SIFF 2009 – Summer Hours, Still Walking, The Hurt Locker

The complications and tricky negotiations of family, as siblings grow up and leave to establish their own lives and their own families, was a central theme of numerous films at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival. Two of the best films from that festival, Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours (L’heure d’ete) and Hirozaku Kore-Eda’s Still Walking, highlight the opening weekend of the 2009 edition of the Seattle International Film Festival.

summerhours
Jeremie Renier, Juliette Binoche and Charles Berling in "Summer Hours"

Summer Hours is like a miniature, a small film of small dramas in the scope of large lives. Mortally once again hangs over the story of a family estate and the rich treasures of art history that goes with it. Family matriarch Helene (Edith Scob) has preserved the country home of her famous painter uncle as a tribute to him, complete with unpreserved works by French masters on the walls and rare pieces of furniture and glassworks as household items, and she drills in her eldest the list of valuables that need be accounted for and, if necessary, sold off when she dies. Frédéric (Charles Berling), who lives nearby in Paris, can’t bear to see the home broken up and sold off, but with his sister (Juliette Binoche) thriving in New York and younger brother (Jérémie Renier) settling in China, the holiday family home no longer has the same meaning to them all, let alone their children. The film moves from one decision to another and the arguments that inevitably ensue and it’s not all that subtly engineered. What Assayas brings is a generosity of understanding and a warmth of character to the siblings who love one another enough not to let disagreements change their feelings. It’s a gentle look at the way the ties to the past lose their hold on the next generations, and it closes with a pair of sequences that alone would recommend the film: one that takes you through the Musee D’Orsay from the workshops through to the galleries, and a final scene that recalls his brilliant (and still unavailable on DVD) early feature Cold Water, but with the angry, rebellious destructiveness of the earlier film replaced with a warm communal celebration. Plays Friday, May 22 and Sunday, May 24.

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John Ford’s Wilderness: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The poster that launched Liberty Valance
The poster that launched Liberty Valance

[originally published in slightly different form in Sight and Sound, Autumn 1978, Volume 47 No. 4; reprinted with thanks to BFI]

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has been so widely discussed, dissected and applauded that by now it must rank as one of John Ford’s least underappreciated films. Its reputation is due in no small part to the obvious feeling Ford invested in the project, making of it his final meditation on a large part of the mythic territory he invented and embellished in more than four decades of film-making. Liberty Valance is particularly interesting for the explicit way it juxtaposes a characteristic Ford frontier West (cf. My Darling Clementine) with another West that, with its contemporary technology—telephones, electric fans and smoking train engines—is recognizably modern. Significantly, just as the “past” sequences are, apart from the explicitly revisionist world of Cheyenne Autumn, Ford’s parting look at the frontier, so too the “modern” sequences are, apart from a brief vignette in Donovan’s Reef, his parting glance toward contemporary America.

The standard critical approach to Liberty Valance has been to emphasize the contrasts between its two worlds and to characterize it as celebrating the mythic frontier and mourning its passing and betrayal by the corrupting forces of progress. This approach has produced a substantial body of perceptive commentary on the film, but somehow its operative word—“elegiac”—seems inadequate, implicitly neglecting as it does Ford’s ambivalence towards the past and the richness and complexity of his treatment of the post-frontier West.

Like many Ford films—most obviously those dealing with the military—Liberty Valance focuses on the struggle to subordinate the individual to achieve some greater communal good. Liberty Valance, however, not only presents such a struggle, to civilize the wilderness frontier, but explicitly shows the result, the modern town of Shinbone, and implicitly questions whether the sacrifices are justified. In that sense, the film is perfectly congruent with the notion of a Ford who became increasingly bitter and pessimistic with age, and ultimately challenged many of the moral tenets his earlier films had so eloquently affirmed. But what is not so well understood about Liberty Valance is its awareness of how the modern world is not simply a betrayal of what preceded it, but a logical extension of it; the flow of history is organic, the present an extension of the past. Ultimately, Ford professes faith in neither wilderness nor garden; he has considerable affection for the past, but no real belief in the viability of a society based on untrammeled individualism. Thus he undercuts his celebration of the mythic past with a corrosive revisionism that, far more than any lines of quotable dialogue, demonstrates his commitment to confronting and scrutinizing, rather than simply printing, the legend that is the subject of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

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Jo Shishido and the Red Cherry Blossom Wanderer – DVDs for the Week

Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! (Kino)

detectivebureau2-3
Jo Shishido is too cool

It may not be the best film of the week but this early Seijun Suzuki yakuza potboiler certainly sports the greatest title I’ve seen flash across my flatscreen all year: Detective Bureau 2-3: Go To Hell Bastards! The film, starring a cocky and cool Jo Shishido as a private detective (with a side job publishing a scandal rag) who hires himself out as an undercover agent to infiltrate a new gang in town for the local cops, is pure B-movie silliness and Suzuki knows it, plays with it, flaunts it. From the pre-credits sequence, where a gun sale (with weapons sold right off an American army base) turns into guns-a-blasting ambush by a rival gang that launches their assault from a Pepsi-Cola delivery truck that barrels through the swap like a tank, to the return engagement gang war that ends the film, this is all about turning a junky crime script into a blast of energy set against a backdrop of candy-colored sets and kitschy nightclub numbers and set to a score of growling pop music.

With his greased-back hair, dark glasses and pock-marked chubby cheeks, Jo Shishido hardly looks like a matinee idol but he pulls it off with sheer bravado. Shishido’s flippant attitude never falters, whether he’s talking his way into a job for the cops or ingratiating himself with a suspicious mob boss. When a nightclub singer almost blows his cover, he jumps into a duet to play for time. When his backstory (thrown together is rush of improvising) finally unravels, he doesn’t even flinch. He just offers a new service: playing double agent for the mysterious big boss. Suzuki directs it all with tongue-in-cheek attitude, not so much making fun of it as making it fun, playing out the by-the-number twists with bright, bubbly enthusiasm and devil may care energy. His later gangster movie parodies take on a genuinely genre-busting stylistic insanity. Here he’s content to just play up the conventions with a cheery self-awareness and the energy of a New Wave genre celebration. Kino’s widescreen disc preserves all that color with a bright, crisp clarity.

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John Huston: Withholding Judgment

[Parts of the article previously appeared in Cinemonkey and as program notes for Cinema 7]

Film critics have never quite known what to make of John Huston; whether his work has been praised or disparaged, it has almost always inspired critical overkill. After a striking debut with The Maltese Falcon (1941) and a pair of studio assignments, Huston made several highly-regarded war documentaries. His fourth feature, Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948), widely acclaimed as authentic film art (at a time when the phrase had little currency in discussions of American movies), inspired the most eloquent and passionate of Huston’s early defenders, James Agee, to write a now-classic Life magazine article, “Undirectable Director” (1950) summarizing Huston as follows:

The Maltese Falcon is the best private-eye melodrama ever made. San Pietro… is generally considered to be the finest of war documentaries. Treasure of Sierra Madre… is the clearest proof in perhaps twenty years that first-rate work can come out of the big commercial studios…. To put it conservatively, there is nobody under fifty at work in movies, here or abroad, who can excel Huston in talent, inventiveness, intransigence, achievement or promise.

The Maltese Falcon: "the greatest
The Maltese Falcon: "the best private-eye melodrama ever made"?

Even at the time, Agee overstated Huston’s achievement and promise, both as to his career and individual films. And by the time of Moby Dick (1956), Huston had amply shown he could be erratic as well. But neither Agee nor anyone else could have predicted the calamitous late-50s decline that produced The Barbarian and the Geisha and The Roots of Heaven (both 1958), and The Unforgiven (1960), followed shortly by The List of Adrian Messenger (1963). Such a casually cynical mélange of the half-heartedly perfunctory and outright hackwork was bound to get a critical comeuppance. Andrew Sarris obliged, firing a famous broadside in the Huston chapter of the indispensable survey: The American Cinema. After casually noting that “James Agee canonized Huston prematurely” Sarris brought out the heavy artillery:

Huston is still coasting on his reputation as a wronged individualist with an alibi for every bad movie…Huston has confused indifference with integrity for such a long time that he is no longer the competent craftsman of The Asphalt Jungle, The Maltese Falcon, and The African Queen, films that owe more to casting coups than to directorial acumen.

Sarris has subsequently reconsidered his polemical hyperbole, and doubtless regrets the peculiar suggestion that skill in casting has nothing to do with “directorial acumen.”

But Huston’s work has remained maddeningly variable, sometimes blowing hot and cold in the same film Keep Reading

Of Time and the City and Alexander Korda – DVDs for the week

Of Time and the City (Strand)

timeandthecityIf Liverpool did not exist, it would have to be invented. And in some ways, that’s what Terence Davies does in his cinematic essay, a personal remembrance of a city that he recalls from his ambivalent perspective of troubled affection and critical commentary. Freely mixing history and remembrance, documentary and commentary, Davies offers up a very personal look at his hometown of Liverpool and the age in which he grew up in England. Though only brief moments of the film are actually shot by Davies himself (the rest is a mix archival newsreel clips, documentary footage, TV news clips and home movies), this is as personal as filmmaking gets and he personally narrates with a witty collection of literary quotes, song lyrics, movie titles and snatches of poetry delivered with a twist of his own sardonic humor. The port city and industrial center on the northwest coast of Britain is best known in America as the birthplace of the Beatles. They have little place in Davies’ remembrance. Though his commentary is backed by a collection of popular songs and snatches of classical music, it’s not the music of the culture so much as of Davies’ life, and by the sixties he had tuned out with the coming of The Beatles and the Mersey Beat and turned to classical music. That was also the time he discovered that he was gay and the culture that he thought was his turned out to be quite hostile to him.

It’s chronological, both temporally and personally, from the post-war years to the present, and he takes us from B&W to color in a particularly delightful transition involving the crowds taking the ferry to Brighton. “They got on in black and white, but they got off in color,” he deadpans, and from that moment the film remains in color. It’s the modern world and nostalgia is gone as Davies recalls his coming of age in every way. His view of the church shifts to one of suspicion and distrust and a class consciousness seeps in as he observes the royal family (“another fossil monarchy”) and its lavish pageants of marriage and coronation while millions lived in poverty, destitute in slums all over Liverpool. He reserves his most caustic commentary for royalty and the national obsession with the royal family.

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Star Trek – Not So Boldly Going

The upcoming statement isn’t exactly going to set the internet on fire, but here goes: I’ve got a bit of a beef with Harlan Ellison, namely for his oft-crowed, dependably nerd-enraging assertion that the OG Star Trek series was nothing more than a “cop show in space.” Although said statement does serve to nicely deflate the pomposity that has grown around the franchise’s later incarnations, it also dismisses the very factor that made the concept so memorable for a casual fan such as myself; namely that earnest essence of parable-rich weirdness which went far beyond the cardboard sets and aliens with Russian accents. Computers being talked to death, OK Corrals in space, evil designated by goatees: these are the things that linger past the phasers and prime directives.

Chris Pine as Captain Kirk: back in the Captain's chair for the first time
Chris Pine as Captain Kirk: back in the Captain's seat... for the first time

Star Trek, director J.J. Abrams’ much-ballyhooed attempt at giving the ravaged franchise a reboot, doesn’t exactly prove Harlan right, but it doesn’t really go out of its way to find new frontiers, either. Although undeniably a lot of fun — along with his standard snappy patter, TV vet Abrams’ command of both pacing and big screen environs has grown visibly since Mission: Impossible 3 — the final impression is of a slightly self-conscious undertaking kept so busy appeasing both nervous hardcores (Kirk still likes green chicks!) and newbies alike (but he also misses his father, in easily recognizable blockbuster fashion!) that it never quite manages to blaze its own trail.

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Wendy and Lucy and Enchanted April – DVDs for the Week

Wendy and Lucy (Oscilloscope)

Wendy and Lucy from Oscilloscope Laboratories
Wendy and Lucy from Oscilloscope Laboratories

Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, a road movie that captured both the possibility and freedom of the weekend road trip and the tensions of anxieties of old friends who reunite only to find they have nothing in common anymore (not to mention the distinct shades and textures of Oregon’s backroads), was one of my favorite films of 2007. New York-based filmmaker Reichardt returned to the Pacific Northwest and reunited with writer Jon Raymond for Wendy and Lucy, an even less idealized look at life on the road. This isn’t the romantic road movie of Alexander Supertramp in Into the Wild. This is survival, revealed in all the mundane details of a documentary portrait and the simple power of Michelle Williams’ unadorned performance as Wendy, a single young woman heading off to find work on Alaska in a used car with only her dog, Lucy, for company and support. When Lucy runs off and Wendy tracks her to a group of young drifters gathered around a bonfire, Reichardt keeps her camera back to watch Williams’ careful and wary body language tell the story of her vulnerability. That vulnerability isn’t simply physical. With no fixed address, no cell phone and dwindling savings (all in cash), she’s practically off the grid. Every penny is accounted for. She collects bottles for the deposit and sweeps the seats for change.

The disarming directness and seeming simplicity of Reichardt’s direction can lull you into thinking that there isn’t anything going on, when in fact the film is built on a multiplicity of details and insights, never commented upon but essential to understanding the character and her situation. The subtlety of the plot’s emotional undertones hit hard, once the audience feels them via osmosis. Riechard could be directing a short on O2 broadband packages for all the difference it makes to the intelligence with which ideas are presented. Small thoughts and an endless supply of close reading material just appears as you’re watching. And there’s a reason they don’t jump out at you: they are the everyday details of living in the modern world as experienced by a person living on the edge. A setback that carries a costly but merely inconvenient price-tag to most of us is the disaster that pulls the rug from under Wendy. She’s been sleeping in her car all this time and now has to find a place to sleep (there’s nothing in the budget for a hotel room). Sleeping rough in the nearby woods, she awakens to find a hobo rummaging through her stuff and mumbling to himself. Her vulnerability is never more apparent than in this scene, which Reichert shoots in hard close-up on the intruder’s wild-eyed expression (Larry Fessenden, who is terrifyingly good at looking bedraggled and scary and utterly unpredictable) and Wendy’s paralyzed terror. It’s a terrifying moment and this intrusion into her personal space, as he rifles through her belongings while she wraps herself up in paralyzed terror, is a step away from rape or assault. The ripples of minor obstacles have major repercussions. So to do the small kindnesses of a security guard (Wally Dalton) and an understanding mechanic (Will Patton, who fills his tiny role with life and character). Wendy and Lucy is tender, tough and uncompromising, photographed with a disarming directness and seeming simplicity that looks almost naked next to the dramatic constructions of Hollywood road movies. It just makes her precariousness all them more real.

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Interview: Patrice Leconte – “Life is already too serious”

French auteur Patrice Leconte made his international reputation with the chilly yet emotionally intense Monsieur Hire (which gave French comic Michel Blanc his first dramatic role) and his subsequent string of rapturous, often tragic romantic dramas (The Hairdresser’s Husband and The Widow Of St. Pierre), tales of friendship (The Man On The Train), and the sly, stinging satire Ridicule. And those are just the films that make it across the Atlantic.

Patrice Leconte
Patrice Leconte

So it may surprise some of his fans to know that the film school graduate and former cartoonist first made his reputation in France with second film, Les Bronzes, a goofball comedy released on video in North America as French Fried Vacation. A huge hit, it launched a series of popular comedies. He changed the course of his career with Monsieur Hire but recently returned to the comedies that began his career: My Best Friend, the reunion comedy Le bronzes 3: amis pour la vie and La guerre des miss / The War of the Misses (scheduled to play the 2009 Seattle International Film Festival).

But when it comes to love stories, Leconte’s cinema is all about the sensual quality of romance and sex. He makes the desire and longing palpable. He captures sex in the sensation of hands stroking flesh and bodies making contact and his camera is like a hungry lover caressing his love. The objects of his desire take on an idealized quality because Leconte presents them as seen by our protagonists.

Two of his most sensual films debuted DVD this week from Severin: The Hairdresser’s Husband (1990) and The Perfume of Yvonne (1994), the second and third films in his “obsession trilogy” begun with the Monsieur Hire). It’s the first release of any kind for The Perfume of Yvonne in the U.S. And if they are dramatically slight compared to other films in his career, they are completely given over to the fleeting pleasures of desire and passion, the fragility of love, the effervescent joys of physical love and the bittersweet emotions revived by remembrance.

I interviewed Patrice Leconte in 2004, when he was the guest of honor at the 2004 Seattle International Film Festival. Conducted on Monday, June 14, 2004, I previously published a version of the interview for GreenCine. I run this revised version to celebrate the release for the two new Leconte DVDs. Though fluent in English, M. Leconte is more comfortable in French and he relied upon interpreter Jerome Patoux to translate his answers (M. Leconte understood my end of the conversation just fine).

Many of your films are very romantic, but they are also about the intensity of love and friendship. In Monsieur Hire it’s an obsessive relationship, while in The Widow Of St. Pierre, the Captain and wife (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) are so in love that they will do anything for love and its transformative. I find that unique in your films. It’s not just about friendship but how powerful these emotions can be and how it changes people’s lives.

I always thought that cinema was an incredible to tell love stories. And then moreover, I didn’t really know what else you could tell but love stories. Anyway that’s what interests me the most. You can take people who are living a love story really, really far. You can take off from reality and then you can be much more intense than what you would be in real life. And it’s true that The Widow Of St. Pierre is, first of all, an incredible love story. The love story in Intimate Strangers is must more toned down and suggested, but in the end they are all love stories.

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Ramin Bahrani’s Chop Shop: “It’s Alive!”

[ed. note: Director Ramin Bahrani arrives in Seattle to conduct a “Master Class” workshop for Northwest Film Forum on Tuesday, April 28. On Wednesday, April 29, Bahrani will introduce a special screening of his new film, Goodbye Solo, with a Q&A to follow, also at NWFF. To mark the occasion, Jim Emerson has allowed us to reprint 2007 piece he wrote on Bahrani and his earlier films. Thank you, Jim.]

[Originally published on Jim Emerson’s Scanner’s blog on September 7, 2007.]

Alejandro Polanco plays... Alejandro
Alejandro Polanco plays... Alejandro

Within the first 30 seconds or so of Ramin Bahrani’s Chop Shop, you know you’re in good hands. I’ve written quite a bit about how much I loved Bahrani’s debut feature, Man Push Cart, from its opening shot to its final ingenious moment, and Chop Shop is a piece of filmmaking that is every bit as observant and assured. So, that first shot: A cluster of day workers stand in wait. This could be anywhere — California, Texas, Mexico, South America — but the first thing you sense is that it’s not: it’s this particular place, even if we don’t know the name of it yet. The camera (hand-held, but not shakycam style) pans to the left as a truck pulls up. A guy gets out and picks two men for the job, telling a persistent kid, “I don’t need you today” — and the accent is unmistakably NY. As the pickup pulls out, the kid hops into the back.

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Deadly Sweet, She Beast, Jean-Claude and Captain Kirk – DVDs for the Week

Deadly Sweet (Cult Epics)

"Deadly Sweet" from Cult Epics
“Deadly Sweet” from Cult Epics

Shot in England by an Italian director with a French leading man and a Swedish sex-doll leading lady (both dubbed into Italian), Deadly Sweet is advertised as a giallo (an Italian horror with cruel and flamboyant murders) but is really a vague murder mystery romp directed as a pop-art object. Jean-Louis Trintignant stars as an out-of-work actor who spots sex-kitten Ewa Aulin at a disco and rushes her out of a murder scene where she’s the prime suspect. As they flee down the steps of the fire escape, the screen shifts into grainy black and white and fragments into split screens and repeated images while the percussion of the metallic march fills the soundtrack. That’s just a taste of the stylistic playroom to come. Tinto Brass went on to a career in soft-core erotic movies (most notably the grotesque Caligula), but here he’s embracing the creative energy and anything-goes culture of sixties cinema and tossing every impulse into the film.

The story is incomprehensible, having something to do with a stolen diary with apparently embarrassing disclosures, a dwarf who shadows the couple through the city, a group of thugs who kidnap Aulin, strip her down to her undergarments and tie her up in a kinky scene that evokes Bettie Page bondage. And yet it is a film of marvelous energy and delirious imagery. The style is appropriated from comic books, experimental cinema, the French New Wave and the British New Wave, with special attention to Godard and Richard Lester, Antonioni’s Blow-Up (a visit to a photography studio turns into an impromptu fashion shoot) and TV’s Batman (graffiti-esque word-balloon punctuations in a fight sequence). In other scenes, he sends the actors into the streets and shoots cinema verité style, following them through the foot traffic from a concealed camera and building the scene out of snatches reaction shots from the observers. It all ends up at “a happening,” a big counter-culture ball filled with hippies and social butterflies where Brass films the winding progress of Trintignant and Aulin through the crowd as if it were a concert movie. Aulin looks exactly like the kind of baby doll playgirl to be found at such a party, but Trintignant (who mugs it up in other comic scenes) it still pretty stiff and establishment in such a free and freaky atmosphere. It’s miscasting of the highest order and it matters not a whit. Brass is having a great time and it is infectious.

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Nagisa Oshima and In the Realm of the Senses

[originally published in a slightly different form in the Oregon Daily Emerald in 1977]

Nagisha Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1977) was a cause célèbre even before it officially opened in the United States, thanks to a bizarre Customs Office decision to confiscate a print rather than allow the film to be screened at the New York Film Festival. This censorship was particularly conspicuous directed, as it was, against the first film with hardcore sequences by a certifiably “serious” director; by 1977 Oshima was well-regarded, if not widely-known, for creative, pathmarking films like Boy, (1969)Death by Hanging, (1968) and his best film, The Ceremony (1971). Oshima’s projects had blended the roles of fearless provocateur and serious artist, most successfully in The Ceremony; in Senses, as in his earlier Night and Fog in Japan, the provocateur took center stage, with unhappy aesthetic results.

Tatsuya Fuji gets serious
Tatsuya Fuji: the aggressor

Commercially, though, the publicity could hardly have been more favorable: an award-winning director and subtitles to bring out the art film crowd, and censorship for the First Amendment crowd, with maybe also a genteel slice of the overcoat crowd (knowing it was the “real thing”). In combination with the acclaim the film garnered, it created what passes in the marginal realm of the art film an international sensation, becoming the first widely-distributed Oshima film; from there his career inflated with bigger budgets (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), with David Bowie, no less)and more provocative themes (Max, Mon Amour, (1987) reportedly a tale of romantic attraction between a character played by Charlotte Rampling, and an ape named Max); after further work was interrupted by serious health problems he ended his career with one of his most compelling and effective films, Gohatto (Taboo) (1999), about gay sex in the military.

By the standards of domestic porn, even in its time, Senses was fairly tame stuff, with hardcore sequences too brief and intermittent for serious overcoaters, but it does include, by my unofficial count, along with heterosexual couplings: masturbation, gay sex, voyeurism, sado-masochism, bondage, rape, intergenerational sex, hints of sex play with a child, symbolic bestiality, dismemberment, castration, a sexual act of murder, and necrophilia. In addition, the soundtrack contains enough groaning, moaning, sighing, panting, grunting, and heavy breathing for a wrestling tournament.

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24 City – The Children of Mao and Microsoft

Jia Zhiang-ke’s style, temperament, and circumstances uniquely suit him to chronicle his subject: turn-of-the-century China. His early films focused on youth, dislocated between the reality of, the backwater areas where they live, and the beckoning promise of an urbanized “modernity” of their dreams. More recently, he set The World among young workers in an urban theme park consisting of of scaled-down versions of international landmarks like the Eiffel Tower : faux cosmopolitanism as a part daily life. If Godard famously examined the children of Marx and Coca Cola, Jia’s subjects are offspring of Mao and Microsoft.

The factory
The factory

His newest, 24 City, is framed—at least for a while—as a documentary reporting the transformation of a Cold-War-vintage urban weapons factory—on what has become prime real estate—into “24 City,” a five-star residential and resort complex. The movie seems to telegraph Its formula in early sequences that interview some of the the factory’s first workers: earnest, idealistic, stoic, and hard-working, in contrast to later subjects who seem cheerfully crass and unapologetically materialistic. But Jia is as much trickster as chronicler, and deftly mixes faux and “real” footage to subvert that facile formula.

The factory opened in the late 1950s, and an early interviewee, a self-assured efficient-seeming technocrat, recounts a working life of commitment and diligence, patriotically serving nation and factory. As hard as he works, though, he describes himself as a piker next to his early mentor, who worked harder and used equipment more resourcefully, ingeniously finding ways to use worn tools lesser workers would long ago have discarded as beyond useability. The mentor himself then appears to confirm this, smiling a bit diffidently as he recounts never missing a day of work– holidays and Sundays included—and working occasional nights as well. And he confirms, and even embellishes the accounts of re-using worn equipment until it brings to mind the story in The Searchers: ordinary man rides a horse until it’s dead; a Comanche gets on that horse, rides it for 20 miles, then eats it.

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The Wrestler and Nickelodeon on DVD, The Wages of Fear on Blu-ray – DVDs for the week

The Wrestler (Fox)

“Warm” and “human” are not two words you associate with Darren Aronofsky, but in The Wrestler he is both, thanks in large part to the heartbreakingly open and vulnerable performance from Mickey Rourke, the comeback story of 2008. It’s been a long time coming for Rourke, who has been doing tremendous, unshowy work in American indies and oddball pictures for years, all in supporting roles and character parts. But it still makes a great story given the parallels to the film, which is about a once-famous, largely-forgotten, pummeled-into-scar-tissue pro wrestler whose glory days were twenty years ago.

Mickey Rourke: The Ram out of the ring
Mickey Rourke: The Ram bundled up against the cold world outside of the ring

Randy “The Ram” Robinson still lives in that past, at least as far as his taste in hair metal music goes, and pushes an increasingly broken body into the ring for regional cards in the show-biz hinterlands of rural New Jersey for a few hundred dollars a night. At least until a heart attack forces retirement on him and sends him to try to connect with the aging stripper he loves (Marisa Tomei, equally vulnerable but more wary) and reconnect with the daughter he all but abandoned (Evan Rachel Wood). Aronofsky gives his blue collar world of trailer parks and strip clubs an understated authenticity and Rourke makes The Ram a flesh and blood character of natural generosity who just needs to be loved can only find it in front of the crowd. It grabs for the heart and it squeezes, but with calloused, knocked-about brand of sentimentality. The accompanying 42-minute Within the Ring is a superior behind-the-scenes documentary directed with a rough-around-the-edge sensibility that matches both the film and the culture of its characters.

Read my interview with Darren Aronofsky here.

Nickelodeon / The Last Picture Show (Sony)

Peter Bogdanovich had wanted to make Nickelodeon in black-and-white, as he had The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon (“In color it feels made up,” he explains, “In black and white it seems more real”), but coming to the project after a pair of flops (Daisy Miller and At Long Last Love), the studios weren’t very accommodating. So he turned to retrospective reconstruction to desaturate the color and create a black-and-white version for this “Director’s Cut”-branded revision. Keep Reading

Interview: JT Petty, The Burrowers and the “alien territory” of the horror western

Clancy Brown and William Mapother take the first watch
Clancy Brown and William Mapother take the first watch

JT Petty’s third feature The Burrowers is another of his distinctively unusual takes on a generally conventional genre. Set in the Dakota Territory of 1879, where survival is already a challenge, Petty brings a starkly unglamorized sensibility to life and mortality on the Dakota prairie: it opens with a boy come a courting to a farmgirl only to discover a massacre and what appears to be the abduction of the girl. Clancy Brown and William Mapother, who have faces that look like they’ve survived tough times, are perfect as the leaders in a hunting party after a kidnapped girl: confident but unpretentious and very respectful of the country. But they think they’re tracking an Indian raiding party. What they find are fetid holes in the prairie ground filled with bone and blood and sinew, as if a body has been digested by the Earth. Which is close to the truth. Petty plays the unforgiving tensions between the settlers and the native tribes with palpable animosity, the distrust so great that their fragile truce snaps before they even take on the burrowers, the underground creatures that have been hunting on the prairie. He keeps the threat visually vague and the insect-like burrowers shadowy and smudged, creating his horror out of mystery and suggestion, but it’s nothing supernatural or alien. It’s a real western/horror/monster movie with a devoted frontier sensibility and loving nods to The Searchers.

The film debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival and toured various festivals dedicated to films of the fantastic but was otherwise released direct to DVD by Lionsgate (they did the same thing with Ryuhei Kitamura’s English language debut Midnight Meat Train, adapted from the story by Clive Barker). The film deserves better. I spoke with Petty over the phone a couple of weeks before the April 21 DVD release.

Why a horror western?

I’m always trying to get a little bit outside the genre. I think people who watch scary movies now are such a sophisticated group of watchers. We’re probably the first generation that takes multiple viewings for granted, that you can see anything as many times as you want to see it. We’re sort of the video generation and the twenty-year-olds now just assume they can see anything they want anytime they want as many times as they want. So what’s already been done, we’ve seen so many times that I think it’s hard to actually scare people inside that framework. So once you get a little outside the genre, you can hopefully surprise people again.

What makes the combination of western and horror so resonant for you as a filmmaker?

A lot of it is just they’re two of the most cinematic experiences that you have watching a movie. If a horror movie does well, it’s entirely because of the direction, it’s classically not the performance. All the things that do make a horror movie pornographic also make it exceptionally cinematic. If you have a well directed horror movie with a crappy story and bad actors, it can still be a pretty awesome horror movie. And to some extent, the same thing with the western. All of those spaghetti westerns with dubbed voices and obvious cartoonish characters but have this amazing cinematic strength to them still resonate. So I guess horror and western movies are both, in a very specific way, the most cinematic movie you can make. Is that a fair statement to make?

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Reign of Terror and The Yankee Clipper – DVDs for the week

Reign of Terror (aka The Black Book)

Reign of Terror - finally in a decent DVD edition
Reign of Terror – finally in a decent DVD edition

Anthony Mann’s Reign of Terror (1949) has my vote for the most unique film noir ever made. All the hallmarks of great film noir – scheming and backstabbing characters, hard-boiled dialogue, narrow urban streets and dark alleys wet with rain and crowded with disreputable figures, and of course the shadowy visuals and extreme camera angles of an unpredictable world – are dropped into the chaos and cruelty of the French Revolution, here run by the most ruthless gang of criminals ever seen. Richard Basehart’s Maximilian Robespierre (“Don’t call me Max!”) is the icy criminal mastermind and Robert Cummings puts on his best sneering tough-guy act as an undercover agent who is sent by Marat to infiltrate the Committee of Public Safety and break Robespierre’s death grip on the revolution. Wouldn’t you know that Cummings’ Paris contact is former lover Arlene Dahl? Their reunion is a shock of recognition quickly turned into jaded indifference, wounded hearts playing at calloused detachment while trading hard-boiled expressions of lingering betrayal. Of course, passion still simmers under those cool poses of apathy. Arnold Moss is Robespierre’s mercenary henchman Fouché, an oily, enterprising operative whose allegiance is only to himself, and Charles McGraw has a small role as one of Robespierre’s more vicious thugs.

The plot turns on the scramble for Robespierre’s “black book,” where he’s listed the names of enemies and victims soon to be condemned and sent to the guillotine, and the subsequent gang war free-for-all as everyone looks to grab power by grabbing this tome is a perfectly appropriate metaphor for the chaos and cutthroat power struggle of the real life reign of terror.

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