Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Tativille's Ten Favorite Female Leads

Tativille's "Ten Favorite Female Leads" has been moved to Ten Best Films.

Tativille's Ten Most Delightful Male Stars (by, Lisa K. Broad)

Lisa's "Ten Most Delightful Male Stars" has been moved to Ten Best Films.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

New Film: WALL·E

The latest from Pixar, the most consistently rewarding of the present-day Hollywood studios, WALL·E both manifests its production company's greatest strengths, namely a striking process-oriented, formal intelligence and a clearly proscribed point-of-view, while presenting a line of argumentation that is by any measure inconsistent. WALL·E is nothing short of an artistic indulgence, in the Reformation-era Roman Catholic sense, made to atone for the sins that it will commit by virtue of its hyphenate co-producer Disney's marketing strategies. Like the codified latter-day practice of giving to off-set one's carbon footprint, a twenty-first century indulgence to be sure, WALL·E's anti-consumerist screed is a rhetorical propitiation for the prominence of its action figures on Wal-Mart endcaps everywhere. Whither an Environmentalist reformation? Who will be its Martin Luther to the Environmental movement's private jet-papist Al Gore?

Writer-director Andrew Stanton's (Finding Nemo, 2003) WALL·E opens eight hundred years into a dystopian future, wherein the earth has been depopulated save for a super-resilient insect and the squat, eponymous robot (pictured above), whose programmed function is to compact and stack - in skyscraper form - the planet's (read: America's) seemingly bottom-less sea of waste. After an introduction to the robot's gleaner's instinct and his lonely bachelor love of Hello, Dolly!, we are introduced to the Apple™-inspired EVE, Pixar's latest sexy new toy - even if she lacks the threat of replacement embodied by Toy Story's Buzz Lightyear (co-scripted by Stanton). EVE, as we will shortly learn, has been dispatched to search for organic life on the once green planet, which she finds among her new robotic suitor's collected treasures. With her discovery, EVE is summoned back to the mother ship, that is, to an enormous space vessel, the Axiom, that has preserved human life beyond our atmosphere for the previous five and seven-hundred years.

Prior to EVE's return, with WALL·E predictably stowing away, the bulk of Stanton's picture occurs without dialogue - as many critics have rightly noted, this is indeed an exceptionally experimental narrative device for an animated work. The exceptions occur on the level of WALL·E's attempts at anthropomorphic utterances - the iconic instance (at least for those who have seen the film's trailer) is his incorrectly accented "Wall-e" - EVE's (still limited) later model speech and most conspicuously, a televised spot from retail powerhouse "Buy and Large," with an on-screen Fred Willard narrating.

The fact that
WALL·E presents actual human beings within the frame of its computer-animated narrative is of no minor significance. This is a film that is making a greater claim for its plausibility than any of its Pixar fore-bearers. WALL·E does not represent a parallel world where for instance monsters generate a city's power by scaring its children (Monsters, Inc., Pete Docter, 2oo1) or where a family of superheroes are forced under cover (The Incredibles, Brad Bird, 2004); rather WALL·E is this world, hundreds of years from now, when our massive Bush-era consumption has left the earth uninhabitable. The form of Stanton's picture is in other words less parable than it is cautionary tale; rats (Ratatouille, Bird, 2007) will never become great chefs but our consumer habits might just imperil the planet's future, the filmmakers' argue. This linking between commerce and environmental degradation, it is worth noting further, makes explicit the prevailing anti-capitalist bias inherent within the modern Environmentalist movement.

Outside the earth's atmosphere, amid the black expanse and violet solar systems that combine to create WALL·E's most visually striking spaces, the aforesaid vessel houses the fattened, static remnants of human civilization, now confined to floating, mobile chairs with their ubiquitous television screens that forever shield their eyes from the rest of the ship, let alone from the cosmos beyond. (When their flat screens malfunction, two separate passengers express surprise that the shuttle contains a pool, which naturally figures prominently in the Axiom's floor plan.) The human figures themselves remain plastic and relatively lifeless when contrasted with the inorganic robotic figures that this inorganic medium successfully anthropomorphizes.

Of course, their reliance upon televisual images marks yet another of WALL·E's prominent inconsistencies. As if it were necessary to remind Stanton and company, WALL·E is after all a work of visual culture, which as it happens has blinded the film's obese human subjects from each other and the world around them, to say nothing of softening their minds to the point that the Captain is required to ask what farming is, and later to explain it to his fellow travelers. It is likewise a children's film in the Disney-Pixar stable, meaning that its introduction into the world of consumption will be followed naturally by scores and scores of cute new toys, which let us be reminded, is precisely what got us into the place we are when WALL·E commences. WALL·E is in other words both disease and cure; an extraordinary moneymaker for its filmmakers' that deigns to critique the very activity that it participates in. If the system allows for it, why not act as both prophet and parasite?

In the end, WALL·E's proscriptions emerge as more measured than many of its diagnoses. The very notion of moderation is by no means controversial, nor is that of stewardship, though its conceit of a fragile biosphere - in contrast to the resiliency of its automated protagonists - remains open to debate. Less modest, however, are the film's closing credits that trace the history of Western art from the Egyptians through Van Gogh, while figuring the renewal that the film's conclusion stipulates. Here, still another Pixar artist has made a claim for his medium's role among the arts, though unlike Bird's Ratatouille which claims that a non-human can create an art worth savoring, Stanton seems to imply that his is the next step in the storied tradition into which he has inserted his robotic figures. Presumably this is great art - an art for the ages - because of its (presumably, again) unassailable politics. WALL·E is nothing if not ambitious.

In many respects this is what is most commendable about both WALL·E and latter-day Pixar filmmaking more broadly. From Toy Story to The Incredibles and Ratatouille to WALL·E, Pixar has introduced a set of auteurist filmmakers within the form of computer animation, and each with their own distinctive point-of-view. John Lasseter's (Toy Story and Cars, 2006) is a cinema of nostalgia, Bird's of a Randian advocacy of excellence and now Stanton's an anti-capitalist, orthodox Environmentalist animated film practice. (Stanton's has naturally connected with the left-leaning critical apparatus in excess of any of his esteemed antecedents.) Moreover, WALL·E manages the texture of subjective film art, or at least of an empathetic filmmaking, with its shy, nerdy protagonist, frequently fixing his viewfinders like slipping spectacles. Whatever one's feeling might be about WALL·E's politics or about the inconsistencies that threaten its rhetorical heft, Stanton does manage to continue his inhuman format's remarkable, sustained propensity to create in the first-person. Stanton is, in other words, one more distinctive voice in Pixar's polyphonic factory.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

7th New York Asian Film Festival: Fine, Totally Fine & Sukiyaki Western Django

Arriving on the final weekend of the 7th New York Asian Film Festival, first-time writer-director (and former janitor) Yosuke Fujita's Fine, Totally Fine (Zenzen daijobu) rates as one of the latest installment's unqualified highlights, and one of the funniest pictures to screen inside or out of the fest midway into 2008. Whereas Hitoshi Matsumoto's previously-screened Dainipponjin found its comedy in its satirization of the classical monster genre, video game aesthetics and reality television - as well as its study of the nation's evolving values - the grist of Fine, Totally Fine's humor is its finely sketched characterizations.

As the focal point of the film's love quadrangle, Kimura Yoshino's Akari is less noteworthy for her allure per se, than for her epic clumsiness, manifesting itself in a pair of remarkably unsuccessful attempts at opening a box of tissues, an equally unaccomplished attempt at sliding a porno mag into an undersized wrapper - along with its catastrophic consequences - and finally, her performance of a routine gesture that ranks as one of the most cringe-worthy inserts in the medium's history.

The first of her three suitors is Hisanobu (Okada Yoshinori), a hospital administrator who hires Akari as a janitor and manages a second older woman who repeatedly claims that he is the only person in the world who is actually nice to her. He really is that nice, which leads him to a rather uncomfortable evening in the latter's flat. Here she assures him that she won't "rape" him; the older lady assures Hisanobu that she has "graduated" from that. Indeed, Hisanobu often plays the straight-man, be it in his encounters with his employees or those with his fellow twenty-nine year-old pal, Teruo (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa).

Teruo, an overgrown adolescent whose dream is to revolutionize the haunted house industry, and whose greatest pleasure seems to be frightening young children, matches Akari punchline for punchline. Teruo's comedy is less purely physical, however, than it is the sum of his expressive responses (frequently to his elaborately-plotted shocks), his bizarre actions - at a business meeting he opts for a spoonful of sugar to a cup of tea or coffee - or more generally, his slow up-take. If anyone could be said to "carry" Fine, Totally Fine, its Arakawa. Of course, Fine, Totally Fine quite liberally shares its humor with its supporting players as well, as for instance Teruo's father whose peak occurs with an improbable, unexpected musical performance during a television broadcast (spoiler: its a love song about rice).

If it were to be said that Fine, Totally Fine was only as strong as its jokes, then Fujita's debut would be a very strong work indeed. However, the film's genuine sweetness and warmth, always worn quite lightly, be it in a gesture of kindness from a little girl (when a moment of discomfort seems imminent) or in the final exchange between Hisanobu and Akari emphasizes the work's depth, and moreover the maturity of a work framing its protagonists movement toward a belated adulthood - all within a Farrelly-esque milieu that matches the Brothers' hard-won affection for its under-dog heroes.

By comparison, Takashi Miike's Sukiyaki Western Django (2007) exemplifies nothing so much as it does a filmmaking that is unwilling to be anything other than sophomoric. Sure there's an intelligence here - Miike's translation of the genre finds an equivalent in the film's phonetic English dialogue, for example - but never is there a sense of stake or depth in Miike's work, to contrast it with Fujita's picture or even the best of Sukiyaki Western Django's most buzz-worthy supporting player Quentin Tarantino (i.e. Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown and Kill Bill, Volume 2). Rather, Miike's soul-less cinema is all about its punchlines - never as funny as Fine, Totally Fine, though they do have a formal side in the director's tightly-framed reveals - targeted toward a public who want nothing more in the world (evidentally, if the Japan Society crowd is any indication) than a bad-ass grandma with an enormous dragon tattoo on her back. This is a film for Miike's audience, for his post-modernist public - a club that most certainly does not include this writer as a member. Yet even for today's small "n" nihilists, Sukiyaki Western Django may not exactly rate as major Miike, if its relatively lazy action set-pieces are any indication.

Friday, June 27, 2008

7th New York Asian Film Festival: Sparrow (co-written with Lisa K. Broad)

Johnnie To's Sparrow (Man jeuk, 2008) is the second of the director's most recent pictures to screen at this year's New York Asian Film Festival - following his supernatural, semi-comic crime thriller Mad Detective (2007) - and though it largely breaks from the director's preferred action idiom, To's very latest is both superior to the fest's other entry and likewise rates as one of the 7th installment's most immediately satisfying works. With Sparrow, To has purportedly created a work with no other intention than to make precisely the film he wanted, which it would seem was a French film from the nouvelle vague era. Not exactly a "New Wave" film, however, as Sparrow's most conspicuous references include Robert Bresson's Pickpocket (1959) and Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) rather than say the films of Truffaut or Godard. In sum, To's latest is a film made in the broader spirit of the era, cobbling together a series of allusions connected by their mutual period and national context, and most importantly, by the director's unmistakable affections.

Sparrow opens with the eponymous animal fluttering into the spartan Hong Kong flat of the perpetually grinning Kei (Simon Yam). As such, To immediately commences with his sequence of references by alluding to Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samuraï (1967), whose 1970 Le Cercle rouge, importantly, the Hong Kong director plans to remake for a 2009 release. Kei, as we will discover in the following scene, is a pickpocket, prompting the aforesaid Bresson paean: specifically, To alludes to the balletic, train-bound theft that earlier marked the French director's perfecting of (action) film editing. Yet, both of the opening sequences are imprinted with a lightness that is at once incommensurate with its Melville and Bresson sources and also perfectly at home in the To film; the song-and-dance sequence of Demy feels eminent throughout - no doubt thanks to the Michel Legrand-style score which Termite Artist R. Emmet Sweeney noted following the screening.

While there are other obvious allusions worth noting, from a pair of set pieces utilizing ballons - think the recently re-fabricated The Red Balloon - to the Umbrellas of Cherbourg denouement, Sparrows remains more than the sum of its references. For one, this is a film of unsurpassed tactility, registering in the bird's light feet on Lam's hand, the razor blades that the jovial pickpockets hide on their tongues, the spikes driven into Kei's hand or the female lead's (Kelly Lin) smooth touch of another's hand. Like the heightened abilities of Bresson's Dostoevsky-inflected lead, To's players manifest a similarly magnified sensitivity, which the director routinely emphasizes in his precise mise-en-scène. While Sparrow may largely lack the action set pieces of say an Exiled (2006), To's filmmaking is exceedingly skilled as always, mixing the director's commonly mobile takes with a profusion of disparate angles (many of which favor an overhead position).

Speaking of set pieces, it makes a good deal of sense that To would favor relatively discrete blocks of narrative given the picture's two year gestation period - not that To's more rapidly-completed works possess a markedly different character. Consequently, it is also at this level that those things which most recommend the superb Sparrow become evident: as for instance the film's commendable light comedy, which can be witnessed in a pair of fine elevator-based set-ups. In other words, while Sparrow may be more than the sum of its references, it very much remains (in the best sense) a sum of its parts.

In the above respect, Sparrow does accord within To's traditional practice. On the level of theme, likewise, we can further see its explanatory value, particularly in his latest's emphasis on game-play (a key theme in many of the director's films, including his sterling 1998 A Hero Never Dies). Here, To's concluding shootout is replaced with what amounts to a contest of skill, centering on the protagonists' profession, with the film's beautiful female lead as the ultimate prize. In this extraordinary passage, the libidinal and violent are replaced by the game, which retroactively confirm the significance of this theme across the director's corpus. His is a cinema of prowess, where his players (within the director's equally achieved mise-en-scène) are forever called upon to show their level of skill, be it in his generically-prompted shootouts or in Sparrow's substitute 'game.'

Though singular on the level of narrative, Sparrow nevertheless emerges as central to To's craft as a whole; the film's differences reinforce the film's essential similarities to the director's body of work.

Sparrow screens at the IFC Film Center in lower Manhattan on Wednesday, July 2nd at 9:40 PM.

Update: See the aforementioned Sweeney's analysis here. As always, Rob's post is exceedingly well-written and insightful; note especially his underlining of Hong Kong's centrality to Sparrow (a point we forgot to mention). If there is a theme to the 7th NYAFF thus far, it would seem to be its selections' love affairs with the continent's highly photogenic cities.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

7th New York Asian Film Festival: Dainipponjin (by, Lisa K. Broad)

The charming Superhero mockumentary Dainipponjin (Hitoshi Matsumoto, 2007) opens with a wistful ode to ode to the compact umbrella, which despite its diminutive size, is able to grow large and shield its owner in an hour of need. Dai-Sato, played by writer-director Matsumoto, has a particular fondness for expanding objects because they remind him of himself; in his role as superhero Dainipponjin (a.k.a. Big Japan Man) he too must grow to several times his size to protect Japan from monstrous “baddies.” Throughout the film mild-mannered Dai-Sato is shadowed by an unseen cameraman/interviewer who attempts to get a sense of Dai-Sato’s life as a 6th generation Dainipponjin. It quickly becomes apparent that the superhero’s life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Dai-Sato lives in a rundown shack whose gate is defaced by graffiti and heckling notes. As the filmmaker follows Dai-Sato inside, his camera lingers on the overgrown lawn and rundown child’s swing set that hint at Dai-Sato’s troubled domestic life. Dai-Sato longs for the days of his grandfather’s reign when baddies were plentiful and Superheroes were idolized by children and respected by adults. When we finally witness Dai-Sato’s transformation into Dainipponjin, it is preceded by a shabby religious ceremony in an outbuilding of a local power plant. The presence in the background of a sheepish looking employee wearing a windbreaker illustrates with comic precision how much the lot of the superhero has declined since golden era. Later, in a very funny sequence we meet Dai-Sato’s senile grandfather who escapes from his nursing home, transforms into diaper clad giant, and wreaks havoc in an attempt to reclaim his youth.

In terms of its tone and subject-matter Dainipponjin is very much of its moment. It shares The Incredibles’ (Brad Bird, 2004) interest in the everyday logistics of super-heroism, while also partaking in a gentler version of the cringe comedy made popular by television shows like The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Unlike the often unlikable protagonists portrayed by Ricky Gervais and Larry David, Matsumoto is a thoroughly cuddly sort who is devoted to his housecat and proudly takes his young daughter to visit the bunny rabbits at the petting zoo. Stylistically, Dainipponjin is intensely heterogeneous. The handheld interview segments which consist mostly of static long-takes and following shots derive much of their droll humor from the juxtaposition of foreground and background action. The sequences where Dai-Sato transforms into Dainjipponjin parody the rapid montage style and pulsing techno music of contemporary action films, while the monster fights are rendered in the idiom of video games (before each battle a dossier flashes onscreen to highlight each Baddie’s powers and weaknesses). A giddy coda section featuring the American “Super Justice” Family makes whimsical use of antiquated models, reveling in the current nostalgia for pre-CGI effects evinced by Michel Gondry’s similarly funny and poignant Be Kind Rewind (2008).

Dainipponjin screens at the Japan Society in Midtown Manhattan, Friday, July 4 at 2:30 PM.