Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Feb revivals: first half

Hey all. Mike here with what to catch for the first half of February. Normally at this point, I would have done a post of my crappy Oscar nomination picks. But this year, it seems to be anti-climatic in most of the categories, that I obviously just didn't bother. Just a couple of surprises. Two pleasant surprises in The Hurt Locker getting the most nominations (tied with Avatar), and In The Loop getting a Screenplay nomination. They will be very high on my top 10 of 2009.

But an unpleasant surprise was The Blind Side getting a Best Picture nomination, combined with the hype of Sandra Bullock have a good chance of winning Best Actress. Now Blind Side was ok; a wonderful true story told in a bland Lifetime movie style. Bullock's performance holds a chunk of the film together. It seemed too by the numbers; set up family happy time, set up poor boy time, spread out growth salvation and struggles at alternating even intervals, throw in a very annoying PG version of The Wire, then get to the happy ending. Insert the raising or lowering of the boy's IQ, depending on what is needed. The difference between trauma and lack of trauma that the kid's suffering isn't always clear, and are you telling me he really didn't know football well until high school?

Not a bad movie, the family and the teenage boy are appealing, you want them to succeed. And since you know it's a true story, nothing permanently bad will happen in the end. Something you can wait to catch on TV. But watching Charlie Rose last night, and seeing Stephanie Zacharek compare Bullock's work with Julia Roberts' work in Erin Brockovich, and then compare both the performances and the films on an almost equal footing . . . oh, please. Has it really been almost 10 years, has everyone forgotten the multi layered film, with very good performances, well constructed script and quality direction. And Ms. Zacharek compared this to The Blind Side? Either she was basking in the glow of fun company on TV, or she's a hack. Will have to read her reviews and decide for myself. In the meantime, on with the list. Here we go . . .

YOJIMBO and SANJURO- Wed Feb 3 at 5:25 (Yojimbo), 7:30 (Sanjuro) and 9:20 (Yojimbo)- Film Forum- Part of the Akira Kurosawa retrospective. A double feature of another Toshiro Mifune-Kurosawa team-up. Here, Mifune plays arguably his most famous character, a wandering ronin, in Yojimbo and it's pseudo-sequel, Sanjuro. Yojimbo is where Mifune plays both sides of warring clans in a small town against each other to maximize profit, until it goes too far. Sanjuro is where Mifune helps a clan of young samurai wannabes, with an old world viewpoint and philosophy, battle against the corrupt, power hungry faction that controls a small city. In both films, Toshiro plays a man with a gruff, almost belligerent exterior, that hides a code of honor. Also in both films is Tatsuya Nakadai, as a formidable villain. You don't have to them in order, which is good considering if you intend to catch the double feature at night, you won't be able to. Yojimbo itself is in my personal top 100, and the evening would end on a high note.

DERSA UZLO- Thurs Feb 4 at 1, 3:45, 6:30 and 9:15- Film Forum- Part of the Kurosawa retro. From 1975 (released in the U.S. in 1977), Kurosawa directed and co-wrote this adaptation of the novel Dersu, okhotnik, finding the story appealing after his failed suicide attempt. A Russian captain in the late 19th Century bonds with the Asiatic hunter who saved his life. After years of friendship, the hunter finally agrees to live with the captain and his family in the city. But after all those years in the wilderness, is it too late for the mountain man to live in society again?

Not a big hit, but a return to creative prominence for Kurosawa. A Foreign Language Film Oscar (the first Academy Award a Kurosawa film ever won I think), was among the international awards this film received. The start of Kurosawa's late in career re-boost, similar to say, what Clint Eastwood experienced with Mystic River. Kurosawa followed this up with two films even better. First, Kagemusha, one of the best of 1980 that I just didn't have the time to commit to again, but you should see if you can on a large screen tv. This was followed by . . .

RAN- Fri Feb 5- Thurs 18 at 1:30, 4:30 and 7:30 - Film Forum- The end of the Kurosawa retrospective, this gets a two week run. I won't bother breaking it down to particular days, I'll just post the run and the three screenings it has each day, and let you decide when and if you want to catch it.

Never mind that this is the best version of King Lear ever put on screen or TV. There may not be a better screen version of a Shakespearean play ever. Do you know of any on this level? Tell me in your comments, I'd like to know.

Tatsuya Nakadai (previously mentioned in the Yojimbo/Sanjuro section, as well as High and Low on the last list) stars in the best known later-in-life film of both his and Kurosawa's careers. The old man Great Lord decides now is the time to retire, and splits his vast kingdom among his sons. But two of his sons are greedy bastards, want what they want, and don't have much love for a father who may not have been a very good guy at the height of his powers. And this old man gets to watch as his family, his kingdom, his good name, and his sanity begin to fall apart and die out. I haven't even gotten into all the surrounding characters; the scheming wives, lieutenants, servants and so forth. Never mind the massive collateral damage that occurs to them, and especially to those who don't have a name worth remembering, yet must serve one of these factions, and must serve with honor.

The kind of film that would be tough to see on a non-HD TV I would imagine. But if it was an HD channel or DVD with a great sound system, that would be good. So on the big screen, like Dr. Zhivago, the score and cinematography just cause Ran to soar. It's the difference between shooting a bullet and throwing it. From a Larry Miller joke I like to quote often . . .

Worldwide acclaim, awards, and good box office followed Ran, propelling Kurosawa back to among the top living filmmakers back in 1985, assuming he ever fell out of that list back then. An Oscar for the Costumes, nominations for Art Direction, Cinematography and Kurosawa himself for Director. It was trampled by the Out of Africa juggernaut; funny how that sounds now, or as recent as 1990 for that matter. Kurosawa was nominated as Director for the first and only time and lost to Sydney Pollack. Kurosawa's film mentioned above, Dersa Uzlo, did win Foreign Film, and normally the director gets the Oscar, but I'm not sure if he actually received it. He did eventually receive an Honorary Oscar, as you can see above, pictured with presenters George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Ran was also barely accepted in Japan as well; he couldn't get funding for Ran there (like most of his later in life films), and when it was nominated, it was mainly for the costumes and lighting. I'm guess I'm surprised and not surprised at all by this. If I knew more people who have actually seen Ran, maybe I'd feel differently. But it plays for two weeks, so you have your shot.

TOTAL RECALL- Fri Feb 5 and Sat Feb 6 at Midnight- IFC Center- Part of a series of Paul Verhoeven films screened at Midnight at IFC Center. One of the better action summer blockbuster flicks, and one of the best films of 1990. I'd argue with anyone about the former statement, and as for the later; let's just say there were quite a good number of quality films released that year, but filling the last 2 or 3 slots for a top 10 list is not that easy. You try it, and don't you dare put stuff like Home Alone or Kindergarten Cop there. Not that we should think of this as flaw-free, mind you. But Verhoeven rarely stints on excess. If there's a chance to make something emotionally or visually over the top, good Paul never seems to miss out on the opportunities. I suppose that makes it appropriate that the first Verhoeven retrospective around here in recent memory should be playing only at Midnight.

Here, in the biggest commercial hit ever made out of one of Phillip K. Dick's stories, set in 2084, a mild-mannered man wants to take a quick vacation, by having an adventure downloaded into his brain. But it causes a problem, when it appears he's actually some form of secret agent, the secret agent has info and said secret agent's personality and memories are, let's say, on hold. Then you have all these men coming out of the woodwork trying to kill him.

So it's similar to those innocent man-on-the-run kind of flicks, like Hitchcock's The 39 Steps or North By Northwest. But then you add Arnold Schwarzenegger, character actor types like the ever reliable Michael Ironside, gun battles all over, Sharon Stone (two years before Verhoeven's Basic Instinct) sweating in barely there clothes, and this is before the trip to Mars and the appearance of mutants. The action scenes are good, and the mix of dark humor, cheesy humor, high quality visual effects and editing, make this what a lot of more recent summer blockbusters fail to be, fun.

Oscar nominations for the sound, a special achievement Oscar for the visual effects. Meaning there wasn't enough votes to consider any other 1990 film than this. Considering Terminator 2 was only about 13 months later, we can think of Total Recall as the last of model/matte painting/makeup kind of big budget film, as opposed to the CGI blockbusters after that. Not that I'm trying to hate CGI heavy flicks like say, Lord of the Rings, Watchmen or Avatar, but there's a difference.

Oh yeah, did I mention the violence? Not sure how that aspect holds up today. But for 1990, the bloodshed and body count, things Verhoeven have never been shy about depicting, stood out to the point that Total Recall was originally given an X rating. It took slight trims and alternate angles of some of the more outrageous deaths to get that R rating. All and all, a fun film that luxuriates in its excesses. Let's do this, shall we?

THE SHINING- Fri Feb 5 and Sat Feb 6 at 12:10AM- IFC Center- But if you prefer a better, albeit, longer film at that time, you have another chance with The Shining. Don't worry, this will probably again down at least several times this year.

CRUMB with ABDUCTEES- Sat Feb 6 at 8:15 - MOMA - Part of a series of praised, moderately successful documentaries that premiered at the Film Forum. Crumb is shot over 6 years from the late 80s to the early 90s, trying to give us a look into the life and mind of Robert Crumb, big deal artist in the underground comic movement, and probably best known for the creation of Felix the Cat. We see a man coming from a bullied childhood (from both other kids and at home), who eventually made himself successful through his pen. You should laugh with this film, as Crumb is interviewed, along with his wife and ex-girlfriends, among others. But you'll definetly be uncomfortable as well, because if you think Robert Crumb is strange, wait till you see his mother and older brother Charles. I'd say what is shown between Robert and Charles make the heart of the film. And seeing Charles and younger brother Maxon might just scare the crap out of you, and if you come from a heavily dysfunctional family, even you might say, there but for the grace of God go I.

Director Terry Zwigoff had trouble making this documentary, no money, little experience, and suicidal depression. But Crumb launched his career, with films like American Splendor, Ghost World, and Bad Santa, among others, to follow. If you think you can handle this, let's go for it.

Preceded by Abductees, a British documentary short from 1995. Using animation, images, and hypnotherapy to tell the stories of patients who claim to have been alien abductees. I know nothing else about it.

But for something that's relatively more fun, try this next one . . .

THE ATOMIC CAFE with THE SMELL OF BURNING ANTS for free (subject to availability)- Fri Feb 12 at 7 - MOMA - Part of MOMA's series of standout documentaries that premiered at Film Forum. From 1982, this dark comedic film is comprised entirely of U.S. government films, ads, and TV and radio broadcasts, from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. They're to teach the population, that everything will be cool, if we ever end up in nuclear conflict with those damn Commies. No narrators, no talking heads, and no multiple viewpoints. Just one; that the government churned out propaganda to keep the citizenry docile, which seemed to work as far as the filmmakers are concerned. Among the people in the shorts, you can look at Presidents Truman and Ike, Vice President Nixon, and future Presidents LBJ and Reagan. Others appearing on-screen include Krushchev, Einstein, General MacArthur, J. Edgar Hoover, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Senator Joe McCarthy, and some guy named Stalin. And shorts that range from duck and cover, to soldiers being told it's ok to be near a nuclear explosion (you have goggles), to the effects of nuclear tests on Pacific islanders who live nearby.
It became a big hit in Britain, at the time of the debate about cruise missile deployment against the Soviets, and became a film to rally around during the disarmament movement overseas. Here in the states, not so much. Here in New York however, it developed a major cult following, and was a Midnight movie fixture downtown for years. Now it can be seen for free, subject to ticket availability. Preceded by a 1994 documentary short, The Smell of Burning Ants, about a young boy struggling to grow up.

WEST SIDE STORY or FUNNY GIRL- The Ziegfeld- Fri Feb 12- Thurs Feb 19 (no screenings on Wed Feb 18), at 1, 4:30 and 8 (when each film plays is explained later)- Two of the more popular musicals to have ever played at the Ziegfeld, either as a re-release or as a revival screening, play together for a one week run. Separate admission I'm afraid. They space the films out too far for double feature purposes. West Side Story, one of the best musicals ever made and in my personal top 100. If you've never seen this on the big screen, wow. What a great place to catch it. An even better large screen experience than Ran. And Funny Girl, that made Barbara Streisand an Oscar winner and an A List star forever and ever; just in case her concert and TV appearances and her albums hadn't done that already. The songs, especially My Man (sung, not lip-synced), should sound great on the Ziegfeld's speakers.

That's all for now. Let me know. Later all.

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