Yi Yi (8/4/12)

Yi YiMovie One Hundred Eighty Two

Yi Yi is a film about life as shown through three generations of the Jian family.

The main players of the Jian family, from youngest to oldest are young son, Yang-Yang (Johnathan Chang), teenage daughter, Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee), father, NJ (Nien-Jen Wu). NJ’s wife, mother-in-law, and brother-in-law are also involved. Yang-Yang, who gets teased by a group of girls at school receives a camera and takes pictures of the world from his perspective but also of the things people cannot see for themselves, like the back of their head. Ting-Ting finds herself in a love triangle with her best friend and her boyfriend. She also blames herself for her grandmother being a coma. NJ is involved in trying to save his company by dealing with a Japanese videogame developer. He also runs into a former love and has to deal with the reasons of why he left her.

Yi Yi is a film nearly impossible to summarize without running through the entire course of the 173 minute movie. The film is about many things but also very few things. It’s about life. The film begins with a wedding and ends with a funeral and everything between but it is not exactly a standard narrative. Since the story revolves around a family, everything is connected and each member does have their own story but the overall story involves the family. As I said, it’s difficult to put into words but it is beautiful.

Much like an Ozu film, Yi Yi focuses on a family at a specific time of their lives in a very personal manner. The performances are nothing short of incredible and the dialogue and interactions are all totally realistic and grounded. Each Jian family member can be connected with on some level, even though they are different ages, sexes, and maybe even cultures than us. It gives Yi Yi a touching presentation regardless of these factors and even though there is no action, the drama of daily life is enough here.

Yang-Yang is my favorite family member and I almost wish Yi Yi was solely about him. Every time that cute little kid was on screen I didn’t want the scene to end. Every time the scene did end, however, I was not disappointed by what was now happening, I was completely gripped by it. While not a film I would recommend to everyone due to its length and lack of conventional narrative, but if the premise sounds interesting, I think you will find a lot to love in Yi Yi.

I give it 4 Yang-Yang taking pictures of out 5.

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Gomorrah (8/3/12)

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Gomorrah presents an unflinching, realistic view of modern organized crime.

The film begins with several gangsters being killed while in a tanning salon which begins a feud between the DiLaurio syndicate and the separatists. There are five intertwining tales of people affected by the Camorra: Totó is young a delivery boy who is taken in by a gang. Marco and Sweet Pea are two kids looking to rise to power on their own and steal some guns from gang members. Don Ciro is a money runner for families with imprisoned members. Pasquale is a tailor and designer that works for a gang member and takes another job with some competition. Roberto works in waste management while his boss, Franco, does shady dealings.

If the plot points of Gomorrah sound confusing, well, they are. This isn’t like Pulp Fiction where all the stories end up overlapping and tying up together, it’s more like Traffic in that they are stories under the same umbrella of events. The film, which is based on the book of the same name (Gomorra, in Italian), is rooted in fact and it’s easy to see that the film is a realistic portrayal of the dealings with the Camorra syndicate. What is not evident, however, was some of the history behind the feud going on and there is a level of understanding needed that the film doesn’t really provide on its own.

Even without fully understanding the motivation for some of the stories, or even what was happening at certain points, Gomorrah is truly gripping. This is not the mafia we have come to expect from other films, there are no fancy suits and mansions for all the members, most of the film takes place in what are essentially projects in what can only be called a ghetto.

Most of the actors in Gomorrah seem to be non-actors which helps give the film a sense of realism. While the opening scene in the tanning salon is bright and the techno music is thrumming, the rest of the film is mostly gray or brown with no soundtrack. It doesn’t feel like a documentary, it feels like a film, but it’s an interesting and realistic approach to presenting the stories. Of course, the Criterion Collection treatment is well above average, as always. Now that I have seen the film (I should really watch it again now that I understand it better), I would like to go back and see if any of the special features expand on the film’s premise. While I am interested in reading the book, I likely won’t be any time soon, but any knowledge would be helpful.

Gomorrah is a unique film that is unflinching in its portrayal of modern-day organized crime in Italy. Since the thread that ties all the stories together is something based in reality, it may be better to do a bit of homework on the Camorra beforehand to fully appreciate some of the finer details of Gomorrah that were no doubt lost on me.

I give it 4 shootings in a tanning salon out of 5.

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The Only Son (7/27/12)

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The Only Son is a film about a mother who sacrifices everything for her son’s education and visits him as an adult.

In a small rural Japanese town, widow Tsune (Chôko Iida) is raising her young son Ryosuke. When Ryosuke wants to continue his education into middle school, Tsune is persuaded by teacher, Ookubo (Chishû Ryû), to let him continue. Tsune sacrifices everything financially in order for Ryosuke to make his way through college. In return, all she asks is that Ryosuke grow to be a great man. Years later, Tsune visits Ryosuke (Shin’ichi Himori), who has a family of his own but struggles financially as a night-school teacher, much to his mother’s disappointment.

Earlier this year, I watched a film by Yasujirô Ozu that many consider his finest work, Tokyo Story. That was my first foray into Ozu’s work and I was blown away by the simple story could be so captivating and heart-wrenching. I am pleased to say that The Only Son is also a great film that seems entirely too simple but is so finely crafted that it accomplishes more with very little than most movies could ever hope to. With only a handful of actors, realistic dialog and totally static cameras, The Only Son almost feels like a documentary of a family that doesn’t know they are being filmed.

The magic of Ozu’s films is their simplicity and the emotions they are able to convey. The Only Son makes you want Ryosuke to succeed. You sympathize that this poor woman has literally given up everything to her name in order for Ryosuke to have success in life and while he has a loving wife and young baby, he is not doing the best of his ability in his career. Some of you may be wondering why the importance is placed on a financially successful career being the marker for having a successful life, and I would agree to a point but you have to put yourself in Tsune’s shoes. She is a widowed single mother who becomes homeless, scrubbing floors in a factory, all so her only son can become something great.

I’m sure there are many cultural meanings in The Only Son that I am not picking up on since I am not Japanese, nor do I know what their culture was like in 1936. The film gives little insight into these aspects, but it largely makes no difference since the family themes are universal and timeless. Since I am still new to Ozu, I feel compelled to watch as many of his films as possible because they are so moving and human. The Only Son is his first talkie, but it has held up incredibly well.

I give it 4 scenes from the cover art out of 5.

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Bottle Rocket (7/26/12)

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Bottle Rocket follows a trio of friends that plans a series robberies and then goes on the run.

At the start of the film, Anthony (Luke Wilson) is voluntarily staying at a mental hospital for exhaustion. His friend, Dignan (Owen Wilson), plans to break him out of there, not knowing Anthony is there voluntarily. Dignan then tells Anthony about his 75 year plan, which involves a series of robberies and to meet up with Mr. Henry (James Caan). They include their friend Bob (Robert Musgrave) on the plan as their driver. The three steal a small sum of money from a bookstore and then go on the lam, staying at a small motel. Anthony ends up falling in love with one of the housekeepers, Inez (Lumi Cavazos). Upon returning home, they meet up with Mr. Henry for another big heist that doesn’t go to plan.

While I realize the description of the film sounds kind of dark and action-packed, this is a Wes Anderson movie. His first full-length film, actually. Fans of his work will recognize many of his signature touches in the soundtrack, the characters, the dialogue, and the editing, but his style has certainly been refined over the years. Whereas Moonrise Kingdom has all of Anderson’s touches pushed to their limits, Bottle Rocket seems very subdued in comparison. Some may consider this a good thing but I personally prefer Anderson’s later work.

The Wilson brothers (the lesser-known Wilson brother, Andrew, also has a small role) are  in their feature debut too and it’s actually refreshing to see them so young. I’m not much of a fan of Owen Wilson, who also co-wrote Bottle Rocket with Anderson, but as Dignan he is likable. The plot meanders a lot but it’s not necessarily a fault so much as its a quirk. I can certainly understand why it would be off-putting to some, but the showcase here is more on the characters and their adventure rather than the adventure itself, that’s just how Anderson’s films are.

Fans of Anderson will no doubt enjoy Bottle Rocket but I would be surprised if it ranks high on the ‘favorite’ lists of many. While it’s not a bad film, Anderson has clearly grown as a writer and a director, even for his sophmore film, Rushmore. If you are new to Wes Anderson’s films, I would recommend starting with another film (personally, Moonrise Kingdom is my favorite) and then work your way through the rest of his catalog. Bottle Rocket is fun and enjoyable but doesn’t always feel deeper than the short film it’s based on.

I give it 3 “why is there tape on your nose?” “exactly!”s out of 5.

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The 400 Blows (7/14/12)

400 BlowsMovie One Hundred Sixty Six

The 400 Blows is a semi-autobiographic look at François Truffaut’s difficult childhood.

Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a 12 year living in Paris with his mother and step-father. He does not do well in school and suffers at home. Both his parents and teacher think he is uncaring and Antoine constantly runs away. After unsuccessfully stealing a typewriter from his father’s workplace, Antoine is forced into jail, imprisoned with prostitutes and other hardened criminals. Antoine is then shipped off to a school for troubled youth, where he gives some insight to his life before deciding to flee once more.

I normally don’t give the full plot details of a film but in the case of The 400 Blows, I do not consider any of the above to be a spoiler. The plot points are not what defines the film so much as how the characters behave. Antoine’s question and answer session near the end of the film is heartbreaking and beautiful and easily one of the best scenes in film history.

A landmark film of the French New Wave, Truffaut’s film was widely successful from the start but over 50 years later, the film is still just as touching now. The cinematography is also such a wonder to behold, as the shots pan and track so precisely yet appear almost casual. The 400 Blows is an absolutely breathtaking film. The actors, particularly young Léaud, whom was used in several other Truffaut films reprising his role, are all remarkable.

To truly do The 400 Blows justice, I would need to devote a heavily detailed breakdown of individual shots and scenes. An easier method would be watching the film yourself, I truly believe it’s a must-see. If French New Wave films have turned you off before, or if you are new the genre, The 400 Blows is the perfect place to start.

I give it 5 reading Balzacs out of 5.

PS – In case you were wondering, apparently the French title, Les quatre cents coups, refers to the expression “faire les quatre cents coups” roughly translated to mean “to raise hell”.

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Being John Malkovich (7/10/12)

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A puppeteer takes a part time job in an unusual office and finds a portal that allows the person see what it’s like Being John Malkovich.

Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) is an out-of-work puppeteer living with his wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz). He decides to get a job and lands one on the 7 1/2 floor of a building in a strange office. There, he meets Maxine (Catherine Keener) and immediately falls for her. One day while filing, Craig discovers a boarded up hole in the wall and decides to venture inside. The hole, he learns, puts him inside John Malkovich’s head for about 15 minutes before dumping him onto the New Jersey turnpike. After inviting Maxine and Lotte to also try being Malkovich, things get even more bizarre and John Malkovich himself gets involved.

To call Being John Malkovich a weird film is certainly an understatement, but the film is also incredibly sharp and funny. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is one of the most talented minds writing for film and his style meshes with director Spike Jonze’s perfectly here. Kaufman has such an odd sense of story and humor and Jonze captures this perfectly in Being John Malkovich as well as Adaptation. It has been too long since I had seen the film and I had forgotten how absolutely hilarious it is. It’s so deliciously absurd but it works so brilliantly.

John Cusack and Cameron Diaz are both almost unrecognizable in their roles here, Diaz more so. While I have a special fondness for Cusack, in Being John Malkovich his role just seems made for him. John Malkovich really shines here as well and it’s hard to picture any other actor in his role after watching the film. Some of the camera techniques used are also brilliant, particularly when someone is inside Malkovich. Even if the humor doesn’t strike you, the film may still be interesting and enjoyable, but the dark sense of humor is critical here.

As a recently released Criterion Collection film, the Blu-Ray for Being John Malkovich shines. I had always hated something about the previous DVD transfer of the film, it always seemed too dark or something. The Blu-Ray has remarkable clarity and picture quality, not to even mention the sound or extras. As with all Criterion releases, the entire package is the definitive version of the film to view or own. Being John Malkovich is one of the stranger films ever released, but I enjoyed it immensely.

I give it 5 John Cusack and Catherine Keener marionettes out of 5.

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The Battle of Algiers (7/7/12)

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The Battle of Algiers is a film that details a few  key years of the Algerian War to liberate the North African country from the French government.

The plot of The Battle of Algiers centers around the formation of a guerrilla revolutionary group (the FLN) in the Casbah and eventually the civil war for Algerian independence. The story is told as a flashback from the perspective of Ali, a leading FLN member who is about to be captured at the beginning of the film. After the war began and progressed, the French Government used increasingly extreme measures to stop the liberation front and although they win the battle of Algiers, they do not win the war (history spoiler alert).

The Battle of Algiers is one of the most interesting and powerful films I have ever seen. While it is a film, the style of shooting is so closely documentarian that it’s almost scary. Some actual footage is spliced with the film to add an eerie depth of realism. The end result is something that is unlike almost any film I’ve watched before. I was unaware of most of the general history of the independence of Algeria so the film acts as a history lesson as well.

A positive of not knowing much of the history behind the film is that the contents of the Criterion set includes an enormous amount of extra content. In fact, the Blu-Ray set for The Battle of Algiers is two discs and the entire second disc is a history lesson. In addition to an entire disc of learning, the booklet included is much larger than normal and also includes historic accounts of the film’s events. It’s a remarkable set and should be seen by everyone, regardless of knowledge of the Algerian War. Watching the film first then boning up on the real events is ideal since it will bolster your appreciation of what you just viewed.

The Battle of Algiers is a film that has to be seen to be appreciated. The unique style of the film is interesting and the events, while historical, still have strong meaning today. Go buy the Criterion and spend an afternoon getting educated through film.

I give it 5 “Long Live Algeria!”s out of 5.

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Stagecoach (6/29/12)

StagecoachMovie One Hundred Fifty One

Stagecoach is the story of a group of people traveling by stagecoach through dangerous Apache territory.

A group of strangers gathers to travel from Arizona territory to New Mexico territory. The group includes Dallas (Claire Trevor), a prostitute, Lucy (Louise Platt) who is a cavalryman’s wife, a doctor named Boone (Thomas Mitchell) more interested in alcohol than anything medical, and a whiskey salesman named Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek). They set out led by driver, Buck (Andy Devine) and accompanied by Marshal Wilcox (George Bancroft) along with the US Cavalry to help them through the dangerous territory. As they are leaving they are joined by proud Southerner, Hatfield (John Carradine) and a bank employee embezzeling $50,000 named Gatewood (Berton Churchill). Along the way the group picks up the fugitive Ringo Kid (John Wayne) too as they make their trip and the troubles that arise.

While the synopsis may sound confusing, all of that happens within the first 20 minutes or so of the film starting. The ensemble cast is introduced and each of them brings something unique to the troupe. Stagecoach was the first big time Western film made, bringing the entire genre to a level it hadn’t seen before and since its release in 1939 was a founding film of the 50s-era Westerns as well as several other John Ford / John Wayne collaborations.

Stagecoach is special in that the entire cast is so unique and ranges from humorous to serious without feeling like complete characterizations. While some of their prominent traits may now seem a bit overused, for the time of the film’s release, it’s remarkably well done. John Ford certainly pulled off a masterpiece long before the common era for Westerns to really hit cinema. The landscapes are beautiful, even in black and white, and the pacing of the script never gets too bogged down in individual character drama. The only Western I think I prefer over Stagecoach is the later Ford/Wayne work, The Searchers.

The Criterion release of Stagecoach is, of course, nothing short of amazing. The Blu-Ray restoration is impeccable and the only downsides I really saw were the black levels during some of the outdoor shots being a bit faded. As an entire package, with the supplemental features and booklet, Stagecoach is a top-notch addition to any Western film fan’s collection.

I give it 4 young John Waynes out of 5.

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The Naked City (6/19/12)

Naked CityMovie One Hundred Forty Five

The Naked City is a pseudo-documentary about the hunt for the murderers of a young woman in New York City.

The Naked City begins with an interesting narration that sets the film up as almost a documentary told through real people. While that realism permeates the film, there is a story behind the film and actors were used. After an attractive young woman is killed by two men, one of them becomes ridden with guilt and is killed by the other man. This sets off an investigation where many shady characters are investigated and the mystery grows larger as a series of robberies seem connected as well.

I went into The Naked City expecting a cold, gritty noir and when the film began I was thrown for a bit of a loop by the unique presentation. The story also ended up being different than I expected but I found it fairly enjoyable, if not a bit convoluted by the end. To fit in with the realism the film tries to set up, there are many non-actors used, which was a gamble that didn’t necessarily pay off. There are certain scenes that stand out more than others but it doesn’t necessarily hurt the flow or feel of the film.

I can honestly say I’ve never seen a film quite like The Naked City so from that perspective I was quite impressed. I was let down a bit by the story, which I had found confusing and not as noir-like as I was expecting. While I would certainly recommend it for its original setup, there are many other noirs from the time period that I would prefer to watch. Perhaps I missed out on something from the story, it’s quite possible, but even so The Naked City missed the mark for me.

I give it 3 opening sequences out of 5.

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The Blob [1958] (6/9/12)

The BlobMovie One Hundred Forty

When a mysterious space rock crashes into Earth, the creature inside terrorizes a small town as it grows immensely in The Blob.

Almost two genres in one, The Blob is part teenage drama and part sci-fi/horror film. Steve (Steve McQueen) and his girlfriend, Jane are out at a make-out point as they see a meteorite crash into a nearby field. When they go to investigate it, they find the meteorite, the meteorite with the blob, and an elderly farmer. The blob then attacks the farmer and attaches itself to his arm and the two teens take him to the doctor. Before the doctor can help the man, the blob consumes him and begins to grow. Soon, the blob is out of control eating everything (and everyone) it can, growing to immense proportions.

Side note, it’s really hard to write “blob” and not “blog”.

Growing up I was more aware of the 1988 version of The Blob which is a remake of this version, albeit a violent remake. The original has a special charm that only 50s sci-fi flicks can really muster and even though it is cheesy and the acting is met with many an eye-roll, I was charmed by The Blob. As a monster, the blob itself is fairly terrifying. It’s unrelenting and it’s only goal is to eat and grow.  Being smothered to death by a giant ball of autonomous pink goo is pretty high on my list of “ways I’d rather not die”.

Still, even though I was taken with the setting of The Blob, as well as Steve McQueen before being THE Steve McQueen, it’s not a great movie. As I touched on before, the acting is especially horrendous for some of the townsfolk and watching the film 50+ years later it’s easy to call out all of its faults. The story seems to want to depart and become a teenage drama more than once, which is kind of odd and makes the pacing difficult. One thing I was impressed with was the blob creature, which looks exactly as a pink outer space blob monster should look. While I wouldn’t recommend The Blob outright, there is a lot of entertainment to be had if you’re like me and have a soft spot for movies like this. The 80s version, while violent, doesn’t have the same charm.

I give it 3 how did Steve McQueen pull off being a teenager looking like this? out of 5.

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