Monthly Archives: August 2010

Love Stalker: an Unromantic Comedy

My friends and fellow Columbia Film School graduates Matt Glasson and Bowls MacLean are shooting a feature film, Love Stalker, in St. Louis next month. The film is an adaptation of their award-winning short of the same title. The short, a darkly funny musical about a loser who stalks his favorite bartender, calls to mind the work of Roman Polanski and David Lynch. It can be viewed in its entirety on youtube and I highly recommend taking the time to watch the whole thing; the film’s final thrilling minutes dramatize some kind of psychic rupture (a la Mulholland Drive) that must be seen to be believed. Check it out:

Matt and Bowls are currently looking for donations to help defray the cost of production on the feature. Every penny counts and supporting independent filmmaking is a very worthy cause, folks. I donated $25 myself and I recommend anyone who enjoys the short to do the same. The plot of the feature will apparently differ substantially from the short. You can read all about it at indiegogo where you can also make a donation:

http://www.indiegogo.com/lovestalker/


Now Playing: Around a Small Mountain (36 Vues du Pic Saint Loup)

Around a Small Mountain (36 vues du Pic Saint Loup)
dir. Jacques Rivette, 2009, France/Italy

Rating: 8.3

The bottom line: A worthy coda to an extraordinary career. See it on the big screen and pay your last respects.

Now playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center is Around a Small Mountain, the latest and, according to some reports, last film by 82-year-old French New Wave master Jacques Rivette. Perhaps the most notable aspect of the film, at least for Rivette fans, is the film’s atypically brief running time; for a man whose best known work includes experimental endurance tests running between 4 and 13 hours in length, it is perhaps both unusual and fitting that his swan song would clock in at a very lean and audience-friendly 84 minutes. This framework allows Rivette to tell a charming, wise, deceptively simple story that calls to mind the mature simplicity of the late masterworks of such disparate artists as Jorge Luis Borges, Henri Matisse and Robert Bresson.

The story of Around a Small Mountain centers on Vittorio, an Italian businessman (Sergio Castellitto), who crosses paths with the performers of a low-rent traveling circus in the Cevennes region of France while en route to an appointment in Barcelona. Vittorio doesn’t seem to be in a particular hurry as he ends up spending the better part of two weeks hanging out with the troupe, becoming further and further drawn into the lives of its performers until, inevitably, he too becomes part of the circus. Central to Vittorio’s fascination with this troupe is his romantic attraction to the mysterious, absentee circus owner, Kate (the magnificent Jane Birkin), a middle-aged beauty with a tragic past who has only recently become reunified with the other performers.

As with most Rivette films, Around a Small Mountain is also a mystery, albeit one that unfolds at a very relaxed pace. Little by little, Vittorio learns the dark secret of Kate’s past and, like a Hollywood film noir hero of the 1940s, concocts a scheme to have her confront this incident so that she may free herself from the chains of a terrible memory and learn to truly live again. As trite as this may sound, the film’s plot is really only an excuse for Rivette and his regular screenwriter Pascal Bonitzer to explore the nature of performance and how art and life are inextricably bound. Delightful scenes of jugglers, acrobats and clowns performing are intercut with the main story until it becomes unclear where the performance ends and life begins. A good example is the long-take scene, reminiscent of John Ford, where Kate delivers a theatrical graveside monologue to a former lover. Few film directors are as attentive to actors as Rivette has been throughout his career in general and to Birkin specifically here.

Around a Small Mountain also calls to mind Yasujiro Ozu’s Floating Weeds, another “late film” about a troupe of traveling players on the verge of packing it in, and Parade, Jacques Tati’s modest, shot-on-video final film, which was likewise set primarily within a circus. Like Ozu and Tati, Rivette clearly feels an affinity for the camaraderie of characters within this milieu, which he undoubtedly sees as analogous to the relationships between cast and crew members on a film set. The highlight of Rivette’s movie, however, is a scene of Kate by herself, in which she tests the waters of circus performing for the first time in many years. Alone in an empty field, suspended several feet above the ground, the sixty-something Birkin successfully walks a real tightrope. Figuratively speaking, one could say the same for Rivette.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. All That Heaven Allows (Sirk)
2. The Prowler (Zito)
3. Sherlock Jr. (Keaton)
4. Black Narcissus (Powell/Pressburger)
5. Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (Ozu)
6. Le Samourai (Melville)
7. Scarface (Hawks)
8. Women of the Night (Mizoguchi)
9. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder)
10. White Heat (Walsh)


In Defense of Benjamin Button

The first official review of David Fincher’s hotly anticipated The Social Network, a film about the founding of Facebook, has appeared online and it’s a doozy: Scott Foundas, respected critic and New York Film Festival selection committee member, has given it an unequivocal rave at the Film Comment website. He calls the film “splendid entertainment from a master storyteller” and compares it to The Great Gatsby both in terms of plot and as a kind of cultural bellwether. Unfortunately, he also uses the occasion to take a swipe at Fincher’s previous film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, as mawkish and insincere.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the only David Fincher movie to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture and the only one to be released in a deluxe edition on home video by the prestigious Criterion Collection. Its pioneering use of digital special effects is undeniable and, impressively, the service to which those effects are put is the form of a crowd pleasing melodrama (albeit one haunted by the specter of death); rare among Fincher’s films, Benjamin Button was a big commercial success on a global scale. And yet, as Foundas’ comments testify, from a certain critical perspective it has also always been an unfashionable movie to love. It has been the subject of articles dubious of its anointment as an “instant classic” at the hands of Criterion and it even made one journalist’s list of 10 films that Hollwyood never should have greenlit. But the biggest bone of contention for most critics has been the film’s similarities to Forrest Gump, with which it shares a screenwriter in the person of Eric Roth. So much critical ink has been spilled over the superficial similarities between Button and Gump in terms of story, with the harshest critics claiming that the two are essentially the same movie, that I won’t bother to rehash the comparisons here. Instead, I’d like to point out how the films are crucially different in the far more significant areas of ideology and aesthetics.

Forrest Gump is reactionary in that it martyrs a man for not questioning authority and always doing what he’s told. Forrest is a simpleton who puts all his faith in what God, Mama and Uncle Sam tell him, fights in Vietnam and is rewarded with wealth and fame. A parallel plot involving his girlfriend, Jenny, sees her do the opposite (she joins the counter-culture, protests the war and experiments with free love and drugs) and then punishes her with AIDS and death. There is a sense that the success of Forrest Gump, including an actual win for Best Picture, is the result of its function as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for viewers who would like to triumph over history without doing any hard work. On the other hand, Benjamin Button is the tragedy of a man who lives through history, making tough decisions and taking responsibility for his actions at every turn. Just think of the heartbreaking scene where Benjamin decides to leave Daisy so that she can raise their daughter without him.

In contrast to the high-key lighting and Disneyland-vision-of-the-South art direction employed by Robert Zemeckis in Forrest Gump, The dark, brooding beauty of Fincher’s digital mise-en-scene in Button perfectly complements the film’s melancholy obsession with the passing of time. This is most obvious in the astonishing sequence near the beginning where scratchy, old-movie-like footage of World War I is run backwards, an expressionist device corresponding to the desires of Elias Koteas’ clockmaker character. More importantly, where Forrest Gump always calls attention to itself in its use of digital special effects (“Hey look, it’s Tom Hanks interacting with real documentary footage of some famous historical figure!”), the use of CGI in Button is always subservient to the story, just as it was in Zodiac. (Whenever I point out to students that there are over 200 CGI shots in Zodiac, the most common reply is, “I didn’t notice any.” Exactly.) And although audiences are well aware that computer technology is what allows Brad Pitt in Button to age in reverse, I’ll bet you it’s the last thing on all but the most jaded minds of the viewers who are actually watching the movie.

Finally, where Forrest Gump offers naïve optimism, Benjamin Button is a profoundly moving, and, on occasion, a courageously “feel-bad,” study of aging and death. The concept of showing someone age in reverse is a completely novel way to constantly remind the audience of those themes in a way that could not have been done by showing the character age normally. After all when you see a senior citizen, you don’t automatically think of that person as having only X-amount of time left to live. But when you see Benjamin Button at the age of six, you certainly do.


A South Korean New Wave Primer

Below is a chronological list of 21 key S. Korean New Wave movies (with commentary) that I compiled to hand out at a Facets Multimedia screening of Save the Green Planet earlier this year. Below the list is a link to a video of the lecture I gave prior to the film.

Christmas in August (Jin Ho-Hur, 1998) – Exquisite melodrama about the romance between a terminally ill photographer and one of his clients.

Nowhere to Hide (Lee Myung-se, 1999) – This outrageous action movie is basically one long chase between two cops and a killer. An early scene where an assassin plies his trade to the strains of the Bee-Gees’ “Holiday,” amid yellow autumn leaves and a gently falling rain, is unforgettable.

Peppermint Candy (Lee Chang-dong, 1999) – Forget Memento and Irreversible, here’s the original “edited in reverse” movie – a tour de force of filmmaking that begins with the suicide of a thirty-something businessman, then skips backwards over the previous twenty years of his life to show the personal tragedy of one man’s loss of innocence and corruption set against the sweeping backdrop of S. Korea’s tumultuous recent history.

Barking Dogs Never Bite (Bong Joon-ho, 2000) – Wonderful offbeat comedy/romance and an auspicious debut from one of the most significant Korean directors of our time.

Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors (Hong Sang-soo, 2000) – Erotic melodrama about the subjective nature of reality, gorgeously shot in black and white.

Chunhyang (Im Kwon-taek, 2000) – Folk opera/musical from one of the “old masters” of S. Korean cinema.

JSA: Joint Security Area (Park Chan-wook, 2000) – The absolute best place to start exploring the S. Korean New Wave; ingeniously plotted political thriller and invaluable history lesson.

Failan (Song Hae-sung, 2001) – I defy you to see this unique gangster movie/melodrama hybrid and not weep by the time it’s over.

Turning Gate (Hong Sang-soo, 2002) – Comedy/drama about a young man’s quest for love that marries the formalism of Antonioni with the naturalistic performances of Cassavetes.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Park Chan-wook, 2002) – The first entry in Park’s essential “Vengeance trilogy” is also the most austere and tragic.

Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-Ho, 2003) – Like a Korean Zodiac, this tells the riveting true story of a police investigation into a series of unsolved murders.

Save the Green Planet (Jang Jun-hwan, 2003) – The story of a blue-collar worker convinced that his former boss is an alien intent on destroying the human race, this outrageous and provocative black comedy reflects political anxieties dating back to South Korea’s pro-democracy protests in the 1980s while also serving as a prescient ecological fable on a more universal scale.

A Tale of Two Sisters (Kim Ji-woon, 2003) – Mixture of psychological and supernatural horror that effectively conjures up an atmosphere of dread from the first frame to the last.

Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003) – Excellent freak-out revenge movie with a supremely ironic “happy ending” that lingered in my imagination long after it ended.

3-Iron (Kim Ki-duk, 2004) – A nearly silent love story that starts out as a work of realism and then slowly, almost imperceptibly, enters a world of purely poetic metaphor. Hypnotic and amazing.

The President’s Last Bang (Im Sang-soo, 2005) – Black comedy/political satire that tells the incredible true story of the assassination of President Park Chung-Hee.

Lady Vengeance (Park Chan-wook, 2005) – The sublime third installment of Park’s vengeance trilogy combines elements of the first two (very different) films and throws intriguing philosophical/religious reflections into the mix.

The Host (Bong Joon-ho, 2006) – The Spielbergian/Hollywood family-in-peril adventure movie formula is subversively used to express some anti-global/capitalist sentiments in this outrageously entertaining monster movie.

Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo, 2006) – Hong Sang-Soo’s funniest ode to romantic folly. You’ll be humming the catchy score for days.

Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong, 2007) – A widow moves with her son to the hometown of her recently deceased husband only to encounter further tragedy in this thematically complex, novelistic character study from the great writer/director Lee Chang-dong.

The Chaser (Na Hong-jin, 2008) – A generic serial killer plot is given a refreshingly original spin by adding an abundance of expertly executed foot-chases in this superior thriller.

And the lecture:

http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/5077314/


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. I Sell the Dead (McQuaid)
2. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (del Toro)
3. Zodiac (Fincher)
4. Rear Window (Hitchcock)
5. Some Came Running (Minnelli)
6. A Prophet (Audiard)
7. Silver Bullet (Attias)
8. A Letter to Three Wives (Mankiewicz)
9. Early Summer (Ozu)
10. What Did the Lady Forget? (Ozu)


David Lynch: Walk with Me

In August of 1992, shortly after my 17th birthday, I attended the first annual “Twin Peaks Fest” in Snoqualmie, Washington. Like many David Lynch aficionados, I was fairly devastated when Twin Peaks, the television show, had been cancelled the previous year and was likewise ecstatic when I learned that Lynch immediately planned to make a feature film prequel to the groundbreaking series.

The film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, received its U.S. premiere during that first Twin Peaks Fest and the above photograph is of me and Mr. Lynch strolling and chatting after I ran into him by chance outside of the hotel where we both happened to be staying. I told Lynch that I didn’t want to bother him but that I was glad he had decided to “bring Twin Peaks back” and that his movies had given me a lot of pleasure over the years. He thanked me and then said in his loud and very distinctive nasal voice, “Take care of yourself, man.”

This encounter took place at probably the lowest point in Lynch’s professional career. Although the first season of Twin Peaks had been a hit, the second season was ignominiously cancelled and Fire Walk with Me received the worst reviews of Lynch’s entire career. (Dune had been a critical disappointment too but that wasn’t really considered a “Lynch film.”)

I didn’t listen to the critics and managed to see the movie five more times in the theater during its brief run. I was and still am impressed by the simultaneously darker and goofier direction in which he took the movie. I loved the hilarious interactions between Chris Isaak’s FBI man and the local-yokel small town sheriff played by Gary Bullock. I loved the full-blown surrealism of the brief scene involving David Bowie. And most of all, I loved how personal it all felt; Lynch’s bitterness over the show’s cancellation was palpable and could be immediately felt in the opening image of an ax destroying a television set.

Upon returning home I wrote a letter to my local paper, the Charlotte Observer, offering to provide them photographs and anecdotes from the Fest in anticipation of the film’s local release. The Observer‘s film critic wrote me back to suggest I try a horror fanzine like Fangoria(!) instead.

18 years later, David Lynch is considered by many to be America’s greatest living filmmaker. His 2001 masterpiece, Mulholland Drive, recently topped many critics polls of the best films of the decade, including prestigious polls in France’s Cahiers du Cinema and Film Comment in the U.S. Fortunately, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, has also undergone a critical re-evaluation; it is now considered a cult classic and has been cited by none other than Greil Marcus as one of the best American films of the 1990s.


CIFF – Twenty Two Most Wanted!

Here is a wish list of the 22 films I’d most like to see turn up at the Chicago International Film Festival in October. The titles are a combination of films that played at Cannes in May, films that have been slated to play at the Venice or Toronto fests in the coming months and some serious wishful thinking.

22. The Housemaid (Im, S. Korea)
An erotic thriller in which a married man’s affair with the family maid brings tragic consequences. I would normally be skeptical of this, a remake of one of the best S. Korean movies of all time (Kim Ki-Young’s mind-blowing Hanyo from 1960), but this was made by Im Sang-Soo, director of the formidable The President’s Last Bang.

21. The Town (Affleck, USA)
Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, Gone, Baby, Gone, was one of the great surprises of 2007: an effective genre piece boasting a terrific ensemble cast and some interesting sociological insights to boot. This sophomore effort is another crime thriller, starring Affleck and The Hurt Locker ‘s Jeremy Renner.

20. 13 Assassins (Miike, Japan)
A reunion between Audition director Takashi Miike and screenwriter Daisuke Tengan that promises to melt more brains – in the audience if not onscreen.

19. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Herzog, France/USA)
A 3-D documentary about the earliest known hand-drawn images. Werner Herzog, whose best films in recent years have tended to be documentaries (see Grizzly Man), will almost certainly do something interesting with the 3-D format.

18. Secret Reunion (Jang, S. Korea)
I know nothing about this except that it stars the enormously talented Song Kang-Ho, veteran of many great S. Korean New Wave movies. Recommended by my film fest savvy friend David Hanley.

17. Another Year (Leigh, UK)
I always like to see what Mike Leigh is up to. If nothing else, you know the performances will be very good.

16. Accident (Cheang, Hong Kong)
A new crime drama from producer (and possible ghost-director) Johnnie To, arguably the best genre filmmaker in the world.

15. Black Swan (Aronofsky, USA)
I found The Wrestler to be Darren Aronofsky’s best film by a wide margin so I’m eager to see what he does in this follow-up, a dark thriller about rival ballet dancers starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis.

14. Poetry (Lee, S. Korea)
An elderly woman with Alzheimer’s disease takes a poetry course in this highly praised drama from S. Korean director Lee Chang-Dong. Won Best Screenplay at Cannes.

13. Film Socialisme (Godard, France/Switzerland)
A Mediterranean cruise is the jumping off point for the latest edition of Jean-Luc Godard’s global newspaper. This outraged many at Cannes (and predictably found passionate admirers among the Godard faithful) where it was shown with “Navajo English” subtitles.

12. Hereafter (Eastwood, USA)
After Invictus, director Clint Eastwood re-teams with Matt Damon for a European-shot supernatural thriller.

11. On Tour (Amalric, France)
Mathieu Amalric, a distinctive actor who specializes in comically unhinged characters, directs and stars as the manager of a traveling burlesque show. This has been compared to the work of John Cassavetes and indeed it sounds a lot like The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. A surprise Best Director winner at Cannes.

10. Hahaha (Hong, South Korea)
School of the Art Institute grad Hong Sang-Soo is one of the most prominent writer-directors of the S. Korean New Wave. His latest comedy won the top prize in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar and had critics grumbling that it belonged in the main competition.

9. Road to Nowhere (Hellman, USA)
Described as a “romantic noir,” this new film from Monte Hellman (director of the great Two-Lane Blacktop) is also apparently a movie-within-a-movie that he shot digitally with a newfangled still-camera. Hellman, returning after a too-long absence, has compared it to Last Year at Marienbad.

8. The Strange Case of Angelica (de Oliveira, Portugal)
This turning up is almost a certainty as the CIFF has shown 101 year old(!) Portugese master Manoel de Oliveira a lot of love in recent years, regularly screening his films since the late nineties. The Strange Case of Angelica premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes where it found many admirers. Adding to the interest is the fact that it’s Oliveira’s first time working with CGI.

7. Tree of Life (Malick, USA)
Brad Pitt and Sean Penn play father and son (though probably don’t share screen time) in a drama set in both the 1950s and the present day. If the last couple films by the reclusive, secretive Terrence Malick are anything to go by, this will probably open in New York and L.A. on Christmas Day, then have its Chicago premiere in early 2011.

6. Carlos (Assayas, France)
A five and a half hour epic period piece about the true exploits of left-wing celebrity/terrorist “Carlos the Jackal,” this would seem to be an abrupt about-face from Olivier Assayas’ last film, the sublime family drama Summer Hours. Originally made for French television, Carlos screened out of competition at Cannes where some critics claimed it was the electrifying highlight of the entire festival. Could conceivably play CIFF in one, two or three parts.

5. The Grandmaster (Wong, Hong Kong)
Wong Kar-Wai’s return to filmmaking in Hong Kong after taking a stab at an American indie (2007’s minor My Blueberry Nights) is a biopic of Bruce Lee’s kung-fu teacher, Ip Man. The all-star cast is headed by Wong’s favorite leading man, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, who has said this will be a “real kung-fu film” with “many action scenes.” This is an intriguing prospect from the most romantic filmmaker in the world.

4. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong, Thailand)
The latest from another SAIC alumnus, Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul, who specializes in experimental/narrative hybrids. Joe made an auspicious debut with Mysterious Obect at Noon in 2000 and has only gone from strength to strength with each subsequent feature. Uncle Boonmee, a work of magical realism about the deathbed visions of the titular character, wowed ’em at Cannes where it converted previous skeptics and walked off with the Palm d’Or.

3. The Social Network (Fincher, USA)
Or “Facebook: The Movie.” If anyone can make a great film about the founding of a website, it’s David Fincher whose pioneering work with digital cinema in Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button established him as a Hollywood innovator and maverick in the tradition of F.W. Murnau, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick.

2. Certified Copy (Kiarostami, France/Italy)
More often than not, when a beloved auteur leaves his native country to make a film in International Co-production-land, the results are muddled and unsatisfying. That doesn’t seem to be the case with the shot-in-Italy, Juliette Binoche-starring Certified Copy, which has been hailed as a return to form of sorts for Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami. (He’s working in 35mm again after having spent most of the past decade experimenting with digital video.) This nabbed Binoche a Best Actress award at Cannes and was favorably compared in some quarters to Roberto Rossellini’s masterpiece Viaggio in Italia.

1. The Assassin (Hou, Taiwan)
Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s long rumored martial arts film starring Shu Qi and Chang Chen. This is probably a pipe dream as news of the project was first announced years ago but reports of the film actually going into production have never materialized. Still, one must dream.


Ozu on Blu

I will probably always remember 2010 as the year I finally went crazy, going from the kind of person who has a mere “DVD collection” to the owner of a massive “home video library.” With a tinge of self-justification, I offer two reasons for this: 1) This was the year I went from teaching film studies part-time to teaching film studies full-time. I figure I might as well purchase (as opposed to rent) any movie I show in class since I will undoubtedly be showing it again in many more future classes. And 2) Last Christmas my wife generously bestowed upon me a multi-region Blu-ray player capable of playing any Blu-ray disc or DVD manufactured anywhere in the world. Now what’s the point of having such a fancy-schmancy piece of equipment if I don’t take advantage of it by purchasing a bunch of Blu-ray discs and DVD from Europe, Asia and Australia, hmmm? The subject of this blog post concerns recent Blu-ray releases from the British Film Institute that to my mind completely justify owning said multi-region player.

Oftentimes when I remark to friends, family or students that I recently watched an older movie (for instance, The Searchers) on Blu-ray, the response is something along the lines of an incredulous, “But why do you need to see that in HD when it wasn’t even shot on HD?” This invariably leads to me giving a brief lecture on the fact that the image resolution of 35mm film is superior to high definition digital (it contains twice as much visual information) and that the image resolution of HD is likewise superior to “standard definition” video. Therefore watching a Blu-ray disc of a movie shot in 35mm from any year is going to bring the home viewer much closer to the experience of seeing the “real thing” (i.e. what you see in the theater) than watching a standard def DVD of the same movie; you are literally seeing more of the original image.

Consumer confusion over what one is ultimately getting out of these various formats is understandable though, especially when most distributors appear reticent to remaster their older catalog titles in HD and release them on the brave new Blu-ray format. Even the Criterion Collection, a national treasure if ever that could be said about a home video distributor and a company that has already given the world quite a few exemplary Blu-ray releases, has helped to perpetuate the myth that only movies that can be said to be visually spectacular benefit from the Blu-ray treatment; some of the most significant Criterion releases of the year are older titles that have unfortunately been given standard DVD releases only, including Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy, Make Way for Tomorrow and a new trio of Josef Von Sternberg silents.

Therefore I am especially grateful to the BFI for throwing down the gauntlet with Blu-ray releases of four films by Yasujiro Ozu. Although Ozu is arguably the greatest of all Japanese directors and there is a near-critical consensus that his films are transcendentally uplifting in a way that is purely cinematic, his filmmaking art also has the reputation of being, how shall I say, visually modest. The four BFI releases, The Only Son, Late Spring, Early Summer and Tokyo Story, were all made between 1936 and 1953, shot on black and white film stock in the square “Academy ratio” and use lighting set-ups and camera lenses that were standard for the time. What’s more, Ozu’s movies are notorious for a pronounced lack of moving camera (nearly all of his shots are taken from a static low angle) and a unique use of cutaway shots to seemingly random exteriors in place of the dissolves, fades and other optical effects that traditionally mark a transition between scenes. So for those wondering how much these titles can possibly benefit from an HD upgrade, the answer is, well, a hell of a lot.

These BFI releases come as three separate packages, each spanning two discs, in which one of the director’s postwar masterpieces (Late Spring, Early Summer and Tokyo Story) is presented on Blu-ray and bundled together with a standard DVD version of an earlier, thematically similar prewar work (The Only Son, What Did the Lady Forget? and The Brothers and Sisters of The Toda Family). (As Ozu obsessively revisited the same themes, this was quite easy to do.) The Late Spring release has the added bonus of containing The Only Son, not coincidentally the best of the earlier films, on Blu-ray as well standard DVD. Come December, this Late Spring / The Only Son Blu-ray disc will almost surely be at the top of my list of the best home video releases of the year.

For me, the most revelatory aspect of these new transfers is how much they changed my perception of Ozu’s masterful tonal use of black and white. Having seen all of the later films previously on standard DVD, I was always under the mistaken impression that Ozu’s movies were exceptionally gray in tone. Now, with the increased tonal range of Blu-ray, we are able to see greater contrast between tones than ever before. Blacks especially appear inkier, deeper and richer. Across all of the films, the dark scenes appear much darker, in a way that is more pleasing to the eye and truer to the original source material, than what we’ve seen in previous home video incarnations. The increased clarity of the Blu-ray format leads to increased detail in the image as well; I was amazed by the highlights in Setsuko Hara’s hair, for instance, in certain close-ups from Late Spring where she appears dramatically backlit.

Of course, increased clarity also means an increase in the amount of visible damage to the original film elements from which these transfers were made. There are vertical hairline scratches running through all of the films that the BFI has chosen wisely not to try and eliminate. As one might expect, the oldest film of the bunch, The Only Son, has the most damage (but nothing more than what you would see watching an old 35mm print). An example of too much digital clean-up can be found in fellow English label ITV’s Blu-ray disc of Brief Encounter from a couple years ago; that problematic release suffered from an excessive use of “digital noise reduction,” leading to an image that appears superficially smooth and polished but also has less clarity overall and is not an accurate representation of the film’s true look. (This is the same problem record labels face when restoring audio recordings from the early 20th century; it is not possible to reduce “tape hiss” without also removing room tone and thus part of the music as well.)

But finally, none of the remarkable clarity, detail and contrast of these images would matter if not for the remarkable beauty of the films themselves. For many, the highlight of these releases will be 1953’s Tokyo Story, a film that has somewhat ironically become regarded as the greatest Japanese movie ever made. Unlike the post-war masterpieces of Ozu’s compatriots Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi, Tokyo Story did not receive distribution in the west until the 1970s. Most film distributors thought Ozu’s movie was “too Japanese” and would not be easily understood outside of its native country. Today, this is almost difficult to comprehend as Tokyo Story seems as timeless and universal as the plays of William Shakespeare. In contrast to Mizoguchi and Kurosawa, who specialized in period films, Ozu made contemporary movies almost exclusively. He also examined the same central theme repeatedly, the conflict between generations within the contemporary Japanese family. Tokyo Story, for instance, is about an elderly Japanese couple who leave their small hometown of Onomichi to visit their grown-up children in Tokyo. Upon arrival, they find that their children don’t have much time to spend with them and even treat their parents as if they are a nuisance.

What’s perhaps most amazing about the film is the way Ozu takes pains to extend sympathy toward all of the characters in the film, even the most ungrateful of the couple’s children, so that their attitudes seem understandable and indeed inevitable. This lends Tokyo Story a bittersweet tone that is crystallized in the film’s famous climactic moment: one heartbroken character looks at another and asks, “Isn’t life disappointing?” The response comes from the aforementioned Setsuko Hara, a terrific actress whose often-smiling countenance seems to radiate goodness. “Yes,” Ms. Hara, says with resignation. “I’m afraid it is.”

In this moment Ozu seems to acknowledge the inherent sadness of life — that families are destined to disintegrate and that all things must pass. And yet there is nothing maudlin about the scene, which is directed, like many of Ozu’s finest, with exquisite understatement; instead, it represents a clear-eyed understanding of the ebb and flow of life. This is what Ozu’s powerful, transformative art is all about. These are films that have changed my life and how I relate to my own parents. These films deserve the Blu-ray treatment because they are priceless treasures from the golden age of Japanese cinema and the best movies deserve to be seen on home video in the best possible quality. For those unfamiliar with Ozu’s work, these BFI Blu-rays offer an ideal introduction and I would heartily recommend a blind buy.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Everyone Else (Ade)
2. Dillinger is Dead (Ferreri)
3. Private Fears in Public Places (Resnais)
4. Late Spring (Ozu)
5. Seven Men From Now (Boetticher)
6. Shutter Island (Scorsese)
7. The Only Son (Ozu)
8. The Kids Are All Right (Cholodenko)
9. The Wolfman (Johnston)
10. The Thin Blue Line (Morris)


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