January 5, 2010

It’s time to stagger into the new year with eyes thrust forward. No more list-making and list-arguing and dwelling on the decade that was. Let us break free from our immediate history and nostalgia’s uncomfortably warm grip to embrace the rambunctious year to come. We’re going to squeeze out its tender juices one month at a time, with a touch too much enthusiasm that will emit a pungent, ripe scent of dreams yet to be dashed. Yes, these are the images I will rush to imbibe in the first quarter (and a bit more) of 2010:


A Sixth Part of the World (1926) & The Eleventh Year (1928) (DVD, Edition Filmmuseum)

(DVD, Edition Filmmuseum)

Available now from the Edition Filmmuseum, this damnably seductive looking package contains the films Dziga Vertov made immediately prior to his epochal Man With a Movie Camera. The Filmmuseum describes the first as a “poetic travelogue”, and the second as a “visual symphony.” Michael Nyman provides the score, and bilingual booklets are included. This is an all-region release, and is 29.95 Euros, which is more USD than I can afford. I take donations.

Sweetgrass(Theatrical, Cinema Guild)

I’ve been aching to see this elegiac nature film ever since it premiered at the New York Film Festival. Opening this week in NYC and then slowly rolling out across the country in limited release, it tracks two modern-day cowboys as they drive a herd of sheep through the Montana mountains. Recently it nabbed the cover of my favorite film magazine, Cinema Scope, which has a fascinating interview with the director, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, an assistant professor in Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard. Cinema Guild is looking like the film distributor of the year. Along with Sweetgrass, they’ve also acquired Jacques Rivette’s superb Around a Small Mountain and critical favorite Everyone Else


January 22

Legion (Theatrical, Screen Gems)

Ever since the ridiculously pulpy trailer hit a few months back, I’ve been intoxicated with its possibilities. Visual effects guru Scott Stewart (Iron Man, Sin City), graduates to the director’s chair and opts for total insanity. God deems the human race a lost cause, and sends his angels to destroy the world. Paul Bettany still has love for the flesh, so he swoops in, tears off his wings, and defends the denizens of a roadside bar (including Dennis Quaid and Charles S. Dutton) from annihilation. Somehow flamethrowers are involved.


January 26

King Lear (DVD, E1)

Orson Welles performs as Lear for this episode of “Omnibus” broadcast live on CBS in 1953.


February 15

British Noir Double Feature: The Slasher & Twilight Women (DVD, VCI)

Ever since Film Forum in NYC held a retrospective of British film noir a few months back, I’ve wanted to dig in further. I know nothing about these two other than this: The Slasher stars Joan Collins and received an IMDB comment of “Risible”. Twilight Women stars Laurence Harvey as a nightclub singer accused of murder. Sounds promising enough for me…

Also on this date:

*Clint Eastwood: 35 Years, 35 Films at Warner Brothers (DVD, Warner Brothers)

*Contempt (Blu-Ray, Lionsgate)

*Lola Montes (Blu-Ray, Criterion)

*Ran (Blu-Ray, Lionsgate)


February 19

Shutter Island (Theatrical, Paramount)

Scorsese’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s insane asylum ghost story was pushed out of Oscar season into the dumping grounds of February. This looks more like horror movie material than award-bait, which leaps this entry up the list. DiCaprio is a Boston cop investigating the disappearance of an asylum inmate. Then he starts to go crazy himself, presumably, with shades of Shock Corridor. From the trailer it looks like Scorsese is having fun – working with waking hallucinations and impish performances from Max Von Sydow and Ben Kingsley.


February 22

A ridiculous booty of home video releases:

*City Girl (Blu-Ray, Masters of Cinema)

*M (Blu-Ray, Masters of Cinema)

*Make Way For Tomorrow (DVD, Criterion)

Note: Make Way for Tomorrow is one of the greatest movies ever made, and its image heads this post.

*There’s Always Tomorrow (DVD, Masters of Cinema)


March 12

Greenberg(Theatrical, Focus Features)

Going in blind because of my fondness of Ben Stiller and respect for Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale). It reads like a rote mid-life crisis comedy, but I’ll have some faith in the combined talent here.


March 19

Vincere(Theatrical, IFC Films)

My good friend assures me this is a sub par work from Marco Bellocchio, and its melodramatic trappings don’t sound suited to his bitterly sardonic gifts. It’s the story of Ida Dalser, the wife whom Benito Mussolini discarded and ignored. But having thoroughly enjoyed his last three features: The Wedding Director, My Mother’s Smile, and Good Morning, Night, I’m going to have an open mind.


March 22 (the day my wallet begs for mercy)

*Bigger Than Life (Blu-Ray, Criterion)

*Days of Heaven (Blu-Ray, Criterion)


March 29

*Red Cliff (Blu-Ray [2-Disc International Version], Magnolia)

One of my favorites from last year was released in a truncated version stateside, which cut out over 2 hours of material. Magnolia is releasing the whole behemoth on Blu-Ray, where the scope of Woo’s accomplishment becomes more apparent. Every element is essential to this ancient war epic. You can read my more ponderous thoughts on this film at Moving Image Source.

Letters From Fontainhas: Three Films by Pedro Costa (DVD, Criterion)

One of the most important and divisive filmmakers working in the world finally gets his home video due in the U.S. This includes Ossos (1997), In Vanda’s Room (2000), and Colossal Youth (2006). A trilogy of films where Costa charts the lives of immigrants living in the slums of Fontainhas, near Lisbon. I’ve only seen Colossal Youth, which is a monumental, demanding work. I only saw it on a muddy screener, so I don’t even feel like I’ve truly experienced its languorous rhythms. Anyway, sure to be one of the most important releases of the year.


April 5

Piranha (DVD, Shout! Factory)

My Joe Dante education proceeds apace. I continue to think Matinee is a masterpiece.


April 16

Piranha 3D (Theatrical, Dimension)

After I receive my Joe Dante education, I can try Alexandre Aja’s (High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes (’06)) take on the material. In 3D. With an out-of-retirement Christopher Lloyd and my new favorite character actor, Adam Scott.


April 23

MacGruber (Theatrical, Universal)

In this SNL-derived parody of MacGyver, Val Kilmer plays a villain named Dieter Von Cunth. That’s enough for me. Also, director Jorma Taccone is part of the “Lonely Island” trio that produces all of SNL’s digital shorts, for a long time the only worthwhile part of the show.


May 1

Piranha (Blu-RayShout! Factory)

Oh, Shout! Factory, you’re really playing with my emotions here. Wait until May just to watch the Blu-Ray? OK, fine. But I’m seeing the Aja version first.


May 12, 2009


The summer behemoths are upon us, and it’s impossible to look away. They leer at us from every billboard and fast food collector’s cup, daring us to ignore them and get shut out of the pop-culture conversation. They know we’ll cave, god bless their arrogant little hearts. So before I watch the shiny new Star Trek, and get sucked into the vortex of box office predictions and whiplash inducing action sequences, I wanted to put a kind word in for another blockbuster that has yet to reach our shores, John Woo’s epic two-parter, Red Cliff. Part 1 is already the highest-grossing film in China’s history, and the sequel came close. Released six months apart in July ’08 and January ’09, they’re a rousing adaptation of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms , a historical novel detailing the end of the Han dynasty.

The production marks Woo’s triumphant return to Chinese cinema after a decade-plus in Hollywood. He set the template for 90s action films with his HK triumverate of The Killer (1989), Bullet in the Head (1990), and Hard Boiled (1992), and it’s hard to overstate his impact – everybody from Michael Bay to the Wachowski Bros. to Hype Williams lifted his highly choreographed pistol operatics.  His kinetic talents were generally wasted in the states, despite some individual flourishes in Face Off and Mission Impossible 2. An artistic breakthrough came with Windtalkers (2002), his most overlooked, and his best American film. There’s a narrative density here that looks forward to the intricate relationships of Red Cliff, laid over his matchless skill for choreographing large battle sequences. His concern with professional male relationships remains, as Nicholas Cage’s tetchy marine and Adam Beach’s Native American code writer test their loyalties and reach an uneasy alliance, just as Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung did in Hard Boiled. Only here it’s set against a shifting WWII backdrop and a far more disparate array of characters.

Red Cliff is an extension and near-perfection of this epic-intimate moviemaking, using the personal friendship/rivalry between Tony Leung (as Zhou Lou) and Takeshi Kaneshiro (as Zhuge Liang) as the fulcrum from which to leap into the massive tale of the war of the Three Kingdoms. The plot concerns the immature Han emperor giving license to a dictatorial general, Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang), to subdue the Western and Southern regions of the country, which were otherwise peaceful. Zhou Lou is the viceroy of the southern state, Wu, while Zhuge Liang is the military strategist for the kingdom of Xu, in the West. The two regions form an alliance in order to fend off Cao Cao. An interesting element introduced by Woo and his fellow screenwriters is that of parallels to modern counterinsurgency theory.

The head of Xu emphasizes protecting the civilian population at the expense of winning an initial battle, while Cao Cao’s imperial ambitions have him waging a pure counterterrorist operation – his only intent is killing and capturing his opponents, not winning hearts and minds. There is also commentary about Cao Cao’s overstretched and overworked army, some of whom just work for money (a nod to Blackwater, etc.) If one were to take a US-centric reading of the film, Cao Cao would represent U.S. military strategy under Gen. George Casey and Rumsfeld, and Zhou Lou and Zhuge Liang the strategy of Gen. Petraeus and Robert Gates. Judah Grunstein takes this tack at World Politics Review.

While to take the film as a straight-up allegory of U.S. policy would be overly simplistic, it certainly places paramount importance on military strategy generally. Kaneshiro’s character never engages in battle, but his ingenious war plans make him a major figure in the film. Red Cliff places great emphasis on this kind of tactical preparation, and every fight is preceded by thorough examinations of the battlefield and different modes of attack. It’s a very grounded vision for a historical epic, but it is also what gives the war scenes such lucidity – Woo makes them battles of the mind as much as of the body.

The script balances these two forces in the bodies of Kaneshiro (mind) and Leung (body). Leung is the gallant leader, expert swordsman and diplomat, while Kaneshiro always stands to the side, trying to predict Cao Cao’s every move. Woo consistently carves out different spaces for them on screen, separating them in dramatic symmetrical compositions like the ones below. Zhuge Liang and Zhou Lou are well aware throughout that after Cao Cao is defeated, their two nations will immediately be in competition – it is this kind of subtlety that adds richness and deviousness to their relationship.


Once the battle scenes begin, Woo’s old choreographic mastery comes to the fore. In an ingenius bit of visualization, Kaneshiro, perched high above, witnesses an infantry troop exercise. When massed, the camera cuts in to his POV, and his feathered wing fan flashes out before us to cover the troop formation in its exact dimensions.

Later, Kaneshiro is shown holding a small tortoise, which later proves to be the inspiration for a large operation where troops use their shields to form an improvised shell, decimating the opposing cavalry with devastating spear blows thrust from inside. These nature/war formation metaphors point to the importance of nature (topography, etc.) and the elements to any fight, and the final, incredibly bloody finale depends entirely upon the direction of the wind. This is a clever structure, a few visual notes emphasizing nature foreshadow the plot function (the wind) that will become so important later.

I’m only scratching the surface of this 4 1/2 hour work. I haven’t mentioned the atonal samisen jam, the wonderful performance by Wei Zhao as an impish princess who turns out to be a resourceful spy, the lively caricatures of Xu’s generals, and the ingenious way Zhuge Liang supplies 100,000 arrows (fog and scarecrows are involved). It’s surprising how rich the film turned out under less than ideal production circumstances. Famously, Chow Yun-Fat pulled out (he was to play Zhou You) before shooting began, and tragically, a stuntman died and six were injured during a particularly dangerous action sequence. Producer Terence Chang bemoaned his choice of special effects crews (which are, admittedly, subpar), and the script took years to write.

That a work of art was produced out of this is an incredible accomplishment, and hopefully Sony Pictures finds it in their hearts to release it stateside.  It was rumored that it would be released in a condensed, 2 1/2 hour version, but now even those murmurs have ceased. UPDATE:MAGNET FILMS (A SUBSIDIARY OF MAGNOLIA), HAS JUST PICKED UP RED CLIFF FOR DISTRIBUTION IN THE US. IT WILL RELEASE A CONDENSED 2 1/2 HOUR VERSION IN THEATERS (boo!), AND THE COMPLETE FILM ON DVD AND VOD).  In any case, the DVDs are readily available at a Chinatown near you, or at reputable e-tailers like HKFlix and YesAsia.