Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007, Tim Burton)

screened Saturday December 22, 2007 at Century 20 Theaters Daly City, CA IMDb

My brother is a whore for anything A.O. Scott is crazy about, and since Scott called this film “almost a masterpiece,” we had to check it out for ourselves. It’s the most affecting film I’ve seen from Burton since my 15-year-old’s experience of Batman; it’s quite thrilling to witness just how much throat-slashing mayhem the film gets away with while remaining completely watchable, dare I say entertaining. In the 2007 homicidal maniac movie adaptation sweepstakes I’d put this somewhere in the continuum between There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men; it is not as audaciously unconventional as the former, but more emotionally arresting than the latter, while sharing the latter’s characteristic of seeming more like a cosmetically cinematic execution of a strong source text. Great performances abound, with Johnny Depp exhibiting a stony relish in his all-consuming murderousness, and Helena Bonham Carter providing the sad-eyed, twisted soul of this bleak and bloody yet rapturously realized world.


940. Je vous salue, Marie / Hail Mary (1984, Jean-Luc Godard)

Joyeux Noel!

screened Saturday December 15 2007 on New Yorker DVD in Weehawken NJ

TSPDT rank #899 IMDb Wiki

Godard’s controversial take on the gospel story of Mary ranks in my mind as his most sensual work, startlingly direct in its exploration of the aching rift between material and spiritual reality. Godard appropriates the mystery of the immaculate conception to revisit the themes of womanly identity and freedom that he had explored in his ’60s films with Anna Karina. As a young Mary whose pregnancy rends her sense of self from her own body, Myriem Roussel exhibits Karina’s curiosity with the mysteries within and around her. In a parallel manner, the film makes between Mary and her milieu of similarly befuddled human beings, and beautiful landscape shots of nature, ample in sensory stimulation yet unyielding in meaning. Godard’s film is preceded by Anne-Marie Mieville’s 27 minute short The Book of Mary, a brilliantly evocative, Bressonian study of a young girl’s experience of her parents’ split; like the feature, it explores the psychological and existential effect of an event that rends one’s conception of reality. At their best, both films evoke a genuine sense of wonder and sage acceptance of the world’s irresolutions and mysteries.

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939. My Brilliant Career (1979, Gillian Armstrong)

screened on Blue Underground DVD in Weehawken NJ December 9, 2007

TSPDT rank #859 IMDb

Gillian Armstrong’s debut feature is a handsome coming-of-age story that is deceptive in its studied classicism. Based on pioneering Australian writer Miles Franklin’s semi-autobiographical account of growing into an independent woman in the outback,  at first glance, this appears to be another period piece where the art direction is as important as the direction (indeed, production designer Luciana Arrighi went on to work with Merchant-Ivory).  The academic lensing by Donald McAlpine flattens the range of settings (from a pigsty of a family farm to a luxurious estate) into a picturesque whole that doesn’t do justice to the uniqueness of each environment in contributing to the heroine Sybylla’s journey of self-discovery.   The lifeblood of the film is Judy Davis’ star-making turn as Sybylla; her performance embodies the captivating confidence of a young girl not knowing any better than to be true to herself. With Davis’ tremendous assistance Armstrong’s understated direction resiliently maintains her heroine’s sense of underlying resistance, despite the pressures of family and marriage imposed on her, as well as her own desire to succumb to romantic ideas of domestic submission.   One review I read faulted the film for not lending enough attention to the career referenced in the title – Sybylla spends little time in the act of writing – but to me, the career being referred to is that of being a woman.

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Recent films

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007, Andrew Dominik)
screened December 4 2007 on DVD in Weehawken NJ IMDb
I found some of the elements in this film distracting: the Ken Burnsy voiceover (was this meant to be ironic or subversive in any way?), the gaussian blurring of shots, the indebtedness to Days of Heaven in mood and image.   But on the whole this is a thoroughly respectable effort, and it’s unusually leisured pacing is something to be savored rather than derided.

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007, Paul Greengrass)
screened December 5 2007 on DVD in Weehawken NJ IMDb
Montage as hucksterism.  If I get my hands on the DVD again, I’d love to do a video essay with some of the action scenes slowed down to a crawl just to pin down the editing sleight-of-hand tricks pulled off here.  You never really *see* anything in this movie, which I guess is kind of accomplished in a cinematic equivalent of negative capability, but it’s also kind of cheating.  (Of course bear in mind that these complaints are coming from the same guy who found the fight scenes in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon downright pornographic in their wide angle explicitness.) All the same, very entertaining and smart-sounding.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007, Sidney Lumet)
screened December 6 2007 on DVD in Weehawken NJ IMDb
I think I’m in the minority, but I thought Ethan Hawke gave a better, tougher performance than Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Hoffman’s performance tends towards a kind of schtick that has emerged with his acting over the years  – the purse-lipped hesitations and knowing leers.  Hawke looks out of control in this film but that deer-in-the-headlights look alternates with other moments of pain, rage, misplaced trust and a certain innocence borne of ignorance.  He’s the soul of the film in a film that has more genuine soul than No Country for Old Men.  The plot sounds like something the Coens would have optioned (except perhaps minus the gimmicky backward storytelling), and they probably would have made something more precise and visually captivating.  But the lack of those very elements in this film are what allow the raw pain at the heart of this tragic mess of a family to come forward.

Eastern Promises (2007, David Cronenberg)
screened December 7 2007 on DVD in Weehawken NJ IMDb
Watching this film it occurred to me how many of Cronenberg’s movies have a prosaic, TV-movie look to them.  Something square about the compositions and framing, the uninspired, blocky handling of dialogue scenes.  All of this was okay in A History of Violence because it reinforced a feeling of the prosaic being gradually set into upheaval — the hyper-kinetic action sequences in that film operated the same way.  And now what was innovative and subversive has become conventional – the intense fighting in the film is just a more potent version of standard Hollywood brawling.  It’s a good yarn being told, and the subject matter is fascinating.  I wish I liked the work of screenwriter Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things) more because I am very interested in the multi-ethnic working class London milieu he examines.  But he betrays the perspective of an outsider and a genre writer, whose investment in these people and their predicaments extends as far as conceiving potent classic movie thrills.

Juno (2007, Ivan Reitman)
screened December 9 2007 on DVD in Weehawken NJ IMDb
As soon as I saw that burger phone I knew I was in trouble.  Thinking equitably, I could deem this a welcome response to two of the many teen male coming-of-age stories: Rushmore and Knocked Up.  But it just tries too hard to be quirky.  Jennifer Garner’s scary career woman mama wannabe becomes remarkably poignant by the last act, making you wish the film had dome more do delve into the unlikely rapport between her and the title character than waste time with the younger, cuddlier version of Steve Buscemi’s character in Ghost World (amiably played by Jason Bateman).  God help me if I hear another Moldy Peaches song.

Notes from There Will Be Blood New York premiere

screened Monday December 10 2007 at the Ziegfeld Theater, NYC IMDb

So I sweet-talked my way into the screening (I won’t say how exactly) and once I got my pass, I made a bee-line for the bathroom, queuing up for the urinal behind  a guy in a snazzy orange plaid suit.  He turns around and whoaaa!

That’s  Emily Watson’s profile on the right.

So I take my place in the seat listed on my ticket, amidst some young suits and suitesses who give me the eye.  One of them insists I’m in the wrong seat.  I insist I’m not.  He looks at my ticket, then looks at me and asks, “Are you a friend of Paul?”  Oh, what if I had said yes…

After I was kindly escorted out of the friends of the director area into an equally good spot, I settled in and was treated to what may very well be the best American film of the year.   I’ve been kind of reserved in my praise of the film in conversations with people who’ve seen it, if only because others I’ve talked to have been effulgent in their praise.  Without spoiling it for people who haven’t yet seen it, I’ll just mention that my main quibble for the film is with Paul Dano’s character.  It’s not that he gives a bad performance per se – Dano was the best thing about Little Miss Sunshine and here he does everything he knows best according to how I assume the character was developed by him and PT Anderson.  I just find that character conception lacking, not the least because the finale is set up to be such a mega-movie confrontation that it demands so much more of an equal to Daniel Day-Lewis’ monstrous creation than what we see.    So basically Dano’s character befalls the same fate as DiCaprio’s puny protagonist in Gangs of New York.  Ironically, I think DiCaprio as he stands today – older, more fearsomely mature in his ineffable charisma, would have been the perfect counterbalance to Day-Lewis’ Plainview.  Imagining Leo in the last scene, reduced to eating humble pie and a bowling pin, works a lot better for me than a Dano.

That aside, the film is pretty much perfect.  And in the time I’ve had to mull over the screning in the past week, my qualms aren’t enough of a stain on the overall film to detract it from a rating of


I’ve made a lot of comparisons in my head between this film and No Country for Old Men in the past week.  To cut to the quick, I’ll just say that my misgivings about No Country amounting to an impeccably executed genre exercise were pretty much cemented after seeing There Will Be Blood.  As impressively detail-oriented as the Coens were, Anderson’s film is equally  immersed in its world, hammering out every detail as intensely as the recurring image of Day-Lewis hammering away at the world with pickaxes, shovels, gun barrels and bowling pins.  But what takes Anderson’s film a league beyond in my book is the energy behind it.  I applaud the Coens for being more restrained in their absurdist scenarios with this last film, but looking at how There Will Be Blood moves through one amazing scene after another while barely calling attention to its own consummate craft, the studiedness of the Coens’ set pieces feel precious in comparison.

On my second day of vacation (first day was spent at the New Jersey DMV, sampling Latino delicacies in Union City, and then making the 3,000 mile commute to SF) I finally got a moment to read the point/counterpoint between reviews on the film by Ed Gonzalez and Nick Schager on Slant.  Nick seems to be a step ahead of me in having no reservations lauding the film despite finding the same weaknesses in the Paul Dano character as I’ve mentioned above.  Ed’s review is one of the few takedowns of the film published so far, and while his litany of grievances is as rangy as a PT Anderson film, his distrust over the film’s ambiguous characterizations, character motivations, lack of humanism and substance beyond its ecstatic style are deserve consideration.  But if all of this were true, then what’s No Country for Old Men doing on his top ten list?

Quiet City (2007, Aaron Katz)

screened on DVD on laptop on flight to San Francisco, December 18 2007 IMDb

This is the real deal.  Honest moments, poignantly and convincingly awkward behavior, and plenty of room to breathe in the world presented to us with modesty and confidence.  Erin Fisher’s lovely face runs the gamut of puzzled post-adolescent bewilderment – she gives Amy Adams a run for her money.  This film may seem a lot more minimalistic than, say Once, and without the benefit of emo song numbers and cute kid – but notice how much subtext there is in the relationships – subtext not established by expository dialogue or even scenario, but by body language.  That’s top notch direction at work.  I’m looking forward to seeing Dance Party USA.


What is Chinese Cinema? Ask Shelly.

It’s been a year since I went on a two-week research/writing trip to Beijing for a feature that my partner Atsushi and I are hoping to shoot next spring and summer. I just read a fantastic article reflecting on the nature and purpose of contemporary Chinese Cinema, written by one of the leading young experts in the field, Shelly Kraicer. This year Shelly took the reins from Tony Rayns as programmer for the Asian film program at the Vancouver International Film Festival. He also programs for the Udine Asian Film Festival in Italy. His website chinesecinemas.org is infrequently updated (he more actively manages an email list-serv), but on his site you can find a list of the 100 Greatest Chinese films as determined by Asia Weekly magazine, which was my go-to list for broadening my historical understanding of Chinese cinema.

The following article was originally published in the Toronto Film Festival Daily in September. Shelly expanded it and republished it on his list-serv. Since there’s no way to read this article any other way, I am posting it here. I hope this doesn’t negate its chances of being published in Cinema-scope or some other print publication because I think it’s essential reading for any enthusiast of Chinese cinema, especially the last two paragraphs.

What is a Chinese film?

What is a Chinese film? Ever since I’ve started living and working in Beijing, almost five years ago, most issues about the local cinema I’ve been researching and writing about come back to this elemental question. Surprisingly often, it’s filmmakers themselves who seem most anxious about the issue. Behind it lie several subsidiary anxieties: “what do Westerners want from Chinese films?” “What’s my role in Chinese society?” “Are films art, or commerce, and if art, then what is the duty of an artist in today’s China?”

In English, we don’t distinguish between zhongguo dianying (movies made in China) and huayu pian (movies made in Chinese). Chinese film can simply mean a national cinema extending from its early years in Beijing and Shanghai to the present day, both within and outside the state run system of production, distribution, and exhibition. A broader meaning adds to this films from “greater China”, encompassing Taiwan and Hong Kong. A still broader meaning includes any films in the various Chinese languages (Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien, etc). A still wider circle would embrace filmmakers of Chinese ethnicity like Ang Lee and John Woo, who now work mainly in English.

So much for the first term in “Chinese film”. The second term, “film”, is equally ambiguous. Look at the catalogue of the state-run Shanghai Film Festival, and you’ll find the official narrow interpretation of Chinese film, encompassing state-owned film studios’ mainstream propaganda films (zhuxuanlu pian) , and independently financed commercial movies authorized by the Film Bureau, both on film and DV. Small-scale independent “image exhibitions” in China (the Chinese Independent Film Screenings in Nanjing, or the documentary film festivals in Kunming, Yunnan and Songzhuang village, near Beijing) will show films made outside of the system, these days almost exclusively on digital video. These are film festivals in all but name, who keep a lower profile in order to avoid unnecessarily antagonizing government bureaucrats responsible for controlling (and sometimes suppressing) them.

With foreign film festivals, the picture becomes even more complex. There are festivals (you know who you are) that largely follow the Shanghai Film Festival model. There are festivals such as Rotterdam’s International Film Festival who exist to “discover” (for western viewers), support (though financing and programming) and promote independent, alternative, non-commercial cinema. Most festivals lie in between.

All attempt to satisfy certain ideas about what constitutes “China” and what constitutes “film”. No choices are completely objective, and none escape the confines of pre-existing notions of cultural and national “difference”. We have to change the question, then. Instead of asking “what is a Chinese film”, let’s ask instead “what kind of cultural work Chinese cinema, and other cinemas, can do”.

Foreign film festivals, especially, play critical and controversial roles in presenting, labeling, constraining, defining, and shaping foreign cultural production for domestic (i.e. Western) consumption. Since the era of Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, “Chinese film” has often meant something gently or violently exotic: old models of Orientalism carried over quite easily into our so-called “postmodern”, “post-colonial era”. Sex and violence, preferably vibrantly coloured and richly costumed, sells, because it offers western viewers a comfortingly familiar vision of a China that they think they already know.

For many in the West, “China” is currently being re-defined as something increasingly powerful and ominous. This fear of a new economic and cultural adversary colours how Western media outlets chose to depict China. Films that in some way underline social problems, films that are bleakly depressing, films that adopt some sort of adversarial stance in relation to power, all become the currency which flows towards to Western audiences. Again, the point is to comfort audiences with images of what they think they already understand: China as a place essentially different from their own home, a place whose internal problems and contradictions need to be exposed and in a sense “enjoyed”. This essentially is just a way of confirming one’s own “normality” in the face of a menacing “other”. The role of critical, independent Chinese directors in making these films is therefore sometimes all too painfully ambivalent. This year’s Chinese documentaries at TIFF illustrate some responses to
these dilemmas: Jia Zhangke’s Useless dramatizes China’s present image as a production powerhouse, while Wang Bing’s Fengming: a Chinese memoir insists that an open accounting of China’s troubled recent past is a necessary condition to understand and to shape where it’s heading.

So what can be done to avoid these traps? It’s not easy: people see what they want to see. Mass media is about giving comfort, reinforcing patterns of thought, policing the boundaries of what we call knowledge. So, instead, why not shake people up? If I had to give the Chinese filmmakers an answer, I’d say: Make and exhibit films that show audiences what they don’t already know. Find images that are fresh, provocative, that destabilize the complex of pre-established, pre-thought concepts that a film audience totes like baggage. Don’t show what’s already been seen; don’t depict what’s already been imagined. Unsettle, surprise and disturb, and you’ve started to point in the right direction.

Shelly Kraicer

December, 2007
Beijing, China

And to commemorate my trip from last year (where I met Shelly at the lovely Zha Zha Cafe nestled in the hutongs), here’s a video of highlights from the trip:

Video Essay for 938. Dames (1934, Ray Enright and Busby Berkeley)

Special thanks to Filmbrain for his feedback, and for pointing out that the bit that starts at 1:50 is as much a “birthing” as an assembly line – which makes an interesting dovetail with the “fertilization” bit that follows.

Video essay:

View the original sequence:

938. Dames (1934, Ray Enright, Busby Berkeley)

screened Wednesday October 17 2007 on Warner DVD in Pordenone, Italy

TSPDT rank #909 IMDb Wiki

Though Busby Berkeley is not listed as director in any of the They Shoot Pictures 1000 Greatest Films, it’s safe to say that 42nd Street (TSPDT #437), Golddiggers of 1933 (TSPDT #572) and Dames would have no chance of making the list were it not for the contributions of this most seminal of Hollywood musical choreographers. The last half hour of Dames features some of Berkeley’s most dazzling numbers. “I Only Have Eyes For You” ostensibly a cinematic love letter to Warner Brothers stalwart Ruby Keeler, blossoms into a many-splendored meditation in movement: the star image as that well-worn paradox of intimate and accessible, unequivocally singular and infinitely reproducible. Along these lines, Berkeley’s compositions oscillate between close-up and wide shot, human figures dissolving into abstract geometries. These themes are pushed to even greater visual extremes in the climactic title number, a celebratory confluence of capitalist desire for abundance, sexual provocation/objectification, avant garde cubism and quasi-fascist pageantry and precision – in other words, it encapsulates the major themes of the 1930s better than any other ten minutes in cinema. These numbers also flirt with titillation as much as could be expected of any movie produced under the then-recently imposed Hays Code, whose hardline measures limiting mature content in Hollywood are openly mocked in the film’s flimsy plot lampooning a millionaire’s decency campaign. Leads Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell are fun to watch, square as they may come across by today’s standards, they beam enough youthful exuberance to have given their contemporary audience a temporary lift from their Depression-era woes.

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