I Am Cuba and more on Turner Classic Movies

Politics, propaganda and poetry are whipped into an exotic cinematic cocktail in Mikhail Kalatozov’s delirious tribute to the Cuban revolution, I Am Cuba. The film, a co-production between the USSR’s Mosfilm and Cuba’s national film production company, ICAIC, was embarked upon as a gesture of solidarity in the wake of the Cuban Missile crisis. Castro, a film buff who loved both Hollywood movie and the great Soviet classics of the silent era, saw an opportunity to put Cuba’s story on film. Kalatozov (director of The Cranes Are Flying) saw the film as his opportunity to create his own Battleship Potemkin, but for the Cuban struggle against Batista. What he emerged with is an epic revolutionary art movie of socialist ideals that opens in the decadence of Batista’s Cuba and ends with the intoxication of righteous uprising against the capitalist oppressors.

I’ve had the pleasure of revisiting one of the best DVD releases of 2007 (and one of the greatest film rediscoveries of the 1990s) for Turner Classic Movies: I Am Cuba.

“We saw the film as a kind of poem, as a poetic narrative,” explained cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky in a 1965 interview. Urusevsky, who had previously shot Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying, and Soviet poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko joined director Kalatozov in a tour of Cuba to scout locations, soak up the culture, and get to know the people in order to find their story. Cuban poet Enrique Pineda Barnet was their screenwriter partner and tour guide. He helped sketch out ideas and characters with the three Soviet artists in group meetings in Cuba and then traveled to Moscow to help write the script from the notes and scene sketches. Pre-production reportedly took over a year as Kalatozov worked out every aspect of the film, and the shooting lasted almost two years.

The resulting portrait, ostensibly a collaboration between Soviet and Cuban artists, is undeniably European, the work of Russian filmmakers intoxicated by the Caribbean culture and music and set loose away from the oversight of Soviet studios and politicians. Continue reading “I Am Cuba and more on Turner Classic Movies”

Blu-ray Triumphant!

Or so it looks.

blu-ray_logo.jpgI’m not one to make sweeping pronouncements (really, it’s not in my character), but the momentum is pretty indisputable. Netflix and Best Buy threw their support behind Blu-ray earlier this week, and on Friday Wal-Mart announced they would stock Blu-ray as their exclusive high-definition video format. Here’s the Wired report on the announcement. The New York Times has already provided HD DVD’s obituary.

I like to think of it in terms of the primary campaigns. Just a couple of months ago, the format war resembled the Democratic campaign, with studios split between the Blu-ray and HD DVD. When Warner and Fox committed to Blu-ray exclusively, it tipped the balance and the metaphor jumped parties. Now it’s akin to the Republican primaries with Blu-ray as the John McCain campaign. Now everyone’s just waiting for the HD-uckabee to toss in the towel and give in to the inevitable momentum.

 

A few friends have been keeping much closer tabs on the politics of high-definition. Seattle film critic Jeff Shannon sent me this link from the US News and World Report blog about the Netflix decision earlier this week.

Nils von Veh followed up with this E-mail, which I reprint with his permission. Continue reading “Blu-ray Triumphant!”

New reviews: ‘Diary of the Dead, ‘Definitely, Maybe’ and ‘The Spiderwick Chronicles’

George Romero’s Diary of the Dead is sure to be compared to “Cloverfield,” thanks to a vague similarity in the first-person video diary style that became an instant cliche minutes after “The Blair Witch Project” made it into a high-concept horror success. They couldn’t be more different, and it’s more than simply budgets and gloss.

diaryofdead.jpgWhere “Cloverfield” begs your indulgence while a clueless schlub refuses to put down the camera in a situation where it could impede his survival, “Diary” makes the cameraman’s refusal to drop the camera the defining characteristic of the character, an aspiring filmmaker who is more concerned with making history than surviving it, and the often heated arguments.

It also shares something in common with “Redacted” – the mix of first-person video footage, news footage and streaming video uploaded to the Internet, not to mention rather awkward performances that substitute volume for commitment. Performance has never been Romero’s strong suit and he’s not one to coax convincing characters from limited actors, but at least they are more interesting than the bland nothings on display in “Cloverfield.” More importantly, however, Romero has something more on his mind. Not always subtle, but interesting and insistent and less verbal than visual and visceral. Romero follows a familiar horror narrative structure and knows how to deliver the zombie conventions – the stumbling chases, the gore, the scrambling survivors who inevitably trip in the panic of their escape – but between the conventions is a root suspicion of the veracity of the media in the way if reports on our world.

It also questions the engagement of the cameraman in such a situation. Is his duty to document, or to put down the camera and help?

I reviewed the film in the Seattle P-I here.

The motivations of the citizens aren’t necessarily altruistic, but that fits nicely with Romero’s balance of pragmatism and ambiguity.

Even as society breaks down into looting and feudalistic enclaves, information is still a commodity in the digital age.

Update – my Seattle Times colleague Mark Rahner interviewed George Romero about Diary late last year. The interview was published in the Seattle Times with an extended on-line version. Continue reading “New reviews: ‘Diary of the Dead, ‘Definitely, Maybe’ and ‘The Spiderwick Chronicles’”

Kon Ichikawa – 1915 – 2008

Kon Ichikawa died on February 13, of pneumonia, at the age of 92.

He directed over 80 films in a career that spanned more than 70 years. He entered the Japanese film industry in 1933 as an animator, directed by first feature (Musume Dojoji, aka A Girl at the Dojo Temple) in 1946 and (according to the Internet Movie Database) his most recent feature (The Inugamis) in 2006. Yet, apart from a few key features, his filmography is less well known and certainly less available stateside than the films of many of his colleagues.

The Kon Ichikawa never secured the international reputation of fellow studio professionals Akira Kurisawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, or Yasijiro Ozu, but the versatile director made an indelible mark with two of the most powerful anti-war dramas made in or out of Japan. The lyrical and introspective The Burmese Harp (1956) follows the odyssey of a Japanese soldier in Burma during the waning months of World War II who steals the robes of a Buddhist monk to make his way back to his platoon and undergoes a spiritual transformation as he witnesses the destruction and wholesale death left in the wake of battle. After a career of studio assignments, largely satirical comedies and melodramas, this passion project from Ichikawa made an impression on critics in Japan and became his first film to be seen outside the country, picking up a prize at the Venice Film Festival and securing distribution in the U.S. and Europe.

Fires on the Plain made three years later, stands in stark contrast, stark being the operative word. Based on the novel by Shohei Ooka (who drew from his personal experiences as a soldier and POW) and scripted by Ichikawa’s wife and collaborator, Natto Wada, it too takes the form of soldier’s journey through the battlefields of World War II, this time an island in the Philippines in 1945 as the Americans drive the Japanese out. The striking photography and imagery is the unmistakable work of the same creative artist, but otherwise Ichikawa takes a very different path. Where the serenity amidst death of The Burmese Harp is about the healing of wounds caused by the war, Fires on the Plain is a grim and gruesome and at times macabre autopsy of its (selectively Japanese) victims. Continue reading “Kon Ichikawa – 1915 – 2008”

DVD of the Week – ‘Lubitsch Musicals’ – February 12, 2008

Ernst Lubitsch was the master of the silent movie comedy of high society manners and lusty passions and he crossed over to sound with the grace of his cultured characters, adding music and dialogue sparkling with veiled suggestion to his opulent romantic comedies of manners and mischief. Lubitsch Musicals presents four of the delicious, delectable, deft sex comedies, musicals as earthy and randy as they come, but presented with such wit and elegance that the innuendo isn’t dirty, it’s just fun. The rich and beautiful are just as lusty as the rest of us, but they have style, at least when Lubitsch is directing them

I review the four-disc set in my MSN DVD column:

One would be hard put to actually describe the legendary Lubitsch Touch – it’s as much attitude as style – but there’s no mistaking the smooth elegance, continental wit, and winking innuendo of his best films. This set, from Criterion’s no-frills Eclipse series, charts Ernst Lubitch’s first sound films with the DVD debuts of his first four playfully adult musicals, three of them starring the perfectly-cast Maurice Chevalier. “The Love Parade” (1929), starring Chevalier as a womanizing military attaché with eyes for American in Paris Jeanette MacDonald, was not just Lubitsch’s first talkie but a sophisticated musical at the birth of the cinematic genre. The film marked MacDonald’s film debut and she returned for Lubitch’s next musical, Monte Carlo (1930), playing a countess romanced by a sly count (Jack Buchanan) who poses as a hairdresser to get into her boudoir. How Lubitsch!

The set also features The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), a seductive triangle with Chevalier, Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins, and One Hour With You (1932), a remake of Lubitsch’s silent masterpiece The Marriage Circle with Chevalier and MacDonald.

Another highlight this week is Academy Awards Animation Collection: 15 Winners, 26 Nominees, a three-disc collection of animated shorts from the libraries of MGM, Warner Bros., and the Fleischer Studios. I’m actually far more enchanted by the two discs of nominated films than the disc of winners, which is dominated by Hanna-Barbera “Tom and Jerry” cartoons. But then I’m a Chuck Jones guy, and most of his pieces (as well as work by Tex Avery and the Fleischers) are among the nominated films:

“From A to Z-z-z-z” (1954) is the first of only two cartoons featuring the unlimited imagination of schoolboy Ralph Philips, “High Note” (1960) is a memorable Merry Melody featuring a drunk musical note stumbling and hiccupping through “The Blue Danube,” and “Now Hear This” (1963) is a delightfully abstract tale of sound effects morphing into surreal imagery.

The set includes numerous cartoons released on previous sets (only 15 are new to DVD), but for those who haven’t invested a few hundred dollars in their animation collections, they make a great sampler of the best, the funniest, and the most creative cartoons from the classic age of studio animation.

Also check out the box sets Joan Crawford Collection Vol. 2 (which includes George Cukor’s A Woman’s Face) and Charlie Chan Collection: Volume 4 (which collects the first four features starring Sidney Toler, who took over from Warner Oland). Continue reading “DVD of the Week – ‘Lubitsch Musicals’ – February 12, 2008”

What’s In Your DVD Player, Amy Ryan?

I interviewed Oscar nominee Amy Ryan for my MSN feature “What’s In You DVD Player?” Here a few highlights from the conversation:

Helene McCready, your character in “Gone Baby Gone,” is self-involved, unlikable and a dreadfully irresponsible mother. What is it about the character that interests you?

gonebabygonepic3.jpgBecause she’s human. She’s not a monster. She’s a person in a tough situation who has made some very bad decisions.

How do you approach a character like that? What’s your entry into creating her?

First it’s the script, reading and trying to understand her. But then when we got to Boston I was walking the neighborhood and getting to know the place and talking to the people. There’s the accent. And then there’s the costume and shoes. I think shoes are very important because they help define the walk and the body language. I talked with the hairdresser and the costume people and said that I thought that she had made herself up to look good, her idea of looking good, three days ago, and then let herself go. She hasn’t washed her hair or changed in the three days since her kid went missing. And then we go from there.

I’m sure Ben Affleck was your toughest critic when it came to the Boston accent.

Actually he would tell me not to worry about it, just to focus on the character and on the scene. He’d say, “We can fix it in post.”

Being an actor himself, do you think Ben Affleck comes to directing with a different perspective in directing actors than directors like Sidney Lumet?

Well Sidney, he’s in a class by himself. He’s amazing. But yes, with Ben there is a difference. It’s the way he communicates with actors. He speaks the same language and knows how to tell us what he wants. An actor’s job a lot of times is to interpret what the director wants.

What kind of notes did he give you on the character?

He always pushed me to go farther with the character, to push her beyond where I was. I said, “Really? You want me to take her there?” He was really great.

We also talked about The Wire and who she’s rooting for in the Oscars. You can read the entire piece here, in MSN Entertainment’s Oscar Guide.

One last “Best” list – Senses of Cinema 2007 World Poll

The Senses of Cinema 2007 World Poll is up and I’ve once again been invited to participate. The contributors are spread over three pages (A-E, G-M, and M-W), and my list is pretty much the Final Top Ten I published here last month, with a few minor differences and one significant change: for Senses of Cinema, I put Into the Wild into the number one spot. I stand by No Country For Old Men as my final pick for 2007’s best film, but the emotional power and complexity that Penn communicates in Into the Wild, in his often raw imagery and headlong direction, moves me on a personal level in a very different way than the more than the exquisite and subtle work by the Coens. That I get both of these films in the same year is my idea of a gift from the cinema heavens

My Generation: An Interview with Cristian Mungiu

I’ve written on 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and in my blog below, I featured it in my Top Ten List, and on Wednesday, February 6, I had the good fortune to interview the film’s writer/director/producer, Cristian Mungiu (pronounced Muhn-jhoo, with a soft “j”), by phone. He was in Budapest, I was in Seattle, and the whole thing came together at the last minute, arranged by the folks at IFC Films (which is distributing the film stateside) and Landmark Theaters (which is showing the film in Seattle). I was supposed to get 10 or 15 minutes. Mungiu gave me almost half an hour of his time. Highlights of that interview ran in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in Friday’s edition. Here is the complete interview.

Why the subject of abortion in the communist era, or at least the story of two young women facing the ordeal of an illegal abortion in that era?

cristianmungiu16.jpg
Cristian Mungiu

Honestly, I never start from a subject and I haven’t started from a subject here. I only knew something when I started, that I wanted to tell a story from my twenties, so basically I was looking for a story that would be relevant for my twenties and for that period and for the generation to which I belong. I kind of belong to a special generation in Romania. I was born in 1968 and this makes me part of the baby boom that was generated in Romania because of this law from 1966 that banned abortion in Romania. It was a Ceausescu decree. And this generated a baby boom from 1967 to 1972. And all of a sudden there was a huge generation of children. And way later on, talking to these people when I was in my thirties, when I was cruising the world with my first film (“Occident,” 2002), I discovered that there’s a certain solidarity among these people and they would like to see a story about themselves onscreen at some point. So I knew that I wanted to tell a story that would be relevant to them. I was trying to remember stories from that period because I always start from a true story, I don’t make up things, and then I ran into this girl again that had told me this story some fifteen years ago. And I had this revelation, in a sense, that for a generation that came into this world because abortion was banned, that would be a very relevant story. But it’s important to say that for me, the film speaks to much more than just abortion. It’s not only about abortion, it’s about decision-making and having to take the responsibilities of your decisions and about friendship and a lot for me about compromises and freedom during communist times.

I see responsibility as a major part of the film. Otilia takes the responsibility of making everything happen upon herself because her pregnant friend, Gabita, completely falls apart when it comes to facing the arrangements of getting an abortion.

Yes, it’s true.

Was that something from you story or did that evolve as you wrote the story and it took on a life of its own?

Honestly, it came from the real story, but at the same time, I wanted to portray two different attitudes belonging to the period regarding the way in which people would cope with things. Continue reading “My Generation: An Interview with Cristian Mungiu”

New reviews: ‘4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days’ and ‘The Rape of Europa’

Cristian Mungiu’s beautiful and harrowing 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days won the Palm D’or at Cannes and Best Film at the European Film Awards, yet didn’t even make the short list for Best Foreign Language Film nominations. I can’t fathom this defiant snubbing of such a powerful and provocative film, unless it has something to do with the subject matter.christianmungiucannes.jpg

In this socialist state, the culture has devolved into barter. Everything is a negotiation, from getting a hotel room to bribing a ticket inspector on the bus, with cigarettes proffered as signals to begin negotiations and left as tips. College students Otilia and Gabita learn that when the stakes get higher – and things don’t get much heavier than an abortion, which is illegal in 1987 Romania – the costs go way beyond bribes and under-the-table payments.

It’s a devastating ordeal by itself and the film doesn’t pretend otherwise, but the whole subterranean aspect of this underground operation, with the surreptitious bookings and secret meetings under the snooping noses of hotel clerks collecting ID cards and taking names, gives it the stakes of an espionage drama behind the iron curtain. It’s only the chillingly mundane atmosphere and the snide civil servant attitude of the players that tells us this is the everyday reality of life here.

The long takes are not of the dazzlingly dramatic and cinematically acrobatic variety, that whisk the viewer into the thrill of the momentum and beauty of the composition. Mungiu uses the camera to focus our attention Continue reading “New reviews: ‘4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days’ and ‘The Rape of Europa’”

DVD of the Week – ‘Jean-Luc Godard: 3-Disc Collector’s Edition’

“Why must there always be a story?” asks a director (Jerzy Radziwilowicz) attempting to create a film of beautiful images, modeled on the masterpieces of western art, in Jean-Luc Godard’s Passion (1982). Of course he’s speaking for Godard, who returned from his self-imposed video exile with this lush production. Perhaps the most physically beautiful of all of Godard’s films, he uses cranes, dollies, an elaborate set, and a vivid palette of rich colors to suggest the styles of the great European directors. But there must be a story, so the fictional director flits between his rich lover (Hanna Schygulla) and a working class protester (Isabelle Huppert) while agonizing over his film. This framework seems like an afterthought, but perhaps that’s the point: who needs a story when you have these amazing images?

Passion makes its DVD debut in Lionsgate’s new Jean-Luc Godard: 3-Disc Collector’s Edition, reviewed here in my DVD column:

 

“Passion,” perhaps his most physically beautiful film to date, launched a whole new phase in his career, where he played with ideas of human relationships and cinematic representation with the tools and techniques of his video work. This new three-disc set features four films making their respective DVD debuts.

The other three features are First Name: Carmen (1983), Detective (1984), and Helas Pour Moi (aka Oh, Woe Is Me, 1993), and the disc features the half-hour documentary “Jean-Luc Godard: A Riddle Wrapped in an Enigma,” with film critics and historians Kent Jones, Winston Wheeler Dixon and David Sterritt.

Also new on DVD this week is a new collector’s edition of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment:

After striking screwball gold with “Some Like It Hot,” Billy Wilder cast his eye toward the modern urban romance in a corporate culture, circa 1960, and came up with a sad and sweet story of adultery, opportunism and compromise. Jack Lemmon is the everyman who, struggling to break out of the pack of insurance adjusters, lends out his bachelor apartment to a group of cheating executives for extramarital trysts. He gets his promotion and trades the revolving door of sleazy execs running through his place for just one recurring tenant: big boss Fred MacMurray (who plays the biggest jerk of his career with cool hypocrisy).

And Sergei Paradjanov’s debut feature Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) makes its DVD debut this week, available as a single-disc special edition or in a box set with the director’s other three feature films.

Continue reading “DVD of the Week – ‘Jean-Luc Godard: 3-Disc Collector’s Edition’”

What’s in Your DVD Player, Eddie Izzard?

My interview with Eddie Izzard went live on MSN last week. (I just got back from vacation so I’m catching up on my online pieces.) He was a lot of fun to interview, I confess, and would have loved to talk more. As it is, we discussed his TV series The Riches, his stand-up comedy act, and his James Mason impression, among other things.

MSN Movies: What’s in your DVD player?

Eddie Izzard: Does it have to be DVD or can it be a download?

I’m open. What did you download?

Chinatown.” I know it’s not anything new, but that’s what I watched last night. I download a lot of films.

That’s the great thing about DVD and home video. You don’t have to see only what’s new, and the old films generally look better on DVD than the old prints that used to bounce repertory theaters.

And one thing I love about downloads is that, in 10 years, everything that was ever made can be made available, because it can exist in cyberspace. You don’t need shelf space at a shop.

“The Riches” is your first TV series. How did you get involved with it?

Dmitry Lipkin, who created the show, brought the idea to Maverick, the production company, 10 days before I got there. I was going there for a meeting about something else and they said that they happened to be doing this story, and I said, “Well, can I do that?,” which is a bit like being in school. Can I play in your game? And they said, “Yeah, do you want to?” It was the easiest gig I’ve ever landed in my life.

How much of you is actually in your character, Wayne Malloy?

In television, they tend to write towards one’s own personality. So 60 percent of Wayne is actually me and 60 percent of Dahlia is actually Minnie [Driver]. They take what you’re like in real life and sort of run with it. I am a relentless bastard. I just will not stop, and that quality I think is important to Wayne.

Read the complete interview here.

New reviews: ‘Over Her Dead Body’ and ‘Nanking’

I got the short straw in the review department at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer this week: Over Her Dead Body, a real DOA comedy with an utterly dead performance by Eva Longoria Parker (of Desperate Housewives) as the jealous spirit of Paul Rudd’s dead fiancee.

A stumbling romantic lark about a bubbly psychic who throws down with the shrill ghost of her boyfriend’s former fiancee, “Over Her Dead Body” is a stiff of a supernatural comedy.

Lake Bell is a sunny medium and part-time caterer (or maybe it’s the other way around — her business plan is pretty vague) who gets a visit from a skeptical widower of sorts (Paul Rudd) still grieving over the death of his would-be bride on their wedding day.

That would be “Desperate Housewives” siren Eva Longoria Parker. Given what little we see of her self-involved, high-strung mortal coil, it’s a puzzle what our easygoing hero ever saw in this petty siren beyond her runway figure. As a comically vengeful spirit, she’s as glibly self-involved as she is woefully unimaginative.

Read the complete review here.

Also this week I review Nanking, a documentary about the 1937 Japanese invasion of China and the atrocities committed in the attack upon and occupation of Nanking.

Directors Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman frame their documentary around the selfless acts of a handful of Westerners — American missionaries, doctors, even a Nazi businessman — who remained behind and created a “safety zone” to shelter thousands of Chinese civilians. The Japanese government refused to recognize the zone.

The presentation of the story creates the unintended consequence of shifting the focus away from the hundreds of thousands of Chinese victims. It becomes the story of 15 Western heroes. Yet their actions are beyond politics and nationalism and the tale of how a few individuals can make a difference in the face of such atrocities is inspiring.

Read the entire review here.