Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Foreign Film Fest: Summer 2009, The National Film Board of Ivanlandia Presents

The National Film Board of Ivanlandia makes sure that at least 25% of the movies screened for the campesinos are not from the Hollywood Propaganda Machine™.

And that’s even when The National Film Board of Ivanlandia
absolutely fucking hates
some of those movies.

Must keep an open mind! Ha-ha!

The flicks may be from other nations’ propaganda machines, but that’s the point.
Different propaganda views enable the brainwashed to choose the right propaganda for them. Or themselves.

BTW, today’s art direction is by His Excellency, the Most Exalted Tzar Ivan Amin Dadaism—so don’t expect your so-called rational illustrations: I’m looking at you, Maddox, yeah, you.

The National Film Board of Ivanlandia Presents
Foreign Film Fest: Summer 2009
(in no order except one that may be aesthetically pleasing to a reader of film reviews)

Blood & Bones (Chi to Hone) (2004; Japan)
Directed by Yoichi Sai
Written by Yoichi Sai & Wui Sin Chong
Based on the novel by Sogil Yan

Blood & Bones is a grueling, violent epic about the dingy, sordid, miserable life of a loveless bully. Takeshi Kitano plays Kim, a Korean immigrant to Osaka circa the early-1920s, and a man so mean that he eats rotten, maggot-encrusted raw pig meat.

The movie is hardly a character study, though, more like a series of episodes showing how awful Kim is. Much of this flick will be inaccessible to those without some knowledge of the twisted histories of Japan and its former colony Korea.

But mainly, Koreans are considered third-class citizens in Japan, and I think the film implies that much of Kim’s brutality is a result or response to that. (Korea was a colony of Japan until the end of WWII.)

I like the fact that the movie makes no attempt to “explain” Kim, but I wish there had been a bit more plot, or at least 20 to 30 minutes edited out. Blood & Bones is a dense movie that feels longer than it is—
not that I ever found it boring or dull.

The flick has a clinical style that’s somewhat entrancing; whole scenes of violence and mayhem are seen in long takes from a stationary angle. It’s a style that hypnotizes.

The movie, however, is probably best watched like a mini-series, in two or three parts over a few nights—to give you some breathing room—seeing this in a theater must have been a grueling, claustrophobic experience, and Blood & Bones really can only be recommended to those interested in offbeat or physically and emotionally violent Asian dramas.

Waltz With Bashir (Vals Im Bashir) (2008; Israel)
Written and directed by Ari Folman

Despite a potentially horrific topic, Waltz With Bashir is surprisingly listless, and for the first 30 minutes, quite boring.

The film relies MUCH too much on narration, and the mediocre animation is a quasi-rotoscope style (like Waking Life or A Scanner Darkly) that I’ve never really liked. This type of animation seems incredibly self-constrained: animation should breathe life and/or exaggerate, not seemed like traced-over footage.

I can see why this flick might be a big deal for Israelis, but the US has its own wars and war movie clichés to deal with, and Waltz With Bashir doesn’t bring anything really new to the table to anyone who is familiar with the genre of war movies.

Made in U.S.A. (1966; France)
Written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Based on the novel The Jugger by Richard Stark (penname for Donald E. Westlake)

Another bit of boring uselessness from blowhard Jean-Puke Godard, absolutely the most overrated filmmaker ever. God, how I hate his movies!!!

I only went to see this because I’m a massive Donald Westlake fan
But readers of the author will find no resemblance to any of his books in this flick, and the rest of us will be hard pressed to stay awake.

The only memorable moment in Made in U.S.A. is the cameo by Marianne Faithfull, who is sublime (of course) singing “As Tears Go By.”
(I can’t wait to see her in The Girl On a Motorcycle: meow!)
(I got to see Marianne Faithfull perform at a cabaret in the late-’80s: incredible!)
The framegrab of the stunning Ms. Faithfull is swiped from Glenn Kenny’s awesome Some Came Running site (named after a movie Ivanlandia strongly approves of!).

For some reason, Kenny—and about a bazillion other people whose opinions I respect!—
love Godard and think he’s the bee’s knees.

Maybe it’s the slope of my forehead or something…. I HATED Breathless ("Useless" is more like it), and Weekend was…okay…I guess…which really means "no."

But I really lean towards this opinion:
“Someone like Jean-Luc Godard is for me intellectual counterfeit money when compared to a good kung fu film.”
—Werner Herzog
(Hooray for Uncle Werner!)

Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards (Tantei Jimusho 2-3: Kutabare Akuto-Domo) (1963; Japan)
Directed by Seijun Suzuki
Written by Gan Yamazaki
Based on a novel by Haruhiko Oyabu

A private eye goes undercover to infiltrate a gang that’s stealing from the yakuza in this hip, very fun caper flick from Japan.

It’s a B-movie plot done very well, adeptly aided by some incredible widescreen Technicolor photography and a unique choice of actual locations. Could this movie be the missing link between 1950s noir and Boorman’s Point Blank?

Often Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards is a beautiful time capsule of 1963 Tokyo. A very recommended movie.

The Cat (Lao mao) (1992; Hong Kong)
Directed by Ngai Kai (Simon) Lam
Written by Gordon Chan, King-Ka Chan

Nowhere near as blood-drenched as the director’s previous The Story of Ricky, The Cat is its own unique brand of weirdness very much deserving a cult following if it doesn’t have one already.

Even if the subtitles weren’t completely incomprehensible already, I’m not sure if this flick would make sense anyway.

But it doesn’t matter, not when things get as good as this.
A kee-ray-zee mash-up of The Hidden, the 1988 version of The Blob, The Terminator, That Darn Cat and (dig this) Turner & Hooch, The Cat manages to transcend its references by being completely gonzo and out of control—despite some slow spots and a lead actor absolutely devoid of charisma.

There’s plenty of mayhem and madness throughout, leading to a wonderfully disgusting, quasi-Lovecraftian conclusion with puppet blob monsters.
But it’s that junkyard fight between an acrobatic space cat and a Zen master bullmastiff that puts this flick right into hyperspace: it’s pure genius, I tell you,

Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite) (2007; Brazil)
Directed by José Padilha
Written by Bráulio Mantovani, José Padilha, Rodrigo Pimentel
based on a book by Luiz Eduardo Soares, André Batista and Rodrigo Pimente

A high-octane plunge into a rotten world where a person’s good intentions are sure to doom them, and as much a socio-politico-cinematic head-trip as the original Funny Games or Starship Troopers, Elite Squad is much better than any typical cops vs. drug dealers flick precisely because of the film’s unreliable narration.

The film is narrated by the character of Captain Nascimento, the leader of the squad, and, boy, is he a mess—and he gets worse as the movie progresses.

The audience cannot view this passively, simply accepting what the captain says as some sort of objective truth: The tough-talking, self-aggrandizing, self-righteous, mythologizing voice-over is supposed to sound like a cheap paperback book as Nascimento tries to convince himself that what he’s doing is right.

How else can he justify his very dangerous, but almost meaningless job? For me, this led to Elite Squad’s “elephant in the room:” during the film, no one ever bring up that if the drugs weren’t illegal, then there wouldn’t be any violence.

King Lear (Korol Lir) (1971; Russia)
Directed by Grigori Kozintsev and Iosif Shapiro
Written by Grigori Kozintsev, from Boris Pasternak’s translation of William Shakespeare’s play

A really great adaptation of Shakespeare’s play about the doomed-from-the-get-go monarch who stupidly divvies up his kingdom before he’s dead, this version of King Lear is a genuinely exciting movie.
It doesn’t feel like a filmed play or some Masterpiece Theater snoozefest; it feels epic.

And somehow, Lear feels more appropriate in Russian: the dramatics and the intense theatricality definitely pumps up the play quite a bit.

Meanwhile, this film has some beautiful B&W cinematography that must have been impressive to see in a movie theater. Very recommended.

Mongol (2007; Germany/Kazakhstan/Russia/Mongolia)
Directed by Sergei Bodrov
Written by Arif Aliyev and Sergei Bodrov

A great potential double feature with either Korol Lir (see review above) or Conan the Barbarian (and about as historically accurate), Mongol is beautiful and exciting and stunning---and ultimately somewhat tedious: It’s a very shallow biopic of the legendary Genghis Khan’s early years. But there are enough awesome scenes of battle and spectacle in this movie that I have to at least like it.

BTW, Mongol isn’t as bloody as so many people are claiming.
Not to say that the action and stunts are not often spectacular and always well done, but the way reviewers were squawking, you’d think Mongol out-splattered Saving Private Ryan or Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. (There are more beheadings in Conan the Barbarian, actually.)

The Method (El método) (2005; Spain/Argentina/Italy)
Directed by Marcelo Piñeyro
Written by Marcelo Piñeyro and Mateo Gil
Based on the play “El mètode Grönholm” by Jordi Galceran

As the streets fill with rioters, a series of nasty mind games are played on a pack of smug yuppies all vying for the same job in this very tense, anti-capitalism variation on “10 Little Indians.”

The Method really turns the screws, upping the paranoia, and for what’s essentially a one-room thriller, it has great visual style.

The actors are all stars of Spanish cinema, and do a great job. However, if you’re anti-subtitles, you won’t like The Method: it’s wordy and they speak quickly.

BTW, to compare the star power of this cast, the American version would have to star George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Gene Hackman, Kevin Spacey, Samuel L. Jackson, Kathy Bates and Anne Hathaway, essentially.

The script is a neat intellectual exercise that mixes moral/philosophical arguments and fear equally, and the faux-muzak score is a fab counterpoint to the action.

Finally, the film is an engaging intellectual exercise that the viewer can join in on with the corporate personality-ethics tests, while pondering the mystery of what’s going on.

The Method does peter out somewhat during the last 10 minutes, but how can any flick maintain such intensity?
Otherwise, this engaging and nerve-wracking thriller is highly recommended (especially for fans of The Game, Battle Royale, The Parallax View and, of course, No Exit).
Totes recommendato!

This Is England (2007; UK)
Written and directed by Shane Meadows

A confused and muddled mess, This Is England is doubly disappointing for the opportunity it misses and potential it wastes: Thomas Turgoose is great as the young kid, giving a powerful, but very natural performance, and he’s really the only reason to watch this movie.

But rather than sticking with the fascinating story of a pre-teen skinhead and his introduction to “skin” culture, and later, to the rascism which came to define it, the movie introduces a new character, whose psychosis and crazy violence negates any potential discussions about race, class or politics.

And if we can’t have those discussions, then what’s the point of making a film about skinheads, unemployment, racism, nationalism, Maggie Thatcher and the Falklands War and calling it This Is England?

Father of the Kamikaze (Aa Kessen Koukuutai) (1974; Japan)
Directed by Kousaku Yamashita
Written by Taizo Kusayanagi

I'm not sorry I rented Father of the Kamikaze, but I can't give the film a recommendation either.

There's about 90 minutes of excellent, well-acted, insightful film here trapped inside 3 hours and 18 minutes of boredom, repetitiousness, WWII stock footage, listless action scenes and tedium.

So only someone with a strong interest in the brave pilots of the Divine Wind during the last days of the Pacific War against the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere should rent this: It does provide a shifting of perspective that any student of history needs to experience.

Doggy Poo (2004; Korea)
directed by Kwon Oh-sung
screenplay by No-Mi Park
based on Kwon Jung-saeng’s 1968 children's book Doggy Poo, illustrated by Annie Rose Godsman.

The first 15 minutes of Doggy Poo is worth seeing just for the weirdness value alone, as we are introduced to the cutest pile of claymation canine excrement and its existential dilemma.

However, while this film is only about a half-hour in length, Doggy Poo’s tone does not change enough to maintain an audience’s positive interest: the titular pile of poo is much too whiny, yet complacent, to engender long-term sympathy.

Le Corbeau (1943; France)
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
Screenplay: Louis Chavance
Adaptation and dialogue by: Henri-Georges Clouzot and Louis Chavance
Director of photography: Nicholas Hayer

A new favorite of mine, Le Corbeau is a mystery/noir that feels like a Jim Thompson novel in tone and plotting: The inhabitants of possibly the meanest and most petty town in the world are driven into a frenzy as all their secrets are revealed by an unknown letter-writer. Meanwhile, the “hero” is a cynical abortionist!

Smooth and crisp camerawork effectively increases the mood of paranoia and suspicion, and the exquisitely crafted script keeps the twists (and red herrings) coming. But make no mistake, Le Corbeau is an angry, acidic film – not surprising considering the circumstances of its production in German-occupied wartime France.
Because of that dark worldview, the film still holds up today.

Le Samouraï (1967; France)
Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville
Written by Jean-Pierre Melville, Georges Pellegrin
(based on the novel The Ronin by Joan McLeod, uncredited)

Le Samourai is, like Breathless, another “classic” that I do not get or like. Okay, take away my film-lovers license, but I fell asleep four times trying to watch Le Samourai.

My problem is that I have already seen most of the films influenced by this flick: movies like John Woo’s The Killer, Walter Hill’s The Driver and Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog (all of which I think are worth seeing and are much better), and seeing the original turned out to be a let-down.

The Sword of Doom (Dai-bosatsu tōge, "The Pass of the Great Buddha") (1966; Japan)
Directed by Kihachi Okamoto
Screenplay by Shinobu Hashimoto
Based on the novel by Kaizan Nakazato
Cinematography by Hiroshi Murai

Great sword-fighting, exquisite B&W cinematography and a memorable performance by Tatsuya Nakadai all make The Sword of Doom worth renting – it’s as if Albert Camus and Sergio Leone got together to make a samurai movie.

Nakadai plays a samurai version of Anton Chigurh, an evil, amoral killing machine who takes pleasure in causing so much death.
Toshiro Mifune is also good in what’s an extended cameo as a samurai who’s the complete moral and spiritual opposite of Nakadai, and the only one who can stare down the evil warrior.
It’s almost as if John Wayne showed up in the middle of a Clint Eastwood western, understand?

But The Sword of Doom’s mood and pacing are routinely disrupted and derailed by what I felt was an unnecessary subplot involving a courtesan-in-training (whose grandfather had been killed by Nakadai) and a thief who’s in love with her.

Gentler souls than mine might need the respite from the rest of the film’s brutal nihilism, but these scenes are what kept me from loving The Sword of Doom completely.

Inside (À l'intérieur) (2007; France)
Directed by Alexandre Bustillo
and Julien Maury
Written by Alexandre Bustillo

WHOA! This flick is craaaaaazy.

If you call yourself a gorehound, you must see this film. Brutal and gruesome, Inside is a MEAN endurance test of a movie – and it’s not stupid either; the filmmakers really know how to twist the screws. I found it often unbearably tense. There’s tension in even the tender moments.

Meanwhile, Beatrice Dalle is an awesome killing machine. Inside is not perfect (there’s the usual horror movie nonsense of going into dark rooms, etc.), but it is a complete success as the ultimate mindfuck-splatterpunk flick. If that makes any sense…
Gory madness…

The President’s Last Bang (Geudttae Geusaramdeul) (2005; Korea)
Writer/Director: Im Sang-Soo
Director of Photography: Kim Woo-Hyung
Music: Kim Hong-Jib
Editor: Lee Eun-Soo

The President’s Last Bang is a smart, intense film, right up there with other top-notch political thrillers like The Lives of Others, Costa-Gavras' Z and even Pontecorvo’s work.
I was totally fascinated by this movie and watched it twice in a row the first time I rented it.

But despite several critics and commentators’ claims, this film is not so much a comedy—something with jokes—as it is something infused with a giddy, bleak outrageousness—almost nihilism—
which isn’t so surprising considering the film is a true story about a bloody assassination and an attempted coup d’etat.

It’s mindblowing to think that this political thriller really happened! Watching this, I kept thinking/transposing what was happening: What if one night CIA director Richard Helms came to the White House, and after dinner, popped caps into Nixon and Kissinger? If Leon Panetta did the same to the Prez and James Jones?

Because THAT’S what happened in South Korea! If something like that had happened in the US, it would be like pouring a gallon of liquid PCP on the floor of the cabin of a passenger jet full of armed cops: total psychic Armageddon.

America would really go bonkers—I couldn’t tell you how, I could only speculate, but bad scheisse would be stirred…

Back to the movie:
However, I don’t really like the film’s English-language title; I was told that the original Korean title translates as “The People of Those Days” (or, more colloquially, “The Folks Back Then”).
I find “The Folks Back Then” more evocative of what the movie is about, of how the situation occurred, and how it maybe needed to happen so that change in the right direction could begin—and also: that it wound up reinforcing a repressive regime for a while.

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