Friday, February 26, 2010
Ugetsu is a beautiful and moving Japanese film from renowned director Kenji Mizoguchi. It is not an action film. It is not fast-paced. It will not appeal to all, but it is nonetheless a poignant and thought provoking classic movie.
Mizoguchi is best known for this film, and for his follow-up released a year later, Sansho the Bailiff. Sansho the Bailiff deals with two young children, a brother and sister, who are separated from their mother, kidnapped, and forced into slavery at a labor camp.
Ugetsu, also known as Ugetsu monogatari (many Japanese films at the time had the term “monogatari” at the end of its title, it means “story” or “tale”) was released in 1953. Based on a novel of the same, published in 1776, the film deals with two couples who get separated after war breaks out in 16th Century Japan. One husband manages to meet and fall in love with another woman who harbors a dark secret. His wife and child are left to fend on their own. The second husband becomes a famous samurai, while his wife is reduced to being a prostitute. The film is an example of the brutally depressing and harsh films that Mizoguchi was capable of making in his career.
It is a film for all senses of the mind, body and soul. When you go to the movies, you tend to only use two of your senses. Your sense of sight and your sense of sound. You cannot touch a film. You cannot taste it. You cannot smell it. But with a few, rare movies, they become more than just cinema, they become spiritual experiences. Ugetsu is a film that moves you in a manner than is ethereal. Take for instance, the scene on the water, before the couples are separated, and are on their way to escape on a boat. It is a gorgeous sequence, both because of its cinematography, and because of the haunting song being sung by one of the wives.
Often compared to his fellow contemporary Japanese filmmakers Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi’s work often features more personal stories of hardship and anguish. His films span generations and feature many characters. Kurosawa is probably most famous for his samurai pictures like Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, while Mr. Mizoguchi tends to dwell on stories that center around regular people who are faced with despair and misfortune throughout their lives.
This is a film about fate, fantasy, misguided love, and true beauty. It is a magnificent piece of classic Japanese cinema, but sadly overlooked, and has not become as famous and popular as other Japanese films from the same era. That is probably due to the fact the film is incredibly gloomy and routinely offers no hope to the characters or, more importantly to us the audience watching the film. But, in any event, to be able to move a person to tears or sadness through cinema is a rare talent. And Mizoguchi does not fail in that regard at all. I give this film two big thumbs up.
Sunday, February 21, 2010
Before I write any further, I’d just like to say that the story behind the making of this film is what led me to review it, not the actual quality of it, although there is much to discuss concerning the content, it is more of the unique history of the film that concerned me.
Dust Devil is not a particularly great film. It’s a good film, but not great. However, I felt compelled to discuss it because of the unique and crazy story behind the making of the film. First I’d like to travel back to 1992. Richard Stanley has directed the film Dust Devil, a haunting account of a murderous drifter who travels the desert. The film was essentially taken away from Stanley, and without his permission cut up by the studio into an 87 minute feature film that was released in 1992. Stanley, a year later, bought back the rights to the film, and in 2006 finally released his original vision, a 114 minute film entitled Dust Devil: The Final Cut: Work Print.
What makes this 114 minute version which I saw so unique is that Stanley, limited only to whatever remaining scraps and material was left when he bought the film back from the studio, did not use edited material in the final film. What he did use was fresh footage straight from the camera, still in its grainy, unedited form. Basically, Stanley used whatever shots remained in the studio’s possessions. These shots were not meant to the see the light of a movie screen, these shots still included a time counter on the bottom of the screen, like the one you see when you first shoot a scene on film, before it goes to be edited and polished for the film. And that is what makes this movie experience so unique. The director basically used unpolished and bare footage mixed with the polished and edited scenes included in the theatrical studio version. I’ve seen one or two movies in my life, but I have never seen such a piece of cinema before. Now, as for the movie itself, it was a fine film.
The arresting visuals express the fact that the director chose to focus most of his time and energy on the beautiful, yet surreal landscape of the film, rather than on the character or story. Stanley has stated in several interviews that the idea for the movie came to him in a dream when he was still in film school and took many years to finally realize his dream, literally. Miramax studios, although known for acquiring and releasing some of the most thought provoking and original films of the late 1980s and 1990s, who discovered such commercially viable, and acclaimed filmmakers as Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, bought the film for release in 1992, and ended up with a film that was almost a full half hour less than Stanley’s Final Cut: Work Print version. It is difficult to judge this film based on its merits and lack thereof. It is a film that was plagued by studio interference, missing scenes that would have helped piece the film together more smoother, and many years of editing and more editing.
Over the course of cinema history, there are countless numbers of films that have had similar stories. A director has a vision, ends up with an interesting film that is not held in high regard by the people who financed it, the film ends up getting cut up into pieces, either for the rest of time, or until years later when the director gets the desire to release his own version of the film. Other famous examples of this are Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, and Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko, although the latter is probably more enjoyable when viewing the shorter, theatrical edit.
When Dust Devil was initially released in ’92, one critic said the movie was “Tarkovsky on acid”. Now, I don’t think the movie was on acid or comparable to Tarkovsky’s greatest work, but Dust Devil is nonetheless a bizarre, dreamy, and visually enticing film. Call it “David Lynch-lite”.
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Martin Scorsese is one of my all favorite directors, and I decided to profile his long, illustrious career here, instead of a usual movie review/discussion.
Whenever I review or discuss a film or something film related, I tend to start off by stating something easy to understand and straightforward, something that sums up what I’m about to discuss in a short and simple manner. With my profile of Mr. Martin Scorsese, the simplest thing one can say about the man is that he is one of the all time greatest filmmakers that ever lived. And I don’t mean one of the 10 or 20 best ever; I mean that he is one of the two or three most brilliant directors of all time. This week marks the release of Scorsese’s highly awaited drama/thriller Shutter Island, starring his frequent collaborator, Mr. Leo DiCaprio, the guy from that movie about the boat. In any event, it has been almost four years since Scorsese’s last film, The Departed, which won the Best Picture at the Oscars for the year 2006. Scorsese has never taken longer than three years to make a film, if you don’t count his very first film, an ultra-low budget indie made in 1967, at the age of 25. He has definitely come a long way since then. Bouncing around the indie scene in the early 1970s, he finally directed several breakthrough films in the mid-70s, endured a hard battle with depression and drugs after the failure of one of his films, then came back with a storm and has essentially stayed on top of the directing food chain ever since. There are few filmmakers you can recall by last name, names which will attract audiences to see the film based solely on that name. Hitchcock was probably one of those filmmakers. Kubrick as well. Today, it’s directors such as Tarantino and Spielberg, and of course, Scorsese.
Marty’s film career begins in 1967, with a feature called Who’s That Knocking on my Door?, Later titled I Call First. The film was shot on a shoestring budget, and was our introduction into the cinema of Martin Scorsese, as well as an intro into the talents of Harvey Keitel, who would star in many of Scorsese’s early films. The film was completed in 1967, shown at a few festivals, and then picked up by an independent distributor, only they wanted Scorsese to add more scenes featuring female nudity. So, Scorsese went off, shot a brilliantly desolate scene of Keitel with a prostitute set to The Doors classic tune “The End”, with absolutely no dialogue, only the music, the tits, and the surreal shooting style of Scorsese and his crew. It is by far the stand out sequence from an impressive debut film.
In 1972, Scorsese got another chance to direct, this time for infamous B-movie producer/director Roger Corman and his new project at the time, Boxcar Bertha. The result was less than stellar, and probably remains Scorsese’s worst film to date. However, it is one of the rare films that Scorsese neither wrote, nor produced, and had little input into the creative aspects of. It was simply a paycheck for him, as well as being a learning experience, considering many filmmakers, like Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme and Ron Howard, among others all worked for Corman and found success afterward. The film starred a young David Carradine and an even younger Barbara Hershey, who would later have a prominent role in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ 16 years later.
In 1973, Scorsese, who at this point had already directed a couple of films, found a new friend in independent film king John Cassavetes, who advises Martin to make a personal film. Mean Streets, again starring Harvey Keitel in the lead role, was as personal as it got for Scorsese. Chronicling the life of a young street thug caught up between his hoodlum buddies and his straight girlfriend, the film also starred Robert De Niro, in what was probably his breakout performance. It was also the first of eight films that the duo would work on together.
A year later, Scorsese got a call from Ellen Burstyn, who was so impressed with Mean Streets, decided to hire him to direct her in her latest film, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. The film, which netted Burstyn an Academy Award for Best Actress, elevated Scorsese into another level of directors. The next time he would make a movie, it would be on his terms, and he would have almost full creative control.
In 1976, Martin Scorsese teamed up with his two most frequent collaborators, Robert De Niro, and Harvey Keitel, along with a teenaged Jodie Foster, to make Taxi Driver. The film is simply one of the best movies in cinema history. Written by Paul Schrader, who would later pen or co-pen several other Scorsese films, it is a dark and disturbing story of a lonely cab driver, portrayed by De Niro, set in the heart of New York City during the turbulent 1970s. The film would go on to be nominated for Best Picture, but ultimately lost to the indie-darling Rocky at the Academy Awards.
After the success of Taxi Driver, Scorsese went on helm an epic, old fashioned musical starring De Niro and Liza Minelli, who Scorsese would later have an affair with, which ended his marriage at the time. The film, titled New York, New York, sadly was a failure. Cut up by the studio, the film flopped.
Scorsese became depressed, and turned to drugs to cope with the disaster of the movie. He quit filmmaking and ended up in a hospital. A couple of years later, Robert De Niro, always one to seek out edgy and challenging work, approached Scorsese with an idea for a new film together. He gave Marty a copy of a book, and told him that this will be the source of his redemption. The book? Raging Bull: My Story, a memoir by the boxer Jake LaMotta.
The year 1980 was a landmark in cinema. The Empire Strikes Back, The Shining, The Elephant Man, and The Blues Brothers all headlined movie theaters that year. Also in theaters, was Scorsese’s comeback film, Raging Bull. It marked the first of three collaborations between him and actor Joe Pesci. The film also netted Scorsese his first nomination for Best Director, and won De Niro his second Academy Award in less than a decade. Marty was back.
In 1983, he re-teamed with De Niro once more, for the comic but still very dark The King of Comedy. The film, also starring comedian Jerry Lewis, was a disappointment at the box office and failed to garner the same attention from audiences and critics that Raging Bull received. The film also tore apart the friendship between Scorsese and De Niro and they would not work together again until the 90s.
For his next film, Scorsese switched gears and decided to make a low budget dark comedy. In After Hours, we find a yuppie, played by Griffin Dunne, going through a series of surreal adventures over the course of one night in New York. The film was a meager success, and allowed Scorsese to direct the sequel to The Hustler, 25 years after its release.
In 1986, old-timer Paul Newman teamed up with newcomer Tom Cruise to make The Color of Money. The film was not only a good money-maker for the studio, but it netted Newman the first and only Academy Award of his illustrious career.
Two years later, Scorsese would embark on making The Last Temptation of Christ, a film he would later call “one of the three films I’ve always wanted to make in my life” (the other two being Gangs of New York, which he eventually made in 2002, and a Dean Martin biopic which has yet be to made). The Last Temptation of Christ, based on an infamous novel of the same name, starred Willem Dafoe as Christ in the events leading up to and during his crucifixion and the last temptation while on the cross. This would mark the last time Scorsese would work with Harvey Keitel, and also the second time he worked with Barbara Hershey, previously working with her on the aforementioned Boxcar Bertha. The film, although an exceptional tale of love, pain, faith and death, was outcast as being too controversial and was essentially ignored during its initial release.
Scorsese, however, did not let that stop him from going back to his roots as an Italian-American growing up on the rough streets of New York. He started off the 1990s in style, with what is perhaps his most famous film, Goodfellas. It marked the return of Robert De Niro in a Scorsese film, and was nominated for several Oscars and won for Best Supporting Actor for Joe Pesci.
A year after the critical and financial success of Goodfellas, Steven Spielberg advised Scorsese to direct the remake of Cape Fear which would star Robert De Niro once again. He advised him to direct the picture because it had strong commercial appeal, and would help Scorsese pursue his projects of choice afterwards. The resulting film was another success for Marty, both with audiences and with critics.
In 1993, Scorsese, once again switched gears and directed the period piece The Age of Innocence, with Daniel-Day Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer. The film recalled such pictures as Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, which is actually Scorsese’s favorite film of Kubrick’s. A tender piece on love and politics in 19th century New York, it is one of Scorsese’s most underrated movies.
The last collaboration between De Niro, and Scorsese occurred in 1995. Considered to be a companion piece to Goodfellas because of identical filmmakers, and actors, as well as both being based on books by the same author, Nicholas Pileggi, Casino was another epic tale of greed, betrayal, and redemption. It would also be the last time Scorsese worked with Pesci, who retired from acting a few years later, although he did make a cameo in a De Niro-directed film in 2006.
1997 saw Scorsese direct Kundun, a film scripted by Melissa Matheson, former wife of actor Harrison Ford. Based on the writings of the Dalai Lama, it is a story of the oppression and problems faced by him from childhood all the way up to adulthood. Not one of my favorites of his, but nonetheless a favored film which garnered 4 Oscar nods, although unsuccessful at winning at any of them.
Scorsese finished off the 90s with a stylish and nightmarish tale of an ambulance driver who hasn’t slept in days. Bringing Out the Dead, starring Nicolas Cage, was penned by Paul Schrader, who previously wrote the scripts for Taxi Driver, co-wrote the script for Raging Bull as well as The Last Temptation of Christ. When Scorsese read the book its based on, he instantly said to himself “Only Paul can write this kind of film”. Set in the heart of New York City, it has often been compared to Taxi Driver, except with an ambulance driver in the lead role in place of a cabbie.
After all the success Scorsese achieved in the previous decades, it was the 00s perhaps that made Scorsese one of the all time greats, and cemented his place as a commercially and critically acclaimed filmmaker. He opened the decade with his epic beginnings-of-New York tale, Gangs of New York. Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, it won none, but was nonetheless one of the top films of the year. The film re-teamed Scorsese with Daniel Day-Lewis, in fact, it was his first role in five years. It was the also the first time that Scorsese worked with Leonardo DiCaprio who has starred in every Scorsese pic since.
Scorsese’s follow-up was another long and epic film, this time a story of the life of entrepreneur, filmmaker, pilot, and reclusive millionaire Howard Hughes, played by DiCaprio. The Aviator was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and although it lost to Million Dollar Baby, it did win the most Oscars that year, with five wins.
However, Scorsese’s most notable year of his career might have come in 2006. After nearly 40 years of making films, it was that year that it finally all came together for Scorsese, with The Departed. A remake of a Hong Kong film from 2002, Infernal Affairs, it swept the Academy Awards in 2006, winning for Best Screenplay, Best Picture, and Best Director, the first of Scorsese’s long career. Once again starring DiCaprio, The Departed also featured strong performances from Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, and Mark Wahlberg. It also turned out to be the highest grossing film of Marty’s career.
And that brings us to today. Shutter Island opens this week. The fourth film pinning Scorsese with DiCaprio, it is been in the making for over three years. Few directors are able to put together films that are entertaining, and yet thought provoking and memorable enough to last many decades. Martin Scorsese, however, is certainly one of those rare filmmakers who have had the talent, skill, and knowledge to make several masterpieces spanning different eras of the film business since the 1960s. As a long-time film lover, I can only hope that the man continues to provide us to with great movies to see and hear and feel for many more years to come.
Monday, February 15, 2010
The beginning of this past decade saw a lot of great films. One of them is Brad Anderson’s peculiar romantic comedy Happy Accidents. It is a strange, strange film. In simple, superficial terms, it is a fusion of a classic Woody Allen film, and a typical Philip K. Dick novel, peppered with a little bit of David Lynch-ian absurdity. Happy Accidents is highly original, thought provoking, creative and wildly imaginative.
The film stars Vincent D’onofrio as Sam, and Marisa Tomei as Ruby, two New Yorkers who meet and fall in love almost instantly. However, over time, Ruby begins to notice a lot of Sam’s idiosyncrasies and they go beyond what we typically consider to be bad habits. He says strange things to himself in his sleep. Sometimes he just spaces out for seconds at a time, as if stuck in a momentary haze. Eventually, Sam reveals what it is that causes these things and makes him seem so peculiar. You see, Sam, is a time traveler. He comes from the year 2470, and has decided to travel back in time to the present day to seek out a woman he saw in a photograph in the future. And that woman happens to be Marisa Tomei.
I hate to reveal the twist of the film, but Sam’s revelation comes about a third of the way through the film, and, well, if you are interested in the film, pretty much every plot summary will mention that. However, I was one of the lucky ones who did not read up on the film beforehand and was pleasantly surprised to see such a mind-bending spin on an old-fashioned story of romance and comedy.
Aside from the fascinating little storyline by writer/director Brad Anderson, who would later gain fame for his shocking thriller The Machinist, the acting in the film is what stands out to me. Vincent D’onofrio was perfect for his role, as the awkward, slightly attractive, but overall bizarre person who claims to be a person from 470 years into the future. But despite his efforts, it was Marisa Tomei that shined the most. She really understood the character, who is on the one hand, a pretty young woman looking for love in the all wrong places, and yet hates to let go because she’s done it so often in the past.
Brad Anderson definitely has a way with constructing complex stories around simple settings and locations. Happy Accidents is a wonderful film. Charming, witty, funny, smart, and inventive. It's one of those films that doesn’t have wide appeal because, at its core, it’s just so weird. You’re not sure what to believe. There are so many questions and you’re not sure whether there are answers to those questions or not. I must voice my disappointment, however, at the ending. I think a film as refreshing as this one deserved a better conclusion, but I don’t blame the filmmaker for ending it the way he did. Overall though, it’s a really cool little film, and I highly recommend it.