Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Movie of the Day: Paranoid Park

I have often said that I am not a Gus Van Sant, and I've often had mildly humorous, disparaging things to say about him. I've slowly come to accept that my opinion may be a bit harsh, and very premature. I say this because I'm basing my entire opinion on his lengthy career(which includes 14 feature films, and many short films and music videos) on only two movies; Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and his pointless Psycho remake. Beyond that, I can honestly say that none of his films interested me in the slightest. I've seen parts of My Own Private Idaho, and I can appreciate his influence and attraction to others, I've just never thought he was for me, nor have I ever had the inclination to test that theory. Until last Sunday, that is, when I happened to channel surf over to the opening of Paranoid Park and, well, decided to test that theory.

The movie grabbed me fairly early on, with it's drifting camera, dreamy music and fractured chronology. The movie's timeline jumps around a bit, taking a roundabout path to the story. This is more than just an overused stylistic trick, though, as the jumbled timeline reflects the mental pathways of Alex, the teenaged main character, as he documents recent events in his journal, building up slowly to the main tragedy in the film. It's clear very early in the film that Alex was involved in the tragic death of a security guard on some railroad tracks near a popular and infamous skate park(the Paranoid Park of the title), but we don't actually see this event until near the end of the film. Alex is writing his journal as a letter, an apology that no one will read, and he isn't ready yet to face the death head on, he needs to circle around it as he tries to make sense of it.

In a way, Paranoid Park is a perfect, if extreme, metaphor for the lives of every teenager. Alex is drifting, and feels, like most of us do/did, as if he's incapable of forging his own life, and is instead at the mercy of forces he doesn't understand. In reality, he's making decisions even when he doesn't realize it, and by the end of the film, although the future looks wide open, a large part of his life is already written.

Paranoid Park hasn't exactly made me a Gus Van Sant convert; Even Cowgirls Get The Blues is still an inexcusable piece of excrement, but it has made me think I should maybe go back and catch some of his more well regarded films, just to see what I'm missing. That said, I still reserve the right to make fun of the fact that middle-age, openly-gay Van Sant found his cast by cruising skate parks and myspace for teenage boys. Seriously, how creepy is that?

Rating: 4 out of 5

Monday, April 05, 2010

Movie of the Day: Sanshiro Sugata 2

Kurosawa has said: "This film did not interest me in the slightest. I had already done it once. This was just warmed-over." It is considerably worse than merely warmed-over. In it we have what the original Sugata might have been had an ordinary director done it.
From The Films of Akira Kurosawa(3rd edition) by Donald Richie

Now, it may be that this film was forced on Kurosawa, and that he wasn't incredibly interested in it, but Sanshiro Sugata 2 isn't quite deserving of the sentiments stated above. During his lengthy career, Kurosawa directed only two sequels; this and Sanjuro, the lesser-known(but possibly even more awesome) sequel to Yojimbo. While Sugata 2 isn't quite as essential as Sanjuro, and maybe not as good a film as it's predecessor, but it's unfair to discount it entirely for those reasons. So allow me to offer some minor dissent among the critical community.

The original Sanshiro Sugata, produced in 1943, had to adhere to strict postwar censorship which forbid the mention of anything Western. Sugata 2, on the other hand, is pure propaganda, and from the very first scene it's obvious that the film's stance on Westerners is decidedly negative. The film opens with Sugata rescuing a young rickshaw driver from being mercilessly beaten by an American sailor in only the first of many ugly caricatures of Westerners. There are two story lines in this film that run concurrently, although they never really connect in any way. The first is Sugata's moral dilemma as he struggles to show that Japanese martial arts are superior to Western boxing without breaking his dojo's rule about never fighting for pay or entertainment. The second is about Sugata's moral dilemma as he struggles to defend his honor against a pair of brothers(the brothers of the first film's villain, who is now infirm after his battle with Sugata) who have challenged him without breaking his dojo's rule about never entering into duels. Obviously it will become clear that neither of these dilemmas are problems after all. Both of these stories are fairly common to this type of film, and there's nothing new or fresh about them, but that doesn't mean the film containing them is not entertaining.

Though the film's story is generic, and the sentiment seems more dictated by propaganda than any artistic desire, the package is nevertheless pretty well put together. Kurosawa never seems visually bored, and continues with the same mature, confident style he'd shown off in the first film, and keeps things moving at a pretty brisk pace. There's even a scene where Sugata says goodbye to his beloved that edits out everything he says, so that we get the gist of the entire conversation through her questions and reactions to his answers. The fight scenes are typical Japanese showdowns, meaning they're long on shots of men circling each other, leading up to one or two quick blows, followed by either more circling, or an end to the match. None of them quite live up to the fight scenes in the original film, although the final snowbound duel has some good shots in it.

Sanshiro Sugata 2 was Kurosawa working basically as a director for hire, which means that yes, it isn't one of his greater films. In fact, I'd have to admit that it's probably only for people who are already fans. But you know what? Screw the haters, I still enjoyed myself through every minute of the film.

Rating: 3 out of 5

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Movie of the Day: The House of the Devil

As a child that was too nervous and squeamish to watch scary movies, it wasn't until the early 90s that I began to develop a taste and tolerance for horror movies. Most of this expansion of attitude can be credited to numerous sleepovers with a group of cousins who had HBO. Through the magic of pay-cable I first ventured into the world of R rated monster movies, starting with A Nightmare on Elm Street 4. My cousins, knowing of my squeamishness, assured me that it was funny, and had more in common with a scary adventure film than a true horror film. And they were correct. Or, they were at least correct in the assumption that once I relaxed and sat down to enjoy the film, I found I was pretty much entertained throughout. I also watched Nightbreed during one of these sleepovers, and while Nightmare 4 showed me that horror movies didn't have to be as imposing as I'd built them up in my mind, Nightbreed more than anything else changed how I perceived horror films. Instead of seeing them as just terrifying nightmare inducers, I began to see the beauty and romance in horror(which of course is a recurring theme in every Clive Barker story).

Owing to the time period in which I began experiencing horror movies, I obviously saw a lot from the 80s, and a fair amount of them were of course slasher films. But slasher films have never been my favorite subgenre. Unless the film has something special to recommend it(Halloween's Hitchcockian suspense, Nightmare's decidedly supernatural surrealism), I find nothing more boring than a horror movie about some crazy dude slicing up coeds. Slasher films are generally nothing more than murder and nudity delivery devices, and that's usually all they aspire to. That's fine, and I admit I've enjoyed some of them from time to time, but I can find nudity and clever death scenes in movies that have plot and originality, also. So although I am not necessarily the target audience for Ti West's nostalgia tinged 'House of the Devil', I nevertheless found myself sucked into it's pervasive creepiness.

'The House of the Devil' is a slasher film aimed straight at those people who grew up watching Halloween, Sleepaway Camp, or Friday the 13th, but without the post-modern irony of Scream, Cabin Fever, or even Rob Zombie's wholehearted odes to late 70s sleaze. In 'House', the details are key, from the book-sized walkman to the feathered hair. From the font of the opening credits to the ever-so-slightly grainy film stock, giving the movie a visual depth that few films these days attain. 'House of the Devil' is a love letter to the bottom of the horror barrel, but it's treated with the care and reverence of a Hitchcock film, making it more in line with John Carpenter's Halloween than the slew of lesser slasher films.

The House of the Devil spends the majority of it's running time doing nothing much at all. From the very beginning it's obvious that something is wrong and bad things are coming, and there's an early shock that puts the stakes into sharp focus, but most of the time we're just following a babysitter wandering around a large, possibly empty house; ordering pizza, watching TV, peaking into cupboards and closed bedrooms. This will very possibly bore many people, especially when they realize the scares aren't exactly forthcoming. Me? I found it deliciously nerve-wracking, and strangely inviting. 'House' attains a tactile presence that I found strangely inviting; it portrayed a world I would love to live in(of course, without the bloody satanic sacrifices. Or possibly with them, depending on which side of that equation I ended up on). The film hit that sweet spot of haunting creepiness, the suggestion of something terrifying without blatantly hitting you over the head with it. So it was a bit of a letdown when the finale of the film fell in line with what I usually expect from a slasher film. To be fair, most critics found the final 20 minutes relentlessly terrifying, but I found it overwrought and too on the nose, where the rest of the film had been all about subtlety and suggestion. Still, that's pretty much what you have to do when you make a movie in this mold.

Rating: 4 out of 5. I originally rated this a notch lower, because the ending left a bad taste in my mouth, but that first hour or so is really something fantastic.