Friday, November 26, 2004

House of Flying Daggers

Having now seen House of Flying Daggers for a fourth time, I may have a few more things to say about it. (maybe not...)
First off, the film gets better with each successive viewing which is surprising considering the simplicity of the overall story. When I first saw the film at this years Toronto Film Festival, my initial impression was that HERO was better due to it's more compicated story structure and more politically charged thesis, but HofD was better due to it's less formal beauty. But now I like them both the same (for different reasons).
After a couple viewings the patterns rhythms of the characters actions (particularly Jin and Shou-Mei) take on a nice symmetry which adds an extra layer of beauty to the film. Their partings are re-pairings are numerous and handled with a great skill of actions and pauses not often found in melodramatic cinema.
Also, the film begins to look like a Shakespearian tragedy when you start to look closer. (Spoilers Ahead) The way loyalties and allegiance is interchanged in the second half of the film, with some of the characters knowing some things but not others (note Jin's reaction just after the 'look behind you' moment when he finds a wounded Shou-Mei) . The added layer of the colour coding matching many of the emotions in key scenes is not to be overlooked: The green forest with Leo's jealousy of the two lovers, the pink and yellow Peony pavilion with the playful Echo-dance, and of course the seasons change from fall (love triangle collapsing) to winter in the middle of the fight between Jin and Leo.
I guess I'm trying to say that there is a lot of depth as to how the film is constructed which makes up for the simplicity of the love story. This works for me. Plus, as I've said before, I really dig on the big epic melodrama when it is done right, which I believe is the case here.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004


Deep down in nearly everyone is a need to deny reality and escape into the moment. It is why many people go to the movies, immerse themselves in pop music or a trashy novel (or literature). Cabaret is a sophisticated series of digressions from reality that underscore the human condition quite well. Most especially in the form of Liza Minelli's portrayal of Sally Bowles is the contradiction of accepting fate and denying reality juxtaposed with the lavish entertainments of Emcee Joel Grey. As Sally begins a series of unabashedly earnest yet also aloof flings over the course of the film, Grey and the Kit Kat Klub are there to highlight, reiterate and underscore her problems and her solutions to them.
When she meets Cambridge English professor, Brian (Michael York), she looks all the worldly show-girl. But how easily roles are reversed as with his surprisingly malleable sexual orientation. This is marvelously captured in a decadent getaway in the country with a rich Baron. As they are on their way, the three of them practically run over a crime scene where the Nazi youth groups have killed someone (presumably in a hate crime of some sort). But they are oblivious in their escapist pleasures which implode as fast as they arose in the first place.
The movie is perfect in showing the dreamy innocence of Sally one minute, the denial of circumstance and emotion the next, followed by a worldly acceptance and surprising wisdom. A complicated performance in a mature and definitely adult piece of cinema.
It is perfect in the fact that there are so many raw and edgily shot scenes in the Cabaret, and that the film remains tastefully artistic, sophisticated and anything but escapist.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004


It is1931 in Berlin. Outside a political storm is brewing, but the action is at the Kit Kat Klub. Along with the rise of Nazi-ism came the decadence of S&M and bisexuality. This is Bob Fosse's lush 1972 musical for which he won the Best Director Oscar. Come out and see a premiere star, Liza Minelli, before she turned into a freak-show, a la Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor. See Michael York before he ran Logan's Run or became Basil Exposition.
This is living in the moment, and a desparate need for fun 30 years before Baz Lurhman put Nicole Kidman in similar clothes and called it Moulin Rouge. I can't say much more about the film because I have not seen it yet myself. Since I love Bob Fosse's sense of style and choreography, and the 'classic' status of this film, I've been itching to see it on a big screen.

The show will be the usual time and place: 8:30pm at Kurt & LJs, Tuesday Night. Hope to see you, see it.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

The Decalogue

After quite some time having this on my shelf, I am beginning my descent into Krzysztof Kieslowski's 10 part TV miniseries which has a 1 hour episode dedicated to each of the 10 Commandments. It aired in Poland during the Solidarity trials in 1988 and released as a 10 hour film at festivals in the 1990s. It now resides in a nice box-set containing the whole 10 hours.
Part 1 is the fascinating and ultimately haunting story of a man who lives his life by science, rationality and physical measures (rather than say, Faith in God). Like many agnostics, his view doesn't rule out god, it just ignores it. This is succinctly and beautifully put in a breakfast conversation between the man and his son about the nature of Death and the comment, it is too early in the morning for this. (i'm paraphrasing).
The white, open, Polish urban-scapes outside the large apartment building give the feeling of detached divinity. The aforementioned conversation, a dead dog, a homeless man observing everyone from a bonfire and a broken hole in the ice project a brooding, ominous feeling, which is juxtaposed with the superiority of the father/son's systematic calculations and their victory at figuring out a chess genius's system. We are dealing with a vengeful God here, not the buddy christ of Kevin Smith's Dogma. I'm left slightly shaken from the whole experience.

Name of the Rose

A grimey middle ages setting infused with the investigative wit of Arthur Conan Doyle, The Name of the Rose is one unusual motion picture.
Franciscan Monk, William of Baskerville (Sean Connery dressed in drab grey, but acting in a glib Highlander-esque mode), comes to a monestary for a spirited religious debate on whether or not Jesus, owned property. (The Franciscan stance is that the Church shouldn't be owning wealth) with his young pupil (a pubescent pre-Heathers Christian Slater). Minutes after his arrival he discovers that there has been a recent murder on the holy grounds and the head of the order suspects supernatural (Could it be...Satan?) causes. You see, the monk was found dead of a fall below a window high in the top tower that was sealed shut and remains so. As William investigates in a pragmatic and rational fashion using deductive reasoning, the monks go the other way, whipping themselves into a paranoid fervor. When the inquisitors arrive, led by a diabolical F. Murray Abraham, things get even worse, with several of the locals up for burning at the stake.
The Name of the Rose is superb on both a storytelling and atmospheric level. The central themes dealing with the power of knowledge--and fear of any forward-progress, the passion of enforced ignorance and self-censorship and the cruelties a religious order can dole out to the very people it is entrusted to protect make this a very adult motion picture.
The Abbey itself is a character, with it's dusty, twisted passages, dense kitchen, open courtyard with large stablery, and even a library labyinth full of secrets and puzzles (and only in a slightly Indiana Jones sort of way). The monks are chalk full of great european character actors, notably the underused Michael Lonsdale (Ronin) as the Abbot, as well as Ron Perlman (Hellboy) as an id-like monk and William Hickey (The Sentinal) as the prophetic doomsayer.
Fittingly, for a movie about repression and solemnity, it has one of the most passionate and feral sex scenes in film the 1980s, controversially between two teenagers. The final tie that binds the movie together, helpfully supplied by a more often than not gratuitous voice-over narration, is irrational lust/love masking a vituous sense of compassion with the slightest hint of condescension or superiority. An apt metaphor for the usual state of organized western religion over the course of the ages?

Aside: Since I've never read the Umberto Eco novel on which the films is based, I don't know how well the film catures the novel. But judged by its own merits, things do not appear 'watered down.'

Tuesday, November 16, 2004


The 1970's is widely regarded as a landmark decade for American Film. It was a time when the mainstream films were edgy, non-formulaic and gritty. Sex and Violence were brought to new levels, and films were actually discussed rather than the Box-Office receipts. Perhaps in the top three films released in that decarde was Roman Polanski's "CHINATOWN" (The other two? The Godfather and Taxi Driver). Set in the 1940s in Los Angeles, a private detective is asked by a gorgeous Femme Fatale to investigate the death of her late husband. This leads to a hive of corruption on both the goverment and domestic levels thoughout the city in a completely unexpected fashion. Come out and see this unpredictable modern film noir on a big screen, the way this movie was intended to be seen.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

The Station Agent

The Station Agent is now one of my favorite films to just 'hang out' with. In fact the film features three characters that pretty much just hang-out together over the course of the film.
Finbar works in a small store which sells model trains to hobbyists. When his boss dies of a heart attack, the store is liquidated and he is out of a job. He does inherit an un-used train-station on a small plot of land in rural New Jersey. Having nothing better to do, he makes the station his home and soon encounters two of the local inhabitants, Joe the energetic extrovert who minds the meal-truck which is squatting on his property, and Olivia (a beautifully pitched performance from indie queen Patricia Clarkson) , a local artist who is dangerous behind the wheel of an SUV.
All three are at highly specific point in their lives where they are taking a respite from their 'routines.' They form a fascinating trio as none of them have anything in common except that they get along at some unseen level.
Just to watch Finbar, Olivia and Joe fill their time more-or-less doing not so much is more satisfyingly escapist for me than any StarWars, Indiana Jones or Comic Book Franchise out there. The 90 minutes just breeze by. While the ending is perfect, if the movie were to continue for another 2 hours, I certainly would not have minded. The Station Agent leaves a warm fuzzy feeling with me after it is done every time. It is a great ode to friendship.

Aside: The Station Agent was released the same year as Lost in Translation and shares many of the 'disconnected-at-this-time-and-space' themes. I loved Sophia Coppola's film (it was my favorite film of last year). I didn't get a chance to see The Station Agent until mid-2004, and i find myself coming back to it again and again.


The few works of anime director Mamoru Oshii that I've seen, namely the two Ghost in the Shell pictures are fascinating motion pictures. Subverting genre conventions into lengthy philosophical tangents along the lines of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and Takeshi Kitano's various yakuza pictures (Hana-Bi comes to mind), Oshii's films are always gorgeously crafted but ponderous to those raised on Hollywood fare.
Avalon is his first (and only) live-action picture. It takes the Gibsonion cyberpunk future and injects it with an anime heroine. Ash is one of the top players of a massive worldwide multiplayer war game (think The Matrix environment, which of course was almost completely inspired by Oshii's Ghost in the Shell). This is not an ordinary game. It is undergound and illegal, due to the unfortuante side-effect of rendering losing players brain-dead from time to time. She plays by herself even though the norm is to play with a team. Her old team was top ranked until a serious error of judgement (not hers) caused one member to be lobotomized. When she gets wind of a secret level in the game called "Class Real" she goes looking for it only to find the cusp of reality and virtual existance colliding.
All of this sounds like comic-book stuff and it is. But watching the film, set in Poland, with a polish cast (keep in mind, the Writer/Director is Japanese), there is a dark atmosphere which belies it's slick video-game roots. Ash's reality is as cold, dank and repetitive, featuring long pauses of meditation and contemplation. It is quite the opposite to as the game she plays which is sepia toned, fast-paced and people explode into pretty showers of polygons when the are killed. At one point the film breaks into 'natural colour' of the modern day Poland and the effect is jarring to say the least. Avalon evokes Andrei Tarkovski's Solyaris and Krystof Kieslowski's Blue (from his Trois Couleurs Trilogy) over the course of Ash's quest to find the nature of her game/existence. How many genre pictures can do that?

Saturday, November 13, 2004


Casshern is a harsh anti-war genre picture which is cribbed from various manga sources, Mamoru Oshii and Blade Runner. It is uneven and nowhere near successful, but has moments of brilliance.
A future japanese society has conquered all of asia and much of Europe. But like the Roman's has grown decandent and stagnant. Breakdown of human genetic code is rampant from all the new diseases caused by high-tech weapons and pollution of the empire. When a scientist invents a way to regenerate the DNA code fresh, his lab is attacked by an unknown force in the form of a gigantic stone lightning-bolt. The bodies from the front-lines of the war he was regenerating become supermen and superwoman who create an army to destroy their makers. The scientists Son is also resurrected, and with the help of his fathers collegue's 'high-tech rocket suit' becomes the only force to stop this new enemy.
The strengths of Casshern are it's visuals and not it's storytelling. Like Nightwatch, Immortel, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Avalon, it is live actors in front of entirely computer generated landscapes. (You may note from some of my previous posts that I'm on this sort of kick right now). If Blade Runner's urban sprawl is chaotic capitalism gone out of control, then Casshern's empire-capital is some weird fusion of Maoist China and Nazi Germany all through a Japanese filter. The story is told in an oblique manner, with many structural holes left to be filled in by the viewer. For example, when the super-humans are resurrected the head towards the mountains and find a large fortress completely equipped with a robot army for their use. Why there was a fortress with an army which can be deployed by just a few individuals is never referred to at any time.
I was disappointed with Casshern more than I was impressed. The big saving grace was that with only a few exceptions, the characters were not black and white (even though all are still two dimesional cut-outs), doing both good and bad things from emotional conflict. The ultimate message is that war only brings out the worst in humanity, creating an ever-spiraling pool of suffering, vengance, revenges, and hurt. The lengths the ending goes about driving this point home is stronger than many western drama's (I'm talking to you, Saving Private Ryan). Much like Avalon, this is surprising for a genre effort.

Near Dark

There are not too many women making testosterone loaded genre pictures. Katherine Bigalow has a spotty resume at best. Near Dark is definitely Katherine Bigelow's best film. Quick plot summary: When a good ole country-boy tries to pick up a strange and exotic woman at the local bar, he gets pulled into a weird surrogate family of vampires. They drive around in stolen vehicles with the windows spray-painted dark and prey on out-of-the-way places in Oklahoma and the neighboring States. The new country-boy vampire has trouble with killing, and things are complicated when his real family, his dad and his little sister, set off to track him down.
What sets this take on the vampire mythos apart is the following. The dusty-dry states of the American South-West with it's anonymous and mundane urban landscapes (think trucker depots and old neon) is very different from the aging velvet look to most of the classic vampire films out there. The run-down look of the vampire clan is more of that of junkies than the cliched suave aristocrat. Exposure to sunlight for these vampires causes their skin to smoke before catching fire in a way that is both organic and odourous. You can nearly smell the charred flesh coming off the screen. Then there is the famous scene where the clan takes down an isolated bar in a orgy of menace, violence and gore. Bill Paxton takes his "Hicks" character from Aliens to a whole new level. This is probably his most showy, but also his best role on film.
Curiously, it is the love of the Father for the lost son that glues the film together. Themes of family run thoughout the picture if you look past the carnage and the set-pieces.
Because my few words don't even scratch the subtext of the film, I'm going to link over to the best film-critic currently writing, Walter Chaw. His take on Near Dark, which I cannot hope to compete with, is worth a read too.

Monday, November 08, 2004


It doesn't play in North American theatres until December 10th, and probably will not be in the Toronto area until the new year. But I've got a pristine Chinese DVD of Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers courtesy of! This is going to be very likely the prettiest film you see all year. It rivals Yimou's own Hero for beauty, tops the sepia tones of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and even edges out the surreal aesthetic of Guy Maddin's The Saddest Music in the World. Explore the visual pleasures and intense Chinese melodrama on Tuesday night. Showtime starts about 8:30pm, but feel free to show up for a beverage and a chat just prior to the screening.