Archive for January, 2010

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Brief Musings: Love Your Spouse!

January 3, 2010

It’s great when you watch two movies by different filmmakers and from different times coincidentally one after the other and they share the same themes. The male species gets a bit of a beating in Master of the House (1925) via a rather unsubtle and one-dimensional rendering of a lower-middle class patriarch. The husband is an awful tyrant for half the film, in almost the most shallow depiction of the term possible, forcing the viewer to sympathise with the Lillian Gish-like wife character. It’s more of a pity-party, really. Things improve when family members put him through an involuntary rehabilitation in order to make him realise how much he takes his wife for granted. This process goes for about 50 minutes and covers a fairly large and believable span of time in terms of story. By the end he appreciates his wife again and at the same time gets an offer to go back into business. Everyone’s happy!

Ozu’s The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice (1952) has the wife be the selfish, unappreciative spouse. This is definitely the better film, certainly for the majority of its length. Where Dreyer’s silent was simple, melodramatic, and spelled out everything in its dialogue title cards, Ozu’s is full of nuance and texture and things left unexplained. Of course, here arranged marriage is studied, and so too its place in increasingly modernised postwar Tokyo. Perhaps less believable, even naïve, is this wife’s change to a more understanding spouse. All it takes is one shared dish, that in the film’s title, for her to reach the awakening. But like Dreyer, Ozu optimistically hopes the viewer will consider the story in relation to his own family life. I admire this with Ozu and the film itself, despite my own more cynical view (not that I know a thing about marriage). Ozu’s “happy ending” seems to form naturally and beautifully from his wonderfully humanistic soul, whereas that of Master of the House is somewhat cheesy and contrived, though the message does not feel false.

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My December in Review

January 3, 2010

I saw less this month, perhaps due to the heat and Christmas rubbish, and overall I’d say my top list turned out quite a bit worse than in November (which was a wonderful month of viewing). It was a very Australian month for me; three of the top ten are at least partly from this country, one satisfying rewatch, and an hilarious five out of the six worst films I saw are also Australian. Clearly scraping the bottom of the barrel in my attempt to see every remotely worthwhile Aussie picture.

Note: This entry is extremely late. Much of it was written at the start of the year. Some writeups are lacking for poor memory.

Number of films watched in total: 73
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10. ‘Where the Wild Things Are’
Spike Jonze | USA | 2009 | 101 mins 

Almost all of the so-called flaws I’ve read this film possesses, I believe, can be justified under its adolescent subjectivity. Max’s messy, shifting dreamworld symbolisation (do the wild things represent fragments of his emotional being, or the people in his life?) works precisely like in a dream, and more importantly, as a kid’s mind does. Hence also the film’s highly emotional (some would say emo) state. Few films have observed adolescence so reverently, and the final scene reaches the sublime with a clear yet unspoken understanding; Max is growing up.
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9. ‘Bright Star’
Jane Campion | UK/Australia | 2009 | 119 mins 

Campion returns to form after the interminably miserable The Portrait of a Lady (1996), screwy mess that was Holy Smoke (1999), and ridiculous misfire In the Cut (2003) with this focussed, incredibly romantic love story. It’s practically irrelevant that it concerns real-life poet John Keats, for it avoids the tropes of a banal biopic period piece. One thing the aforementioned efforts all shared with Campion’s earlier masterworks was a great performance by their respective female leads, and Abbie Cornish joins their ranks here.
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8. ‘The Cloud-Capped Star’
Ritwik Ghatak | India | 1960 | 126 mins 

Ghatak is clearly a humanist filmmaker in the same vein as Ozu but formally perhaps a touch more Sirkian, though the three share the skill for balancing family critique with broader issues concerning society. This is not a film where blame is easily placed, and it fact it’s more interested in giving an account or painting a portrait of life under the conditions which arose from the partition of Bengal. Excellent use of sound and lighting.
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7. ‘Three Blind Mice’
Matthew Newton | Australia | 2008 | 94 mins 

Newton’s alive, unpredictable debut is clearly fashioned after the great Cassavetes, namely Husbands (1970) and Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky (1976), with a helping of The Last Detail (1973), and the result is a work absolutely singular in the annals of Australian cinema. Each new character is broken free from his or her inital one-note rendering and becomes a full-blown human being, much to our surprise (eg. Bud Tingwell is introduced, as with most of his film roles which were more like cameos, as Bud Tingwell, but his following scene has him at his most authentically human). A blast.
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6. ‘Colossal Youth’
Pedro Costa | Portugal/France | 2006 | 155 mins 

Some shots in this elliptical portrait of quiet despair and dislocation are so dystopian and otherworldy that it feels like the most haunting ghost story you’ve ever seen. The drama is whittled down to the barest, most quotidian of communication and activity, with real people performing their own stories (with some prodding). The result is suitably difficult to watch but undoubtedly adept at conveying the glacial experience of these Cape Verdean immigrants through loaded compositions and lighting.
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5. ‘Battle in Heaven’
Carlos Reygadas | Mexico | 2005 | 98 mins 

I’m not convinced from one viewing that this is particularly strong in any non-formal sense, but the camerawork and attention to sound here is extraordinary. The humidity of the air and the docile laziness of the main character is mirrored in the flawed crawl of Reygadas’ camera. Truly a sensory experience. The story contains some very interesting parallels, particularly in its careful depiction of sex and politics.
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4. ‘Street of Shame’
Kenji Mizoguchi | Japan | 1956 | 87 mins 

The American title Street of Shame is fairly inaccurate, unless taken ironically, and even then it doesn’t account for the many opposing views on prostitution at work in the one film. Mizoguchi acknowledges both the securities and the degradation of the trade in their many facets via a shared exploration of the girls working for a brothel called Dreamland. Naturally, if he isn’t completely in support of the Anti-Prostitution Bill, he’s certainly opposed to the exploitation of these women in a political and economic sense, but more importantly he laments the abasement and derision society treats them with, even tragically that coming from their own loved ones.
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3. ‘There’s Always Tomorrow’
Douglas Sirk | USA | 1956 | 84 mins 

I’ve seen most of Sirk’s pictures, but none have been as fine as this. The baggage MacMurray and Stanwyck bring from Double Indemnity (1944) adds resonance to their reunion here, and both are superb maintaining a friendly composure with unspoken yearning underneath. Sirk isn’t so kind to the nuclear family, the members of which are quick indeed to accuse the patriarch and generally take him for granted until the ironic happy ending. Excellent staging and lighting make a melodramatic impact less lurid than in some of his films.
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2. ‘Two Lovers’
James Gray | USA | 2008 | 110 mins 

Gray drops the tired genre elements of his previous films and fixates on the melodrama, expertly realised in classic, meaningful mise-en-scène. Definitely the best film variation on Dostoyevsky’s White Nights tale; the bluntness of the eventual rejection in Bresson’s and Visconti’s tellings, though effective as an ironic sledgehammer, is here instead a painful but inevitable turn of events. Two Lovers appeals to the lover of 50’s melodrama in me, recalling Nick Ray and Douglas Sirk; its ending is awfully similar to that of There’s Always Tomorrow, which by coincidence I had watched the night before. A second viewing of this film reveals just how precisely scripted and flawlessly realised it is.
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1. ‘Miraculous Virgin’
Stefan Uher | Czechoslovakia | 1967 | 110 mins 

Whoa. Requires another viewing.

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Runners-Up 

Watership Down (1987, Rosen)
Bigger Than Life (1956, Ray)

Morvern Callar (2002, Ramsay)
Gun Crazy (1950, Lewis)
Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998, Ocelot)
Crumb (1994, Zwigoff)
La Ronde (1950, Ophüls)
Le Corbeau (1943, Clouzot)
The Sun in a Net (1962, Uher)
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Best Rewatches 

Yi Yi (2000, Yang)
In the Mood for Love (2000, Kar-Wai)
No Country for Old Men (2007, Coen Brothers)
Somersault (2004, Shortland)
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Worst 

Harlequin (1980, Wincer)
Patrick (1978, Franklin)
All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006, Levine)
The Coca-Cola Kid (1985, Makavejev)
The Chain Reaction (1980, Barry)
Only the Brave (1994, Kokkinos)
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