The ABCs of March 2014 Part Two

Previously on Yes, I Know: A through E

F: Following (1998)

followingChristopher Nolan’s first feature film, shot on weekends during his student days, has the whole Nolan package in a trim 70 minutes: duplicitous characters, fluidity of timeline, twists, turns, double crosses, and one hell of a final reveal.

Shot in gloriously grainy black-and-white 16mm, Following is the tale of Bill (Jeremy Theobald), a young aspiring writer who starts following random strangers, observing them and hopefully gleaning some material for his work. Then one of his targets turns the tables on him – Cobb (Alex Haw), a professional thief and amateur philosopher. Cobb takes Bill under his tutelage, burglarizing apartments and disrupting peoples’ lives, telling Bill “You take it away… you show them what they had.” Bill becomes enamored of this lifestyle, becomes involved with one of their victims – and then, things get complicated.

Like the best of Nolan’s work, it’s essential to pay attention while the story works its Byzantine path toward that amazing conclusion. Events are played out-of-order, and quite often an unexplained occurrence is explained several scenes later (there is an alternate edit on the Criterion disc that places events in chronological order, but it seems like that would be much less fun – less of a discovery tingle, there). It’s to Nolan’s credit that everything makes sense at the wrap-up.

Probably the best comparison in Nolan’s filmography is The Prestige – and that is pretty high praise. If you liked one, you’re going to love the other. Highly recommended.

Following on Amazon

G: Ganja & Hess (1973)

gan_hThis wasn’t originally in the plan I mocked up for MMM, but this was picked as the movie in focus for the next Daily Grindhouse podcast, so I slipped it into the G spot (so to speak) instead of Godfather III. Perhaps the Universe was doing me a solid.

This was produced largely as an answer to blaxploitation movies so popular at the time – it is smart, challenging, at times deliberately abtruse. It is a vampire movie that never uses the word “vampire”. It stars Duane Jones, who everybody knows from Night of the Living Dead, and that, along with this movie, should have had Hollywood hammering at his door because good God, is he incredible. Writer/director/actor Bill Gunn was some sort of certifiable genius, to be sure, whose career never really took off, and the color of his skin likely had a lot to do with that.

Ganja and Hess got a standing ovation at Cannes, and proceeded to go absolutely nowhere in America: there is whole lot of odd stuff with Gunn’s character before he goes bullgoose looney and stabs Jones with an ancient dagger that somehow infects him with vampirism, and even then your typical horror movie tropes are few and far between. Most people expecting Blacula Part II probably left the theater in the first 15 minutes.

Ganja01I’m not going into much detail here, saving it for the podcast (listen early and often, my droogs), but we’re currently looking for a copy of Blood Couple, a version recut into a more traditional horror movie form.

Recommended, but be prepared for a challenge. It’s been written that you’re supposed to connect with Ganja & Hess not with your brain, but with your core instincts – and they’re probably right. We needed a lot more from Gunn and Jones; it wasn’t so much that these men were born too early as that America had its head up its ass for too long.

Ganja & Hess on Amazon

No trailer, but have two minutes of typically beautiful strangeness:

H: Harold & Maude (1971)

harold_and_maude_ver3_xlgHarold (Bud Cort) a twenty-something rich young man obsessed with death, has several pastimes, most notably practicing suicide in an effort to get a rise out of his remote mother (Vivian Pickles). During another hobby – attending funerals – he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon), a 79 year-old lady with a contagiously free spirit. She also attends funerals of people she’s never met, but she regards death as only part of a life to be ferociously, and whimsically, lived. This blossoming relationship will change Harold significantly, and shock audiences as the two become lovers.

This is one of the movies on the MMM list that I had already seen, but not since the late 70s. Unsurprisingly, my head’s in a different place some 35 years later, and I noticed some things I had not in my callow youth. Most significantly, the possibility that Maude’s flaunting of the law (“borrowing” cars and in one case almost getting shot by a cop) may not be due to free-wheeling anti-authoritarianism, but the onset of some form of dementia. The hard-edged satire of Harold’s relationships with every other adult in his circle – his mother, psychiatrist, military uncle, various “computer dates” his mother sets up – all seem more than little heavy-handed, but welcome to 1971: this played so well to my generation, it was beyond reproach.

None of this shook my love for the film; if anything, it reminded me how important Hal Ashby’s movies were to me as my tastes and worldview developed, this one and Being There foremost. I settled into it and its Cat Stevens soundtrack (for some reason, over the years I had thought it was Harry Nilsson) like an old, comfortable friend, and finding fresh nuances was delightful. Perhaps the most surprising part was rediscovering how a movie could be simultaneously so challenging and yet so gentle, so black in its humor and yet so sentimental.

Harold & Maude on Amazon

I: Ivan the Terrible, part one (1944)

1944-Ivan-el-terrible-Sergei-M-Eisenstein-espanol-1Well, enough romances, let’s have some blood and thunder. Well. not too much blood and thunder to be found here, but it’s the basis for a lot of it.

Josef Stalin’s propaganda machine worked on retooling the lives of prominent historical Russian figures to better support the Soviet worldview, and for some reason (sarcasm intended) he especially liked Ivan the Terrible, who ruled Russia for almost forty years, expanded its borders, dragged his country out of the Middle Ages… and killed a whole bunch of people. Sergei Eisenstein. the genius of Russian cinema, undertook the project. It would take three years to shoot, would damn near kill him – he suffered his first heart attack after completing the editing on Part Two, and it certainly killed his career in his native land; Part Two of his epic was banned in Russia until 1958, and the planned third part never lensed.

But we’re here to contemplate the first movie, which is more origin story than anything else, providing the basis for Ivan’s later paranoia and draconian methods. Formerly the Grand Prince of Moscow, he is crowned Tsar of All the Russias at the tender age of 17, and immediately starts making reforms necessary to making Russia an Empire, taxing churches and minimizing the ruling class of Boyars (a flashback demonstrating why Ivan hates the Boyars was excised and placed instead in the reviled Part Two). He puts down a peasant revolt at his own wedding celebration, using only his canny wit, forceful presence, and a timely declaration of war against the Khanate of Kazan.

ivanterHis ultimate triumph over the Khanate is only a small part of the movie – most of it concerns the eddying tides of conspiracy and backbiting around his rule, culminating in the poisoning of his wife by Boyars, which signals the end of his reasonable phase and the beginning of his “Brotherhood of Iron”, a secret army loyal only to him. A brilliant statesman, he retreats to a nearby village and awaits the parade of common folk who beg him to return, one of Eisenstein’s best, most elaborate (and likely most expensive) set-ups.

But that’s the crown jewel in a movie full of tremendous setpieces and striking images. The acting and makeup seem to be still stuck in German Expressionist silent movie mode, but that’s a small thing when presented with such a compelling time capsule – and I haven’t even mentioned the beautiful score by Sergei Prokofiev. This part of the saga received a Stalin Prize, which Eisenstein would enjoy for only a year, until the state censors saw its sequel.

Ivan the Terrible on Amazon

No trailer because that would be bourgeois.

J: Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2013)

JourneytotheWestConqueringtheDemonsWell, that’s quite a mouthful of a title.

We’re going to go into a couple of autobiographical detours here. First, if you’ve known or read me for any length of time, you know that I loves me some Monkey King. This can be traced back to the deeply strange anime movie Alakazam the Great – deeply weird because the folks involved in dubbing it attempted to Americanize it with great gusto, excising all mention of Buddha or any other Oriental figures. It was based on the 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West, which is like 3 million pages long, and has been the basis of a lot of movies. One of my favorites is the Japanese Adventures of Super Monkey, of which I have a Canadian blu-ray under the title Monkey MagicDespite my determination to only watch movies I’ve never seen this year, that one gets trotted out frequently.

Secondly: Stephen Chow is a filmmaker I’ve been familiar with for many years. When a mania for Asian movies hit America in the early 90s, Chow’s movies were inevitably swept along, only to be met with confusion. I recall one critic bemoaning “some of the best action sequences in Hong Kong cinema” watered down by “goofy comedy”. I’m just going to point out that criticism was also leveled at Jackie Chan’s movies, then move along. Chow was enamored of word play, and the polytonal nature of the major Chinese languages, Mandarin and Cantonese, provided rich opportunities for that – opportunities that did not translate well into English. Still movies like the Royal Tramp series and King of Beggars had their fans… and then Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle hit, and Stephen Chow started clicking with American audiences.

journeywest1So now, here’s a combination of the two: Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons is a “Gathering the Team” type version of the novel, a prequel of sorts, especially if you don’t mind messing with the original source material. I haven’t even read Arthur Whaley’s acclaimed abridged translation, so I’m not in the position to judge.

Our main character is novice demon hunter Zhang (Wen Zhang) whose methods of appealing to demons’ better nature is ineffective, to say the least. Constantly upstaged by the more proactive Miss Duan (Shu Qi), who is increasingly smitten with the young monk, Zhang is advised to seek out the imprisoned Monkey King (Huang Bo) for aid in defeating the Pig Demon, currently running amok and too strong to capture.

There is going to be plenty of goofy comedy, but that long-ago critic was right about Chow’s action sequences: they are amazing, varied and entertaining. Throw in rival demon hunters like Prince Important and the Almighty Foot, and a portrayal of the Monkey King so duplicitous and savage that you finally understand why Buddha stuck him under a mountain for 500 years, and you have one crackerjack Chinese fantasy, no matter how many liberties taken.

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons on Amazon

A Movie Weekend

The buildup to this is semi-complex, but I don’t want to be too specific. Perhaps you will see my dilemma.

Back during the last Crapfest, pal Dave gave me back a DVD that had been on perma-loan to him, which was The Prestige. He had borrowed it long, long ago, back when he was living in an apartment, in fact. I had dropped in for a visit, and had stopped at a Hollywood Video (to show you approximately how long ago this was) to raid their pre-viewed DVDs. One of them was The Prestige, Dave asked to borrow it, I said sure, why not, knowing full well it would be a long time before I got around to watching it, anyway. This was also back when I was wasting every evening of my life playing City of Heroes, which squandered many a movie watching hour. Don’t regret it, I enjoyed playing it with my friends. But I’ve now walked away from that particular teat.

Anyway, Dave handed me back the DVD, and off-handedly stated, “You know, I never guessed that (EXTREME SPOILER).” There was a brief pause, after which I said, “Well, now I guess I don’t have to watch it.” There was a brief scene after that, but Dave was far more upset than I. There is, as Penny Arcade points out, a statute of limitations on spoilers. That I had managed to successfully avoid that particular spoiler for 6 years is remarkable, but Dave was innocent of wrongdoing. Even so, he felt really badly about the whole thing.

About a week after, I sent him an e-mail suggesting we get together to watch The Prestige, because, after all, he had said he wanted to watch it again, and I wanted to watch it for the first time. Earlier that year, when he found out I still hadn’t seen Inception, he urged me to come over and “watch a good movie for a change.” Well, I spoiled that by watching Inception one lazy Sunday morning. Much as I love my wife, Dave would have been a better movie-watching companion for that particular movie. Lisa enjoyed it, but wasn’t particularly engaged by the multiple layers of the central caper, which is something Dave and I would have chewed over with gusto.

So. We watched The Prestige.

I like Christopher Nolan movies because you have to pay attention. And I like them because he doesn’t make that hard, at all. The Prestige has a very fluid timeline, constantly jumping back and forth through the chronology of the two main characters, but it is never confusing in that respect. The tale of an increasingly destructive rivalry between two stage magicians, there is a lot about setup, artifice, and pay-offs, and when Nicola Tesla is brought into the mix (a nicely strange turn by David Bowie), things take a turn for the downright weird. As Dave rightly pointed out, every scene means something different on a second viewing, and the movie is as meticulously constructed as a stage illusion. The seeds of Dave’s spoiler run throughout the movie, and I flatter myself that I would have spotted them, though as Dave points out, we’ll never know for sure. Ah well.

There are a couple of “oh, come on” moments for me, a couple of minor plot points that don’t affect the story that much, I just get curious. Nolan’s eye for casting remains solid. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale are both great choices, and the supporting cast includes Andy Serkis, Scarlett Johannson and Piper Perabo. Michael Caine is Michael Caine, which is pretty much what you pay him for these days. I swear to God Nolan cut-and-pasted at least one Caine speech from this script into one of the Batman scripts.

Good movie. Quite recommended.

Dave had, just that day, received a disc from Netflix: Cowboys and Aliens. Neither of us had seen it, so into the player it went.

There’s your setup right there: amnesiac Daniel Craig has a high-tech super-weapon locked onto his wrist, aliens keep flying overhead and lassooing innocent people. Hardass cattle baron Harrison Ford recruits Craig to attack the alien’s main base and rescue the people, which is okay by Craig because it seems to be tied into his missing past. In short, this is Terminator: Salvation in a Western setting.

It is also 20-30 minutes too long and wastes a lot of good actors in insignificant roles, like Clancy Brown and Sam Rockwell. There is quite a bit too much time spent marshaling forces for a final battle that seems scattered and, like the movie, over-extended. Can’t find fault with the visual effects, at all, and the actors are a solid lot. It’s entertaining. but not enough for a whole-hearted recommendation. Netflix, definitely.

Well, that was Friday night. Saturday night, I usually have The Show, but as there were no reservations, that was cancelled. This is usually a cause for moping more than celebrating, because missing out on that small paycheck puts my fragile economic ecology in danger. But, I thought, none of that this week, dammit. Last Christmas, I got my wife her favorite movie in the world, Doctor Zhivago, on Blu-Ray. I had never seen Zhivago, so I figured it was high time.

Well.

What a dreadfully cramped trailer for a Panavision film!

Zhivago is, no surprise, the life story of Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif), Russian poet and doctor, and Lara (Julie Christie), the woman whose life keeps intersecting his. The chronology of this relationship passes through World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, more than enough turmoil for a historical romance. On Twitter I opined that this was the longest chick flick ever, which is the sort of thing you say when you are limited to 140 characters.

To be sure, it’s still shorter than that other over-long chick flick, Gone With the Wind, and it covers two vast conflicts instead of GWTW‘s single Civil War – and that is the larger story I took away from my viewing. My wife prefers to think of Zhivago as a great love story; I think of it as the tale of a man buffeted along by events much larger than he. Make no mistake, this is a gorgeous movie – director David Lean, cinematographer Freddy Young, and Omar Sharif’s dreamy countenance provide a very compelling look at how poets view the world. GWTW is very obviously compacting a whole lot of novel into its last half-hour, and I never got that impression with Zhivago – Lean doesn’t make short movies, but those movies are very full without obvious compression.

I’ve long been a fan of the Arthurian legends, probably dating from the first movie I can recall seeing in a theater: The Sword In The Stone. A good friend through college constantly took me to task on this: “How can you possibly like it? It’s a love story based on betrayal.” (Likely because I didn’t focus on the love story, I was more taken with the idea of armored knights as a force for good, rather than medieval stormtroopers, but that’s neither here nor there) Zhivago‘s love story is also one of betrayal, as Yuri falls in love with Lara during their time in a makeshift hospital at the end of WWI. It is to the credit of the characters that nothing comes of it, Lara telling Yuri, “I don’t want you to lie to your wife because of me.”

Yet, after fleeing the wretched conditions of Moscow after the worker’s revolution, Yuri seeks out Lara, and the inevitable betrayal occurs; though both are married, Lara’s husband has been given up for dead (He has in fact reinvented himself as the terrorist insurgent Strelnikov), but Yuri’s wife, mere miles away, is pregnant with their second child. Zhivago is taken from this personal turmoil to another turmoil, as he is press-ganged into a Red Brigade bringing justice (and a whole lot of death) to White Russian forces. During his servitude, his family escapes to Paris, allowing him to live in sin with Lara and her daughter for a time, until the World steps in again.

As is the case with Gone With The Wind, this is not my cup of tea. I can appreciate the craft that has gone into this, the efforts at authenticity, the sheer awesomeness of the cast – but I still honestly cannot connect with what my wife considers to be a great love story. She loves it, I accept that. I shrug and continue on.

That was also the weekend my landline cratered, and because I have DSL, I was incommunicado through everything but my smartphone. So Sunday morning, while my wife was out at the movies with her friends – I had seen everything at the cinemas I had wanted to see; her friends went to Cabin in the Woods and she went to The Lucky One, that pretty much tells the tale – I finally watched Chushingura.

Chushingura, it seems, is the general term for fictional re-tellings of the tale of The 47 Loyal Ronin, which looms large in the landscape of Japanese culture. In the early 18th century, a corrupt Master of Etiquette is dissatisfied with the bribes offered by one of the younger lords, and goads that lord into attacking him in the Shogun’s palace, a breach so serious the young lord is sentenced to commit seppuku, ritual suicide, and his clan dissolved. His retainers, now all ronin – masterless samurais – bide their time, as retribution against the offended Master is forbidden. Finally, after two years of pretending to be workmen, monks, and in the case of the Chamberlain, a dissolute, drunken womanizer, forgetful of his duty to his dead master – on the second anniversary of the ritual suicide, the remaining 47 gather and attack the household, finally avenging the death of their master.

This is the 1962 version of the story, directed by Hiroshi Inagaki, and I strenuously wished I had been more familiar with the story of the 47 Ronin before I had seen the movie. There are a lot of characters in play throughout, and I’m not just talking about the 47 ronin – wives, hangers-on, courtesans, brothel entertainers, not to mention the crew around the spectacularly corrupt Lord Kira, who feels an existence based entirely on lust and greed will grant him a long life, and that other samurai are fools for their predisposition to die at the slightest provocation. It gets dizzying after a while. Familiar faces like Takashi Shimura helped anchor me, but I still found myself confused as relationships proliferated as the fateful evening approached. Toshiro Mifune, featured prominently on all the advertising materials – especially the ones destined for Western eyes – has only a supporting role, as the lancer Genba Tawaraboshi, who is the hard-drinking badass we always love to see Mifune play.

So curse my blind ignorance, I am unable to make an objective judgment of Chushingura. It is well-made, acted and directed, and on those points alone I rank it highly; though how effective it is as a re-telling of a major legend, I must leave to those more knowledgeable. What it is, I can tell you, is a damned fine snapshot of the layered society in Japan at that time, the grinding rituals of proper etiquette, deference, and station; and the sometimes incredible insanity of the bushido code.

Then that evening, I watched Lolita. The next time I have a weekend like this, I really must find shorter movies.

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