The House


Battles Without Honor and Humanity

I admit this is a bit niche considering The House's tastes, but when you come to consider everyone's current obsession of The Wire, Westerns and crime stories, discussing the upcoming series at Asia Society ("Gamblers, Gangsters, and Other Anti-Heroes: The Japanese Yakuza Movie") seems like the obvious choice. We delve into the topics of old-school vs. modern films, notably Jinsei Gekojo (A Tale of Two Yakuza) against Kinji Fukasaku's Battles Without Honor and Humanity. In order to help Vadim and myself, who would no doubt just argue about Takashi Miike instead, we have special guests (and 2/5ths of Subway Cinema) Grady Hendrix (Kaiju Shakedown, New York Sun) and Mark Walkow (Outcast Cinema) to school us kids on the history and social aspects of "Yak" films. It's a wonderful life, truly.

As for the today's image, you can never go wrong with Bunta Sagawara and a gun. But do join us next week when our special guest will be Eric Kohn (The Reeler, New York Press, The Hollywood Daily) as we discuss... well, you'll find out.

Until then if you see Vadim or ME at the bar, buy us a drink. Please. (JL)

To download the podcast, click here. (TRT: 39 minutes, 36 seconds)

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TAGS: grady hendrix, john lichman, keith uhlich, live at grassroots tavern, mark walkow, vadim rizov


All Is Forgiven

These last four years, I've never seen a better film in the "Rendez-Vous with French Cinema" series than actress Mia Hansen-Løve's directorial debut All Is Forgiven (although that says as much about the hazards of programming an annual series of films not high-profile enough to get into NYFF or Tribeca as anything).

Hansen-Løve's approach is aligned in many ways with the self-consciously dowdy minimalism practiced by Valeska Grisebach's Longing and Barbara Albert's Falling—two recent movies of Teutonic origin (Germany and Austria respectively) that put ordinary people through romantic torture. Elliptical story-telling is favored over the concrete; big romantic and personal ruptures emerge from quotidian dissatisfaction and banal affairs rather than the classical "inciting incident"; airbrushed physical perfection is shunned in favor of "realistic-looking" people; ostentatious mise-en-scene is outsourced for static frames just wide enough to contain all the necessary information and, at special heightened moments, handheld camera; conspicuous elegance is forbidden, and the only sense of release comes during a party dance sequence. I'd hesitate to call this a new arthouse/festival trend per se, but there's something going on: these films are poised uneasily between Bresson/Tarr-esque rigor and middlebrow sloppiness.

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TAGS: all is forgiven, Anne le Ny, audrey dana, Claude Lelouch, emmanuelle devos, Fanny Ardant, fears of the dark, marie caillou, marie-christine friedrich, mia hansen-løve, rendez-vous with french cinema, Richard McGuire, roman de gare, those who remain, victoire rousseau, vincent lindon


The Unforeseen

The Unforeseen neatly encapsulates the problems of the contemporary political non-fiction film: its importance as social document is everywhere countered by its poverty as cinema. Taking as its subject the damages (both to the environment and the fabric of communities) wrought by unchecked land development, Laura Dunn's film is content to present its arguments through typical talking heads plus archival footage methodology, relying on less than spectacular aerial and underwater footage to fill in the visual gaps. The lack of imagination of this presentation (as well as the inevitable rigidness of the argument) places the burden of interest squarely on the narrative, a burden which it has more than a little difficulty sustaining.

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TAGS: Gary Bradley, Laura Dunn, robert redford, the unforeseen


No-Man's Land: Jar City

Jar City

Jar City, Baltasar Kormákur's tight little thriller based on the Scandinavian crime writers' Glass Key Award-winning novel Mýrin by fellow Icelander Arnaldur Indriðason, takes the familiar crime procedural and injects it with a specific (Arctic) sensibility, much in the way of Erik Skjoldbjærg's Insomnia before it was hijacked by Hollywood, Christopher Nolan at the helm. Kormákur, best known for his adrift if crowd-pleasing Icelandic slacker film 101 Reykjavik, benefits greatly from the strong foundation and narrative focus of a good book. With confidence in his compelling story—or rather, "stories", since the film breezes along on two parallel threads—the director seems better able to concentrate on the details that make a film believable, from the eerie (lack of) northern light, which envelops everything in a deathly bluish glow, to the hardships of being a vegetarian in Iceland (if you are and Reykjavik is in your travel plans bring along a lot of protein bars—trust me).

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TAGS: atli rafn sigurðsson, baltasar kormákur, Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson, ingvar eggert sigurðsson, jar city, ólafía hrönn jónsdóttir


The Last EmperorBefore the average person could afford to travel by air, movies were the most viable form of transportation. Audiences were stunned by how this new medium could convince the eye it was having an intimate encounter with a corner of the world previously inaccessible. It is dismaying, then, to realize that a certain stock of images have always dominated cinema history, and that the art form so rarely lives up to its capacity for introducing new sights and sounds to our worldview. In the 1980s, when the Chinese government granted Bernardo Bertolucci unprecedented access to the Forbidden City, an entire nation that had been ignored in popular world cinema suddenly became a new frontier for Western viewers. The promise of the project must have seemed overwhelming: at a time when good old camp like The Good Earth and Shanghai Express were still Hollywood's paradigmatic depictions of the country, here was the most sensual of European masters taking on the role of a modern-day Marco Polo. He would come back to share with us treasures that had never appeared before on a movie screen. When the resulting achievement, The Last Emperor, became an international hit and a whirlwind success at the Academy Awards, it was a breakthrough for Chinese images in Western cinema. But behind the silk veils and looming structures of Bertolucci's biggest blockbuster remains one of the strangest mainstream epics imaginable, a film that wears its compromises of style and perspective on its sleeve.

Following the life of Pu Yi, who ascended the throne at the age of three, the film's structure shifts back and forth from his early days as a purely symbolic ruler to his gradual movement away from the palace and later imprisonment in a Communist reeducation center. Doted on since infancy by eunuch servants who obey his every command, Pu Yi learns to live a life of seemingly unlimited privileges, but realizes he is trapped when he cannot even leave the grounds to mourn his biological mother who has died beyond the palace walls. Having never been instilled as a youth with any values other than that of his own (ultimately hollow) importance, he grows into little more than a marker of the times, a vessel for the ideologies he assumes in order to stay in power at least in name. He eventually falls prey to Japan, which establishes him as ruler of the puppet-state Manchuria.

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TAGS: bernardo bertolucci, the criterion collection, the last emperor


In Dreams Begin: Chop Shop

Chop Shop

Ramin Bahrani's new film Chop Shop, like his breakthrough 2005 feature Man Push Cart, is likely to be embraced by its boosters as a modern embodiment of the Italian neorealist style, which made international waves in the 1940s and early 1950s. On a stylistic level, the comparisons are by no means inapt. With these two features, Bahrani shows a remarkable assurance using elements of the neorealist style (long takes, nonprofessional actors, location shooting, and a loosely structured story) to evoke gritty, realistic milieus and create a convincing impression of a camera simply recording real life. And the kinds of stories Bahrani tells—detailing the efforts of working-class protagonists simply trying to survive the daily grind, while keeping alive hopes for some kind of better life—reminds one of the stories Vittorio De Sica powerfully told in films like Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. (Bahrani's occasional shout-outs to Bicycle Thieves—a stolen food cart in Man Push Cart, a purse stolen out of desperation in Chop Shop—certainly encourage such connections.)

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TAGS: Alejandro Polanco, chop shop, Isamar Gonzales, man push cart, ramin bahrani


Torchwood

Torchwood enters Bizarro World when an alien reprograms the team's memories—and personalities—in "Adam." We're short on science fiction and long on character again this week, as is usual for writer Catherine Tregenna, but we get a big juicy chunk of Captain Jack's backstory. It's up to you whether or not it's a worthy trade. I was happy to hear Gray's story only four episodes after John Hart dropped that bombshell ("I found Gray") on Jack.

We open on a scene of cozy domestic silliness, as Rhys (Kai Owen) refuses to give Gwen (Eve Myles) her other sneaker; the ensuing wrestling match and its follow-up make her late for work. This couple works for me because they laugh so easily together. After fighting so hard for Rhys in "Meat", Gwen is more relaxed and confident of their relationship than ever.

The title character is slyly introduced (did you catch his picture with the team in the opening credit images?), already in place at a terminal in the Hub, joking about the audits he has done for the past three years. Since financial audits are periodic events, at first I thought Adam (Bryan Dick) was some accounting-office flunky come to check on Torchwood's books. For all their "outside the police" rhetoric, they must have some oversight. Gwen has only been around about a year, so it's not inconceivable that she wouldn't have met him before when everyone else knows who he is. She walks in, sees the new guy, and immediately asks, "Who the hell are you?"

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TAGS: adam, Bryan Dick, Burn Gorman, catherine tregenna, Eve Myles, gareth david-lloyd, Kai Owen, naoko mori, recap, torchwood


The Wire

"It ain't a side of a story,
it's just a lie"—Terry

In "Clarifications", one of the most seismic events of The Wire's entire run—you know what I'm talking about—is treated surprisingly casually and accorded less build-up than the deaths of a zillion other characters over the years. Perhaps more than any other incident this season, the death of Omar calls attention to the delicate balancing act David Simon has assigned himself.

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TAGS: clarifications, david simon, recap, the wire


Picture: No Country for Old Men
Directing: Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men
Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
Actress: Julie Christie, Away from Her
Actor in a Supporting Role: Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men
Actress in a Supporting Role: Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton
Original Screenplay: Juno
Adapted Screenplay: No Country for Old Men
Foreign Language Film: The Counterfeiters
Documentary Feature: No End in Sight
Animated Feature Film: Ratatouille
Documentary Short: Freeheld
Animated Short: My Love
Live Action Short: At Night
Film Editing: The Bourne Ultimatum
Art Direction: There Will Be Blood
Cinematography: There Will Be Blood
Costume Design: Atonement
Makeup: La Vie en Rose
Score: Atonement
Song: "Falling Slowly," Once
Sound Editing: The Bourne Ultimatum
Sound Mixing: No Country for Old Men
Visual Effects: Transformers

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.

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TAGS: academy awards


No Country for Old Men

Though we've kicked Entertainment Weekly's Dave Karger's teeth in when it comes to the overall number of correct predictions for the last few years, our track record has unfortunately not extended to the Best Picture category. (Not that Brokeback Mountain helped anyone two years ago; and we can't necessarily be blamed for, after Crash's victory, assuming the worst a year later with Babel's stack of nominations.) Another year, another seemingly soft frontrunner in this category. But if we're going down, we're going down with the rest of the Oscar-fluffing bitches. So who are we to argue that, after recent wins by The Departed and Million Dollar Baby, Oscar voters might not continue feeling all 1970s about themselves, choosing yet another arty, bloody, masterfully directed anti-actioneer? (If Atonement is in the fifth-wheel slot, it's not only because of its lack of a Best Director nod, but also because the template for a Best Picture has perceptibly shifted away from Merchant-Ivory Land, to the delight of IMDB voters everywhere.) That's the hitch, though. This year sees two equally-nominated, equally-beloved, equally-backlashed jocksterpieces duking it out. No Country for Old Men has settled in as the Best Picture-elect, and the Coens hold a far more esteemed cachet than Paul Thomas Anderson, but their film's implosive anti-climax can't just be shrugged off. Atonement and Michael Clayton's nominations suggest there are still some voters who prefer their Best Picture contenders to suck them off until the money shot, preferably if it kills off either a woman or a woman's career aspirations. Say what you will about the "Show me the MILKSHAKE!" corniness of There Will Be Blood's last scene, the movie does decisively not end on a question mark. Neither, for that matter, does Juno, which lamely and writerly pays off on its promise to begin and end with a chair (unfortunately not one wired for 2,000 volts). But if the perhaps more beloved Little Miss Sunshine couldn't hustle its way to a big win last year against an arguably weaker field, don't expect a chick flick to deflate the dickless Oscar's hard-on for manly bluster. We can't be wrong three years in a row. There Will Be Testosterone.

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TAGS: academy awards, atonement, juno, michael clayton, no country for old men, there will be blood







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