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09/12/12 4:00am

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
Directed by Brian DePalma
September 14-15 at the IFC Center, one of its Midnight Movies

Expertly crass and masterfully deranged, Phantom of the Paradise is a hilarious comedy about how merit has nothing to do with succeeding commercially as an artist. Brian De Palma’s inspired 1974 rock musical goes to great lengths to joke that everyone, even the ghoulishly insouciant music impresario Swan (Paul Williams, who also scored the film), is “under contract.” This wouldn’t be so bad if the Devil weren’t the second party that owns the contracts binding the first party’s (i.e. every talented artist’s) body, soul and talent.

Just like Winslow Leach (William Finley), the gifted composer whose music he steals, and Phoenix (Jessica Harper), Swan is a victim of creative exploitation. He just happens to have a little more power than the film’s other songbird (the film’s three main characters have bird-like names or appearances; even Swan’s Death record label has a dead bird for its mascot). So when Swan makes a deal with the Devil, he’s selling himself out to the biggest deceiver of all. Bear in mind: when Winslow loses his voice and vengefully decides to haunt the Paradise, Swan’s megalithic rock club, he literally takes on Swan’s voice: Williams’s voice is used during this first scene featuring the Phantom’s jarring robo-voice. But once we realize that Swan has already similarly sold himself out to the Devil, who approaches Swan in his bathtub mirror as his mirror image (“But man, I am stoned!”), there’s no other ending left for our interdependent artistes than an unhappy, albeit blackly comic, one.

08/01/12 4:00am

Classe tous risques (1960)
Directed by Claude Sautet
Thursday, August 2 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Claude Sautet: The Things of Life

Based on a Série noire novel by co-adapter Jose Giovanni, Classes tous risques is a superior film noir. The film is essentially a ruminative film-long chase: young Eric Stark (Jean-Paul Belmondo) must help wanted thief Abel Davos (Lino Ventura) escape the authorities as Davos makes his way back to his native France. Davos cannot completely trust Eric however—understandably, since almost everyone’s allegiances in Classes tous risques are determined by convenience.

Pretty much all of Davos’s old friends are either liabilities or potential traitors. Some of them have gone straight, some of them just want to avoid the police, but all of them have to consider the implications of helping Davos. And while everyone may want to honor their commitment to Davos, inevitably, every man has to fend for himself.

So the typical pose of men in Classes tous risques , in which director Claude Sautet shrewdly pays close attention to his actors’ body language, is a pensive reverie. This is especially striking in Ventura’s case, since Abel has to make plans on the fly. The scene in which he explains to his two young sons an improvised plan, them walking behind him at a measured distance of ten yards, is especially moving. The sequence is short, but it’s indicative of how everything seems to click into place here: the dialogue is suitably tense and believably to the point, Ventura’s performance is typically stirring and Sautet’s use of close-ups is very effective. It’s no wonder that Jean-Pierre Melville was an ardent admirer of Classes tous risques: Sautet’s film is a high watermark of cinematic pulp fiction.

07/26/12 9:15am

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Japan Cuts, Japan Society’s annual roundup of new Japanese film, concludes this weekend, with Space Battleship Yamato the closing-night film.

Directed by Takashi Yamazaki, a blockbuster filmmaker in his native Japan and a saccharine-y Spielberg clone to boot, Space Battleship Yamato is a film out of time. It was produced almost a full year before the meltdown at Fukushima, which makes its message of looking for hope in even the most hopeless situations that much more prescient. It’s also a highly unusual blend of sci-fi tropes, though so is the amiably cheesy manga it’s based on.

Equal parts Star Trek, Star Wars and pre-Ronald Moore-era Battlestar Galactica, Space Battleship Yamato follows a crew of space explorers tasked with nothing short of curing the world’s radiation sickness. The Yamato is made to venture out into a part of space where no humans have ever been able to venture before, whizzing past hostile aliens, in search of a whatsit that may or may not have the power to make Earth a viable planet again. Their journey is thus often grounded in a cheesy, can-do spirit of positivity, making Yamazaki’s film’s 138-minute runtime often feel interminable.

And yet, it’s also really exciting to see a big-budget action film totally eschew cynicism even during its darkest moments. For example, when the Yamato‘s crew loses a gunfight with aliens, and the crew’s situation is obviously dire, Yamazaki and regular screenwriting collaborator Shimako Sato don’t linger on that feeling of despair. Instead, they champion an indomitable fighting spirit that somehow even survives the film’s ludicrously anti-climactic finale. Space Battleship Yamato is corny and clichéd but it’s also pretty winsome in its idiosyncratically naïve way.

07/25/12 4:00am

Pursued (1947)
Directed by Raul Walsh
Tuesday, July 31 at BAM

http://www.bam.org/film/2012/pursued

Max Steiner’s score for Pursued is brash, triumphally melodramatic and the best thing about an all-around terrific western. Directed by Raoul Walsh and produced by Warner Brothers in 1947, Pursued is a hallmark of the dark turn studio-produced A-picture westerns took after WWII. Walsh’s film precedes similarly psychologically rich noir/western hybrids like The Naked Spur (1953) and Vera Cruz (1954). And like those two later films, Pursued follows, if you’ll pardon the pun, a good man tormented by the violence in his past. Jeb (Robert Mitchum) is the sole survivor of a brutal massacre. And with the help of Steiner’s operatic score and Walsh’s keen eye for composition, that event, as the film’s title suggests, follows him everywhere.

As much as other artists contribute to the film—including cinematographer James Wong Howe’s manipulation of shadow, screenwriter Niven Busch’s engrossing scenario and Mitchum’s turn as the sullen Jeb—Steiner is Pursued‘s MVP. His use of aural leitmotifs is especially effective. Staccato horn blasts appropriately accompany the silver spurs that stomp through Jeb’s hazy memories. And when an adult Jeb first meets the one-armed badman that’s hellbent on killing him, Steiner masterfully underlines the tension of the moment by allowing his orchestra’s string section to creep in, quietly ramping up the scene’s intensity. If the legend is true, then it’s oddly fitting that Pursued was the last film Jim Morrison saw before he died. Steiner’s score surely stayed with the haunted head until his abrupt demise.

07/18/12 1:42pm

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Japan Cuts, the Japan Society’s annual roundup of new Japanese film, is ongoing through the 28th of the month. Toad’s Oil, directed by and starring Koji Yakusho, plays this Saturday afternoon as part of a sidebar on the actor.

It’s hard to describe Toad’s Oil without making it sound like a well-meaning but dismally quirky melodrama. The film is the amiably eccentric directorial debut of venerable character actor Koji Yakusho, probably most famous in America as the leading man of many of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s horror films. And yet, the depth of feeling and simplicity of the film’s optimistic philosophy is pretty remarkable.

Toad’s Oil is the amiably eccentric directorial debut of venerable character actor Koji Yakusho, probably most famous in America as the leading man of many of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s horror films. He plays a risk-taking investment banker who loses his biological son but ends up bonding with his adopted son. Both Yakusho’s character and his dead son are shown to treat life like a game, a practice that helps them to get the most out of their lives. “In life, you need the spirit to look at things from different angles,” Yakusho intones solemnly before breaking out into goofy laughter. There’s no point where this movie takes itself so seriously that its characters can’t chuckle good-naturedly at themselves. Yakusho delivers a great performance as a father who spends much of the film’s 131-minute runtime in denial and then, almost imperceptibly, learns how to positively shrug off his own abiding emotional insensitivity.

Furthermore, scenes where Yakusho’s character good-naturedly flirts with his dead son’s young girlfriend, because he’s simultaneously too afraid to break the news to her and is also disarmed by her boundless energy, give the film a strong dramatic thrust. With a healthy dose of magical realism and a daffy chase scene involving a CGI bear that gets kicked in the nards, Toad’s Oil is anything but your average weepie.

07/11/12 1:52pm

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The New York Asian Film Festival moves to Japan Society this weekend, to copresent Japanese films during the first weekend of the Japan Cuts series there. The NYAFF’s closing-night film, screening on Sunday night, is Chips (“Potetchi” in Japanese).

One reason why the New York Asian Film Festival is the most fun summer film festival in NYC: its programmers are always making exciting discoveries. With Chips, Japanese filmmaker and festival regular Yoshihiro Nakamura proves yet again why he’s one of NYAFF’s more noteworthy finds. Nakamura (Fish Story, A Boy and His Samurai) makes loose, goofy comedies about world-uniting conspiracies. With co-writer Kotaro Isaka, Nakamura has created a handful of elaborate and hilariously convoluted plots that only serve to remind us that we’re never alone, not even in our darkest hours.

Case in point: in Chips, a young thief makes an alarming discovery about himself. He consequently decides to help people he accidentally meets while robbing houses. Answering machine messages, home runs and potato chips—all of these little things take on great significance in Nakamura’s warm and deeply involving tribute to the survivors of the 2010 Sendai earthquake. In a lean 68 minutes, Nakamura and Isaka have made another accomplished zen comedy about how anything can mean everything, given the right context.

06/28/12 9:09am

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This year’s New York Asian Film Festival kicks off tomorrow night with Vulgaria, and the opening night continues with one of this year’s retro titles, The Boxer’s Omen, a decline-era (1983) Shaw Brothers curio.

The Boxer’s Omen is grade-A freakout material, one of the weirdest and most viscerally bizarre examples of the supernatural Hong Kong-exported grindhouse fare that John Carpenter and W.D. Richter riffed on in Big Trouble in Little China. Within the film’s first 20 minutes, you will see human body parts engorge and explode in ways that you never thought possible. The film’s schlocky, go-for-broke gross-out battle between good and evil magicians is just as revolting and memorably jarring each time you rewatch it and is guaranteed to make you gape in awe at the filmmakers’ monumental tastelessness.

To be fair, there is some basic exposition in the film’s first few minutes, in which the brother of a brutally beaten Hong Kong boxer journeys to a Thai monastery and is enlisted in an epic battle against the most emotive black magician ever committed to film. But just in those first 20 minutes, you will also see a man vomit up a bat after his skin bubbles with cartoon-sized pustules. And then you will see that same bat puppet impaled by a Thai priest with a gleaming metal stake. And then you’ll see that puppet’s “skin” melt and turn into a skeleton. And then a black magician wearing a bat mask takes a big bite out of a living rat and spits up blood on a fetish of the aforementioned bat skeleton. And then the skeleton starts moving after a second mouthful of rat blood is spat on it. And that’s to say nothing of the Lovecraftian horrors of the film’s never-ending finale, in which ectoplasmic discharge and giant flagellae from beyond smother pretty much everything. Seeing this movie with a midnight movie audience is guaranteed to put hair on your chest, especially if you’re a woman.

06/27/12 1:20pm

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This year’s New York Asian Film Festival begins this Friday, June 29, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and brings the pan-Asian genre goodtimes, classics, and special guests through July 12. (From the 12th through the 15th they’ll also copresent the opening weekend of Japan Society’s annual Japan Cuts.) Our first review, of several to follow, is of the opening-night film, Vulgaria, a Hong Kong film directed by Pan Ho-cheung, which screens Friday night.

After holding in his gut for his last couple of romantic comedies, Pan finally exhales sharply with Vulgaria. Vulgaria‘s loose slew of jokes about Pop Rocks blow jobs, Al Qaeda product placement and bestiality have more in common with his 2003 husbands-behaving-badly comedy Men Suddenly in Black than they do with any of his more recent dramedies. Both Love in a Puff (2010) and its sequel, Love in the Buff (2012), are accomplished, appreciably intelligent films about the necessity of self-mythologizing.

By contrast, Vulgaria is an unstructured comedy about a film producer.

This is what you get when you ask Pan to riff on State and Main: a show business satire that’s not especially biting because it’s too obtuse to be truly scathing, but so charmingly crass that it’s consistently funny anyway. Chapman To plays a scruple-free movie producer who tells a class of film students that his job is just like being a filmmaker’s pubic hair, and recounts a shaggy-dog story about screwing a donkey, getting blown by a candy-guzzling pop star and being rightfully accused of sexual harassment—all so he can make a decades-late sequel to a softcore porn film that sounds a lot like the Shaw Brothers’ scandalously sapphic Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan. Vulgaria is not much more thoughtful than that, but it is appreciably zany and full of plenty of good jokes made in deliberately bad taste.

06/13/12 4:00am

Commando (1985)
Directed by Mark L. Lester
Friday, June 15 and Saturday, June 16 at 92YTribeca

Let’s all take a moment to thank the script doctors that helped to make Commando so much fun. These punch-up artists really get the Schwarzenegger mystique. Which is to say: they understand that the guy can’t act and shouldn’t be expected to. Schwarzenegger’s an action star; he can easily get by with just a well-timed snarl. Not everyone involved in the film got what to do with their Aryan behemoth of a leading man (who was responsible for tweezing of his eyebrows? Talk about overkill!). But the film is at its best during lowbrow screwball exchanges between Schwarzenegger and co-star Rae Dawn Chong. Tracy and Hepburn they ain’t, but that’s ok: when Chong protests, “You don’t even have a car,” and Arnie flips over a yellow roadster and crows, “I do now,” it’s just as entertaining, in its own way.

Chong plays Cindy, a flight attendant taken hostage by John Matrix (Schwarzenegger), a retired colonel in the US Special Forces whose daughter has been kidnapped by a would-be South American dictator. Matrix will inevitably get his man, as is evident from the brutal way he dispatches his opponents. For instance, after dropping a goon down a cliff head-first, Matrix boasts, “I had to let him go.” (This after telling the soon-to-be-dropped villain that “I lied,” when he promised to “kill you last.”)

Schwarzenegger would have similarly gotten the job done with or without a script. But who could resist a film where Cindy rattles off a litany of complaints and then is simply shut down with a heavily-accented, “No,” when she asks for more information? “Commando” is a meat-head’s delight.

05/09/12 4:00am

Buffalo ’66 (1998)
Directed by Vincent Gallo
May 16 at 92YTribeca

Sex is comedy in actor/infamous celebrity sperm donor Vincent Gallo’s Pinter-esque directorial debut. In Buffalo ’66, having libidinal urges is like having an imaginary gangrenous third nipple: you don’t want to touch it but you have to but you don’t know how because you might not even be able to because it may or may not be all in your head.

Gallo stars as Billy Brown, an ex-con fresh out of prison who kidnaps a seriously confused and confusing girl named Layla (Christina Ricci). Billy doesn’t kidnap Layla for the express purpose of degrading her, though he does do that, too. Instead, Billy asks Layla to make his parents think that he’s actually happily married. In reality, his one hard-and-fast goal in life after prison is to murder a football player whose flubbed play is the indirect cause of Billy’s incarceration. So Billy is now so anxious to appear to care about something (about anything, really, though in this case that thing is appearing to be happily married and hence sexually normal) that he winds up freaking out over almost everything.

But as we find out once we meet Billy’s parents, including Ben Gazzara’s hilariously lecherous and dyspeptic patriarch, dysfunction is Billy’s inheritance. Everyone in the film’s representation of Buffalo is a little sexually abnormal. Goon (Kevin Corrigan), Billy’s best friend, is a dimwit with a gut and an inexplicable inability to think of how to describe a strip club (“that place where women take their clothes off…”). And Layla’s a willing submissive whose devotion to Billy verges on psychosis. Even Billy’s mom, the film’s most non-threatening supporting character, comes across as if she were in heat when she sees a successful football play on TV. It’s no wonder then that the curative power of love restores Billy’s lust for life. Love is in the air in Buffalo ’66 and it’s very funny, indeed.