Monthly Archives: March 2012

We Were There for “I’m Not There”

Susan Doll has posted an overview of my Facets Night School lecture on Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There from earlier this month on the Facets Features blog. I’m exceedingly grateful to her for including quotes from some of her students who were in attendance concerning their reactions to both the film and my presentation, especially since there were a fair number of walkouts during the screening. (In the best midnight movie tradition, the film proved extremely divisive, with the audience seemingly split between those who found the film a pretentious bore and those who wanted to stick around afterwards to discuss what they found fascinating about it).

You can read the full blog post here:

Facets Features Blog

Chicagoans can catch more Night School screenings between now and April 21st. In particular, I’d like to remind my students that 20 points extra credit is available should they decide to take in any of the remaining sessions. (For more information, visit the extra credit page of your course website.) The full Facets Night School schedule can be found here:

Facets Night School Schedule

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Rear Window (Hitchcock)
2. Control Tower (Miki)
3. The Birds (Hitchcock)
4. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford)
5. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica)
6. Utamaro and His Five Women (Mizoguchi)
7. The Unscrupulous Ones (Guerra)
8. The Phantom Father (Georgescu)
9. Pickpocket (Bresson)
10. Memoirs of an Invisible Man (Carpenter)

The Birds is Still Coming

Last night I had the great pleasure of attending a screening of a gorgeous 35mm print of Alfred Hitchcock’s immortal The Birds. The screening was preceded by a Q&A between star Tippi Hedren and Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz. Hedren, looking foxy in leather pants at age 82(!), regaled the audience with humorous anecdotes about the shoot and her working relationship with the man she still respectfully refers to as “Mister Hitchcock” (in spite of his alleged sexual harassment of her). Hedren has probably attended so many Q&As accompanying screenings of this and Marnie over the years that I’m sure all of her stories can now be timed to the second. However, as this was my first time seeing her talk in person, I found the experience thrilling. My favorite of Hedren’s anecdotes concerned the time she dared question her director about why her character, Melanie Daniels, would travel to the attic alone in The Birds‘ famous climactic scene. Hitch’s reply? “Because I tell you to.”

The screening of The Birds was held at Chicago’s historic Music Box Theatre and, incredibly, admission was free. The screening was hosted by TCM’s Classic Film Festival, which, like a lot of festivals nowadays, is taking its show on the road. Needless to say, all 748 seats in the theater were taken. Here’s hoping the success of the event will bring more such screenings to Chicago in the future and here’s also hoping that the long-rumored release of The Birds on Blu-ray will happen sooner rather than later.

Tippi last night, looking foxy at 82:

My wife, Jill, looking foxy as Tippi last Halloween:

2012 European Union Film Festival Report Card

Me and my History of Cinema class from Harold Washington College before the European Union Film Festival screening of Sleeping Sickness on March 21st. (We bought half the house!)

Over the past 15 years, the European Union Film Festival has become an increasingly valuable lifeline to Chicago-area cinephiles. This unique festival, hosted each year by the Gene Siskel Film Center, offers a diverse selection of new movies from all 27 E.U. countries, virtually all of which are local premieres. It is the best and in many cases only chance Chicagoans will have to catch many of these films on the big screen before they head to their eventual resting place of DVD/blu-ray/online streaming. (Two of my very favorite films to receive Chicago premieres in 2011, The Strange Case of Angelica and Change Nothing, only played theatrically at the E.U. Film Festival and never returned for a regular week-long run anywhere locally at all.) So this year I decided to buy a festival pass and take in more screenings than ever before, which included taking my History of Cinema class from Harold Washington College on a field trip to one of the movies. Below is my report card for the fest with capsule reviews of all five of the films that I saw.

Aita (de Orbe, Spain, 2010)
Grade: A- / 8.6

A centuries-old decaying mansion is the metaphor-rich central location of this fascinating experimental film by Spanish director Jose Maria de Orbe. The house is the site of excavations, restorations, break-ins and a field trip for elementary school children. All the while, the elderly caretaker who lives on the premises engages a priest from the church next door in a series of philosophical conversations. Late at night, images of what looks badly decayed nitrate film are projected on the mansion’s interior walls, evoking the notion that this location is a repository for hundreds of years worth of fading, ghostly memories. A profound meditation on history, cinema, life and death, and a reminder in our digital age of the extreme beauty that can still only result from the marriage of 35mm film and natural light.

Sleeping Sickness (Köhler, Germany, 2011)
Grade: A- / 8.0

Ebbo Velten is a white German doctor appointed by the World Health Organization to combat the title disease in Cameroon. After a series of languidly paced, vaguely unsettling scenes, most of which subtly illustrate the doctor’s condescending attitude towards the locals, the film unexpectedly jumps forward three years in time and shifts its narrative focus to Alex Nzila, a French-born doctor of African descent, sent by the W.H.O. to prepare a report on Velten’s clinic. This powerful, naturalistic drama evokes Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in its portrait of a white man “gone native” but writer/director Ulrich Kohler’s disturbing tale of neocolonialism could have ultimately only been made in the 21st century; the way he masterfully pushes his story in elliptical, consistently surprising directions is likely to make viewers feel as profoundly disoriented as his characters.

The Phantom Father (Georgescu, Romania, 2011)
Grade: B+ / 7.8

The Siskel Center scored a major coup by hosting the U.S. premiere of this new Romanian film by first time feature director Lucian Georgescu based on a short story by American author Barry Gifford (Wild at Heart). The plot details the misadventures of an American professor who travels to Romania to find out information about his father’s mysterious heritage. Along the way he encounters love with a government bureaucrat in a refreshingly sweet, quirky and warm-hearted shaggy dog story that freely mixes the real with the fantastical. This uncommonly assured debut is about a million miles away from the social realism of the so-called “Romanian New Wave” and marks Georgescu as a definite talent to watch.

Madly in Love (Van Mieghem, Belgium, 2010)
Grade: B- / 6.5

Writer/director Hilde Van Mieghem is known as the “first lady of Flemish cinema” and, though I was unfamiliar with her work before my wife chose to see this film based on the Siskel Center’s catalog description, I’m now curious to fill in on what I’ve missed. Madly in Love is a contrived but also witty, visually inventive and very female-centric romantic comedy from Belgium about the love lives of four women: the beautiful, middle-aged actress Judith Miller, her two precocious children, Eva and Michelle, and their promiscuous aunt Barbara. The central idea informing each of the stories here is that true love is only possible after a lot of searching and mistake-making, a refreshing rejoinder to the more puritanical rom-coms coming out of Hollywood. This whimsical concoction features winning performances by an attractive cast and makes contemporary Antwerp look like a fun and quirky place to live.

Tuesday (Kornilios, Greece, 2010)
Grade: D / 4.2

Mike Leigh meets Robert Altman in this low-budget digitally-shot Greek indie, although the end result is much less interesting than that description probably makes it sound. Writer/director Nikos Kornilios supposedly based his screenplay on intensive improv workshops conducted with his actors, and it shows in the worst possible sense: the end result is a typical “web of life” plot mostly revolving around the romantic entanglements of young Athenians where it feels as if the actors had the burden of coming up with their own unmemorable dialogue. In this structurally messy scenario, there are just too many characters, none of whom we learn enough about, other than the fact that they’re having sex, or not having sex, and all crying way, way, way too much.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. El Bolero de Raquel (Delgado)
2. Directed by John Ford (Bogdanovich)
3. Osaka Elegy (Mizoguchi)
4. JSA: Joint Security Area (Park)
5. Sleeping Sickness (Kohler)
6. Ugetsu (Mizoguchi)
7. Sisters of the Gion (Mizoguchi)
8. Madly in Love (Van Mieghem)
9. Directed by John Ford (Bogdanovich)
10. Vengeance (To)

A Blu-ray With Principle

Life Without Principle, the new film from Hong Kong genre specialist Johnnie To, received its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival last fall. Shortly thereafter, U.S. distribution rights were picked up by the Indomina Group, whose website, as of today, states that the film’s release date is still “TBA.” It seems likely that Principle will not receive a theatrical release in the U.S. at all but may be dumped straight to DVD at some unforeseen point in the future. Fortunately, Mega Star, the film’s Hong Kong distributor, already released a superb region-free Blu-ray last month that will almost certainly be making my list of the ten best home video releases of 2012. Not only is it an impeccable HD transfer of a film shot on 35mm, which is beginning to feel more and more like an anomaly, the movie itself is one of Johnnie To’s best and most interesting – one that eschews the gangster movie conventions for which the director is best known in favor of a crime drama/social satire that examines the current global economic crisis from a variety of interesting angles.

The film’s dazzling first act revolves around Teresa (cute Canto-pop sensation Denise Ho), a bank employee who is under relentless pressure from her superiors to sell more investments. After making futile cold calls to potential investors from work, Teresa attempts to sell a high-risk investment to an elderly female walk-in customer who has a “low-risk profile.” Teresa is required by law to audio-tape their conversation, wherein she will explain the risks involved to the customer who is, in turn, supposed to respond to every statement with “I understand completely.” This sequence, which lasts a full ten minutes and involves Teresa and the customer going through the same spiel three times until they get it right, is a remarkable set piece of absurdist comedy. Although Teresa wears an obligatory fake smile and essentially tries to upsell the old woman into gambling on her life savings, To refuses to make her the villain of the piece. Instead we are just as likely to empathize with the employee as we are with the customer because To has been careful to illustrate how all of his characters are furiously pedaling on the same capitalist treadmill.

Who then is to blame for this clusterfuck of greed and corruption? Is it Teresa’s superiors at the bank? To and his team of screenwriters show how the bank makes money off of customer interest, even while those customers lose money by making bad investments through the same bank in an unstable market. (One of the film’s best gags involves a bank customer who is also a loan shark offering Teresa a loan with a lower interest rate than what her own employers will provide.) But To also shows how Hong Kong’s economy is affected by the markets of distant European countries. Hong Kong’s denizens listen to the radio, helpless, as the latest news of the Greek debt crisis and the response by the rest of the European Union causes the local market to rise and fall. To suggests that, in the world of high finance, the principle of the “banality of evil” applies: the buck never stops because everyone rationalizes that their actions are merely a reaction to someone or something else.

In a scenario of remarkable intelligence and complexity, Teresa’s story is but one of several plot strands twining around that of the aformentioned loan shark, a man who is robbed of 5 million dollars after withdrawing it from her bank near the film’s beginning. The other principal characters in Principle are Panther (Lau Ching-Wan), a genial, small-time triad member whose lowly station is directly attributable to his adherence to outmoded codes of honor and loyalty, and Inspector Cheung (Richie Ren), a good-hearted cop whose wife is constantly pestering him to purchase an expensive new condo. Over the course of two days, the various plot strands are drawn ever closer together, which leads to a deftly intercut triple climax that will alter the destinies of each character forever.

Life Without Principle is full of the filmmaking smarts that have made Johnnie To so beloved to cinephiles in the west. The bank scenes feature elegant camera movements, especially the repeated motif of slowly pushing in on a character, which, combined with the gleaming surfaces and monochromatic red/blue color scheme of the set design, suggest a world where everything is perfectly polished and mechanized and nothing is out of place. But To then contrasts these scenes with exterior shots of the urban jungle outside, where teeming hordes of money-mad people struggle to survive. In one inspired scene, we see Panther racing through the streets (that nickname is no lie), looking to borrow money from a former Triad brother who has since turned to making money by recycling cardboard boxes. To also repeatedly punctuates the film with shots of the Hong Kong skyline, where storm clouds constantly seem to be gathering, putting viewers in the mind of the figurative economic storm from which no one is unaffected.

Finally, although he doesn’t appear in the film until after the 33-minute mark, it is Lau Ching-Wan who imbues Life Without Principle with its charming, funky, offbeat soul. Lau, working with Johnnie To for a whopping 18th time (in what is arguably the greatest director/star pairing of contemporary movies), shows off some new colors in an already diverse palate in his creation of the lovable loser Panther. Sporting Hawaiian shirts under 1970s-style blazers, Panther is a frenetic busybody, shoulders permanently hunched, rapidly blinking, always scurrying around and trying to hustle money to help out a “sworn brother.” Panther attempts to cut costs for his boss’ banquet by forcing more chairs together per table at a restaurant and only ordering “healthy” vegetarian meals (because meat is more expensive), which humorously underlines the film’s central, egalitarian notion that everyone, even movie gangsters, are feeling the crunch in these tough economic times.

If Johnnie To is a “crime film specialist” then Life Without Principle is in some ways a typical Johnnie To movie. It’s certainly a film about crime, just probably not in the way that a lot of his fans might expect. And while nothing could be more Johnnie To than that (the man did after all once make a movie titled Expect the Unexpected), perhaps what surprises and impresses the most about this film is the shocking sophistication of its sociological insights. For sheer prescience, the only movie I’ve seen in recent years that can even compare is Godard’s Film Socialisme, another egalitarian film that extends sympathy to all of its characters. “Expect the unexpected” might as well be the motto for To’s entire career, for no other director of the past quarter century has done so much to reinvigorate genre filmmaking by so consistently pushing genre conventions in as many surprising, intelligent and highly personal directions.

The image quality of Mega Star’s Life Without Principle Blu-ray is flawless. The colors are nicely saturated and “pop” in the way that only 35mm color can. Even the occasional white speckles have a quaint charm, reminding us that what we are looking at is the transfer of a film that once ran vertically through a motion picture camera rather than a mere digital-to-digital transfer of pulsating electronic pixels. The soundtrack is likewise robust with a nice separation between the Cantonese dialogue track, the punchy sound effects and a catchy, vocal-heavy musical score (although I regrettably couldn’t take full advantage of the 7.1 sound mix with my 5.1 setup). In conclusion, I was fairly blown away by this Blu-ray, which instantly placed Life Without Principle as one of my top five favorite Johnnie To films (along with The Mission, PTU, Mad Detective and Election). I also feel it would serve as a perfect introduction to his oeuvre for anyone who has heard or read about him but not yet seen his films.

Mega Star’s Blu-ray of Life Without Principle can be purchased from the fine folks at here:

Life Without Principle Rating: 9.9

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Aita (de Orbe)
2. Tuesday (Kornilios)
3. Vidas Secas (dos Santos)
4. Annie Hall (Allen)
5. Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (Berlinger/Sinofsky)
6. Rome Open City (Rossellini)
7. Life Without Principle (To)
8. Dona Barbara (de Fuentes)
9. Pursued (Walsh)
10. The Lady from Shanghai (Welles)

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