08 April 2011

repurposing, again

As I moved to Japan, this blog reassume some of its former duties in documenting the interesting bits of life. If I see a good movie, I might write something about that here too, though.

Life since Sunday in brief:

Flight from O'Hare to Frankfurt, which is the largest, most desolate airport ever. It's got three restaurants. In the whole enormous place. I spent most of my six hours sleeping on a bench in McDonalds. It was raining, so I didn't feel like trying to get to town and back.

Flight from Frankfurt to Tokyo-Narita, with a stopover in Seoul to change crews; Lufthansa is paranoid about letting their people go to Tokyo, even though they get a pretty serious dose of radiation every time they fly. That's ok, though; Korea has nice mountains to look at as you fly over. Significantly more interesting than Canada or Siberia, at least.

I met Mr. Sato, my regional branch manager, and a couple more teachers at Narita, and we took a bus to another airport, from which we flew to Akita, which is in northwest Honshu (the main island). It's a lot like Milwaukee, except they've still got snow. From Akita, we took a bus to Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, where I am currently for training.

Morioka is a nice little city, with a good balance of chaos and organization. It's small enough that you can walk pretty much everywhere in 20 min or so, but large enough to have lots of places to eat and such.

Training is amusing; our trainer keeps the energy up and the humor rolling. It's mostly pretty useful, too, which is nice. Interac is a very practical company. In the mean time, I'm slowly learning the ins and outs of living in Japan. My Japanese is crap, which is a hindrance, but actually makes it less stressful than France, somehow. I think it'd be different if I went back there without a language pledge, though. In the mean time, I'm eating a lot of things I can't identify. They're mostly pretty good, though, so I'm not worried.

Last night, we did have an aftershock, which was not very big, but which shut off the power until this afternoon, which was particularly annoying. I really need to shave; this morning we still had no water or light. The earthquake itself was kind of interesting; just a little swaying.

Soon my permanent living situation and car will get figured out, which will be nice. This hotel room is really tiny, and I really want to unpack and clean out my luggage; my french press broke and one of my tea caddies got opened in transit, so it's a mess.

I'll put up some photos later; right now I'm off to dinner.

04 February 2011

Some thoughts on Psycho

I wrote the following in response to this article, and thought it was worth publishing as more than just a comment. Sorry about the lack of attention; if I ever remember my brilliant theory about Persona, I'll write it down and post it here next time, like I should have before. My bad.

In the history of film, Psycho is always spoken of as a turning point in the horror genre. It was, in two ways: one, it humanized the antagonist; and two, it manipulated the audience into shocking scream moments (e.g. the shower scene). This isn't really inherently good or bad — nor are the horror films that preceded it — but significantly informs the genre ever since.
Looking back, it's a little unbelievable to me that this shot wasn't in color.
It has gone two ways, for each of Psycho's innovations: a string of films that humanize the antagonist in order to lead the audience to investigate the darkness in themselves (maybe Silence of the Lambs) and slasher films and scream fests that abandon the effort to be good films to the effort to be scary, to the detriment of the genre (Texas Chainsaw Massacre). That is not to say films must be wholly one or the other (Silence of the Lambs certainly has its screams), but they do tend to one or the other. This film (from the review; it looks too bad to see) looks to fall in the middle, with a tendency towards the scream, if not the gore.

A more interesting genre is following from the humanization of the antagonist, towards a juxtaposition of the antagonist as an antihero. Interview with the Vampire is the earliest that comes to mind (though obviously the Anne Rice book came prior), a clear break with previous vampire movies (Nosferatu (both), Vampyr, Dracula*, et al), borne out in those that followed (Underworld (all), Van Helsing, The Vampire Diaries, True Blood, Twilight). These movies and shows may have a lot less respect than those that went before, but I think that is due more to a failure in the coexistence of money and art. In terms of narrative space, there's a lot more possibility that a mere evil being that must be killed. Honestly, the plot of Nosferatu or Vampyr is too simple and dull for the more demanding audience of today (not that they are not great films).

When the tendency of the humanization of the antagonist leads to proper antiheroes, who are no longer quite antagonists, and fall outside the realm of horror, we find all variety of ingenious cinema. House, Mad Men, The Hurt Locker, The Social Network – most of cinema today owes a debt to Psycho. For better and worse.

* Despite writing about it, I don't think I've ever seen Dracula. I'm sure I'll rectify that sooner or later; in the mean time, I'm reasonably sure the assertion holds.

26 October 2010


Sorry it's been a while; I've been busy, though I've made notes of a couple of things to write about here, which will hopefully appear soon.

In any case: Rubicon. To be honest, I had no idea what the title was referring to when I first came across it, and assumed it was more bad summer TV, and so disregarded it until recently. For those similarly ignorant (most of us, I suspect), the Rubicon is a river in Italy which demarcated the area in which Caesar was allowed to move with his army. In crossing the Rubicon, he and his troops were in breach of Roman law. They did so anyway to sack Rome so he could become Emperor. Thus, "crossing the Rubicon" is passing the point of no return, from which no retreat is possible.

Rubicon the third effort from AMC after the much-acclaimed Mad Men (which I follow) and slightly less so Breaking Bad (which I don't). At base, it is another spy thriller, a form that has succeeded much better on the big screen than the small, due to the difficulty of finding an antagonist worthy of a full-season plot. Even in good spy shows like J.J. Abrams Alias, these usually turn into criminal organizations. These are not terrorist groups supporting a cause, or vast drug gangs like those in Mexico at the moment, but rather rich and polished criminal organizations in it for the money, kind of stateless anti-CIAs. In TV, they usually end up as shallow plot devices (see Alias's K-Directorate et al, Chuck's Fulcrum and Ring), though in the movies, they occasionally rise above their form (see SPECTRE in Quantum of Solace—though not in most earlier Bonds). The form of a movie also allows simpler, more commonplace and believable antagonists, such as those in the Bourne movies, or even The Green Zone or Syriana or in a comedic turn, The A-Team.

Into this morass, Rubicon chooses its steps carefully, aware of both the necessities and weaknesses of the genre. It accepts that an antagonistic organization is necessary for the plot, but works hard to make it avoid cliché. This takes the form of a corrupt conspiracy of seven men in positions of power manipulating and profiting from world events. Slowly, the show uncovers their motivations and means; they are not simply "evil", but rationally malignant people. Unpleasant, yes, but believable.

The protagonists are also chosen carefully and uniquely. While it is not the first time intelligence analysts in New York have provided both heroes and corruption (see Three Days of the Condor—or don't; it's bad), it is the first time action has been so resoundingly eschewed in the spy genre. Seriously, fewer people die in the first season than in a matter of seconds in Alias, Chuck, Undercovers, Nikita, and the like. Instead, the drama comes from the analysis of intelligence, putting together the puzzles—quite literally in the pilot—and searching for the truth behind events. The resulting plots, though "slower", i.e. less action-filled, are equally as tense as The Hurt Locker or Hawaii Five-0, and significantly more engrossing.

Acting, direction, and photography are all excellent; of particular note is Jessica Collins for her depiction of Maggie, the protagonist Will's assistant at the American Policy Institute. The nuance she brings to a part that could have been quite simple is striking, as is her mastery of the use of small movements to evoke a torrent of emotion. The result is a strange magnetism, not quite idealistic charisma, but more aesthetic admiration. She's my current pick for a rising star in the industry; my last was Carey Mulligan after seeing her in the Doctor Who episode "Blink" (a masterpiece in its own right), who went on to receive an Oscar nod for An Education (supporting, not leading; somehow the better actresses always end up there). I expect as much for Collins; she has rare talent. Other notable performances are Arliss Howard for his depiction of Kale Ingram, the head of operations at API and the toughest and most striking gay character to date, and Michael Cristofer as Truxton Spangler, the shady head of API.
Jessica Collins (Maggie Young), James Badge Dale (Will Travers), and Arliss Howard (Kale Ingram)
I will not spoil the plot, but merely ask you to watch the pilot if any of this piques your interest. If you have any interest in spy or conspiracy shows, or merely good television, you will not be disappointed, provided you can adapt to the unique pacing. The writing is the best on television at the moment, and the show is wholly worthwhile, even if it's the only one you follow (since the end of Lost, of course). The question of the moment is whether AMC will pick the show up for another season. Reviews were very good, but ratings were middling, so its future depends on how it compares to the shows AMC is planning for next year, though the producer has hope. The passion of the audience has proven to have some influence though (see the Chuck-Subway affair), and the Rubicon audience (and cast) are certainly passionate. While we're waiting for news, go check it out. Even as a standalone, the first season is exceptional television.

Note: I know this review is missing a reference to The American, which is similar in theme, manner, and reviews—even poster art. Unfortunately, I missed it in theaters, but will see it when it comes out on DVD, and maybe post an update here.

26 August 2010


Whether through the influence of what I have been watching, or my own devices, a sense of malaise has crept in. Happily, I happened to watch Krzysztof Kieslowski's Blue (1993), from his Three Colors trilogy, at the perfectly opportune time.

This the first film of Kieslowski I have seen; I came upon it through a combination of recommendations. First, I saw that Corliss and Schickel put his Dekalog in the All-Time Top 100 Movies; then I read that Ebert said he is "one of the filmmakers I would turn to for consolation if I learned I was dying, or to laugh with on finding I would live after all;" then I read that Kubrik called the Dekalog the only masterpiece made during his lifetime; then I came across the Trois couleurs, which are happily mostly in French and one of which features the enchanting Juliette Binoche.

The plot begins where countless other movies end: death. A woman loses her husband and daughter, and must go on living. This is not another depressing indie, though; this is a film about why we live. Julie is initially destroyed and empty, but we eventually see a bit of who she must have been before the accident.

Motivation is a horrendously complicated subject. Philosophy on the subject leads to religion or nihilism (Aristotle or Nietzsche, as Alasdair MacIntyre put it). There are alternatives, such as economics or whatever Heidegger is doing, but the subject still kills more questions than it answers. Somehow, Kieslowski neatly avoids it all, while showing the underlying dynamic reality. To try and explain it further would be to relapse into philosophy, which would be a disservice to his work. Instead, just see the film. It will make you glad to be alive.

*     *     *

Other things I've been watching lately:

Backyard (2009): A movie about the enormous number of rapes and murders of women in Juarez. Important, but seriously depressing.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928): Dreyer's crowning achievement, apparently. I'd seen Vampyr (1932) earlier, and though that was nicer in terms of the narrative (if a little simplistic), but the angles in Joan of Arc are amazing. He's incredibly bold, with a lot of slanted close-ups of her face, shots cutting people off at mid-chest, flipping up-side down shots, and more. The story is predictable, but the camerawork amazing.

Beauty and the Beast (1946): The arms are disturbing, and the acting/casting seemed a little off. The Beast's costume was excellent, though; very wookie before wookies.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009): Swedish, excellent. Great acting, good story telling. Not Bergman, but worthy of the country, at least. A little violent and disturbing (more rapes and murders – not sure how this keeps coming up). Another supposedly good Swedish film on my list to watch: Let the Right One In (getting an American remake, apparently).

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010): Better than I expected; Jake Gyllenhaal was not as miscast as it seemed, and Gemma Arterton was pleasant. Fluff, but decent fluff.

Salt (2010): I hate Angelina for her PR, and don't think she's that good of an actress, but she can carry an action flick. Apt timing, too, with recent revelations about Russian spies who have been living in the US for years. A bit generic, and the sequel setup was obnoxious, but otherwise decent.

Camille (1936): Greta Garbo. There has never been a more humanizing film about gold digging made.

Murder on the Orient Express (1974): Agatha Christie, but dark, very dark. The opposite of another Lumet classic, 12 Angry Men (1957). A unique murder mystery in classic style.

19 August 2010


Some thoughts on what I've seen lately:

Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein: A bit sentimental, but surprisingly relevant as the first artificial species are created by Venter et al. Boris Karloff is good, and the Bride is superlative for the hair alone, plus the Metropolis machine-woman style of movement. I'd like to see The Spirit of the Beehive, a Spanish film about a girl's reaction to this film. I also need to see Bella Lugosi's Dracula at some point, which immediately preceded this in Laemmle's production studio.

I vitelloni: I've seen quite a lot of Fellini, but never saw this, as it's considered one of his more minor works. However, I was very pleasantly surprised; it is more accessible than most Fellini, but still an exceedingly strong piece of work. The premise is the universal coming-of-age story, but Fellini does it in a fresh and engaging manner, offering a character study of a group of five friends from a small town in Italy, each representing a different archetype, or part of the self, depending on your viewing. It's really the perfect antidote to the overindulgence of buddy comedies by Apatow and company, with moments to make you smile and cringe, and often make you think uncomfortably about your own life.

The real triumph of the film is the depth of the character study through use of universal themes. Each of the five vitelloni is a deeply dynamic character, struggling with his life in a unique manner. Most magical among these characterizations is Moraldo, the youngest of the gang, who quietly observes the shenanigans of the rest. Still, at the end of the film, despite his small amount of screen time and lines, he is clearly the most interesting of the characters, one we want to follow beyond the film. As he serves as Fellini's alter ego, we can happily do so through his other films.

The Bicycle Theif: De Sica's portrait of a man in postwar Italy who needs his bike to keep a job. It gets stolen. His life is sad. I really don't think this is a great movie, despite its reputation. It captures the nature of poverty well, the kid is cute, and the father tragic, but it is missing depth beyond the social commentary.

Z: Costa-Gravas, a classic thriller, and a good piece of political cinema. Really well put together; it will keep you involved despite getting caught up in politics. The assertion that "I'm not a political person" becomes chilling after this. And yes, I watched this because of the Chuck reference.

The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari: A nice silent horror-fairy tale. Not really exceptional, except that I am obsessed with the set design. With all of the off-kilter windows and plays on perspective, combined with the soft-painted effect, it is the perfect fairy-tale set, and the inspiration to many ever since. One of those movies you want to frame and put up on your wall.


The Virgin Spring: Like I vitelloni, one of a handful of Bergmans I missed. Without spoiling too much, it is classic Bergman, but not as exceptional as some of his work. Partly, I prefer his non-historical work, though this packs a punch. I believe this was the source for The Last House on the Left, although that looked terrible. This was not. If you want more on the plot look it up. I just feel I shouldn't spoil too much; it's better to go in ignorant, but be aware that it gets violent.

Y tu mamá también: Curious...I really don't know what to say about this movie. It's strong. A different sort of road trip movie, I guess.

Dune: David Lynch, not the 2000 one. I think I once saw part of the 2000 one, because I remember the eyes, but I fell asleep. Lynch's film was not wholly Lynchian in the sense of Mulholland Dr. The film pulls very strongly from Star Wars, and I'm honestly a bit surprised it has a cult following, as the effects are second-hand, and the story is not long enough (without Herbert's book) to really create a mythology. Not a bad film, really, just middling. Sorry Chuck. Tron was better. Looking forward to the new one, too.

I love this poster.
Barry Lyndon: One of Kubrik's masterpieces I'd missed out on. As a European period piece character study, the film really is a masterpiece; we follow Barry through a curious life and a series of other characters, in the end leaving them all behind. We really do understand him, even as we do not fully care for him much. In the end, signing a check has never been so sad.

Somehow, I feel this film deserves to be contrasted with Altman's Gosford Park and Renoir's Rules of the Game from which Altman worked. Kubrik does an extraordinary job of following one man, whereas Altman and Renoir present their distinctive event-stories without a clear protagonist. Personally, I prefer Kubrik's vision as it engages the audience more, even if I appreciate the value of Altman and Renoir's styles. They may be more innovative (in this instance), but Barry Lyndon has the feel of a great Greek or Shakespearean tragedy, which is hard to forget.

The Battleship Potemkin: My first Eisenstein. I know the film is monumental in the history of cinema for its use of montage and the Odessa steps sequence, but from a modern perspective, the propaganda is just odious, and in the way of good storytelling. I feel that if he has forgone a bit of his political message, he could have made a much more engaging drama, but perhaps then it would not have been quite so monumental.
Somehow, it doesn't tip over.

Tokyo Story: I love this film. As my first Ozu, this was my introduction into his brilliance in capturing the little moments in life, the nuances of relationships. I've honestly never felt that a movie has captured family relationships so well. He accomplishes this through capturing the moments that are not in a book or script, like packing a bag, or figuring out where visitors will sleep. At the same time, his scenes end right before they would start to get boring, almost jarringly. Particularly poignant for anyone with parents or grandparents, i.e. everyone, it is impossible not to think of that old grandma, or the way your dad remembers the things your mom forgets, and so on. Just a lovely film. I challenge anyone to not love the old couple.
"Love us! We're cute and doddery!"

A note: The film owes as much to fantastic acting as Ozu himself. Dancing slowly can be much harder than dancing quickly.

If you only watch one of these, watch this. Personally, I'm very excited to get into Ozu's other films.

27 July 2010

Good Bye Lenin!

Today I saw Good Bye Lenin!, which has earned a spot among my favorite recent German films (a list topped without question by The Lives of Others), despite its imperfections.

The premise: A East German young man's mother falls into a coma shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany. She wakes up eight months later, but is too fragile to handle the news that her country doesn't exist anymore, so her son, Alex, and his compatriots recreate it in a rapidly changing world.

The movie was not perfect, with a sort of lack of polish in places, but the brilliance of the idea was enough to make an audience fall in love with it. The passion of Alex and his excitement at finding a box of peas or a pickle jar draws you in, amid the larger cultural upheaval in the background.

*     *     *
I will not go on at length; see it if you like. I was considering contrasting it with Pedro Almodovar's Habla con Ella (Talk to Her), another coma movie, but found that aside from that connection, they were simply too different.

I also saw Princess Mononoke recently, but it was a mild disappointment compared with Spirited Away, which was great. Perhaps still worth seeing, though; the moral ambiguity was promising for anime, even if I found the overexcited voices grating. Maybe that was just a bad English dub, though; subtitled Japanese might be better, though I usually find animation dubs much more tolerable than live action ones.

Does anyone know any other anime movies worth seeing? I was considering Howl's Moving Castle, but there's got to be some good ones beyond Hayao Miyazaki.

25 July 2010

new design!

Yay, we've got a new design. Not perfect, but I'm too lazy to really dig into the CSS and fix it.
Here's a pretty picture. One of many I'd rather have as my background, but no luck.