Archive for May, 2012

Norwegian Wood

May 29, 2012

Norwegian Wood is a film by Tran Anh Hung, a Frenchman born in Vietnam, based upon the novel of the same name by Haruki Murakami. I’ve been told that this was the biggest selling novel in Japan during the twentieth century.

The film is set in Tokyo in the 1960’s. Watanabe (Ken’ichi Matsuyama), a high school student, is friends with Kizuki (Kengo Kora) and with Kizuki’s girlfriend, Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi). One day, Kizuki kills himself without any explanation. Watanabe and Naoko are shocked by his death. Watanabe goes to a university and tries to forget his grief by burying himself in his studies. The school he is attending is being wracked by student demonstrations, but Watanabe refuses to get involved. One day he runs into Naoko. They begin seeing each other. On Naoko’s twentieth birthday, they make love. After that, however, Naoko disappears. Watanabe looks for her. He eventually learns that she has had a mental breakdown. She is now living in a sanitarium in a remote area. He goes to visit her, and he meets her roommate, Reiko (Reika Kirishima), a freindly but somewhat strange woman.

Naoko clearly has conflicted feelings towards Watanabe. At times, she is welcoming towards him, but at other times she tells him to go away. Her favorite song is the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood, which is about a one-night stand that ends badly. The song speaks to her fear of emotional commitment. Clearly, she is still traumatized by the death of Kizuki. Watanabe can’t forget Kizuki either. He insists on asking Naoko intimate questions about her relationship with him.

Back in Tokyo, Watanabe becomes involved with Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), a brash, outspoken woman who is in many ways Watanabe’s opposite. He also becomes friends with the womanizing Nagasawa (Tetsuji Tamayama) and with his long-suffering girlfriend, Hatsumi (Eriko Hatsune). Midori wants Watanabe to commit himself to her, but he can’t bring himself to let go of Naoko.

The student demonstrations figure prominently in some of the early scenes. This led me to believe that they would play an important role in the story, but they don’t. I haven’t read the Murakami novel on which this film is based, but the friend that I saw it with has. She told that in the book the demonstrators are portrayed in a highly critical manner. She also told me that some of the minor characters are more fleshed out in the novel than in the movie. I can only guess that Tran wanted to focus on Watanabe’s relationships with Naoko and with Midori. I think the film might have been more interesting if it showed the story’s political context. Surely, that must have been important to Murakami if he included it in the novel.

Even so, Norwegian Wood is a beautifully made and subtly erotic film. The music editor, Jonny Greenwood, has put together a soundtrack that perfectly complements the film and skillfully sets the mood for each scene.


May 25, 2012

Chronicle, directed by Josh Trank from a screenplay by Max Landis, gives a clever twist to the superhero formula. Andrew (Dane DeHaan) is a high school student who lives with his abusive father (Michael Kelly) and his terminally ill mother (Bo Peterson). At school, Andrew is bullied by other students. He buys himself a video camera, and begins taping all of his experiences. His cousin, Matt (Alex Russell) takes him to a rave party. Matt gets bored with the party, so he and his friend, Steve (Michael B. Jordan) go wandering in the woods outside, where they find a cave. They persuade Andrew to videotape them exploring it. Inside they find some glowing rocks. Days later, the three find that they can move objects with their minds. Their powers increase over time, until they can fly through the air. Instead of dressing up in costumes and fighting super-villains, however, they play pranks on people. Then they try becoming performers. Things start to unravel, however, when Steve is killed by lightning while flying. Andrew then begins using his powers to get even with the school bullies and then with his father. When Andrew is unable to pay for a prescription that his mother desperately needs, he goes on a crime spree to raise the money. This has tragic results.

The film is done in a “found footage” style similar to that used in The Blair Witch Project and in the Paranormal films. This seems gimmicky at first, but it ends up giving the film a degree of verisimilitude that is unusual for this type of fantasy film. (Though when Matt flies in through Andrew’s bedroom window, it seems a bit too much like something out of the old Superman TV series.)

This film could be interpreted as being about Lord Acton’s dictum that “power corrupts”, but it is actually Andrew’s powerlessness that drives his rage and his growing megalomania. It could be argued that powerlessness actually corrupts as well.

Cory Booker: Mitt Romney’s Best Friend

May 22, 2012

Cory Booker sharing a laugh with his good buddy, Chris Christie, the morbidly obese governor of New Jersey.

The Democrats have always been an extraordinarily feckless lot, but Newark Mayor Cory Booker has set a record for sheer stupidity. The most potent weapon in the Obama campaign’s meager arsenal is Romney’s history of sleazy business dealings. So, what does Booker do? He goes on Meet the Press and says of the Obama campaign’s criticism’s of Bain Capital, “It’s nauseating to the American public. Enough is enough.” In almost no time, the Republicans put out a campaign ad featuring Booker’s comments. They also put out an online petition urging people to “Stand with Cory”. What Booker did was the political equivalent of hitting Obama in the knee with a tire iron.

Booker now complains that the Republicans have “manipulated” his comments. Well, duh. Booker attacks his own party’s electoral strategy, and he is surprised when the Republicans take advantage of this. Oh, please.

The Democrats are a joke. Always have been, always will be.

Third party anyone?

The Raid: Redemption

May 21, 2012

One of the many perks of being a film buff is that you’re always learning something new. (Another one is that you have an excuse to eat a lot of popcorn.) For example, as a result of seeing Gareth Evans’s film, The Raid: Redemption, I now know that Indonesia has its own style of martial arts known as pencak silat. (Bet you didn’t know that, did you?) It’s origins are shrouded in mystery. (I’ve waited many years for an excuse to use the phrase, “shrouded in mystery”.) For centuries, it was handed down as an oral tradition among the tribesmen of Indonesia. According to Wikipedia:

    The earliest evidence of silat being taught in a structured manner comes from the Sumatra-based empire of Srivijaya where folklore tells that it was created by a woman named Rama Sukana who witnessed a fight between a tiger and a large bird. By using the animals’ movements, she was able to fend off a group of drunken men that attacked her. She then taught the techniques to her husband Rama Isruna from whom they were formally passed down.

That Rama Sukana must have been a tough cookie, for pencak silat is one badass way of fighting. It’s so badass, that the characters in this film often prefer to use it instead of simply shooting one another. That is badass.

Jakarta’s biggest crime boss, Tama Riyadi (Ray Sahetapy), has his headquarters in a huge apartment building, in which most of the units are rented out to criminals who work for him. Lieutenant Wahyu (Pierre Gruno) is a corrupt and not too bright police officer who orders a SWAT team to break into the building and capture Tama. This turns out to be not a good idea, since most of the cops are killed within a few minutes. One of the few who are left alive is Rama, played by Iko Uwais, who is considered one of the best pencak silat fighters in Indonesia. He and the other survivors must figure out a way to get out of this death trap.

Although it has the requisite amount of double-crossing, The Raid: Redemption has a fairly simple story. It basically serves as an excuse for almost two hours of fight scenes. If you like martial arts movies, you will thoroghly enjoy this movie. If you don’t care for martial arts movies, not so much. Needless to say, I liked it.

Donna Summer (1948-2012)

May 18, 2012

I never cared much for disco, but nonetheless I always liked Donna Summer. One reason for that was that she had a very good singing voice. I remember that back in the 1970’s, the classical music critic for the Boston Globe – a man whose musical tastes were usually limited to Beethoven and Stravinsky – was a huge fan of Donna Summer. He once interviewed her for the paper. I don’t why, but I somehow find that fact amusing.

Why I’m Not Keen on Seeing ‘The Dictator’

May 17, 2012

I’ve been debating in my mind whether or not I should go see Sacha Baron Cohen’s new film, The Dictator. Judging from what I’ve seen and heard about it, it doesn’t look very promising. First of all, the main character, Aladeen, is obviously modeled after Muammar Gaddafi: the sunglasses, the gaudy uniforms, the female bodyguards. The movie poster shows him posing on the back of a camel. (Gaddafi might have done this, but I can’t imagine any other Arab leader doing it.) The problem with this is that Gaddafi is dead. It would be just as timely for Baron Cohen to do a parody of Hitler or Stalin. It would be more relevant to make a film parodying the government of Saudi Arabia or Bahrain or the army generals who are trying to reverse the gains of the Egyptian revolution. One can only assume that Baron Cohen decided to make a film about Gaddafi because his notoriously eccentric personal behavior makes him an easy target.

And then there’s the trailer:

It starts with film clips of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and David Cameron. This is apparently meant to make the obvious Gaddafi connection even more obvious. However, it leaves out the fact that these leaders were all cozying up to Gaddafi until the uprising in Benghazi, when they suddenly decided to dump him. Western leaders do not oppose dictators unless they decide it is politically expedient to do so.

The synopsis on Wikipedia doesn’t make it sound any more promising:

    For forty years, the North African Republic of Wadiya has been ruled by Admiral General Aladeen (Sacha Baron Cohen), a lecherous, anti-western and antisemitic despot who surrounds himself with female bodyguards and intends to develop nuclear weapons. After the United Nations Security Council resolves to intervene militarily, Aladeen travels to the UN Headquarters in New York City to address the council. During his stay, he is kidnapped and shaven by a hitman (John C. Reilly) hired by his traitorous uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley). Tamir intends to replace Aladeen with a political decoy, who he can manipulate into signing a document democratizing Wadiya and opening the country’s oil reserves for business. Aladeen escapes and is discovered by activist Zoey (Anna Farris), who offers him a job at her co-op. Following the advice of his ally Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), Aladeen accepts the offer, as Zoey’s employees have access to the UN headquarters. Aladeen manages to acquire a new beard taken from a corpse, and infiltrates the headquarters, tearing up Tamir’s document in front of the UN delegation. Upon seeing Zoey in the room, he declares his love for her and vows to democratize his country. Upon returning to Wadiya, he marries Zoey, but is shocked when she crushes a glass and reveals herself to be Jewish.

If Tamir wants to open up the country’s oil reserves, why the hell would he want to democratize it? Instead, he would want all power for himself, so he could cut deals with trans-national oil corporations (as Gaddafi was doing). And how do you “democratize” a country just by signing a document?

Also, I find it interesting that Baron Cohen thinks he has to explain Aladeen’s opposition to Israel by making him an anti-Semite. It apparently doesn’t occur to him that there might be other reasons why an Arab leader would be opposed to Israel. (By the way, Gaddafi was warming up to Israel during the final years of his life.)

I suppose this is what happens when someone who isn’t interested in politics tries to make a political satire.

Now, maybe I would enjoy this film despite its problems. Maybe. But somehow I just can’t get enthusiastic about it. I would sooner see The Avengers again. At least it doesn’t pretend to be about anything other than itself.

The Avengers

May 16, 2012

I must confess to being a sucker for superhero movies. I even enjoyed The Green Lantern, which is considered silly even by the standards of this genre. Maybe it’s because they make me feel like a kid again. Or maybe it’s because they are just fun to watch.

Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is the head of a super secret and well-funded intelligence agency, SHIELD (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division). The agency has a physicist, Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), who is carrying out experiments on a an object called a tesseract, which is a source of unlimited power. Things are going along swimmingly until Loki (Tim Huddleston), a Norse god with defective social skills, shows up. He steals the tesseract while turning Selvig and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) into his mental slaves. Loki has made a deal with a group of beings called the Chitauri (they appear to be robots, although the film is not clear about this). In return for giving them the tesseract, they will make him ruler of the world.

Fury decides to activate “Avengers Initiative”, a gathering of superheroes dedicated to saving Earth from extraterrestrial threats. They are: Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). They also include Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who, when he gets angry, turns into an enormous green monster called the Hulk. Not surprisingly, he has deeply mixed feelings about this.

There is an element of moral ambiguity in the film. The Avengers see themselves as being on the side of good, but they discover that Fury isn’t what he appears to be, and the people he works for are downright sinister.

Joss Whedon has written and directed a stylish and entertaining movie. My one criticism is that I thought the characters spent too much time arguing with one another. I guess this is meant to make them seem more complex, but it just got confusing and annoying.

Whedon has been a very busy man lately. He also co-wrote and produced the horror film, The Cabin in the Woods, which I also enjoyed a great deal. Whedon seems determined to become some kind of pop culture colossus.

In his curiously sour review of The Avengers, Roger Ebert – who thinks Horrible Bosses is a good movie – makes some snippy comments about the film’s lone superheroine:

    Then there’s Natasha (Scarlett Johansson), aka the Black Widow. After seeing the film, I discussed her with movie critics from Brazil and India, and we were unable to come up with a satisfactory explanation for her superpowers; it seems she is merely a martial artist with good aim with weapons. We decided maybe she and Hawkeye aren’t technically superheroes, but just hang out in the same crowd.

In an early scene in the movie, Black Widow beats up three beefy guys while being tied up in a chair. No mere martial artist can do that. Later, she fights off robotic monsters from Outer Space without even breaking a sweat. I’d like to see Ebert try to do that.

Ebert ends his review with this:

    “Comic-Con nerds will have multiple orgasms,” predicts critic David Edelstein in New York magazine, confirming something I had vaguely suspected about them. If he is correct, it’s time for desperately needed movies to re-educate nerds in the joys of sex. “The Avengers” is done well by Joss Whedon, with style and energy. It provides its fans with exactly what they desire. Whether it is exactly what they deserve is arguable.

Jeez, what a grouch. He can’t even see that Edelstein’s comment was meant jokingly. If anyone needs to be re-educated, it’s Ebert.

How People Find Me

May 14, 2012

I’m always curious about the ways people find my website. Here are some of the search engine terms people have used during the past few days to find my website:

    the pope strippers
    spanish movie wife sex addict
    mechanic woman movie scary
    boys prisoner costume
    well, i found the anarchists
    canvas couple painting
    indian women with armpit hair
    monica taylor fox 29
    vaginal liberation front
    pink german movie 2009

I’m not an expert on how search engines work, so I don’t know how these terms led to my blog. What’s even more troubling to me, though, is that I will never know for sure whether or not these people found what they were looking for on my site.

The Kid with a Bike

May 12, 2012

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Kid with a Bike received the Grand Prix, the second highest award at the Cannes Film Festival. It is similar to Truffaut’s The 400 Blows in that it is about a child confronting a cold and brutal world, although its story is less harsh than Truffaut’s masterpiece.

Cyril (Thomas Doret) is a twelve-year-old boy whose father (Jérémie Renier) places him in foster care and then disappears. Cyril can’t believe that his father would leave him. He escapes and goes to his father’s apartment, but he finds it empty. Cyril also learns that his father sold his bicycle. By chance, he meets Samantha (Cécile de France), who is moved when she learns of Cyril’s predicament. She finds the bicycle and buys it, then she returns it to Cyril. He asks her if she will take him in on weekends, and she agrees. Samantha helps Cyril look for his father. They eventually find him working as a cook in a restaurant. He tells Cyril that he never wants to see him again. Cyril is emotionally crushed, but Samantha comforts him.

One day Cyril’s bicycle is stolen by a boy who is a gang member. Cyril pursues him to the gang’s hideout and fights him with him. The gang’s leader, Wes (Egon Di Mateo), is impressed by Cyril’s fierceness. He gives Cyril his bicycle back and makes friends with him. He eventually persuades Cyril to carry out a violent robbery for him. Samantha becomes alarmed when she learns that Cyril is involved with Wes. The night the robbery is supposed to take place, Samantha forbids Cyril from going out. They get into a fight. Cyril cuts her with a knife and runs away. Cyril carries out the robbery, in which he injures two people with a baseball bat. He then goes to the restaurant where his father works and offers him the money he stole. He literally tries to buy his father’s love. His father rejects him once again. Cyril returns to Samantha and asks her forgiveness. She does so. She then takes him to the police, so he can take responsibility for his crime.

The Kid with a Bike is a well-made and moving film about a troubled child. My only criticism of the film is that we never really get a sense of what motivates Samantha. She is unwaveringly devoted to Cyril, even though he only causes problems for her. She seems almost too good to be true. Cyril, on the other hand, comes across as complex and believable. We sense the agony he feels at his father’s coldness.

A City of Sadness

May 8, 2012

Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness, released in 1989, was the first Taiwanese film to deal with the “White Terror” that Chiang-kai-shek’s Kuomintang imposed upon Taiwan. In that sense, it is a politically courageous work, but it also happens to be beautifully made and moving to watch.

This film has a large cast of characters, but it mainly revolves around three brothers: Wen-heung (Sung Young Chen), Wen-leung (Jack Kao), and Wen-ching (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), who live in a port city in northeastern Taiwan. In the film’s opening scene, we hear the radio broadcast of Hirohito announcing Japan’s surrender, ending World War II, while a woman is giving birth. The symbolism of this is obvious: Taiwan, which has long been under Japanese occupation, is being reborn. Hope, however, soon turns to bitterness. The allies, without consulting the Taiwanese, turn the island over to China, which was then under the control of Chiang, who placed the country under the rule of his general, Chen Yi. The latter begins dismissing Taiwanese from government positions and replacing them with mainland Chinese. This, combined with rampant corruption, causes resentment from the people that ultimately explodes into violence.

During the Japanese occupation, the brothers’ father resorted to criminal activity to support his family. After the war, Wen-heung tries to run a legal business. Wen-leung, however, becomes involved with smugglers from Shanghai. Wen-ching, who is deaf, works as a photographer. Although the brothers are non-political, they are eventually drawn into – and ultimately destroyed by – the political convulsions wracking their country. (Trotsky: “One cannot live without politics any more than one can live without air.”)

A City of Sadness has a non-linear narrative that can be hard to follow sometimes. Nevertheless, if you stay with it, this film is deeply rewarding to watch.