Sunday, June 28, 2009

Millennium Actress (2001)

Directed by Satoshi Kon.
Starring Miyoko Shôji and Mami Koyama.
In a Nutshell: A reclusive actress relives her life during a documentary interview.

I hope this isn’t the only anime film I watch for my blog/journal. I have a great respect and adoration for Japanese animation, but when it’s done well. Most of the Saturday morning garbage and Adult Swim series lose me. Far too much of it is wrapped up in its own fiction and comes off as culturally unfamiliar (Argument for another day). That said, Millennium Actress is a very moving drama that plays with the fabric of reality and just happens to be animated. The movie centers on a fictional movie star named Chiyoko Fujiwara who retreated from the public eye for 30 years. One of her greatest admirers and his cameraman seeks her out for a documentary. Chiyoko treats him to a retelling of what led her to seclusion while the filmmaker and cameraman become immersed in her storytelling. Before becoming an actress, she talks of helping a man escape from Japanese right socialism. He leaves behind a key for safekeeping and her entire life has been to reunite with her love. It’s an innovative plot devise in traveling through time, with film and history, present and past all occupying the same plane.

The movie does get confusing since many of the scenes never distinguish whether we are experiencing Chiyoko’s actual life or a movie shoot especially when the two doc-makers also start living her fictional exploits. Her films cover even more of Japan’s history from the Edo (military government) and Meiji (westernized centralized government) periods to a futuristic space age (that also serves as her acting swan song). This narration lends itself to a compelling study on the nature of make-believe and the way it bleeds into our own lives. Anime should not be segregated to its own genre, which is why I would strongly recommend this movie to anyone with a sense for both romance and storytelling. To envision this film in any different medium would be unthinkable given the range of history, the scale of human drama, and the sweeping, line-blurring narrative. It’s a touching tribute to the past and present, our idolization of film, and the pursuit of lost love.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Children of Paradise (1945)

Directed by Marcel Carné.
Starring Arletty and Jean-Louis Barrault.
In a Nutshell: A mine, actor, thief and aristocrat vie for the affection of one woman.

There are many films that exist on a purely cinematic scale, lifted high above the flatness of the everyday. Characters shine with their vibrant eccentricities, the frame dazzles with excessively ornate sets and costumes and nobility shines through in the darkest of times. Children of Paradise is one of those films, a large-scale romance in the same spirit of Gone With the Wind. Though it exudes a similar ambition for storytelling, Children of Paradise showcases a darker depiction of its characters and its environment. Many are actors, and the film follows suit with its lovingly embellished performances and lavish soundstage sets. It may lack the grit that the New Wave was built upon, but it sincerely embraces the life-as-theater coda with style.

The film takes place in late 1820’s Paris, full of starving street actors, prostitutes, pickpockets, and other low-lifes. For a film of this time, it certainly reveled in the seedier side of society, but as a viewer today, everything seems very bright and dream-like. The cities are bathed in white light with even the most ancillary of characters busy with activity, bringing a worldliness to the smallest of details. Even when the characters start to tear their relationships apart, the movie looks magnificent as though it prides itself in showcasing these human dramas. The characterizations are fantastically done as well. Arletty, the woman who finds herself fought over by four men is a far more grounded variation on the classic temptress role. Arletty was in her early 40’s during filming, but her age works with for her; she displays a hard-earned experience that allures even the most depraved. The four men are a bit more varied in personality, but no man is too noble or immoral to make her decision easy.

This movie’s romanticism is the impossible type that can only exist in the movies, but revels in its theater style. Children of Paradise is able to support five richly defined characters in its story. Using Paris' theater as a backdrop gives Children of Paradise a unique soul that takes joy in its ungrounded flair. Equally impressive is the story behind the making, which involved making and releasing the movie around Nazi involvement. That such an arrestingly romantic movie could have been born from such circumstances is nothing short of miraculous.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Man Bites Dog (1992)

Directed by Rémy Belvaux.
Starring Benoît Poelvoorde and Rémy Belvaux.
In a Nutshell: A crew of filmmakers follows a serial killer’s exploits.

It isn’t everyday that a film comes along that gives me pause. And I’ve shuffled through a lot of films that would rank as controversy lightning rods without any issue. This probably isn’t a sign of my endurance, but more so just fatigue or a better perception on the difference between vision and voyeurism. I guess to cut to the quick, many films that try to satirize violence fall incredibly short for me. I have a hard time picking apart any sort of critique on the nature of violence apart from any actual violence, which only makes the filmmaker look like a psychopath. Man Bites Dog is an incredibly violent film (One particular break-in/rape scene made even my stomach churn, and that is a pretty hard thing to do). While it’s not shy, its focus is not necessarily on the nature of violence, but on the media’s affixation on it (as well as the authors and filmmakers who find it such a reliable benchmark for their works; the psychopaths in question).

As black as comedies can possibly get, the movie involves a film crew documenting Benoît Poelvoorde’s serial killer, Ben, as though his activities were commonplace. The casualness to his actions is darkly (and I mean darkly) amusing at first, but it makes sure the viewer never gets too comfortable (though most normal people should feel uncomfortable from the get-go). In between murders, Ben loves literature, film, architecture, all while displaying a boyish, gleeful zeal with his killings. All the while, the filmmakers try to reserve emotional detachment from Ben. But by the end of the film they’ve become close to his friends and family and participate in his crimes.

It’s sickening, but a clever statement on our own media’s obsession on violence. Most people wouldn’t describe themselves as violence-craving and yet serial killers and school shootings will be the stories that make the cover of TIME or dominate a news shows’ weekly content. People like Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, Ted Bundy, and Charles Manson have become household names for the sake of viewership and satisfying viwer curiosity. The way Ben’s film crew become sucked into his homicidal ways is all too telling about the way media attempts a sense of distance from murderers while in actuality giving them the perfect spotlight for their doings. Man Bites Dog would not be so shocking if it wasn’t so accurate about the way media views violence. It is a true satire, but a hard watch.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Hard Core Logo (1996)

Directed by Bruce McDonald.
Starring Hugh Dillon and Callum Keith Rennie.
In a Nutshell: A self-destructing punk rock band is documented during a comeback stint.

Or probably more accurately, Unfunny Spinal Tap. True, this movie is not without a few dark laughs, but if you liked This Is Spinal Tap, you will not necessarily like Hard Core Logo. But it’s a bit unfair to make the comparison since both films are aiming to accomplish two completely different tones. The concept is the same; the film is a fake documentation of a band making a final gasp of a comeback tour. Though instead of the endearing Spinal Tap fools, trying to grab depth and meaning out of thin air, the band-mates of Hard Core Logo are the standard “rage against the establishment” sort. The band’s frontman Joe Dick (Hugh Dillon who, thanks to his experience in the band The Headstones, brings an untrained authenticity to his role) plans on roping back guitarist Billy Tallent (Callum Keith Rennie) for the tour to benefit one of Dick’s idols. However, Tallent is poised to be signed into an alternative pop band. Their relationship is far more hostile than ‘old married couple’ given Dick’s knowing insecurity (barely disguised by his coarse machismo) at fading away, unlike Tallent whose, well, talent will surely give him a life outside of HCL.

Too many critics felt this movie was too cringe inducing and never really went anywhere; none of the scenes build and the plot just meanders. Which makes me wonder if a documentary recreating a punk band’s exploits should be a labyrinth-plotted, light-hearted romp (I don’t think so, HCL’s style is more than appropriate). There we were many small details that I thought gave it an edge over other fake-docs. Particularly the way that Bruce McDonald (playing himself) and his camera crew were not just observers of the madness, but added to the band’s annoyance and had plenty of interactive moments (including one insane drug trip that may have stepped outside the documentary style). And the simmering anger between Dick and Tallent really gets under the skin; the movie’s progression makes it clear the payoff will be far more explosive than that between Nigel and David. I would recommend this movie, but maybe not to any Spinal Tap fans. Maybe fans of Apocalypse Now. Group dynamic destruction over an arduous journey into madness that nobody wants to be on? Maybe that’s overreaching, but in all, this is not a fun film. It is accomplished in its discomfort and makes itself impossible not to watch with horror. A fine, if incredibly squirmy piece of fauxdocumentary.