Friday, November 30, 2007

Beowulf (2007)

To borrow a famous expression (and tweak it ever so slightly), there is nothing wrong with Beowulf that could not have been fixed by what is right with Beowulf. This movie boasts some of the most marvelous visual effects and chase scenes (3-D or otherwise) that I've seen, and yet there are maybe 20 minutes of that good stuff in a nearly two hour movie in which lots of bearded men in armor converse languidly while fine actors delivered impassioned vocal performances that come pouring out of the barely-animated mouths of waxy pseudohumans. Are these heroic warriors or talking gummy bears?

As he showed in his last film, The Polar Express, director Robert Zemeckis has a fervent belief in the power of this motion capture technology, where real actors don suits of ping pong balls and act out their parts while computers, which can transpose the information onto animated characters, record their movements. To a large extent, I remain skeptical. Quite a few of the actors in the film are represented on screen by avatars that closely resemble their looks including Robin Wright Penn, Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich, and Angelina Jolie, wearing nothing but some carefully placed gold paint, a prehensile hair braid and high heels. When Zemeckis' camera gets in real close, we can see how close the computers can come to recreating the texture of a viking's beard hair, the blemishes of a woman's face, the bags and wrinkles under a tired king's eyes. Yet these details can only really be appreciated when the characters are at rest, because as soon as they begin to speak there is a huge disconnect between voice and image. If you close your eyes, it sounds like Anthony Hopkins. If you could freeze frame, it would look like him too. But when he speaks, that essential spark of humanity, the intensity in the eyes, or the subtle movement of facial muscles is missing. It's like the animatronic version of Anthony Hopkins that you'd see if they ever made a Beowulf amusement park ride.

The result is bothersome and, at least to me, totally distracting. The uncanny valley effect is much less noticeable when the characters aren't made to eerily resemble the actors who play them; Beowulf himself, for example, isn't designed to suggest Ray Winstone, and the problem is much less noticeable (it could also be that as the lead character, animators spent more time making him appear more human). But, at least in Zemeckis' use of mo-cap, the emphasis remains on making as many of the actors appear on screen as recognizably as possible. Gil Kenan's superior Monster House was shot using the same techniques but didn't face the same problem because the characters were permitted to exist simply as animated characters not wax museum loan-outs.

Where the mo-cap stuff does shine is in the action sequences, where Zemeckis has total control of his camera. It glides over huge distances without a cut; one remarkable shot connects a great beer hall with the distant cave where a monster waits for the moment to strike. It shrinks down so it can squeeze through a key hole, and it can do extreme low angles without having to worry about digging up the floor of the soundstage. Long takes are always key to truly great, athletic action sequences and motion-capture lends itself to them, as in the first battle between Grendel (Crispin Glover!) and (an inexplicably nekkid) Beowulf, which can show off every moment of the beautifully intricate choreography, because it never has to cut around stunt doubles or accomodate different camera placements. In the world of CGI, the camera is only limited by the director's imagination, and that must be incredibly freeing.

That said, why not just make a totally computer animated movie? The characters in Brad Bird's The Incredibles or Ratatouille aren't designed to look exactly like real people, yet they're animated so expressively (without the "benefit" of motion capture) they become far more real, however counterintuitive that may seem in theory. And Bird's camera is just as lithe as Zemeckis' — it's possible, now that I think about it, that The Incredibles was the last action movie that produced the same giddy adrenaline rush of Beowulf's best moments. Maybe I don't understand the technology but I don't see the advantage of motion capture, then, over a regular computer animated movie. (Is it production time? Is it cost of technology and hardware? Is it the fact that you pay millions to these movie stars and you want some of that to show up onscreen?)

Beowulf is not much of a movie — you'll notice I haven't even attempted to dive into the murky waters that are its plot, and I don't intend to — but in 3-D it is definitely an experience. The studios that release animated movies have experimented with 3-D versions of their films, and I've seen a few of them (including Meet the Robinsons and the aforementioned Monsters House), but those movies were shot for 2-D and turned into 3-D and as a result bore little of the fun uses of the technology that something designed for the medium would have. Beowulf on the other hand was always intended to be seen in 3-D, and boy are its effects fun. And sure, it's a gas to get pelted in the face with imaginary arrows (I'll admit it: I totally flinched). But where the technology surprises is in the way it heightens the sense of danger in a scene designed to build suspense, as when Beowulf enters the Grendel's cave searching for the beast and its table dancing mother and his sword juts out right in our faces, quivering ever so slightly (The still at the head of this piece approximates the effect without the benefit of the third dimension). It's a "watch where you stick that thing" moment but it doesn't take you out of the story, it enhances it; we're in that cave with Beowulf, so we're terrified what's going to leap out at us, not at him.

So love the 3-D, love the action, love the whole idea of animated fare for adults (physical adults at least, mentally this thing is pitched at immatures like myself). But still can't wrap my head around the motion capture. These faces! It's like I, Robot in fleshtones.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

AT LAST! The Awesome Might of The Gymkommentary!!! (Updated w/ iTunes instructions!)

How I envy you, my friends. How I envy you, of what you are about to see and hear and experience and enjoy. Long have I spoken about the awesome majesty of Gymkata, the second greatest movie of all time. Now you can experience Gymkata as director Robert Clouse never intended: with my obnoxious comments playing over top of it. I give you: GYMKOMMENTARY!

That delightful image was created by my good friend, Chris Moreno, who introduced me to all the Gymagic in the first place and who joins me on the GYMKOMMENTARY to help provide witty one-liners and thoughtful insight.

In order to enjoy the GYMKOMMENTARY you will need to download the file from any of the links in this post. Then you'll need to procure a copy of the movie itself (you can buy it here or rent it from Netflix). Then just follow the easy to use synch up instructions right in the commentary track itself.

The file is free for all to enjoy. I'm working to get it listed on iTunes, and if you do like it, let me or Chris know. Because there may be more of these in your future if you do...

UPDATE 12/01/07: Okay, if you have iTunes, here's an easy way to download the file directly to your player. Open iTunes then go "Advanced" to "Subscribe to Podcast" and then enter this link:

That should do it! Hopefully a listing in the iTunes Store to come shortly.


Monday, November 26, 2007

The Old and the New

Some notes of moving pictures seen in the dark or by lamplight, ordered from dearly beloved to manageably tolerable:

Decision At Sundown (1957), directed by Budd Boetticher. The third entry in the "Ranown" cycle of Westerns that Boetticher filmed with star Randolph Scott, it's a tight-fisted 77 min. of moral wrangling and lean storytelling. Scott's Bart Allison is a rude, stubborn sonofabitch hell-bent on offing the dandified Tate Kimbrough, a charsimatic rake who rules the town of Sundown with an oily iron fist. Motive: Kimbrough adulterated with Allison's wife, who then strung herself up. The question is constantly raised whether this is a sufficient reason to kill a man - and Allison's quest eventually reveals how his own lust for violence has overwhelmed any sense of justice. The rest of the town receives their own moral enema.

Southland Tales (2006), directed by Richard Kelly. A convoluted bit of dystopic comedy that hits way more than it misses - especially with Dwayne Johnson's superb performance, a self-conscious bit of action-hero parody that attains an unexpected kick of pathos. It simmers with ambivalent rage about the Iraq War and the state of American politics and culture - put across with mordant wit and all manner of pop culture paraphenalia.

No Country For Old Men (2007), directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. A precisely calibrated, technically accomplished thriller - the Coens hold their smirky tendencies in check, and produce a tense chase film. It falls flat in reaching for higher themes than the will to survival (something about the world as an endless cycle of violence, Tommy Lee Jones and Bardem as ghoslty pawns in this fated game). These ideas are murky and marked with self-importance (partly the fault of the source material - it's one of Cormac McCarthy's weakest). Good movie, but overrated.

Michael Clayton (2007), directed by Tony Gilroy. Another well-crafted, relatively empty-headed thriller, anchored by another fine George Clooney performance. With the evidence of Eyes Wide Shut and Clayton, Sydney Pollack should quit directing and play creepy authority figures full time. Tom Wilkinson acts crazy (but is he?), and Tilda Swinton acts sweaty (she is). Corporations are bad, and Clooney looks good with tie slightly loosened. I like where Gilroy is headed though. With his Bourne scripts and this - his penchant for morally ambiguous heroes who reveal their character through action rather than talk (despite all the chatter in Clayton), he might make a film as powerful as Decision at Sundown someday.

Monika (1953), directed by Ingmar Bergman. I usually agree with Godard when he writes a hysterical ode to a film - but not this time. Perhaps I was too tired at the screening - but the tale was predictable, the stagings staid, the performances rote (except for Harriet Andersson, of course, who beamed and burned convincingly throughout). Lovers escape the strictures of society, try to forge their own Eden, and fail. I yawned, and wondered what the hatchet job performed by its U.S. distributor looked like when it was retitled Monika, the Story of a Bad Girl.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Ruthless People (1986)

Ruthless People is maybe the best "idiot plot" in history. For those unfamiliar, here's the man who coined the term, Roger Ebert, explaining it in his 1968 review of the movie Wait Until Dark:

Briefly, an idiot plot depends upon one or more characters being idiots. They get trapped in a situation that they could easily get out of with common sense. But they don't, being idiots. If they did, they'd solve the problem and the movie would be over."

Over time, he's refined the definition — to more specifically refer to movies where characters have idiotic and obnoxiously convenient misunderstandings which lead to wild swings of plot that could realistically be solved easily with limited dialogue or difficulty — but I don't know if he's ever put it better. And watching Ruthless People for the first time I kept thinking to myself, "Man, what an idiot plot" while simultaneously marveling that every so often, an idiot plot can work.

Typically, the problem with idiot plots is they require seemingly intelligent, rational people to act like imbeciles. But Ruthless People is centered around the very idea that society is populated solely by thugs and halfwits. Thus all of the elaborate wrangling needed to make each character act exactly as they must to advance the narrative is not only acceptable, it is utterly plausible. Of course they would. These people are morons.

Let's take a moment now to discuss the story, idiotic as it is. Danny DeVito plays Sam Stone a textile magnate who's waited for years to inherit his rich wife's family's money. Fed up, he decides to off the wife and collect what's coming to him, but the very day he walks in to his tastelessly designed home with a bottle of cyanide is the same one she's been kidnapped and held for ransom. That gives us the first of several hysterical scenes, where DeVito slowly realizes that that all he needs to do for his wife to end up dead is to not pay someone half a million dollars. Greedy as Sam is, not giving someone money is a very easy task indeed.

The idiot plot comes in later. Sam's got a mistress and confidant named Carol (Anita Morris), who learns of Sam's intent to kill his wife and hatches a blackmail scheme with her dimwitted boytoy Earl (Bill Pullman, in an inspired performance of Lone Starian proportions). Earl is dispatched to videotape the murder and instead winds up filming a random couple in the midst of bout of rough, loud sex and (because he's an idiot) mistakes it for murder. For things to work out as they must, Earl must convince Carol that he not only taped the killing, but that the footage is so grisly she must not watch it (because if she did she'd realize the footage is not of Sam and his wife). The remaining nincompoops include the actual kidnappers (Judge Reinhold and Supergirl herself, Helen Slater), and Sam's wife Barbara (Bette Midler), who is such a shrill harpy that for a moment we contemplate whether Sam's desire to see her dead is such an outlandish request. Further idiot plot twists come along, mostly involving the chief of police (who, it turns out, is one half of the random couple) but saying more would spoil the fun for those who still need to see the movie.

It's all pulled off beautifully by the ZAZ team, David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker, whose more famous movies like Airplane! and The Naked Gun thrive on the humor of stupidity. Here their more outlandish instincts are tamped down, and there's really only moment truly ZAZian sight gag in the whole film (Sam goes to identify his wife's body in the morgue, the coroner pulls back the sheet and reveals...a middle-aged black man). Truth be told, I wasn't even aware they directed this movie until I casually examined its "INFO" on my DVR and it is the only movie the trio directed but did not write (the high level of comedy throughout, as well as a few choice moments, suggest to me they at least contributed an uncredited polish). The ending is probably a bit too happy, given how despicable most of the characters are and I would have recast a few of the parts with better actors instead of all the people were really "hot" back in 1986. Regardless, these guys know how to do idiots. And if you can do idiots, you can do idiot plots.


Thursday, November 15, 2007

Lust, Caution (2007)

Lust, Caution could be the title of most Ang Lee movies, from Brokeback Mountain to The Ice Storm; hell, even The Hulk. But it is the title of his latest movie, and it is indeed an appropriate one, seeing as how it is filled with human interaction that is both lusty and cautious. One could argue that the title also refers to Lee's approach to the material, and it is this reason that film succeeds in some ways, and fails in others.

Lee and co-writers James Schamus and Wang Hui Ling's story begins in Japanese-occupied Shanghai in 1942, at the mahjong table of a wife of a powerful Chinese bureaucrat (Joan Chen). Her husband, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), enters and greets his wife, but we can't help notice his eyes keep falling on a different woman, Mrs. Mak (Tang Wei). Soon Mrs. Mak exits the game suddenly, and goes to a cafe, where she places a code-laden phone call. Then the movie flashes back to a few years before, and we learn the true nature of Mr. Yee and Mrs. Mak's relationship. Mrs. Mak is, in fact, a talented young actress named Wong Chia Chi, whose theater buddies get a little too drunk on the patriotic high of their pro-Chinese play and decide that simply inspiring their countrymen is no longer satisfying enough. They learn the troupe's director Kuang (Wang Lee Hom) has a connection to a traitor named Yee who is colluding with the Japanese. On their summer off from school, the group will move into a nearby house and set themselves up as wealthy industrialists and their affiliated servants and drivers, and try to worm their way inside Yee's home and social circle in order to kill him. Wthe newly-minted Mrs. Mak catches Mr. Yee's eye, she needs to play along or risk blowing the subterfuge.

As you can see, it's not an easy story to synopsize, and that reflects in the actual telling of the story as well, which is almost 160 minutes long. Though some have criticized the movie's length and pacing, I find it difficult to theoretically fault Lee on either count. Much of the movie's core is the arduous grind of this sort of mass deception and the incredible emotional toll that inflicts on Wong, even before her relationship with Yee becomes sexual and even sadomasochistic. Wong's trip to the world of Yee lasts far longer than it ever was intended to, and that, too, probably plays a role in drawing out the action as long as Lee does.

What faults the film does contain (and I say that while also adding that I would give the film a mild positive recommendation) are more a result of Lee's tentative filmmaking rather than the tentative characters themselves. Emotionally, Lust, Caution's a bit too one-note; wall-to-wall plaintive longing of the sort that's marked a lot of Lee's films. Even the sequences that should be exciting, big acts of violence, intense depictions of lovemaking, are bummers. After three hours, that adds up. That's a lot of bleakness for one movie.

The movie is the sum of the relationship between Mak and Yee, but we only really get to understand the former half of that pair because the story is told from her perspective and regardless of how intimate they become, Yee remains a mystery to her. A great deal of his character, and the complexity of Wong's task, lies in the fact that Yee trusts no one — and so he never opens up to anyone on camera, and thus never opens up to us. I don't know how well we understand him by the end of the film as a result; in all of his extended sequences, Tony Leung has all of his clothes off and the physical nudity doesn't particularly translate to emotional nudity. That air of detachment is of course part of Lee's plan, and while I understand it to a degree, the result leaves me somewhat disconnected from and unsatisfied by one of his two main characters.

The movie is rated NC-17 for the sexuality which is largely restricted to the film's final act, and doesn't add up to more than maybe four scenes (four very graphic scenes, it should be said). Once again, I see Lee's intentions but find myself unhappy with the execution; these sequences reveal all the complexities of the power dynamics in the relationship and the ambiguous way they're shot forces the audience to consider whether Wong despises Yee or loves him, whether she hates having to have sex with him or secretly loves it. And yet, I can't help but think all the thrusting and funky positions (that crab-looking one just looks painful) is a bit indulgent too; surely there is a way to express the rawness of their sex without quite so much explicitness.

Still, I admired parts of the movie, and particularly the two lead performances. Tony Leung is aging in a way that flatters his face; he's retaining his good looks but there's a hardness I hadn't noticed there before, an added element of menace which serves this character perfectly. And the film would make a fine double bill with Paul Verhoeven's own 2007 sexy WWII spy thriller Black Book. I prefer Verhoeven's interpretation of this theme: lusty, but less cautious.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Termite (Sequential) Art: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier

Yeah, it's a film blog. Guess what: I like comics too.

Written by Alan Moore
Illustrated by Kevin O'Neill

I just finished Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's long-awaited third volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen entitled, simply Black Dossier, and I've yet to come down from the giddy high. The story, which isn't really all that important on the pages that address it at all, involves a man and a woman in 1950s England searching for the titular files, which contain the secret history of the League that Moore and O'Neill chronicled in volumes one and two , but really Moore and O'Neill are more interested in taking readers on a kaleidoscopic (and, eventually, stereoscopic) journey through literary history from their own unique perspective.

The previous Leagues were more straightforward adventure stories; Black Dossier's pulp (which is an extensive chase through a post-Orwellian society featuring significant references to Fleming and Greene) is interwoven with lengthy excerpts from the various materials in the Dossier itself, which allows for a more leisurely exploration of mysticism and pornography and the arts, ideas that Moore has also explored elsewhere. Basically, when the characters take a break from the action to sit down with the Dossier, we do as well. These redacted items include a lost, unfinished work by Shakespeare concerning Prospero (a character longtime League readers know played a role in the formation of an earlier incarnation of the team) and an excerpt from a "beatnik" novel by Sal Paradyse, protagonist of Keroac's On the Road. If the narrative seemed like anything more than a cheeky clothesline here, you could say the Dossier portions interrupt its flow. But I imagine Moore sees it much the opposite way.

This project finally arrives over a year after its initial release date and you can see where all the time went; this is a scrupulously designed book, from the cover (which matches the cover of the Black Dossier in the hand of one of the characters on the dust jacket of Black Dossier) to the different stocks and even sizes of paper of the various sections of "reprinted" materials, to the flat-out bitchin' 3-D segments that conclude the narrative with a hallucinogenic bang (the book comes packaged with its own incredibly stylish red-and-green spectacles) and include some of the niftiest effects of this kind I've ever seen. I think a lot of trade paperbacks and especially original graphic novels are overpriced; you definitely get your money's worth here.

There's so much more that could and should be discussed, but it probably needs to come from a savvier reader than myself (Moore's references in League comics are so vast and intricate that there are even published books of annotations). Still, one of Moore's central achievements with the series remains its remarkable accessibility even in the face of almost cover-to-cover cross-cultural references; even in this, the weirdest and densest book yet, it's far from a League of esoteric gentlemen. And for all of the author's past uses of prose within the structure of a comic book, he's never integrated the two as seamlessly or as successfully (not to mention as fascinatingly) as here.

There's also something uniquely fun (and very Alan Moore) about centering an entire story about a series of documents so dangerous they must never be read and then actually letting the reader dive into the text in its entirety — not just excerpts or glimpses but the full, unabridged passages. Just about any other author would probably give us the equivalent of the shots of Jules and Vincent looking in the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, because prevailing wisdom states the audience's imagination will always be more vivid than the author's. Thankfully, that is still not the case when it comes to Alan Moore.


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

My Name is Albert Ayler (2005)

Kasper Collin's 2005 documentary, My Name is Albert Ayler, has finally reached the U.S., screening at Anthology Film Archives this past week. Ayler developed a form of free jazz independently of the "new thing" that was happening in NYC with Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor and the like. A soft-spoken mystic who played with staggering intensity - and equivalent volume, he was a divisive figure - you either loved him or hated him, as bassist Gary Peacock says in the film. I loved him when I was in college - his impassioned cacophony almost sounded like he was weeping through his music - there was absolutely no filter between himself and his instrument. Such passion can lead to sloppiness and indulgence - and you just had to accept that if you wanted to get anything out of his tunes. I'm able to now and again.

The documentary is loaded with interviews, but unfortunately pretty slim on insight. There's a lot of talk about how enigmatic Ayler was, how soft-spoken and isolated - but there's no attempt to analyze his main form of speech - his music. There is little to no discussion of his artistic progression or style - just that it was weird and rejected in the States, and that Northern Europeans were more receptive. A few flashes of album covers gives short shrift to his incorporation of marches and folk forms into his music - the only remotely musical thing discussed is his attempt to cross-over with his more fusion oriented New Grass album. But the main corpus of his work is left wanting - just a huge slab of unexamined "greatness". There are some fabulous anecdotes - especially from his frequent drummer Sunny Murray (a verbose and hilarious guy), but there's precious little insight into what made Albert's music so different and threatening.

The film is efficient in filling the basic outline of his life - and uses haunting interview clips with him over the course of his career as a post-mortem narrator, which only goes to increase his enigma further. Late in life his his girlfriend/manager was Mary Parks, who is alluded to have isolated him from the jazz community by Murray and others. In an interview on the phone, she refuses to appear in the flesh, because she says it would dissipate the mystery that surrounds her and her relationship to Albert. Kasper Collin's film follows her lead - not presenting the importance of the man through his art - but through the mystery of his life, of which we will never be privy to.

His death, a presumed suicide into the East River - can never be explained. But his music - at least we have a shot at explicating that.

All that aside - there's some amazing concert footage, Sunny Murray truly is a delight, and I would recommend it to those interested in the guy. So, while seriously flawed, it's serviceable as an intro to his work - but don't take it as the last word - that's still waiting to be spoken.


Wednesday, November 07, 2007

To Trap a Spy (1966)

It's almost never shown on television, it's never been released on DVD, so it was exciting to see that yesterday TCM turned over most of its daytime programming to the cinematic versions of the classic 60s spy show The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. This film, To Trap a Spy, is actually an extended version of U.N.C.L.E.'s pilot, "The Vulcan Affair" with some additional scenes to fill out the runtime (it's also in color where the televised version was in black and white). I've never had the chance to watch U.N.C.L.E. and I've wanted to for years, so I figured better take the chance while it's available, even if it is in some sort of weirdly edited form.

It's a fun little show, and if this episode-movie is any indication, an interesting one. Obstensibly, it's a twist on the James Bond mythos, with a suave, gadget-wielding super-spy named Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) of the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, who battles the forces of the evil Thrush alongside his Russian partner Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum). After a lengthy setup involving a murdered U.N.C.L.E. agent (i.e. the stuff that was almost certainly shot to pad the show to feature film length), Thrush agents storm the offices of U.N.C.L.E. looking to kill the station chief. They fail, but only temporarily — actor Will Kuluva was soon replaced in the role by Leo G. Carroll for the remainder of the series because, according to legend, an exec demanded they can "that K guy" and thought they meant Kuluva when, in fact, they were referring to the Kuryakin character. Whoopsie!

Given the stupidity of the Thrush agents' mission — five dudes against an entire building of spies — it's not surprising when they're defeated, but they do pull off at least one totally awesome visual, stumbling on Solo and revealing him for the first time in the film (and, presumably, in the series as well) by shooting at him and cracking the bulletproof glass in front of him. Awesome.

From there, the story takes an odd turn. Solo moves to the background so that a random homemaker (Pat Crowley) who once had a relationship with industrialist and Thrush agent Andrew Vulcan (Fritz Weaver) can infiltrate his organization via some Notorious-lite canoodling. Crowley's character and her plight — being plucked from 1960s domestic bliss (i.e. picking up her kids crap and getting ignored by her husband) and having to come to grips with the glamour and romance of international intrigue — is an odd blend of proto-feminist empowerment messages (Crowley's character does, in effect, save the world) and shameless sexism. And, of course, all the other female characters are sexpots — Solo's Moneypenny equivalent literally talks to him over the radio while she's sunbathing in her office in a bikini! That's right ladies you can be anything you want to be, as long as you strip down and oil up beforehand!

It it was it is; a blowup of a decent but not great tv show, with a very likable lead performance from Vaughn and a lot of fun '60s flavor. The titles of these movies are great too; others include The Spy With My Face and The Karate Killers. Time to watch some more.

Monday, November 05, 2007

YouTubeArt: Semi-Pro Teaser

Most anticipated film of 2008?

Labels: , ,

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Love and Honor (2006)

Sneaking into the ImaginAsian Theatre this weekend is septuagenarian Japanese director Yoji Yamada's latest, Love and Honor. It is the third part of a thematically linked trilogy that documents the Samurai code clashing with modernity, all of which were adapted from the novels of Shohei Fujisawa. The other two in the series are The Twilight Samurai (2002) and The Hidden Blade (2004). I greatly admire both, and stumbled upon this third release glancing at the NY Times' reviews section. Needless to say, I raced to the theatre, bought some Pocky, and took in an intelligently mounted melodrama both dramatically and stylistically satisfying. The story percolates nicely, as low-ranking Samurai Shinnojo Mimura (an electric performance by pop star Takuya Kimura (here he is advertising Levi's)) scuffles as a food tester for the local Lord. Then one day he chomps into a posionous shellfish, and he goes blind. Emotions burble, framings are precise, katanas get polished, and the plot flows smoothly until the ritualized duel that may restore Shinnojo's dignity. This duel is present in all three films, and all are a matter of pride, trying to hang on to the Samurai Code that disappears soon after Commodore Perry landed near Tokyo in 1853.

The leisurely pace allows the great cast that surrounds Kimura to add depth and detail to his world - his servant Takuhei (Takashi Sasano) is both trusted confidant and house jester, and Sasano steals the film with his fidgety, stoop-backed, and thoroughly graceful performance.

Along with James Mangold's recent 3:10 to Yuma, it stands as a consistently entertaining throwback - a classically structured and filmed drama that honors its forebears without seeming like a museum piece. A rare feat!


In Defense of Jerry Seinfeld

The cover story of this week's New York Press bothers me. "Bizarro Jerry" by David Blum (who, full disclosure, was the guy in charge of The Village Voice when me and most of my mates were shown the door), is basically 1,500 words about how the author doesn't like Jerry Seinfeld (who, full disclosure, created my favorite television show of all time and provided me with countless hours of entertainment plus most of the foundation upon which my sense of humor rests) with little in the way of substance.

Mr. Blum's case against Seinfeld boils down to the following:

1)Jerry Seinfeld is a jerk, because an article in The New York Times says so.

2)Jerry Seinfeld isn't creative because Bee Movie "looks as mediocre in execution as its premise appeared on paper."

3)Jerry Seinfeld isn't as talented as Larry David, who's done much better work since Seinfeld ended than Jerry has.

Let's tackle these point by point.

Point The First
"Bizarro Jerry" begins by referring to this New York Times article by Dave Itzkoff, and recounts an episode the author (Itzkoff, not Blum) was told by Seinfeld about his interaction with a fan at the U.S. Open. According to Itzkoff, "[Seinfeld] was approached by a well-attired fan who handed him a business card and invited Mr. Seinfeld to visit his brokerage house. Both men became noticeably perplexed when the offer was declined."

According to Blum, this is cause for outrage. Even though he concedes the broker "went a little too far" he still spends the rest of piece explaining how this incident proves that Seinfeld is a jerk who has lost touch with his the guy he was and the audience he had. But think about this, and forget about the knee-jerk reaction that states that all movie and television stars must be gracious and accomodating regardless of the circumstances. In an ideal world, we'd love it if they were, but look at what this guy is asking and imagine if you were approached in a similar situation; if some random dude came up to you and said "Hey! Come to my place of business! I like you!" You know what you'd do? YOU'D CALL THE POLICE.

Look, if I asked Jerry Seinfeld for an autograph, I'd be disappointed if he didn't sign one (though I wouldn't ask for one cause, really, who cares). But I think we can all agree the man should be under no obligation to honor the requests of crazy people. If Blum witnessed Jerry doing something really nasty, I'd want to read about it. But writing about other people's writing? That's not a cover story; that's a blog post.

Point the Second
I'll agree with Blum on at least one point — Bee Movie does look bad. The trailers and commercials have almost convinced me, a guaranteed sale, not to see it. But I know enough about movies not to judge them on their advertising (if that were the case, then American Gangster would be the best movie of the year).

Without having actually seen the movie, how is Blum (or I) to know what it's really like? Maybe it's terrible; maybe it's a masterpiece. So far reviews have been mixed; but the film's also gotten nice write-ups from A.O. Scott and Peter Travers and Jonathan Rosenbaum. If Seinfeld is, as Blum claims, a "true genius" I think he deserves a little bit more of the benefit of the doubt. I'd like to hear Blum's thoughts about the movie; his thoughts about what the movie might be, not so much.

Point the Third
Again, I'll side with Blum: Curb is damn good television. But he's dismissing Seinfeld's post-Seinfeld work and excessively praising David's just to prove his point.

He says that while David has cranked out season after season of Curb Seinfeld's been silent, "He hasn’t developed or extended himself in any meaningful creative way; there have been no screenplays, no books, no comic essays for The New Yorker." That means that, for whatever reason, Blum dismisses Bee Movie's own screenplay, which Seinfeld co-wrote (maybe because he hasn't seen the movie). Blum also seems unaware of just how much time and effort Seinfeld's put into Bee Movie, which has been in development for over four years, roughly half the time David's been working on Curb. Animated films take an incredibly long time to produce, and I'm sure Seinfeld's hands-on style and perfectionist tendencies only exacerbated the issue. He also takes a few shots at Seinfeld's wife and her recent cookbook controversy without ever stating the fact that Seinfeld did get married, and he's also had three kids since Seinfeld went off the air.

And while Curb is a fine show, let's not forget that David's post-Seinfeld resume also includes the film Sour Grapes, one of the most odious movies ever made. It's Rotten Tomatoes rating is currently 27 points lower than Bee Movie, but you won't find a mention of it in Blum's piece.

Blum has every right to dislike Jerry Seinfeld. He has every right to criticize his work. But when it comes right down to it, his piece is basically about how he feels about an event he didn't witness and a movie he didn't see.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Porter Wagoner (1927 - 2007)

At the age of 80, Grand Ole Opry legend and all-around good guy Porter Wagoner has passed away. He wrote some fabulous songs which reflect his easy-going personality and cutting sense of humor. Check out "The Cold Hard Facts of Life", and "I've Enjoyed as Much of This as I Can Stand". There's a detailed obituary here and reminiscences from his peers (including his musical partner, Dolly Parton) here. I feel especially lucky because my wife and I were able to see him perform twice this year - once at the Opry on our trip to Nashville, and again at MSG when he opened for The White Stripes, which we saw the night after we were married. Porter was there for us when we needed him - as he was for so many couples and kids and music lovers who stopped by the Opry for a night's entertainment. He always delivered, strutting on stage in a dazzling Nudie suit, welcoming us to the show, cracking a few jokes, and then laying into one of his classics ("Green, Green, Grass of Home", maybe?) with his sturdy baritone. He made you feel at home. For what it's worth, his music will always have a place in ours.