Saturday, March 19, 2011

Coming soon: BLUES HARP!

Very excited about this!  One of those under-seen/underrated movies from Takashi Miike (or just any director), and this comes from a period when Miike was just finding his voice as a director of crime films, this one being more off-beat than usual.  I finally found someone online who has a region-free copy on DVD!  Can't wait to see it and review it for you all!

Takashi Miike Fest 2011 (#4) 2001, with AGITATOR

Takashi Miike has said in interviews (check the one on his Wikipedia page for this reference) that he actually doesn't feel too busy when he's directing and that he was busier as an Assistant Director being that directing is "easy".  Somehow he must be jesting.  With a body of work that makes Fassbinder and Woody Allen look like girly men, he's been cranking them out faster than a mad procreator spreading his cinematic seed to projector-wombs all across the world.  Whether every one is a knockout it really can't be said (with the law of averages, it's like the anti-Kubrick: instead of a whole lot of homeruns, it's scattered about a year here and there).  And in 2001, he had one of his most productive years.

1) The Happiness of the Katakuris, which I reviewed just yesterday in the Miike-Fest, his wild horror-musical that if one could put it best is like Sam Raimi's remake of Singin' in the Rain (or maybe the Sound of Music), with a touch of Jan Svankmajer's crazy stop-motion animation that has a particular affinity for food and bizarre creatures and blood.  100% wonderful.

2) Ichi the Killer, one of his most notorious films, a 'splatter' movie that so much has its title earned that it has a special 2-disc DVD set in a "Splatter-Pack" case with fake blood around the covers!  It's a super-wild movie that has probably given Miike more of his reputation than Audition has: a fucked-up, dark, bleak, violent, Manga-inspired poker-face satire on Yakuza thrillers and superheroes (Batman comparisons are not just possible, they've been much speculated on IMDb message boards, not least of which for one of the antagonist's 'scars' on his face- here used to much more useful and chilling effect arguably than Ledgers- and penchant for sadomasochism and flashy purple clothing).  Not perfect but certainly WINNING in the Charlie Sheen sense.  It's got some Tiger blood.

3) Visitor Q, another notorious effort, released on video, and a contender for the Top-Fucked-Up-Family-Drama, the kind that would make the Family Research Council's heads explode, regroup and then explode again all over their church grounds.  To put it another way it makes Dogtooth look sensible by comparison!  It's also Miike's funniest movie, a gallows-humor masterpiece that stings and whistles with a lactating mother, reality TV, rape, murder, necrophilia and murder again (in that order), and a mystery involving the title character.  Great for a first date :)

4) Family, still unseen by me, appears to be a decent but unremarkable Yakuza thriller according to IMDb, however it does intrigue be somewhat in that it has Miike's only cinematography credit of his career (albeit co-credited with Hikaru Yasuda, who also shot, uh... this?

5 & 6) Zuiketsu genso - Tonkararin yume densetsu + Kikucho-jo monogatari - sakimori-tachi no uta, um... yeah, not seen, and probably never will; one looks like it was commissioned by the Japanese government, the other has three IMDb comments ranging from "Miike shows us his classier side" to "TRASH! And believe me, that is NOT a compliment!!"  Maybe sometimes movies by a director may never be seen by anyone, even themselves...

Which brings me to #7, the movie I saw tonight at a special NYC Miike retrospective screening (and unavailable officially on DVD in the USA), Agitator

It's one thing to go into this movie partially blind - that is to say not knowing what it's about except that it's a Yakuza thriller, clocking in at a somewhat-epic 150 minutes, and that it's by the guy that made Ichi-the-holy-shit-what-was-that-Killer.  You don't know quite what to expect, and, frankly, I think I didn't really either as I had barely heard of it until a recent super-rare screening of the film.  It's another thing to put it into context with Miike in the year 2001 and what he was doing: in a sense this is kind of his 'cool-down' period in-between projects: he started with what looks to be (un-seen by me) a Yakuza thriller with Family, then two super-WTF movies (Ichi and Visitor Q) that divided audiences but made him recognizable worldwide as THE Wildman of cinema of his time, and then after this film his manic and happy-crazy musical Katakuris.

I'm not sure it's that he got burned-out, per-say (though my wife, who saw the movie too and loathed it more than I, thought this was the case), just that after some bizarre months behind the camera, he needed to try and get back to something a little more realistic.  This isn't to say that all of Agitator is, but it comes close to it the way that crime epics like this aspire to which is (perhaps) Godfather or Goodfellas levels of depth.  This film, which deals with two Yakuza crime families (almost thought it was three though), the Yokimizo and the Shinrae, deals with its lead-up to war with some competence in the storytelling, but not by that much.  For the first hour I knew who people were mostly by some of their physical appearances: one guy with shaggy hair, another with a cool beard, two of them with big tattoos on their backs, and a delivery kid who is suckered in to the Yakuza world through a cruel ceremony of force-fed whiskey and a tattoo by another drunkard.  Fun.

We haven't had that spirit here since 1989

This could be on me for not being able to keep track enough with who was who for not paying attention, but I also think it's on Miike for not really keeping things all that interesting.  The characters in the film are, frankly, mostly generic cut-outs from other Yakuza thrillers: lowly scumbag killers, their bosses lowlier but more thuggish and sometimes fatter and with more wealth and fine robes, and a couple of killers (such as what becomes the main character, or closest to it) who do have souls or have memories of what life was like in youth and before they were fully corrupted.  I wish Miike had played a little more on these conventions like he's done before, or done something else interesting with them.  It's not until halfway through the film, when Kenzaki (Kato) kidnaps one of the rival gangsters and beats him up and then when he goes to make a trade-deal Kenzaki's boss is killed, that the film really picks up some steam story-wise and I got invested in the characters.

Perhaps it's because of the state of realism Miike is after; only once or twice did I feel the film becoming more surreal, such as the flashbacks (which have a kind of brown tint and violin music) and a sex scene that starts off with gun-play in a warehouse surrounded by white light.  It's not that I expected Miike to be crazy this time, and I appreciated (as usual with him) how much patience he'll take with a shot, staying on two characters without cutting (and when he does with minimal coverage) for several minutes.  It makes characters feel closed in on a scene, which fits for the paranoia of times.

But the film just goes on too long for the story that's being told, which is nothing that really screams out for it to be epic.  If the characters were better drawn, or it had more of a hook with its concepts about the dread of being locked into a life as a Yakuza (as a couple of characters say throughout the film, "Hey, you're a Yakuza", as in, suck it up), then I could buy it being two and a half hours long.  Losing twenty minutes, just in the pacing of certain scenes, could have made it tighter and more enjoyable.

This isn't to say that Agitator falls totally flat.  For its faults in pacing and in some shallow characterizations, Miike has some strong direction and use of classical music (sometimes, maybe, comparable to the likes of Sidney Lumet's serious crime thrillers) and does have some fun here, specifically (if nothing else) for two scenes he gives himself as a Crazy-Fuck Yakuza named Shinozaki.  This could be his big wink to the audience that (sadly) many of his intended audiences won't see, but is perfectly outrageous.  He's the crazy bastard who keeps on messing around, taking a woman and using a very large object on a woman in a very inappropriate place.  He's disposed of pretty quickly after he does this, and I have to think this is his own meta-comment, maybe not unlike the way Jean-Luc Godard has at times inserted himself into his movies: when making a movie that should be taken seriously as this, his brand of madness should be curbed.

Miike's attitude on set: Let's just, like, chill and stuff... the sky...
Which is just fine.  But is it interesting?  Only some of the time, and even then mostly due to some of the acting  and a few amazing lines of dialog.  At best, it's an entertaining, bloated crime saga with a dose of generic-itis.  My advice?  See his Graveyard of Honor or Ley Lines instead for the more "straightforward" of the director's films on Yakuzas.  The end of the movie especially - where two characters are about to exact their revenge driving a huge truck through the Yakuza property exclaiming "Let's go out with a BANG!" is an irony, to take what you will.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Takashi Miike Fest 2011(#3) THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS

Now for a review of what was (and probably, though needs a re-watch, still is) my favorite Miike movie.  A crazy-surreal musical that is like a horror movie doused with cute and song!

This movie is a lot of fun, in the best tradition of any musical I've ever seen (truth be told, I'd rank it as a Japanese equivalent to Signin' in the Rain). It's hard to say that it would rank up there with my favorites, but then again why carp? The Happiness of the Katakuris, directed with the full vigor and passion for film-making and fantastical-realism by Takashi Miike, has a simple premise that gets the best kind of imaginative treatment that could never really be expected, even as a fan of Miike's.

It's about a family who start an inn in a secluded location, right next to a volcano. When the guests need to be 'taken-care-of' after kicking the buckets, so to speak, the family has to deal with the pressure of possibly having to close the inn. Meanwhile, there is a sweeping romantic sub-plot Naomi Nishida's Shizue, who is hoping to be together someday with a man who, while looking Japanese, says he's apart of the royal British family (in full garb no less). But then things start to get stranger still, leading up to a certain development with the volcano, among other things...MANY other things.

But once that simple tact of the story is laid out, the question comes up for one who's seen films like Ichi the Killer and Visitor Q and Imprint- how in heaven's name will Miike take on this material? All you need to know about that is the opening scene, much like with Gozu, sets up the tone perfectly (though unlike Gozu it's kept intact with what it intends), in showing something very, very screwy where a woman eats soup, but then a figure comes out of the soup, takes the uvula of the woman as she screams, snips it off, and goes flying away with it. Hard to believe?

care for some... head?
In its in-and-out claymation, like a much more demented but just-as-playful Gumby, that's the point, and it isn't necessarily the highest peak of weirdness in the film either. However this is handled with a great deal of hilarity and sweetness, and even an endearing way around the family. For a moment we might think we're seeing a 'normal' scene, but this is something that is never held onto for too long. A song gets broken into with the same insane glee and determined 'wtf' feeling like South Park did, only here perhaps even more whacked out in its Japanese form.

And all the while, through the satire that is of course ingrained in many of Miike's best work, and even with a kind of Bunuel feeling to their being a fine mix of straightforward main characters with a bunch of loony, odd, intriguing and real 'character' supporting characters, the tone never gets lost or mired in itself. It doesn't even really mark as a comedy in scenes that aren't enveloped in song or claymation or other (not that there aren't funny bits, to be sure). After a while one comes to expect lines of sorrow or happiness or both in music- wonderfully done by Koji Endo and Koji Makaino- to spring out of grave diggings, past loves, current loves, zombies, the conflicts of the future of the inn, and of course great-grandpa's fate. What I loved about the picture as well is that the jokes, both aural and occasionally with the dialog, are not too constant, making it overbearingly campy or dumb.

It's very smart actually about what it is, and Miike directs with confidence that his melding of standardly shot scenes, wildly filmed and choreographed musical numbers (one of which, the courting of Richard and Shizue, is maybe one of my top favorite musical numbers ever), animation, and real horrific or dramatic moments, will work. It also ends on notes (the final song and the final line particularly) that had me laughing my head off, but also realizing how it's well-earned. There's almost something of Busby Berkley to the film, if Berkley was into the life of, uh, cover-up inn-keepers who only want to be happy.

But that last part, about seeking happiness, is apart of many musicals, usually the best ones, and it's with that in mind that this practically deserves the comparison. It's lush with fantastic cinematography, a keen and talented cast, and a sense of humor that covers more than one part of ground. It might be my favorite Miike so far, and if in the right kind of mind- mostly for a pick-me-up- it's a real treat for fans of Japanese cinema who may have not even seen a Miike film yet.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Takashi Miike Fest 2011 (#2) Five Random Movies

Takashi Miike's body of work is huge, like a giant house that you go into and has everything in every nook and crannie, even the ones you don't expect like in the bathroom sink or the crawl space or that pink stuffing area in the attic.  He's like Fassbinder only if he didn't die and had access to some digital equipment from time to time.  His work is all over the place- some of it is great, some of it good, some of it is just okay, a few are downright awful- but that's the joy in it, that you can go through so many works that eventually you'll find one of those movies you cherish for a lifetime (for me it's Happiness of the Katakuris).

So, here are just five random movies and my reviews on my mistress-site, Comments:






Takashi Miike Fest 2011 (#1) 13 ASSASSINS

Oh yeah... (the start of a running blog on Miike movies, with a list of previous reviews of which I have MANY soon to come, some I'll highlight, and some new ones I come across in the coming months)

When I first heard about Takashi Miike making a samurai movie, I was jubilant just because a) Takashi Miike's next movie is a cause for joy at least at first (whether it's great, good, or meh in his very large catalog of work is something else), and b) he's just the guy to take it on, with his experience leading up to such a thing as making a stylish but professionally mounted (and large-scale Oscar winning Jeremy Thomas) production.  I didn't know going in to it that it was a remake, but no bother: hearing the advance buzz was enough, that it had a classical style owing back to the samurai films of the 1960's and 1970's, and a 40-minute(!) battle sequence.

Was I disappointed?

Quite simply: Hell no!

13 Assassins is a masterful example of what a director is capable of at action.  This is not to decry the film's story or characters, of which this has some richly drawn ones and one in particular that is quite evil, and has a great grasp of the Samurai code and ethics from the 19th century.  But what Takashi Miike pulls off here is something special in our modern super-hyper-kinetic-frenzied action movie world: it's surprisingly straightforward if one steps back to look at its technical side, but in the thick of it you get lost in the violent mayhem (which, compared to some of Miike's more notorious works this could be considered tame, but not by much).

The plot is right out of a Seven Samurai or even Dirty Dozen scenario: men on a mission.  In this case the mission is Lord Naritsugu (eerily calm performance from Goro Inagaki), a brother of a Shogun in 19th century feudal Japan who is a nasty bugger, a man who spends his time raping and killing those who shouldn't be touched, or with a cold detachment cutting off limbs of women and shooting arrows at children just because it's, to him, the "Samurai way" or something.  Another Lord (or in this case a 'Sir' Doi) makes a clandestine request of another samurai, Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho), to gather up a bunch of Samurai to take out Lord Naritsugu before he gets to another clan that would protect him completely.  In other words: he's on the move, take the bastard out.

We get to know some of the Samurai a little at first, if only in small doses (one of whom brings some humor by requesting 200 ryo in currency mostly for practical things, and something else not to mention here), and along their trip to intercept the Lord they run into a kind of forest Bum-Hunter (I forget the name of the actor right now, sorry, you're awesome) who acts as the comic relief in the same way Toshiro Mifune did in Seven Samurai.  But the characterization is just fine in these generalizations; we know who the players are, what their moral code is - that is, the Lord has zero, Shinzaemon and the rest have plenty, or understand at least something essential to humanity in the Samurai/Servant code that the Lord does not - and with this Miike sets the stage for the interception of the Lord with his group of soldiers in a small village... all 200 of them against twelve samurai and a crazy hunter-bum from the woods.

Throughout the film Miike and his cinematographer Nobuyasu Kita create a Samurai world that's patient and assured in how it's composed (that is, for the first 2/3rd of the film), where shots actually will linger for a little longer than one might see in a common action movie from Hollywood.  It's more a credit to Miike taking influence, aside from the 1963 original film source, from classic black and white Samurai and sword-play pictures from the 1960's and 70's from the likes of Masaki Kobayashi.  You can feel the tension brimming with the characters around the Lord, and the horror when one of the dismembered girls is shown before one of the Samurai who writes with her mouth (no tongue either) that her family was in a "Total Massacre".  

This is also not to say that Miike, one of the world's few true wildmen when it comes to going from the gut and craziness, doesn't put some of his own touches.  Lord Naritsugu fits in with the director's penchant for totally messed-up antagonists who have a strange relationship with pain and torment (when this one finally feels it, his response is "Pain!  ... It hurts!")  And in the big climactic battle at one point for seemingly no reason except to have them there (but why not) bulls who are on *fire* go running through the town attacking the swordsmen guards.  Things like that make one smile with recognition, or laugh more at the levels of absurdity that's reached than anything intentionally funny.

Speaking of the battle scene: holy Moses!  This is the reason, I think, Miike really made this film, but why carp?  For an action movie lover who likes good, long, stunt-coordination and swift and graceful and (with real) bloody fighting and intensity, this is the pick of the month, maybe the year.  It's breathtaking at first, and it doesn't let up for forty or so minutes.  Whether it's longer in the uncut version I can't say, the US release is trimmed by fifteen minutes from the original Japanese cut.  But even so, it doesn't feel compromised.  It's fight-scene filmmaking that cherishes shots where you can see all of the violence played out long enough to take it in, cut so that it's visceral but not so fast as to lose the spacial relationships with everyone, and (a rare treat in 21st century Japanese splatter) real stuntmen and real blood.  That there are plenty of surprises with what the samurai set up for their targets to close everyone into town and shock them to hell raises the ante up.  

13 Assassins has integrity as a film, as storytelling, character relationships, which are simple but wonderfully conventional (that is embracing things like honor and loyalty that these pictures had in the past but without corniness), and it even hints near the end at something spiritual in the air.  As a genre fan one wants to rush out to folks dying in the sewage of the multiplex and hand them the DVD or movie ticket and go "HERE!"  Within its dimensions, it sets out and achieves what it wants to do. 

ELEKTRA LUXX @ Film-Forward

Check out the review HERE

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Francois Truffaut's THE SOFT SKIN

(Currently in a re-release at the Film Forum)

The Soft Skin is a seemingly uncomplicated look at a husband who commits adultery and what spirals out from that, and perhaps it is.  I may just have a fancy for a well-told story of infidelity, being that it is one of those basic things about living that should be so cut and dry but usually isn't.  But it's more than that in Francois Truffaut's case, this being his fourth film as writer/director.  The power of the film comes from the details Truffaut puts into the main character, author/professional intellectual Pierre Lachenay, and how he changes as a person when he comes across this one woman, an airline stewardess Nicole, in just the small ways.  There is also the family part of it- there always or usually is- and the expected ups and downs of the affair as well as the ultimate hell-to-pay with the marriage.  But it's the handling of the melodramatic materials that counts.

Truffaut doesn't judge these people harshly, and neither do we.  Pierre puts himself into a position where he can't back out of once he goes that extra step.  It's an ironically magical moment as well when this happens, when after Pierre meets this flight attendant on an elevator that he calls up her room number to go out for a drink and when she says yes he turns on all of the lights in his little hotel room one after the other and lays upon the bed.  Truffaut doesn't make this too sensationalized - this isn't, for example, the circling with the girl smoking the cigarette in Jules & Jim - it's just a simple moment with this man as he puts on a childish air for a moment when he is decidedly in most other ways definitely not child-like.

These boxes are worth a million in prizes... like me!
Pierre isn't one to be judged too harshly, and he's not a bad person really.  A good husband?  Probably not, as he smudges the truth almost from the start with the mere matchbook that has Nicole's number that he hides with ease into his jacket pocket.  And he actually becomes kind of endearing in a sad-funny way (or just funny in the situational sense of it) when he takes an offer to introduce a film at a convention in a country town just so he can get two days away with Nicole (his idea, she reminds him, not hers), and it turns into a nightmare of mundane activities of having to do as a minor celebrity in town while still trying to get time with Nicole.  He should be easy to dislike here, not only the duplicitous side of things with his wife but in leading Nicole along on a trip that she is barely involved in for the full day he's in the town, but he isn't.

A lot of what happens to the characters is based on chance and luck- both good and bad much the same way Woody Allen would later play it out in Match Point - if, say, Pierre hadn't gotten to the airport on time, or if he hadn't called his wife Franca from a hotel room on a particular morning, or if Franca hadn't received a certain jacket that had a ticket for pick-up with pictures.  It bristles with the drama of life as opposed to straight melodrama, and the actors all being as good as they are brings things to always believable (Desailly as loving but an idiot when it comes to such an affair, both during and after its blown open, Dorleac providing a youthful charm and beauty that makes her human as opposed to a cultish object of worship, and Benedetti as Franca is perfect as the rightfully shocked wife who puts up with the mundane fights at home until later when it really gets WTF).

The success of the film, and why it worked so well for me, is two-pronged.  Truffaut understands that desperation and the rules of love can make for so much worthy drama even in the most simple-looking of surfaces.  These characters inhabit more of the darker areas of Truffaut's early works like in Jules & Jim, but with heavier consequences: chiefly being, 'how do I live, or love?  How do I go on pretending to really be in love, and perhaps I care though really I don't?  And does she actually love me back?'

The other thing, aside from the wonderful naturalism of the characters and the acting, is where he places the camera and how editing takes on psychological rhythms.  Again he uses freeze-frames as in the past, but sparingly, such as when Pierre is in a luncheon thrown for him by intellectuals and when a "young woman" is said to be outside waiting for him his heart jumps a beat, like "what if they see her here?" when it's really just an autograph hound.  Or just the whole nature of those scenes when he's in that town and has to go back and forth between the lunch and Nicole.  There's a fully dark-humor aspect to all of this (and the night scenes as a "bore" keeps following along with him and Pierre gets suspicious of Nicole walking around outside and being 'picked up' by a guy on the street.

It's not easy to really pick up, but it's in this middle section that Truffaut subtly hits some of the kind of inventive filmmaking that he had in his much-more touted first three films.  It's tonally much more of a straightforward romance drama, but the filmmaker is not giving up the "wave" as changing things.  It's more in behavior and style, and how characters act around each other, that is fascinating and works so well and is still (at least for its time) changing how cinema is perceived.  That its opening scene, of Georges Delerue's score (which, by the way, is most beautiful in that 'first time' when Pierre first goes into the hotel room with Nicole, a truly unforgettable moment), has, to me, a kind of possibly homage to the opening of Breathless with driving fast in traffic and close-ups of faces and a cop car gave me one of my biggest smiles in weeks.

The Soft Skin carries suspense but from what comes out of everyday things: coming home to the wife and kid, going off on business, and getting a little "something" on the side.  Sometimes, for me, that's even more heart-racing than a lot of guns and bullets (though, spoiler, there is one at one crucial point of the film).  It's one of those underrated films that you read about, yes, even from a major director such as Truffaut.  Sexy, dangerous, and subtle.

16 shells from a 30-ought wife

Monday, March 14, 2011


When a filmmaker's creativity and ambition burns the very innards of the heart and brain, if it's done right it can be a thrilling thing to see explode on screen.  A few years after Sergei Einsenstein and DW Griffith did their own epic takes on history with Battleship Potemkin and Birth of a Nation/Intolerance (among others), Gance decided to give it a try.  No, not try: the guy just DID it: His film of Napoleon had to have been so circling around in his mind for so long that seeing it expunged and ready for cinematic consumption is just one of those thing that astounds some 3/4 of a century later.  It's groundbreaking, it's dynamic, it gives a solid portrayal of a figure of history while painting the canvas like the tools of cinema are up for grabs.  ALL OF IT!

The film, as seen today, is sadly only (or as far as I could find it) still available on the 1980's VHS box-set from Francis Ford Coppola and Kevin Brownlow's restoration (this before Brownlow's *other* restoration in 2004, which is not yet on DVD - or, I'll just say it, blu-ray).  And this, I should note, is the *shortened* four-hour version that was taken after a decade-long restoration.  And yet even with this it's STILL a great, revolutionary piece of cinema, much the way that Erich von Stroheim had it with Greed (perhaps any version would be great even if trimmed).  There are real risks taken on Gance's end, with how he makes his world dirty and grimy, filled with mania as made by the crowds but more-so by how he stages things, moves the camera, and edits sometimes in a frenzy that would give Oliver Stone whiplash (or, more appropriately, make him feel ashamed of NBK).

It's in basic terms a biographical look at Napoleon - albeit, perhaps just in this version ending just as he's about to really hit his stride as a world conqurer (if you're expecting, say, Waterloo, forget it) - from childhood to his greatest military successes in Italy and Europe.  From a young age he's a little not quite like the other kids: he keeps to himself, doesn't really have 'friends', or that many anyway, and his best companion is an eagle who as bad luck happens is let loose by one of the kids at the school.  He freaks out, blames everyone, and it leaves a scar in him: throughout the film an eagle may appear from time to time, either as a reminder of old times, before his break from trusting most people, and also as a guiding light (perhaps) to his future glory.  Or it's just cool to see an eagle (just as Stephen Colbert).

At first he's an ambassador of some kind (this is one of those parts of the film that feels like something was cut out, but not to too much detriment), and is reviled by fellow countrymen around him.  Maybe for being a kiss-ass, or just not being strong-willed enough at the time.  His family in Corsica also goes through some dire straits, and is under the thumb of the British at the time.  But somehow they persevere through it, with some help from it being the French Revolution at the time and change in the air.  At around this time, or after, Napoleon joins the artillery of the French army as a Captain, and is still looked down upon by the braggard French Generals who don't know crap.  One of them asks Napoleon as a lark what he would do with a battle plan he has out.  Napoleon's mind flashes to future glory already, but only for a moment (one of Gance's tricks), and he wows the General into befuddlement.  "Really?" is his expression.  And Napoleon is simply 'No, really, we should do this.'

Marat in all his caterpillar glory
His leading of the artillery to victory through some real daring in battle gains him his first acclaim, and one of the most iconic moments of the film (or any film), as he has attained victory after a marathon battle that started in the middle of night by his orders and went on for days and nights through rain and mud, with tons of bodies and blood in the soak.  He's finally found asleep with his head on a drum, beat from what he's gone through, and he's given the big High-Rank of General right then.  What a way to end part 1 of the film!  And yet, there's still even more to go for young Napoleon in just a few more years.

There's a lot more drama, involving corruption in the ranks of French politics and how certain people are claimed undesirables and sentenced to execute (one of whom, a woman, may become Napoleon's future wife), and is thwarted by the heroics of bureaucrats who simply eat the papers of the death sentences.  And then Napoleon's romance and (very quick!) marriage, and, ultimately, his quest for glory.  Of course I'm simplifying here, as there could be a lot more to write about the film.  How, for example, Gance shoots faces and captures something uniquely true to them: how true they are to either pain, agony, quiet resolve, torment, anger, rage, occasionally love, wonderment, and madness.  Just in one of those big crowd scenes inside the Convention hall provides so many fantastic close-ups where people look like they're from another time but also timeless; like wicked paintings done in a court line-up, or like those distorted takes on humanity that Dreyer had in Passion of Joan of Arc.  Hand each one in a museum and they could fetch a pretty penny.

But close-ups aren't just it for Gance, heavens no.  There's how the film is cut together, which puts Eisenstein to shame as far as a master of montage.  This is montage for the ADD generation (and not like Oliver Stone either), where images at times are cut together in such a frenzy- and sometimes as in that snowball fight with the kid near the start or in one of those frenzied Convention Hall sequences where the people are rabble-roused to attack their so-called leaders- that it becomes disorientating.  But it's in a good way; not an image appears wasted or done just for 'coverage' like today's wild action movies without movement.  This is done more like one of those fast-paced symphonies one might hear from the classical era, many accentuated notes done over and over, and whipped up to give the feeling of... I suppose euphoria, madness, a subjectivity that takes humanity like there's so much of it that's ready to boil over the surface.  It's one of those times in cinema where you're not just seeing storytelling, you're seeing the inner-working of a mind processing people and images, faces, actions.  Revolutionary is what I could call it.

Oh, and lest not forget the use of filters, which are many varied and with the focus and lenses used to make people and places in a fog or a photograph of the past, or how we might think back to something or see a moment we find happy or bittersweet surrounded in a fudged gel of some kind.  And there are the dolly tracks, and the hand-held camera, and how breathtaking an image becomes when one realizes that it's being used the way one might use a camera today but in 1927.

Most iconic of all (and one of the things Napoleon is written about as its high technical achievement) is the use of "widescreen" in the last half hour as Napoleon takes his troops from Italy into the Conquering-Beyond and has three cameras shooting side-by-side to give it that BIG EPIC FEEL like one would think to see in Lawrence of Arabia or a DeMille picture.  But more than that Gance STILL experiments with his own innovation by sometimes mixing it up: there are full widescreen images of crowds and people or an eagle in the sky, or he'll have three different images side by side (Napoleon surrounded by sky) or crowds moving on the right side and the left side of the screen and the middle one totally different.  I have to wonder if the editors of Woodstock knew about Napoleon (it was lost at the time) or it was a coincidence and innovation finally catching up some forty years later.  Who knows.

I've gone on so long about technical innovation- and, really, I could go on longer, not least of which for the (arguably) best scene in the long film where Napoleon visits the empty Convention Hall and is told by ghosts of the past revolution about going into the 'Let's Unite Europe' phase that is equally terrifying and thrilling in the fantastic-horror scope (the opposite of a Dickens' Spirit, telling to be bold instead of "for shame" like)- that I've neglected the central figure of the story.  Napoleon is a striking character here, made up like Rod Stewart or one of the Rolling Stones (the nose and the hair, and something in the eyes, is what does it for me), and is heroic but not always.

And he was all like, "I'm on a horse"
He's a very human, fallible figure, the kind that views humanity and its pride and falls from afar as if detached but still, sometimes, apart of it and making it so himself.  It's important to have those scenes as a child since he really doesn't change all that much outside of some of his romantic interest later in the story.  He's often with a sullen look to him, though this may just be my reading.  No one really expects him to be great- matter of fact, from Gance's point of view, a lot of people didn't like him as a smug guy with kooky battle plans- but he is, and it sometimes surprises himself.

Abel Gance's Napoleon, done up in this version with a breathtaking (if somewhat conventional) Carmine Coppola musical score and with the technical innovation of a dozen films, is wonderful to watch.  It speaks volumes that it's virtues stand out despite being a compromised cut; with some exceptions to some scenes that feel a little bit shortened, and personally not knowing some of the history with Napoleon's early military battles and triumphs and the context around him (though knowing Marat and Murat make it easier), it feels complete.  The goal in the filmmaking is to emulate its figure: to be bold, to do the unexpected, surprise the fuck out of the competition, and keep historians wondering about this or that years later.  That it can be a head-trip at such a length (which is still long, believe me, it took two nights to watch it all) can be exhausting, but if it were on a big screen, or three that is, I would go in a heartbeat, for premium prices.

Playing Ketchup with Googolplex Gulag: UNKNOWN & THE ROOMMATE

(Playing Ketchup with two movies I saw weeks ago but need to write about right now before it leaves my mind forever...)


Liam Neeson rocks.  Is that too simplistic a definition?  He can come in and at least make a movie watchable because of him; even Clash of the Titans or, upon further examination, The Phantom Menace benefit from his presence with is always solid.  By that I should clarify: when we see him we know that he's got something going on in his mind, even if he's half-crazy (Darkman anyone?) and we're on his side despite confusion at times in the plot or other things around him that don't quite fly.  He's a smart action hero, more along the lines of a Clint Eastwood than a Jason Statham.  There's thought behind the body count and the cunning decisions at physical action.

Unknown has been compared to Taken, which is fair yet (SPOILERS) is almost akin to revealing the entire twist.  But just to sum up: Neeson's character Martin Harris is a bio-technological guy who is in Berlin with his wife (January Jones, a classic throwback to Hitchcock blondes, a tip-off after the fact), and he gets into an accident in a taxi cab after forgetting his bag back at the airport.  When he awakens he has amnesia, four days after the fact, and when he finds his wife back at the hotel she acts like (believably) that she doesn't know who he is - further infuriating as a man saying HE is Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn) is by her side.

What's going on here?  It's a 'Who Am I' scenario that actually would have fit into the Hitchcock pantheon in more ways than just the obvious January Jones comparison or the foreign local.  Neeson at one time could have been played by... um, maybe not Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewarts, just as Liam Neeson.  He gets into the mystery of it, tracks down the cab driver (sexy Diane Kruger) and finds an ex-spy (Bruno Ganz) who all try to assist him in his search for self-knowledge.

The lead up to this uncovering of the mystery is what works best.  It may seem obvious to a few in the audience, but the key is that Neeson's Martin Harris is such an everyman that he leads us along through the paranoia of the situation.  And the director, former twisty-McHorroson Jaume Collet-Sera (of 2009's Orphan), does a fantastic job orchestrating the paranoia of the 'who am I?' scenario with lots of red-herring side characters, men following Harris around, and some decent tilted-camerawork.  And, to reiterate again, Neeson is so appealing here because we can place ourselves (somewhat) in his situation: our identity is a terrible thing to have just taken away, and being in the Kafka-esque world of "People-Who-Go-Fuck-Off" is an alienating feeling.

But, of course, there are some hints there's more to Harris than meets the eye, particularly with his (yes) Taken-style ability to kick the every-loving shit out of people who do come into his path.  When the truth is revealed, it's just a little more hackneyed than it needs to be (mostly through the explanation of certain visions Harris has with himself and his wife in flashback form), but this isn't as troubling as the climax of the film which takes things to ticking-bomb-scenario heights that loses credibility fast.  And on top of this is an acceptable supporting role for Frank Langella, who is in less of the film than I would have liked (all of maybe five, ten minutes at most).

Until this twist kind of makes the film just 'okay' and veers into an action realm not quite unlike Salt (though Collet-Sera has a much better grasp at directing dramatic paranoia and a car chase than the big-level action of the last act), Unknown is a lot of fun in that dark-thriller sense, including the kind of scene that should make for comedy where the "two" Martin Harris' try to convince a doctor each is who he says he is.  All they'd need is a mirror and it'd be Duck Soup all over again.



(btw, as Tommy Wiseau would say, it is not "A" Roomate, it is "The" Roommate, just to clarify)

I think if I wasn't writing about this movie right now, at this exact moment, I... wait, what is this movie about again?  It's the kind of cineplex-by-way-of-Lifetime-movie trash that comes in very quickly in the month of January, done for dirt cheap with maybe one or two recognizable names (Billy Zane, where have you been!), and gets a few quick bucks from girls with half a brain cell each and then zips off to weekend-TV eventually.  I went in with low expectations and they were met when they weren't being even lowered by the lack of quality in acting, directing, writing and Zane-iness.  Ho-ho.

Ok, so it's another Single White Female clone, and when it's at its 'Best' its hilarious in the worst ways.  It's got a new college freshman whose new college roommate is a little bit on the kooky side - that is the kind that is super protective and jealous and paranoid and "OMG WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH THAT GUY!" kind, and while she's not trouble from minute one the signs come in little drips and drabs (some dialog that is just cringe-inducing in its bland explanation), and then she goes total apeshit in the last act of the film starting with getting a tattoo of a no-no image of the one girl's dead sister.  Yikes.

Christian E. Christiansen directs drably and with an eye of the blind.  Maybe he's making a reel for The Hills reboot on MTV, but he could have fooled me with trying to make this appealing past being the crummiest made-for-TV fluff.  And his attempts to add any sex or danger (albeit PG-13 anyway for the girls at the malls sneaking in to relieve themselves from Bieber-fever) are all flat as deserted deserts.  It's the kind of direction that puts in roving dutch angles for no other purpose except to have them in there (and not in the pleasurable-nonsense way that a Terry Gilliam would use them).

But ultimately it's not all the director's fault (nor his Chris Christie/Tommy Thompson like name), though it is.  It's mostly on the script, which equates horror and thrills with sleep-inducing medication.  There isn't any suspense since this material lacks the justification to wonder where the story is going.  That doesn't stop it from a few awfully bad-taste moments (albeit a moment that brought an inappropriate laugh from me in the theater) like when the crazy roommate played by Leigthon Meester puts a kitten into the drying machine.  Otherwise characters have cardboard emotions, save perhaps for Billy Zane who is there for the paycheck and to be around such girls-the-age-of-his-daughter, and for two minutes does have some fun as a slickback art teacher.

The Roommate is bloodless and lifeless except for those tweens who still need the blood and life of life itself to happen before moving on from such pseudo-psychological thriller stuff.  It's only memorable in how forgettable it is; I would quote a few bad lines from it, but's quotations page has nothing, zero, zip.  Oh well...