Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

Aleksandr Sokurov’s Setting Sun, Tony Manero in Chile and Post-War Foyle – DVDs of the Week

The Sun (Lorber Films)

The third film in Aleksandr Sokurov’s continuing “Men in Power” series, impressionistic portraits of dictators and despots that seek to explore the inner lives of enigmatic figures, observes Japanese Emperor Hirohito on the eve of Japan’s defeat in the final days of World War II. As played by Issei Ogata and observed by Sokurov in the both intimate and alienated settings of his Spartan compound, he’s an almost childlike figure trapped in his identity of a living deity and rituals of deference that further separate him from the world. He’s not even allowed to open a door himself, which leads to an almost comic moment when, leaving a meeting with General Douglas MacArthur (Robert Dawson), he is momentarily stymied by the workings of a doorknob. Or is he simply savoring the moment, like a child suddenly allowed to play with a forbidden toy?

Issei Ogata in The Sun

Ogata’s performance is a wonder of affectation, distracted (behavior) and moments of dazed confusion, behavior no one would dare comment upon. Yet it’s clear that he is more aware of the contradictions of his position than any of his servants and officials, and that he understands that, in a strange way, Japan’s defeat becomes his opportunity to become a mere mortal. His response is complex, nuanced, and hidden in layers of protocol and ritual, yet it’s obvious that this reluctant Emperor is happiest studying marine biology and rhapsodizing over the wonders of the hermit crab.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Festivals, Horror

SIFF 2010: PV Dispatch 3 – Midnight in the Garden of SIFF (Week Two)

Is Amer (Belgium, dirs: Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani) a giallo—that deliriously stylish brand of Italian horror that (at its best) swirled overripe color and perverse violence with visceral imagery, voyeuristic tendencies and flamboyant camerawork—or a portrait of life imagined as a giallo? The story (such as it is) of Amer comes down to three apparently defining moments in the life of a highly imaginative (perhaps borderline mad) heroine: as a young girl trying to take in the charged emotional atmosphere surrounding her grandfather’s death (including incantations cast by a superstitious old servant and the acid-flashback imagery triggered when she spies her parents having sex), as a teenager whose shopping trip with mom explodes in sexual awareness when she comes across a motorcycle gang (are the objectifying shots of the wind wrapping her skirt around her legs, her breasts, her pouty, overripe lips their POV or her fantasy of their desire?), as a grown woman revisiting the family estate, a neglected place filled with overgrown vegetation, unresolved issues and a knife-wielding stalker (whose “reality” is as questionable as anything else seen through the mind’s eye of this woman). It’s a film seen through keyholes and ajar doors, down hallways and staircases, through windows and under doors, but mostly through the overheated mind’s eye of Ana as she transforms family drama and every day encounters into hothouse moments of sexual desire and repression, voyeurism, conspiracy, witchcraft, stalking and murder (or sees the lurid and dangerous reality under the surface that no one else notices).

Any objective understanding of the narrative is tangled up in the subjective experience of Ana (played by three different actress) and the expressionist delirium served up by Cattet and Forzani. But this isn’t mere tribute to the genre, it’s a celebration of the style, the texture, the psycho-sexual atmosphere of the best films, recreated in a triptych that could be a horror film, a coming-of-age story or a twisted Walter Mitty adventure from a Dario Argento fanatic. It isn’t necessary to know the genre to enjoy the film. While it borrows from more films than I can identify (not simply visually but its choice selection of soundtrack themes as well), it’s not commenting on any individual film so much as appropriating the style and sensibility for its own purposes. It doesn’t merely acknowledge the expressionist possibilities in a genre beloved horror fans but unknown to most people, it condenses it into a concentrated extract: a 90-minute hit of the essence of giallo as a surreal subjective journey, part sexual awakening, part repressed fear, part rarified death dream. And while the cinematic phantasmagoria is more interesting than any psychological reading or narrative understanding, it’s like mainlining decades of giallo highlights in a single screening. Quite a trip indeed.

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Directors, Stanley Kubrick

Spartacus on Blu-ray — Just what is “good enough”?

Among the featured reviews at my MSN home video column this week is Universal’s Blu-ray edition of Spartacus: 50th Anniversary. While I didn’t watch the entire Blu-ray (my review of the film itself was based on earlier viewings of the film, including the Criterion DVD), I viewed over an hour of the disc and found that it looked quite good, an improvement over Criterion’s 2001 DVD in clarity, if not quite in color, which I found it tilting a little toward red in the skin tones, but not to any egregious level. (For the record, I have a Panasonic 50-inch plasma screen that is now about three years old.)

Kirk Douglas as Spartacus: Do I look waxy to you?

But I also found a small but fierce uprising taking Universal to task for an inferior job of mastering, led by film archivist and restoration expert Robert Harris, who produced the 1991 theatrical reconstruction and restoration. (I thought about framing this with Harris a modern-day Spartacus leading a consumer uprising against the corporate masters, with Universal standing in for Rome, but thought better of it.) In a post in the Home Theater Forum (launching a thread numbering over 200 posts as of this writing), Harris decries the loss of detail due to the overuse of digital noise reduction (DNR) technology on ten-year-old HD master, instead of returning to the original materials with the latest technology and create a new, definitive HD master. There are some excellent frame captures at the AV Science Forum that support his criticisms. The comparisons between the DVD, HD DVD and Blu-ray images show greater clarity in the high-def formats, but also a “waxy,” smoothed-over quality, especially in the human faces. On DVD, we see a softness of detail, but on Blu-ray the increased film clarity is accompanied by increased digital grain.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Directors, DVD, John Ford, Westerns

Stagecoach arrives in a new Criterion edition, plus No Orchids for Miss Blandish and Silver Lode – DVDs of the Week

Stagecoach (Criterion) DVD and Blu-ray

John Ford’s classic western is a landmark of the genre for so many reasons: mature, classically constructed and superbly directed, it made a star of John Wayne, revitalized the western genre and introduced Ford to the breathtaking landscape of Monument Valley, which would become the mythic backdrop of his west. It was once nicknamed Grand Hotel on wheels but Ford’s mix of high culture, working folk and disreputable characters tossed together under the threat of Apache attack is much more egalitarian and, for all of the melodramatic potential of the personal stories that collide, human than the famous, glossy MGM melodrama. A cross-section of the high and low of the new America setting the west—from a haughty southern socialite (Louise Platt) out to reunite with her cavalry officer husband to a “dance hall girl” (Claire Trevor) driven out of town by the new, judgmental forces of morality, from an Eastern whisky drummer (the appropriately named Donald Meek) to a lovable souse of a country doctor (Thomas Mitchell) who serves as the wry commentator of the changing social fabric of the west—board the stage to Lordsburg as an Apache uprising brews on the plains.

John Wayne's entrance in Stagecoach: a star is born

John Wayne’s Ringo Kid is the last of the passengers to be introduced but his entrance is a gift to this young actor, fresh out of his apprenticeship as a B-movie cowboy hero and handpicked for the role by the mentoring director. As the stage comes upon a lone figure on the trail, the camera rushes in to a close-up of this young cowboy, escaped from prison and hauling his saddle behind him (his horse died in the escape), and reveals a soon-to-be-star completely at ease in the desert and on the screen, waving down the audience as he waves down the coach. It’s not that Wayne is a great actor, but Ford presents him as a magnificent screen presence and Wayne communicates a sense of justice and integrity in every piece of dialogue and movement.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Festivals

SIFF 2010: An (Inauspicious) Evening at the Neptune

(revised and updated Saturday, May 22)

I spent Friday, May 21—the first day of regular screenings—at the Neptune in the University District, a fine old theater with personality and history. It’s recently added a digital projector for 3D screenings, but those studio pictures run off of what is essentially a massive hard drive of digital information. For the films that arrive on digital video for SIFF screenings, most of them independent productions, a different sort of player is needed.

The first show got off to a rocky start when the film, projected digitally from a low-fidelity source (not the 35mm print promised in the catalog), suddenly broke up in digital noise and stopped. The venue manager explained that it was the “First test run of the projector” (she probably meant the player, not the projector) but that didn’t explain why it was so poorly calibrated for the film. Air Doll suffered from serious stuttering images, with panning shots jerking across the screen and the slow, careful movements to the actors broken up like a strobed image. While first it appeared intermittent, it became clear it was cyclical: a few seconds of (relatively) smooth movement, then a few seconds of rapid-fire jerkyness. That’s in addition to the bleary, badly-registered color and generally blurry image with scan lines visible throughout, not to mention the sudden intrusion of the soundtrack to another film (this one in English and apparently a documentary) suddenly cutting in halfway through the film. The sound was fixed (after I brought it to the attention of a theater employee) but the motion problems were never addressed.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Festivals, Musicals

SIFF 2010: PV Dispatch 2 – A Tale of Two Rock Bio-pics, plus quick notes

How to do a rock and roll film is intertwined with why to do a rock and roll film. Two biopics of rock icons (one more iconic than the other) play at SIFF this weekend, but genre aside, there isn’t much in common with the two.

Nowhere Boy (dir: Sam Taylor Wood, UK) is the early life of John Lennon, the man who would put together the Beatles as a teenage boy. As fellow critic Tom Keogh observed in a post-screening conversation, this may be the first film to imagine the meeting of John Lennon and Paul McCartney on the screen (read Tom’s capsule review at the Seattle Times here). What’s so marvelous about the film (including that meeting) is that it isn’t elevated into some mythological status: none of those clichéd lines where someone in the group or some prescient member of their early audience predicting their greatness or prophesying how they will “change the future of music.” These are British boys brought together by a restless, emotionally knotted teenage Lennon, a teenager whose artistic impulses and rebellious tendencies serve him poorly in high school but drive him to create a skiffle band. All they have in common is a love of American rock and roll and the charge of playing in front of an audience. Aaron Johnson (of Kick-Ass) is utterly convincing as the “Goon Show”-loving John, raised by his Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Uncle George, whose smoldering issues of abandonment by his mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), are fanned into flames when George dies and Julia suddenly reappears (“the one with red hair,” is how John refers to her at the funeral) and becomes a part of his increasingly emotionally turbulent life. Nowhere Boy shines a light on details from a part of Lennon’s life that few beyond the most passionate fans know—John’s reconnection with his mother and the first shows of his proto-Beatles band, the Quarrymen—but it’s rewarding because the story is not about the formative life of a star, but the emotional life of a boy who never knew his father and was abandoned by his mother (it’s not that simple, of course, but to a teenage boy it sure feels that way). It’s also the story of sisters—both mothers to the artistically inclined and reflexively rebellious schoolboy—and the choices of the past that continue to haunt and divide them.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Festivals

SIFF 2010: PV Dispatch 1 – Cooking in the Soul Kitchen and an Opening Night Extra

SIFF held its opening night in Benaroya Hall (for the first time) with a typically SIFF opening night film: The Extra Man, with Paul Dano as twentysomething literature teacher Louis Ives, a shy young man mired in sexual confusion, a fantasy life born of F. Scott Fitzgerald novels and the eccentrics in his Manhattan apartment building, notably his roommate. Kevin Kline is the life of this rather precious coming of age film as Henry Harrison, a former playwright and full time “extra man” (an escort to the wealthy society widows who like a man on their arm for social events) who rents out a room in his walkup to make ends meet.

Directors and co-screenwriters Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (adapting the novel by Jonathan Ames) fail to capture the lively personalities that made their fiction debut, American Splendor, so splendid. Dano is less a man out of time than simply removed from the life around him (his thin, tentative smile and shrinking violet body language presents repression without suggesting the yearnings beneath it) and the film’s evocation of his inner life plays like bad community theater rather than a richly detailed fantasy of an idealized existence. But then there’s Kline, whose theatrical, judgmental Harrison is a genuine eccentric with a full life behind the flourishes and “a strange power over people,” in Louis’ own words. “It’s my constant disapproval,” explains Harrison, tossed off by Kline as an aside to the matter at hand. “Many people find it paternal.” John C. Reilly has less to work with offers a warmly vulnerable man under glaring eyes and a wild-man beard. This is just the kind of film that SIFF regulars have come to expect from opening night: mainstream moviemaking with indie colors and oddball edges just quirky enough not to offend.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Science Fiction

Japanese Outlaws of the Sixties: Nagisa Oshima and Gamera – DVDs of the Week

Oshima’s Outlaw Sixties (Eclipse Series 21) (Criterion)

Stylistically adventurous and brazenly confrontational in his filmmaking, Nagisa Oshima was Japan’s young turk of New Wave filmmaking: formally challenging, politically provocative, stylistically audacious and instinctively confrontational. That kind of approach was a bad fit for the studio system, as you can imagine, and he jumped out of the restrictions of conservative studio filmmaking for a five-year freelance sojourn before he and his wife, actress Akiko Koyama, formed an independent production company, Sozo-sha. Oshima’s Outlaw Sixties (Eclipse Series 21) (Criterion), the five-disc box set from Criterion’s no-frills budget-minded label Eclipse, collects the initial five narrative features from this company. To my gaijin eyes appear to be marvelously lurid genre pieces and exploitation films, less reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard’s politically laced genres blasts that Seijun Suzuki’s mad sixties cinema. But there is something dangerous under the big bold style, which Oshima throws across a succession of CinemaScope canvases, and there’s a familiar strain of self-destruction and obsession behind his outlaw figures.

Three Resurrected Drunkards

Critics more informed than I about both the director and the socio-political culture of sixties Japan make the case that these are in fact rife with political subtext, defined by Oshima’s disappointment with the political left and the student movements of the past and expressed through the violent actions of criminals and killers and repressed citizens who crack under the pressure and indulge in unrestrained excess. (The film notes by Michael Koresky on each disc, the only supplement of the stripped-down release, suggest the same, but the essays don’t make any specific connections between the films and the events and/or cultural conditions that the films confront.)

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Musicals

California Dreamin’ and 30 years of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School – DVDs of the Week

California Dreamin’ (E1)

Director Cristian Nemescu was a rising star of what has been branded the Romanian New Wave when he and his sound editor were killed in a car wreck near the end of post-production of his first feature. As a tribute to Nemescu, the producer released California Dreamin’ as is. The director would likely have tightened the film up some but his dryly hilarious presentation of skewed cultural identity and appropriation, his blithely scathing portrait of bureaucratic impotence and ingrained corruption in post-CeauÅŸescu Romania (circa 1999), and the way he appreciates his characters even as he mercilessly satirizes their schemes and scams fills the film with a generosity of spirit and a richness of detail. Even at a leisurely two-and-a-half hours, there is plenty happening on screen.

Americans confront the new Romania in "California Dreamin'"

“Everyone has their reasons,” was the motto of Renoir’s Rules of the Game. In Nemescu’s miserable little Romanian village, everyone has their agenda. NATO peacekeeping mission commander Captain Jones (Armand Assante in a gruff growl) wants to get his shipment of military equipment to Kosovo. Station manager Doiaru (Razvan Vasilescu), who runs his railroad position like a gangster and pillages every shipment that rolls through, blows off the government orders and sidelines them in a petty show of power and insolence (his reasons are slowly revealed in the flashbacks to World War II). His teenage daughter just wants to get out of the village and sees the arrival of the Americans as, if not her ticket out, at least a diversion for a while. The factory workers just want to stage their strike for maximum effect and find themselves stymied by Doiaru and overshadowed by the Americans. And the Mayor sees the captive audience as an unprecedented opportunity to promote his town and its absurd effort to transform into a high-concept tourist destination (complete with a copy of the Eiffel Tower and a Texas-themed hotel).

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Festivals

SIFF 2010: Once More, Into the Breach

SIFF-web-stuff

Update: The complete schedule now online at SIFF website here.

The 36th Seattle International Film Festival, still the largest (and, at 25 days, the longest) film festival in the United States, opens on Thursday, May 20 with Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s The Extra Man, the Sundance premiere starring Paul Dano and Kevin Kline, and ends (at least symbolically; there are a few more straggler screenings, but I digress) on Sunday, June 13 with Get Low, starring Robert Duvall, Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek. In between, 256 features (narrative and documentary) and 150 shorts are scheduled to play (the term “unspool” no longer seems appropriate in a cinema culture where so many presentations are digital projection) in venues all over the Seattle area.

In addition to the familiar Seattle venues—the Egyptian on Capital Hill, the Uptown in Queen Anne, the Neptune in the University District, SIFF Cinema at Seattle Center and Pacific Place downtown—there’s the opening night at Benaroya Hall, week-long stints in West Seattle (at the Admiral Theatre), Everett (the Everett Performing Arts Center) and Kirkland (Kirkland Performing Arts Center), and special events at the Paramount, the Triple Door and the Pacific Science Center IMAX.

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