Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Fearless (2006) *** (out of five)

Fearless is supposedly Jet Li's last martial-arts film based on the life of fighting champion Huo Yuanjia who shot to fame in his local town Tianjin and Shanghai in the early 1900s. The film begins with a competition set up by the Western occupants and designed to humiliate the Chinese in which Yuanjia has to fight four other contestants. Prior to the final match, a flashback that comprises the main part of the film charts the events leading up to the opening scene. As a little boy, Yuanjia witnesses his father's defeat in a contest which leads to his ambition to become the local town's undefeated champion. He achieves his goal two decades later, albeit as a changed, obsessed and self-righteous man who only finds redemption after a series of tragic events force him to reflect on his actions.
The plot is reminiscent of Bruce Lee's 1970s films with their historical and political subtexts but where Lee's work is sometimes marred by the racist portrayal of the Japanese, Fearless characterises Yuanjia's opponent as a man of moral integrity. At the same time it plays to China's sentiment of defying its Western and Japanese occupants and reasserting its national identity in the emotionally charged finale. Compared to preceding setpieces, the final match is a bit anti-climatic but the fight scenes are altogether directed and choreographed with a flair and sense of spatial relations that is too often lacking in American films. Ronny Yu keeps things fairly straightforward, even lighthearted for the first hour or so before the politics come into play, and he manages the shift of emphasis and tone quite well. The pic's highlight comes approximately at the hour-mark when Yuanjia and local rival Master Chan combat each other first with swords then bare fists in a spectacular indoor sequence that is more poetic and masterfully put together in its length than some of the US blockbusters currently on release combined. However, the film has been heavily truncated for its release in the West (the original Chinese cut reportedly runs up to an hour longer) which is apparent in some choppy editing and unbalanced pacing: the first thirty minutes where most of the Western cuts were presumably done fly by, while the second half feels almost too leisurely as a result. Not having seen the Asian theatrical cut, I can't say how integral the missing footage is to the plot but I suspect that the film flows more naturally in its uncut form. The production and sound design are impeccable while the score supports the action well without calling attention to itself; we also get stunning scenery shots even if the post-production digital grading on some images is too distractingly obvious. Jet Li gives a relaxed and charismatic performance, and I really warmed to the picture's spirit of traditional, old-school filmmaking: it's a classical and flamboyant piece that I enjoyed from start to finish. If we get a chance to see the longer Asian cut on DVD, we'll update with a comparison; for now, the Western release is respectable, if almost certainly inferior. *** (out of five)

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Criterion's autumn line-up (Update)

Update (with cover artwork and release dates): A brief note on DVDBeaver lists Criterion's line-up for September, including a re-issue of Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece Seven Samurai in a 3-disc edition as well as a re-release of Jacques Tati's Playtime on Criterion's label (their earlier version had footage missing from the original cut; we will review and compare the new Criterion with the (very good) BFI Region 2 version (available here) once it hits the shelves; edit: the extras announced for the new Criterion are for the most part identical with the BFI so it remains to be seen whether the new transfer and the few extras that are genuinely new such as the BBC Omnibus programme justify a double-dip). The line-up also features Federico Fellini's Amacord, Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive (Region 2) and the Japanese horror film Jigoku. Two versions of Brazil (a 3 disc edition and a single-disc release) are also in the pipeline, presumably for October or November.

Most of the films above are available in Region 2 and are currently on sale for very low prices (Beehive in particular) but given Criterion's excellent track record, we'd still advise people who want to own the definitive version of any of these films to wait and invest into the Criterions instead (unless you just want to have the film and/or don't own a multi-region player). Amazon currently gives the 5th and 19th of September respectively as the release date for Seven Samurai and the other three titles.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

DVD news: Warner (US) announce new Bogart signature collection

We are starting our DVD news column with the announcement from Warner that a second Humphrey Bogart boxset will be released in Region 1 this September. It includes a new 3 disc version of John Huston's The Maltese Falcon in a restored print. You can read more here.
Since Warner have recently begun to release their sets over here as well (albeit as exclusive deals with HMV), we imagine that a Region 2 street date shouldn't be far behind.

Update: Ugetsu Monogatari DVD ***** (out of five)

When you start watching and/or reading about Japanese cinema, you usually come across one name in particular, Akira Kurosawa, who shot to fame with Rashomon (which still inspires filmmakers to this day, Bryan Singer quotes it as an influence on The Usual Suspects) in 1950, and who is probably still the best-known of all Japanese directors in the West. It was through Kurosawa that my love affair with Japanese cinema started, and I was soon keen to see films of his contemporaries. Of those, Yasujiro Ozu (some of whose films I'll be covering in the weeks and months ahead) and Kenji Mizoguchi are similarly well-known to us Westerners although most of Mizoguchi's films are unavailable in Europe and the US. Artificial Eye have released two in the UK but that's it as far as I'm aware. So thank heavens for the folks from the Criterion Collection (link to their website is in our sidebar on the right), a New Yorker company who specialise in the restoration and releases of US and world cinema classics, who gave Ugetsu Monogatari, Mizoguchi's most renowned film, its first release on DVD in the West last autumn. I had never seen the picture before and bought it "blindly" when it came out, and I can only say it's a grand film on a pretty spectacular DVD.

Film: Set in the 16th century, Ugetsu Monogatari tells the story of two poor farmers, Genjuro and Tobei, who live with their wives Miyagi and Omaha and Genjuro’s infant son Genichi in a small village in the Omi province by the Lake Biwa. The region is in turmoil as the armies of generals Shibata and Hashiba wage a civil war against each other. Genjuro makes pottery that he intends to sell in the nearby town to ensure his family’s well-being in those difficult times. Tobei, his brother and neighbour, has aspirations to become a samurai, to the dismay of Omaha who believes that he should throw himself into work on the farm instead of chasing dreams. Spurred on by successful sales in town, Genjuro senses the opportunity to gain more profit and dedicates himself obsessively to the pottery. As Shibata’s army invades the village to recruit men for its war labour, the two couples attempt to escape over Lake Biwa but a warning from a mortally wounded boatman prompts them to turn back to the shore. Miyagi stays behind with the boy while Genjuro, Tobei and Omaha travel on to the town of Omizo. Overwhelmed by his desire to become a samurai, Tobei runs away and is separated from Omaha while Genjuro comes under the spell of the rich and beautiful Lady Wasaka.

Universally regarded as one of Kenji Mizoguchi’s crowning achievements of the post-war period, Ugetsu Monogatari is a complex and profoundly touching film of extraordinary beauty that, 52 years on, has lost none of its potency to enthral old and new audiences alike. What astonished me most is how Mizoguchi so effortlessly invests his story about two impoverished farmers and their wives who are caught up in the ravages of civil war with several layers of meaning: on one level, Ugetsu Monogatari is ostensibly an indictment of war and its effect on the everyman. Genjuro’s joy over the unexpected profit from his pottery goods quickly turns into greed, with Miyagi sadly noting that the prospects of wealth have made her once-caring husband a man indifferent to her and their son. It is a poignant moment, and it is all the more moving for a sympathetic performance from the unforgettable Kinuyo Tanaka whom Mizoguchi considered, not entirely without personal bias, as Japan’s greatest living actress at the time.

Mizoguchi succeeds in creating a credible and compelling story arc from this premise: the sadness and frustration of Miyagi and Omaha stem from their conviction that they have lost or are likely to lose their men to the desires that the war has triggered in Genjuro and Tobei. Mizoguchi has collectively been heralded as one of the most understanding directors when it comes to portraying women characters in film, and Ugetsu Monogatari is no exception: the depiction of Miyagi’s and Omaha’s plight is unsparing, their despair keenly felt, their rational behaviour put into clear contrast with the men’s folly. Once Miyagi has been left behind, and Tobei separated from Omaha and Genjuro, the film cross-cuts between the three storylines to great effect, never once losing narrative and dramatic momentum. It enables Mizoguchi to engage with the themes of love and loss, and the horror of war in various scenarios that each comment on and mirror each other. As a comment on the inhumanity of war, the film is at its most devastating when it shows Miyagi’s fate at the hands of starving bandits and the way in which Tobei achieves his goal of becoming a samurai: the former scene is heart-wrenching in its documentary-like style whilst the latter is emotionally complex and startling in that it challenges our perceptions of Tobei. However, scenes like these would not have had such an impact without the fantastic work of cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa who uses the space that Mizoguchi’s medium or long distance shots afford him to stunning, often surprising effect. Miyagawa’s graceful crane shots manage to be understated and yet breathtaking, giving the film a strong sense of fluidity and refinement.

Ugetsu Monogatari is equally accomplished as a ghost story: the justly famous Lake Biwa sequence is the most obvious break with the film’s reality but it is nevertheless a rich and strikingly shot scene in which the lighting and the music especially achieve a haunting, eerie and timeless mood. Stylistically in the same vein, Genjuro’s encounter with and his seduction by the mysterious Lady Wasaka is one of the most memorable love and ghost stories the cinema has given us yet: assisted by Fumio Hayasaka’s ethereal score and making use of Noh theatre elements (likely serving as an inspiration for Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood four years later), the romance between Genjuro and Lady Wasaka is terrifically acted by Masayuki Mori and Machiko Kyo. Within that section of Ugetsu Monogatari, Miyagawa again excels with one of the most elegant transition shots that I have ever seen on film, and it leads to the stunning backdrop of the Garden of Paradise sequence which invited comparisons to the paintings of Salvador Dali. The film has two negligible flaws: the priest’s appearance feels a bit too convenient and compared to Genjuro’s arc, Tobei’s storyline is resolved rather abruptly (though Tony Rayns states in the commentary that Mizoguchi had intended to flesh it out but was vetoed by his producer for commercial reasons). The story and character arcs of Ugetsu Monogatari come full circle at the end and give the film a satisfying, rewarding sense of completeness, with Mizoguchi building up to a consistent and logical conclusion that is at once intensely moving, bittersweet, serene and life-affirming. ***** (out of five)

Picture and Sound: Criterion’s transfer shows little print damage except for some minor flickering in the last third and a number of vertical scratches during the opening credits and some dissolves early on and late in the film. The contrast levels are quite good and there is consistently strong detail in the image. Given its age, the film looks great on this DVD, with the restoration presenting Miyagawa's beautiful and often astounding images in their full glory. The Japanese mono soundtrack is acceptable and brings out the dialogue and Fumio Hayasaka’s exceptional score clear enough.

Extras: Criterion’s release of Ugetsu Monogatari is a double-disc Special Edition in a sturdy, stylishly designed cardbox that contains two single keepcases for each disc and a 72-page booklet with stills from the film, a short essay from Philip Logate and the three short stories by Akinari Ueda and Guy De Maupassant that Mizoguchi and his screenwriters adapted or drew inspiration from for the film.

The audio commentary is by Tony Rayns, contributor to Sight & Sound and Film Comment and documentary filmmaker. He comments less on specific scenes and instead provides detailed background information on Mizoguchi’s career, his artistic influences and collaborators, the director’s distinctive use of extended takes and long shots, and the film’s place in Mizoguchi’s oeuvre. It's worth a listen for its insight and wealth of information.

In Two Worlds Intertwined, director Masahiro Shinoda (Pale Flower, Samurai Spy) praises Mizoguchi as a supreme realist and fantasist. He places the film in a historical context, making an interesting comparison between Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu, and elaborates on the role and use of Hayasaka’s score in the film. His comments and genuine admiration for the film make for engaging viewing although anyone who hasn’t seen the film before should watch it first as Shinoda’s interview spoils a late twist. Process and Production is an excellent if slightly bitter interview with the first assistant director Tokuzo Tanaka who looks back at the making of the film and the reasons behind Mizoguchi’s decision-making. Tanaka also gives insights into Mizoguchi’s perfectionism, working methods and often strenuous relationships with his cast and crew, accompanied by photographs of the set-up and shooting of various scenes. The interview with Kazuo Miyagawa (who also lensed Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Ozu’s Floating Weeds and Mizoguchi’s earlier film The Life of Oharu) dates back from 1992 and has been ported over from Criterion’s earlier laserdisc release. It overlaps a bit too much with the other extras but it's interesting for Miyagawa’s comparison of cinema, in particular silent films, with television. The two almost identical Japanese theatrical trailers and the surviving part of the Spanish trailer complete the bonus material on the first disc.

The second disc features the 150 minute documentary Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director that director Kaneto Shindo (Onibaba, Naked Island) produced and directed in 1975. The event of Mizoguchi’s death in August 1956 at the age of 58 bookends the programme which features brief but illuminating audio excerpts from a 1950 interview with the director that is accompanied by production stills from his films. This is followed by a chronological and very thorough look at his life during which Shindo interviews family friends and many of his collaborators (like screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda, and actors Ganjiro Nakamura and Eitoro Ozawa) who share their experiences of working with him and also talk movingly about his off-the-set personality. The interviews are intercut with excerpts from various films and fascinating stills of Mizoguchi on set and his visit to the Venice Film Festival in 1953. We also get to see intriguing early sketches and quotations from the script for the film An Osaka Story which the director had planned to do next before leukaemia and death intervened. Shindo’s documentary is at 150 minutes a bit too leisurely paced but I still found it an engaging and affecting look at Mizoguchi the man and his career, and complements the film superbly.

Ugetsu Monogatari is a deservedly famous and cherished classic of Japanese and world cinema, and it features in critics’ top ten lists ever since its release over half a decade ago. Criterion’s DVD does the film proud with a good restoration, illuminating new extras and Kaneto Shindo’s extraordinary documentary. Given the high quality across-the-board and that this is the first DVD release of the film in the West (with editions for Mizoguchi’s other major works hopefully to follow), this is one of the best DVDs you can get anywhere ( usually have good deals on Criterion's discs). ***** (out of five)

Update: It appears that Ugetsu Mongatari is no longer available over cdwow or so I recommend Amazon and picking the retailer of your choice.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Robert Aldrich

John Patterson pays tribute to director Robert Aldrich in Saturday's Guardian.

Hands of the Ripper (1971)

By the early 1970s, Hammer Studios were in decline. Amid such poor offerings as Horror of Frankenstein, Lust for a Vampire and Scars of Dracula, director Peter Sasdy was one of the saving graces of this late era in Hammer's history.

There are not many of the essential Hammer canon I have yet to see, but Hands of the Ripper was one I hadn't seen until last night. Turned out to be a solidly crafted gothic thriller as I would expect from Sasdy. It has a number of things in common with his earlier Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969); the real villains in both films are the duplicitous and hypocritical bourgeois society. It also has a fabulous ending in which the anti-heroine (Angharad Rees) falls to her death from the Whispering Gallery of St Paul's Cathedral, a remarkable echo of Dracula's demise in the earlier film (where the Count falls to his death inside an old church).

Dr Pritchard (Eric Porter) stood fascinatingly in the mould of Terence Fisher's Baron Frankenstein (beginning with The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957). Outwardly, both are gentlemen with impeccable manners, and yet both are motivated by such fanatical zeal that they are prepared to sacrifice other human beings in the name of scientific advancement. They are both supremely ambiguous characters; our ambivalence towards them is heightened by the fact the rest of society are so loathsome.

I was struck particularly by the similarity to Fisher's Frankenstein Created Woman (1967): Both involved a middle-aged man taking in a vulnerable girl with the double-purpose of helping her overcome a disadvantage and using her as a scientific experiment. Ironic overtones of Shaw's Pygmalion here, too. This similarity indicates Sasdy's closeness to Fisher, as David Pirie noted in his seminal work on British horror (A Heritage of Horror, 1975). Sasdy did well to create a new gothic horror that kept such continuity with the great Hammer tradition; in this respect Sasdy is the worthiest - perhaps only - true successor to Fisher's mantle in Hammer's closing years.

My rating? These things are so inadequate. If I could add on another half, I would. 3/5 * * * * *

Monday, June 05, 2006

Revisiting Garden State (2004)

I'm a sucker for quirky comedy dramas about emotionally vulnerable people (perhaps because my whole life is a quirky comedy-drama about an emotionally vulnerable person), and so I didn't even think twice about buying Garden State on DVD having seen only the trailer.

On first viewing, about six months ago, I was disappointed. I found it derivative and messy.

On second viewing, I enjoyed it a lot more. I liked the way the characters developed and how their traits and foibles were revealed as the story went along. I admit I find Natalie Portman a tad annoying - she whines too much - but I was willing to overlook this, and found I really engaged with the main characters.

The end was an annoying cliche, but I'm not pretending this is a masterpiece. However, it is warm, and it's grown on me. It is also very funny. Not a bad effort for a first-time director (Zach Braff) doubling up in the starring role.

My rating? * * * * *

Friday, June 02, 2006

Brief thoughts on United 93

Saw United 93, the first Hollywood film on 9/11 with British director Paul Greengrass at the helm, this afternoon. The film reconstructs the events of September the 11th in Greengrass' trademark pseudo-documentary style with shaky handcam, grainy film stock and employing an unknown cast as well as some real-life characters (air traffic control and military staff and officers) playing themselves to give the proceedings as strong a sense of authenticity as possible. We see how the terrorists prepare themselves the night before, and how they and the other passengers border the plane together. The film intercuts it with the events at the air traffic control centers in Boston, Cleveland and New York where the staff try to maintain contact with the other three hijacked planes. At midway point, Greengrass switches back and forth between the horrified reactions of the onlookers as the first three planes are flown into the WTC and the Pentagon, and the hijacking of the United 93 flight. The last half hour of the film is confined solely to the events on the plane and the passengers' heroic act of defiance, and on a technical level, it works superbly (Barry Ackroyd's camera work and the editing in particular are of the highest order). The last 15 minutes in particular are so nerve-wrecklingly intense that I'm sure few other films if any this year will rival United 93 for drama and suspense, and yet I have to concede to feeling a bit uneasy over the various purposes the film has to meet. On the one hand, it's conceived as a thriller (and as such it's a triumph) that has to reach out to a mass audience; on the other it's clearly intended as a memorial to the passengers of that flight and all victims of 9/11 at large as well as being a filmic documentation of that day. There is a tension between these opposites that Greengrass' film doesn't quite resolve: it's not helped by John Powell's overly emphatic score and the occasional moment that struck me as too manipulative (such as the contrasting cut between the passengers and the terrorists praying). That aside, I found it very effective, unsentimental and more honest in how it deals with the issue at hand than conventional Hollywood films might have done.