor young men taking action to affect their lot in life, and the tension building up to the inevitable death Dillinger must have known was coming is not presented as well as it could have been. You want to watch an American classic about gangsters whose romance and crime come together perfectly?: Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Public Enemies doesn't even come close.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Bande à part

Bande à part, 1964
Dir: Jean-Luc Godard
July 3, 2009
Netflix Wakefield MA

Godard goes back to where he started; back to restless young men who have watched too many American gangster movies and find out that life, in it's own cruel way, can be terribly cinematic. Bande a Part (Band of Outsiders) plays on American movies, French language, and the pining after young women in the sweet, melancholy tone of Godard's best films. You know, just by how the characters act, that things will never happen the way they plan.

The two young men (Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur) both find themselves yearning for the attention a very pretty but naive girl (Anna Karina, in probably her best performance yet). When they find out that a lot of money is being stored in the house where she lives, the score is on. They enlist her help through some cajoling, and until the right time comes, they just have to waste it; time, that is.

From trying to break the record for fastest time to see all of the Louvre (held by an American, of course) to the extended dance scene in the cafe, the film is filled with the restless tension and cavalier attitudes of men who are only thinking about the now, and the heartbreakingly gullible girl who gets caught up in their act. A post-modern classic, and Godard's best since Breathless (If anyone has a fantastic opinion of Contempt, fine. I thought it was very good; that's it).

This is a good reference to my next review, also a gangster flick. Coming Soon.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Man Who Wasn't There

The Man Who Wasn't There, 2001
Dir: Joel Coen (and Ethan Coen)
June 30, 2009
Netflix Wakefield MA

Another neo-noir from the Coens? You bet, and again their visual style and lyrical flair help transcend this film from just a tribute to the great Noir films of the 40s and 50s to a great period piece in it's own right.

The film, shot in color but transfered to black and white, looks fantastic, and has a tremendous cinematic appeal, the way only a black and white film can really make you feel that your watching a movie. Off the bat, the inner-monologue narration and low-key, high contrast lighting pays a lot of debt to those movies of the 40s and 50s, such as Double Indemnity (1944) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). I'm going to say that I love the lighting and I hate the narration. I understand that it's a huge part of the genre, but I hate voice-over narration in general, as the images and dialogue should tell you all you need to know, or what the director wants you to know (watch Chinatown (1974) ). The film's content and weird mannerisms, however, owe a higher debt to some later films in the genre, the works of true masters: Orson Welles's The Lady From Shanghai (1948) and Touch of Evil (1958), and Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950).

Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is a barber, and by his own admission, he doesn't talk much. He knows that his wife (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with her boss, "Big" Dave (James Gandolfini), and really doesn't care about it. But a man, Tolliver (Jon Polito), comes into the shop one day and talks to Ed about opening a dry cleaning business but needing and investment to open it, and Ed, as we know through his monotone, dry inner-monologues, is in need of some change, and knows what he can do. So he blackmails Big Dave for $10,000 to provide capital for the "pansy's" (the man makes a pass at Ed during their first meeting in the hotel, and Big Dave, who was the original target the man thought he could get the money from, must have known something about this too because that is his term for him) business venture. The Pansy disappears though, leaving Ed to think that he has been suckered. Big Dave calls him late one night, and already having listened to his vague confessions earlier, reluctantly agrees to head over to his store. Big Dave hunted down The Pansy, thinking he was blackmailing him, but getting a confession that it was indeed Ed. Enraged at this so-called betrayal ("What kind of a man are you?"), Big Dave begins to strangle Ed, who only saves himself by stabbing Big Dave in the neck with knife used as a cigar cutter. No one sees Ed leave, but soon enough the body is found, and Ed's wife has become the prime suspect.

Ed Crane is the sort of man that has let everything slide in his life; his apathy is a defense mechanism. In one scene, trying to convince the teenage daughter of a friend (Scarlett Johansson) that her piano playing is her ticket to a better life, and maybe even his, he tells her, "I haven't always been dealt the best cards in life. I don't know, maybe I have, and I just didn't know how o play 'em." The comedy of errors that plays out over the film just ends up as a sad reminder of how life picks and chooses sometimes, even when we work really hard to better our own situations. Ed's sadnesses tend to come out in ruminations, like his philosophical wax on hair after he kills Big Dave: "This ever wonder about it?...I don't know. How it keeps on coming. It just keeps growing. No, I mean it's growing, it's part of us. And we cut it off. And we throw it away."

But really, you know what to expect, if you've ever seen a noir before: greed, dark secrets, and murder, in a world of fedoras, cigarette smoke, snapping lighters, and deep moral turpitude. A world where nothing or no one is what they seem, and the only sure thing is that, in the end, some sap is gonna get it. The sad thing is that Ed's best efforts seems to be in vain, even he can't withstand the tide of the genre: "I don't know where I'm being taken. I don't know what I'll find, beyond the earth and sky. But I'm not afraid to go. Maybe the things I don't understand will be clearer there, like when a fog blows away. Maybe Doris will be there. And maybe there I can tell her all those things they don't have words for here. "