Sunday, May 17, 2009

Nikkatsu Noir finally arrives


At last year's Fantasia Film Festival, Montreal's annual cinematic event celebrating the best in Asian and genre film, there was a special focus on Nikkatsu films. Nikkatsu, one of the oldest film studios in Japan, spend the '60s and '70s trying to reach a younger audience and churned out a series of sleek, hard boiled films that borrowed heavily from American gangster, western and rebel films. I attended a screening of Gangster VIP which was presented by Marc Walkow, a producer who has worked with Criterion and is co-director of the New York Asian Film Festival. At the time he mentioned that Criterion had picked up the rights to some of the Nikkatsu films but didn't mention any of the forthcoming titles. Well, the wait is over, as this week Criterion has announced their newest Eclipse box set, Nikkatsu Noir. The five films have not been released on DVD anywhere before and will be an exciting taste of a genre that is just beginning to get the exposure it deserves.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

How Sweet It Is


Sugar is not your average baseball film. There is no: big game, ornery manager, greedy owner, hotshot rookie, final-inning-with-two-outs-and-a-two-runs-behind, improbable losing streak, improbable winning streak, groupie-with-a-heart-of-gold, veteran comeback or a guy off the street who becomes the team's star. In fact, we never know the standings, who the opposition is or even the full roster of players. Instead, there is Miguel "Sugar" Santos and a few other guys from the Dominican Republic who dream of playing pro to send some money back home. But this is just a small part of a film that uses baseball to paint a moving portrait of the immigrant experience.

The second feature by filmmaking team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck follows their debut, Half Nelson, (about a teacher - who happens to be a drug-addict - trying to inspire his students), and once again turns genre expectations on its head. To be certain, the first half of Sugar is about what you might expect. It chronicles Sugar Santos and his teammates' struggles to make an impression and move up the ranks in the fiercely competitive and unforgiving world of minor league baseball. But what happens in the second half of the film - which has been erroneously cited in some reviews as a counter-intuitive narrative shift - is something brave and beautiful. Without spoiling the film, Boden and Fleck, use the character of Sugar and the merciless nature of professional play to create a cinematic dialogue about spiritual fulfillment, community and personal identity. Sugar's decisions in the second half of the film are difficult, but as he finally finds his place in America it's a bittersweet moment that eloquently captures the conflicting feelings of vanished dreams and the excitement of a new, unknown life that he will forge.

While the real baseball world continues to be rocked by scandals, there is no better time to see Sugar, a gentle reminder of those to whom it's more than just a game, but a ticket to a better life and unheard of opportunities.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Simplicity Works

The poster has arrived for Woody Allen's next film, Whatever Works. There is a lovely simplicity in the singular image of a very casual Larry David just waiting for whatever to happen.


Friday, May 1, 2009

The Limits Of Control

I'm not sure how this managed to elude my list of most anticipated films of the year, but Jim Jarmusch's latest, The Limits Of Control, looks like a knockout. Lensed by Christopher Doyle and featuring an eclectic cast, Jarmusch's take on the existential noir - inspired by such films as Le Samourai and Point Blank - promises to be fascinating. Check out the trailer below:

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

...and then there's Von Trier

There are filmmakers, and then there is Lars Von Trier. Known for pushing his audiences, actresses, actors and himself to the brink of exhaustion, testing comfort zones and obliterating anything that will make a film conventionally accessible and easy, it's always a thrill to find out what he's up to. This time, it's a horror film called Antichrist that finds Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe in some creepy woods, slowly losing their minds. Here's the awesome trailer:

Lars von Trier's Antichrist - Official Trailer from Zentropa on Vimeo.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Piracy begins at home

Last week, a copy of the hotly anticipated film X-Men Origins: Wolverine made its way online, and onto the hard drives of film nerds everywhere. While it was ten minutes shorter than the final cut, and had many of the special effects still incomplete, Hollywood executives and American congressmen quickly found another excuse furrow their brows at pirates and make more noise for broader internet laws that would compel internet service providers to identify the names of users downloading copyrighted content.

Yesterday, a congressional hearing convened in California where executives, filmmakers and politicians all wrung their hands over the supposed billions of dollars in revenue lost due to piracy. Richard Cook, the chairman of Walt Disney Studios claimed a copy of Wall-E recorded on a camcorder in a theater in Kiev made its way onto street corners worldwide. However, in all of these discussions, not one word was made of the source of the biggest leaks in Hollywood - the industry itself.

What hasn't been mentioned in most of the articles covering the leak of X-Men Origins: Wolverine is that there is only one place where a copy of a unfinished film could've been made: inside a post-production house. But what is unique about this situation, is that it's not unique at all. Just this past winter I found copies of Gran Torino, Doubt, Slumdog Millionaire, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button and The Wrestler online in perfect DVD quality bootlegs. The source of these copies were from Oscar screeners given to Hollywood executives, producers, critics and I'm assuming, anyone who wants a copy.

What Hollywood doesn't get - or doesn't want to acknowledge - is that the days of camcorder quality copies being the acceptable standard is long gone. Are they still being sold on street corners? I have no doubt they are, but these are from vendors who know are making a quick buck from people who think if they spend $2 they are going to get a high quality copy of the film, but instead get something that looks like Kramer filmed it. I go to quite a few preview screenings of films every year, and each time, the rent-a-cops make a big deal of waving their metal detectors and asking everyone who has cells phone with them to turn them off before being allowed to enter the theater. Do you really think someone is sitting at home, waiting for me to take a blurry photo or video with my iPhone to be uploaded to the web? Or would they rather wait for the rip of the DVD screener that will appear online? If Hollywood suits actually took to the time to really take a look at the torrent sites out there, they will see them teeming with superior quality bootlegs of films that are in theaters.

Piracy is a complex issue that will require a complex answer. An RIAA styled approach of identifying users and handing out lawsuits simply doesn't work. Their method often ended up targeting users who had done nothing wrong, and in the long run did absolutely nothing to stop piracy and turned the general public against them with their misguided tactics. However, if Hollywood and politicians are serious about curbing piracy, it will only work if they begin the search in their own backyard. Workprints, screener and promotional copies need to tracked and encrypted more vigorously. Each studio should consider moving toward a password protected site where movies can stream for internal, industry use only. When leaks like what happened with X-Men Origins: Wolverine occur, their anger needs to be pointed in the right direction. As much of a hack as he is, writer Roger Friedman is the wrong person to be losing his job. What Fox needs to do is get every head of every post-production company who would've had access to the workprint on the phone and let them know in no uncertain terms that the company or companies involved in the leak must do their own internal investigation and bring the perpetrators to light. If Fox is the one who ends up finding out who it is on their own, they will cease all further business with that company moving forward. No company is going to want to risk losing the business of a major Hollywood studio and I think Fox will be amazed at how quickly the person or persons responsible will be found.

The movie industry is quickly finding themselves in a situation that the music industry found itself in about seven years ago. Unlike the RIAA who stubbornly clung to their old distribution method to the point of destroying themselves, Hollywood has at least taken to digital distribution and are experimenting with new models of creating excitement for not only new releases, but for their back catalog titles as well. Warner Brothers recently launched Warner Archive, a made to order DVD service for the more obscure or less commercial films in their vast back catalog. Cinephiles, who have long been reduced to trader to trader copies of various quality levels for these kinds of films, are rejoicing at the studio for taking this kind of initiative. If Hollywood continues to find new ways to engage their customers, while doing the necessary steps behind the scenes to better protect their property, piracy - while it will never go away completely - can at least be more manageably contained.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Love and desire


When Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) and Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) meet for the first time, it’s at a get together arranged by their parents. They make small talk, but when they get a moment alone, Sandra shyly admits that when she first saw Leonard at the dry cleaning store owned by his father, she wanted to meet him. After this revelation, the camera pulls back to show Sandra in a medium shot, sitting in the center of a couch, as Leonard seems to see her for the first time. It’s these kinds of touches that make elevate James Gray’s Two Lovers from a standard melodrama into something enigmatic and sensual.

Leonard, still reeling from the dissolution of his engagement with his fiancĂ©, is back living at home, working at his father’s store and trying to figure out what to do with his life. In addition to Sandra, the daughter of another dry cleaning storeowner in negotiations to buy Leonard’s family business, there is Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), the mysterious neighbor upstairs. Leonard, attracted to both, begins a journey to try and replace the wound left by his fiancĂ©. With Sandra, there are no surprises. She puts her heart on her sleeve, and though she doesn’t know the depth of Leonard’s emotional damage, she is committed to being there for him. She finds trust in Leonard’s tact, and unlike the other men who have tried to woo her, she admires that he doesn’t try to pretend to be something he’s not. However, Michelle is a wildcard, outgoing and seemingly successful. However, her ongoing affair with married lawyer Ronald (Elias Koteas) has left her needy and vulnerable, unable to contemplate a future without him.

If this all sounds rather dramatic and salacious on paper, in execution, it’s far more subtle and powerful. The linchpin to the film’s success is in the phenomenal performance by Joaquin Phoenix. Uncomfortable in his own skin and by turns charming and withdrawn, his take on Leonard finds the complexity and loss of a man drifting in his loneliness. There is a magnificent setpiece in a Manhattan restaurant, where Leonard is meeting Michelle and Ronald for dinner. He’s there to help Michelle assess whether or not Ronald really is sincere when he says he will leave his family to be with her. Leonard arrives early in a slightly rumpled suit and is seated at the table, set in a half circle booth. As he waits, he shifts uncomfortably, trying desperately to look at home in surroundings well outside his tax bracket. When Ronald and Michelle arrive and slide in, Leonard moves from the middle of the frame, in the center of the booth to the edge and almost outside the camera’s range, cowed by Ronald’s stature. It's a small touch that speaks volumes about Phoenix's character. The supporting cast also works wonders with the script, particularly Isabella Rossellini as Leonard’s mother Ruth. Her lines are few, however much of her performance is on her face, as she looks at Leonard with a mother’s knowledge of his pain combined with her maternal concern. Her presence in these scenes with Leonard is astonishing.

Two Lovers is a devastatingly beautiful look at the difference between love and desire, and the vulnerability that comes with giving your heart to another. Mature in a way that few films are, and surrounded by an aura of breathless longing, Two Lovers finds hope in the deepest of despair.