Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Nothing That Means Nothing, or Big Tuna Fish is Coming Soon

On May 30, The Criterion Collection will be releasing Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project No. 2, four years after the first volume of this series of box sets came out. I think many followers of Criterion wondered if low sales (which, speaking for myself, were assumed to be low, but as I think I've made clear by now, I don't know shit) had put a halt to this noble project. The project, simply put, is the restoration of important but largely obscure films, from countries not necessarily thought of when contemplating world cinema. The first set included films from Bangladesh, Mexico, and Senegal, and this new one features titles from Turkey, Thailand, and the Philippines, among other countries. There's very little chance I, or you, would be able to see most of these films at all, let alone on Blu-ray (both sets are dual format, by the way), were it not for Martin Scorsese, Criterion, and The Film Foundation. As for the films themselves...

Insiang (d. Lino Brocka) - Brocka, who died in 1992, is perhaps the best-known Filipino director, and this film, as Philip Lopate explains in his Criterion booklet essay, put him on the international stage when it premiered at Cannes in 1978. It's a sort of realist melodrama about Insiang (Hilda Koronel), an attractive young woman who lives in the slums of Manila with Tonya (Mona Lisa), her snapping, judgmental mother (as well as a sprawl of other relatives, at least at first, before Tonya, boots them out for not meeting her moral standards). Insiang is dating Bebot (Rez Cortez), a young dullard who is constantly trying to pressure Insiang into sex, and eventually Tonya allows her lover Dado (Ruel Vernal), a cocky, domineering slaughterhouse worker, to move in with her and Insiang.

And so. Things go pear-shaped for everyone. The filmmaker who springs to mind as a kind of easy comparison, but also as an easy way into Insiang, is Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Like Fassbinder, Brocka, at least in Insiang, seems to have been inspired in part by classic melodramas and "woman's films." Yet in creating his own version, again like Fassbinder, Brocka surrounds his operatic events with real locations, bland colors, as much naturalism as he can without defeating his own purpose (and really quickly, I realize the previous description does not cover all of Fassbinder's work; I'm thinking of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, The Merchant of Four Seasons and the like). In his essay, Lopate takes note of a curious tic that Brocka employs throughout Insiang, wherein many important scenes that include a swell of music will end, and that scene will cut to the next, chopping off the music as well. Lopate isn't sure if this is a knowing choice pertaining to the genre, or form, in which Brocka is working, or a symptom of the clumsiness of a filmmaker learning as he goes. I don't know which it is either, but I agree with Lopate that it has to be one or the other, and as I watched the film my interpretation pointed, more and more heavily, to the former. Once seems like a mistake; three or four times has to be deliberate. Especially when you consider it in relation to where Brocka's film ends up, which also recalls Fassbinder, and which reveals Insiang's full shape and intent.

Mysterious Object at Noon (d. Apichatpong Weerasethakul) - One of only two filmmakers featured in this set who is still alive, Weerasethakul has became a major figure in world cinema following his breakout, the mesmerizing Tropical Malady, the Palme d'Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and the recent Cemetery of Splendour. This one, from 2000, is his first feature film. It begins with a young woman telling the story of her hard life to the camera. Her tears are undeniably real, and so this story must be, too. After, someone off-camera (presumably Weerasethakul) asks if she has any other stories she'd like to tell, either real or made-up. She seems to be considering the question, and then the film cuts and that's the lest we see of her.

The rest of Mysterious Object at Noon is made up of real Thai citizens adding to an exquisite corpse story that is at first about a kind teacher named Dogfahr tutoring a young disabled boy while taking care of her sick father. The story, sections of which Weerasethakul dramatizes becomes progressively more strange, as storytellers add mysterious lines to Dogfahr's skin which her doctor has difficulty explaining, the teacher seems to die, a mysterious boy appears from very unlikely circumstances, and eventually, and this is a spoiler I guess, a group of young schoolkids add their ideas to the story and predictably start killing everyone off.

Mysterious Object at Noon has a curious effect on the viewer, or it did on me. Essentially, the more nonsensical the story becomes, the freer the film seems, and the freer the experience of watching it becomes. Though there are undercurrents of sadness in the film, there is something light about it by the end, a kind of wild escape from the awfulness on the ground. One of the more prominent storytellers is an old woman, getting drunk as she adds to the story. I think she's responsible for some of the grander nonsense. She seemed to be enjoying herself.

Revenge (d. Ermek Shinarbaev) - Revenge seems to be a kind of mini-theme running through this set -- it's certainly there in Insiang, and I think there's even a bit of it in Mysterious Object at Noon's exquisite corpse story, but as you might expect, this film called Revenge really takes that bull by the horns. A product of the Kazakh New Wave, as Kent Jones explains in his essay that accompanies the set, this Russian film features an almost entirely Korean cast, as a reflection of the Korean population that had been forcibly relocated into Russia by the Soviets in the early 20th Century (as explained, again, by Jones in his essay). This also reflects the experiences of the film's writer, the Russian-Korean Anatoli Kim. All of which is a very complex foundation for a very complex story that in a film that is only about 90 minutes, still spans decades, generations.

Early in the film, a young girl is brutally murdered, for literally no reason, by her teacher (Nikolai Tacheyev). Her father (Kasim Zhakibayev) vows revenge, a vow that ultimately must be handed down to Sungu (Aleksandr Pan) to satisfy, as the hunt for Yan, the killer, turns out to be a long and arduous one.

As you might expect, Shinarbaev and Kim don't approach their subject with an air of bloodthirsty glee. Which makes their decision to portray Yan as utterly remorseless, to the extent that at one point he even taunts his victim's grieving mother, and interesting one, and proof, at least, that the filmmakers have the courage of their convictions. In any case, the power of Revenge, which is considerable, doesn't derive from any literal source; it's lyrical, poetic, imagination. And mournful: as one character, a poet, says early on, following one of the film's many acts if cruelty: "My verses serve no purpose in this world."

Limite (d. Mario Peixoto) - From a historical point of view, the most miraculous film in the set is this one, a silent film made in 1931 by a man in his early 20s, the Brazilian poet and novelist Mario Peixoto, who would never again make another film. The strange history of Limite is laid out well by Fabio Andrade in his accompanying essay, but suffice it to say the film was unavailable for so long that some prominent Brazilian critics began to question its existence, and the subsequent restoration that has made it available now was still unable to salvage one sequence, which by necessity has been replaced by an explanatory title card.

All of which makes me feel ungrateful for being largely unmoved by Limite. The film is about two women and a man who are lost at sea. Their pasts are gradually revealed in flashbacks, though this isn't what you'd call a plotty kind of movie. It is, as described elsewhere, an experimental film -- abstract and strange as you'd expect, but experimental also in the sense that Peixoto is figuring out what you can do with a movie camera in 1931. He's trying out angles just to see the results, he's seeing how much movement you can get out of those bulky old sons if bit he's  (he gets a lot). And so on. Or anyway, that's how large chunks of it played to me. Still, interesting, and undeniably significant.

Law of the Border (d. Lutfi O. Akad) - Also lucky to have been rescued by Scorsese and The Film Society is this 1966 Turkish film, a kind of social thriller about a man named Hidir (Yilmaz Guney) who, with his gang, smuggles sheep and other goods across the border between Turkey and Syria. Hidir does this because it's the best way to make money for his family, but it puts him in conflict with the government, the Turkish police, and more violent smugglers.

Text prior to the film provided by Criterion informs the viewer that what they're about to see is, restoration-wise, the best they could do, which prepared me for something much worse than I got. There's a little of dirt still visible, and some small bit of footage seems to be missing from the end. This, I'll admit, may rob the climax if some of its emotional heft, if only because its absence leaves a jarring skip behind. Otherwise the dustiness of the image suits the Sandy environment. It also, in an odd way, makes Law of the Border feel like part of the tradition of independent, fatalistic American noir. Akad ends his film with a lot more bloodshed than I was expecting, but the message was clear: crime doesn't pay, even when you have no choice.

Taipei Story (d. Edward Yang) - It's a bit surprising to me that this film would be included in a box set such as the one under review, given that Criterion has proven itself eager to be in the Edward Yang business, having previously released Yi Yi and, more recently, A Brighter Summer Day, the acquiring and restoration of which was a years-long process. So you'd think that Taipei Story, Yang's second feature would demand it's own release. Who knows why this release came about the way it did, but I'm not going to complain; it's the set's best film, the centerpiece,  and I'm grateful to have it at all.

Featuring director Hou Hsiao-hsien, who co-wrote the film with Yang and Chu Tien-wen, as Lung, a former baseball player who now owns a fabric store, and Tsai Chin as Chin, Lung's girlfriend who walks away from her job at an architecture firm due to that company's changing-for-the-worse landscape, Taipei Story, like Ozu's Tokyo Story (from which the English title of Yang's film takes its inspiration; it should probably be noted that Yang's original titles translates as Green Plums and a Bamboo Horse) is about the harm that ancient traditions adhered to blindly can inflict on both those carrying them out, and those, like Chin, who are in effect the unwilling subjects of those traditions.

Though in 1985 it's more likely that someone like Chin will push back more than she would have just thirty years prior. There's a great moment between her and her father (Wu Ping-nan) and a soup spoon, which Tsai Chin plays beautifully, and so quietly, getting across with just the line of her mouth and downcast eyes how goddamn sick she is of all this shit, quite frankly. Yet while Hou Hsiao-hsien (also superb) drifts unhappily also long, no more able to reconcile his attachment to also long tradition that is doing him no favors, he unfairly takes the brunt of Chin's frustration. Tradition and aimlessness doesn't mean he's not a decent person. Not everything is his fault. Nor is it Chin's fault that her one way out is through a kind of modernity in which Yang sees only blankness.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

All of the Best Movies, Part 3: F - K

Welcome to my blog again, you bunch of fools! I have set here before you the third part of the only Favorite List of Movies you'll ever need, to be honest. First, though, some old business...

Bleep-Ups, Boops, and Blunderings

As I said in my last post, when putting together a list like this, one, or anyway I, is, or am, bound to forget a movie or thirty that should have been included. If you're lucky you'll remember some of them later, and when that happens you, or I, can slot them in later as a kind of addendum. So here's my addendum to the last post. Thankfully, it's much shorter than before.

The Conversation (d. Francis Ford Coppola) - But no less embarrassing, because it's ridiculous that I should forget this, arguably Coppola's masterpiece, which contains arguably Gene Hackman's masterpiece.

Crash (d. David Cronenberg) - Wrote about it here.

F for Fake (d. Orson Welles) - Wrote about it here.

A Face in the Crowd (d. Elia Kazan) - I do think that way too many people watch this film and get all "Mmm, so true" about it afterward. But I don't demand that it reveal to me the truth about America, and prefer to see it as self-contained. In that sense, the film is a real humdinger, and Andy Griffith proves that one look says it all.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (d. Wes Anderson) - Incredibly beautiful, odd, funny. It successfully makes the alien world of animals both animalistic and human. 
Fargo (Joel and Ethan Coen) - Basically perfect. Having seen this God knows how many times, my belief that it is as diamond-sharp and as pristinely structured and executed as any film I've ever seen. Which might imply a sort of coolness of tone, yet wintry though Fargo is, it's warmth that takes over by the end.
Fascination (d. Jean Rollin) - Wrote about it here.
Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (d. Errol Morris) - Maybe the best example of Morris's almost ethereal sense of poetry.
Fat City  (d.  John Huston) - Wrote about it here.

Faust (d. F.W. Murnau) - Murnau had achieved an understanding of cinema and an artistic sophistication, not to mention imagination, in 1926 that has been hard to find in the over ninety subsequent years since.
Five Came Back (d. John Farrow) - As engaging and suspenseful an example of the "how will this motley group of strangers get out of this mess?" film as I've ever seen.
Fixed Bayonets! (d. Samuel Fuller) - Fuller's ability to make each of his war films feel brand new is unmatched. Add to that some great work from Richard Baseheart and Gene Evans, as well as some killer filmmaking, and, well, I mean...
The Fly (d. David Cronenberg) - Wrote about it here and here.

Force of Evil (d. Abraham Polonsky) - I saw this film noir in college and have remembered it vividly ever since.
Fort Apache (d. John Ford) - No one was as elegant, or eloquent, on the subject of men at war with each other as Ford.
Frankenstein (d. James Whale) - Those three cuts that bring the camera closer to the monster was a stroke of genius.
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (d. Terence Fisher) - And this is, to my mind, the most unexpectedly heart-wrenching take on the classic story I've seen on film.
Freaks (d. Tod Browning) - Browning wasn't much of an artist, but he sure was perverse.
Frenzy (d. Alfred Hitchcock) - One day this will be embraced as the late-career masterpiece it's always been.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle (d. Peter Yates) - That Mitchum himself is far from innocent is, I think, the secret source of this film's power.
Frightmare (d. Pete Walker) - Wrote about it here.
The Frisco Kid (d. Robert Aldrich) - It is very strange that this film exists, and perhaps stranger that it proves that Harrison Ford and Gene Wilder should have starred together in a dozen movies.

From Beyond (d. Stuart Gordon) - This movie relaxes me.
Gallipoli (d. Peter Weir) - The bookending image, which is somewhat different in a number of ways the second time you see it, is a hell of a thing.
Gates of Heaven (d. Errol Morris) - The best evidence I can think of that Errol Morris is a wizard.
Get Carter (d. Mike Hodges) - Next to this, most crime films are utterly gutless.
Gimme Shelter (d. Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin) - The concert documentary that is somehow about everything in the world.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (d. Jim Jarmusch) - I have that same copy of Rashomon by Ryunosuke Akutagawa!
Glengarry Glen Ross (d. James Foley) - No one, not even David Mamet himself, has gotten the rhythms and anger and desperation of Mamet's dialogue on screen as exhileratingly as Foley did here.
God Told Me To (d. Larry Cohen) - Of Cohen's Big Three crazy, low-budget horror classics (you may have more, or less, than three), this is the one that as far as I can tell is truly sui generis. Kind of brilliant.
The Gold Rush (d. Charles Chaplin) - Wrote about it here.
Goodfellas (d. Martin Scorsese) - A good effort.

Gosford Park (d. Robert Altman) - Somewhere in the middle of the expertly constructed and performed upstairs/downstairs intrigue is a top-shelf murder scene. You can't tell with that Altman guy.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (d. Wes Anderson) - A weird movie: visually gorgeous comedy-adventure hiding a deep well of sorrow.
The Great Dictator (d. Charles Chaplin) - Wrote about it here.
The Great Escape (d. John Sturges) - The definition of "rousing". Also the definition of "Steve McQueen."
Groundhog Day (d. Harold Ramis) - Wrote about it here.
Gun Crazy (d. Joseph H. Lewis) - The classic tale of a man and a woman who fucked up big time.
Hardcore (d. Paul Schrader) - You know that scene from this that got turned into a meme to be used when someone saw something they don't like? George C. Scott is astonishing in that scene. 
Hatari! (d. Howard Hawks) - Almost avant-garde in its approach to plot.
The Hateful Eight (d. Quentin Tarantino) - Exquisitely problematic. Hopeful in a disgustingly funny way. People try to make you feel guilty for liking it.
He Walked By Night (d. Alfred L. Werker) - Wrote about it here. I was wrong about its unavailability on DVD.
Heat (d. Michael Mann) - If I directed movies, I'd have killed to have made this.

Heaven Knows What (d. Ben Safdie and Joshua Safdie) - I can't quite come to terms with the fact that this is a movie, and not a series of events that I personally witnessed.
Heavenly Creatures (d. Peter Jackson) - Wrote about it here
Hell is for Heroes (d. Don Siegel) - Wrote about it here
A Hen in the Wind (d. Yasujiro Ozu) - I hope there's a sequel to this somewhere that's just her being happy for two hours. 

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (d. John McNaughton) - The last time I thought "I think I'll throw on Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and hang out with my old buds!", the contents of the film put me in such a depressed state of mind that I was unable to finish it. This is entirely to McNaughton's credit. 
High and Low (d. Akira Kurosawa) - One of the great police procedurals.
Hombre (d. Martin Ritt) - This Western has some of the best hardboiled lines of dialogue I've heard.
Homicide (d. David Mamet) - Mamet's best work as a director, a genuinely unique and bracing mystery that is also his most spiritually complex creation.

Horror of Dracula (d. Terence Fisher) - That ending...
The Hound of the Baskervilles (d. Terence Fisher) - Hammer's stab at Holmes. An utter delight. 
Hour of the Wolf (d. Ingmar Bergman) - The first time I saw this, it made me think I was seeing things on screen that weren't there. I'd count that as effective. 
House of Games (d. David Mamet) - Still works like gangbusters. 
The Hustler (d. Robert Rossen) - Wrote about it here
The Ice Harvest (d. Harold Ramis) - See the entry for Groundhog Day. 

Iguana (d. Monte Hellman) - Wrote about it here
In a Lonely Place (d. Nicholas Ray) - Wrote about it here
In Harm’s Way (d. Otto Preminger) - This film breaks my heart.
Inglourious Basterds (d. Quentin Tarantino) - Wrote about it here.    
Inland Empire (d. David Lynch) - I think this movie is gradually seeping into my bones.
Inside Llewyn Davis (d. Joel and Ethan Coen) - The kind of film that can only have been made by a pair of geniuses who have complete confidence in their talents. It's also quietly devastating. 
Inside Out (d. Pete Docter) - I'm glad I don't have kids because otherwise this thing might have killed me. 
Interstellar (d. Christopher Nolan) - For someone as unemotional as Nolan supposedly is, he sure crammed a load of emotions into this one.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (d. Philip Kaufman) - Perhaps the only successful use of "Amazing Grace" as an ironic counterpoint.
The Iron Rose (d. Jean Rollin) - Wrote about it here

Ivan’s Childhood (d. Andrei Tarkovsky) - Visually, as if World War II happened on the moon.
Jackie Brown (d. Quentin Tarantino) - It feels like a full novel on film.
Jaws (d. Steven Spielberg) - It's good, please just give it a chance.
Jeanne Dilman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (d. Chantal Akerman) - The kind of film that couldn't have even been imagined by anyone other than the woman who made it. 
Jules and Jim (d. Francois Truffaut) - That ending can't be shaked loose.
Killer Joe (d. William Friedkin) - The best choice for an end credits song in all of film history. 
King Kong (d. Meriam C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack) - Kids in 1933 must have lost their minds.
King of Comedy (d. Martin Scorsese) - The secret MVP of this one is Shelley Hack.
Kiss Me Deadly (d. Robert Aldrich) - Wrote about it here. Anticlimax!