Saturday, January 27, 2007

Korea and stranger places

REMINDER: The Brattle Movie-Watch-a-Thon is in progress. Drop me a line if you would like to sponsor me, go here to make a donation, and check back on a near-daily basis to see how well I'm doing. With this films, I'm at 6 Brattle films seen and 10 elsewhere, which means 22 "points" total (or 11, depending on whether Brattle films count for two or other films count for ½)

"Korea" is another cheap attempt at a theme, as I try to create a link between Thursday's King and the Clown and Friday's M*A*S*H, with the basic understanding that El Topo is going to resist categorization.

Friday was the first really difficult choice in terms of which film to see, as the MFA's Korean Film Festival and Kim Ki-Duk's Time was going to conflict with the Brattle's Altman series either way (oh, how I wish the Jodowarsky films were playing a different week, or even just weekend midnights). The choice for Friday night got made for me as I got caught in the office until six, which would make it just possible to get to a seven p.m. start at the Brattle but made the three-bus route necessary to reach the Museum of Fine Arts by 7:45 iffy. I left work at five-thirty on Thursday and reached the museum at ten past seven with things running on time and connections being quick; I didn't feel quite so confident about the same thing happening two nights in a row.

Hopefully Time will get a non-festival release, as I found 5-Iron weird in a mostly good way and the synopsis intriguing, because I feel even less inclined to give the Sunday double feature (California Split and The Long Goodbye a pass).

King and the Clown (Wang-ui Namja)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 25 January 2007 at The Museum of Fine Arts (Korean Film Festival) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

I've seen King and the Clown referred to as Shakespearean a number of times, which is a pretty easy leap just from the title: Many of the Bard's most memorable scenes feature jesters and actors, and if certain sequences in this film don't remind you that "The Play's the Thing / Wherein I'll Catch the Conscience of a King", it's time to brush up your Hamlet. Shakespeare never did what these filmmakers do, though, placing his clowns front and center.

Those clowns are Jang-sang (Kam Woo-seong), a brash and gifted acrobat, and Gong-gil (Lee Jun-gi), whose smooth skin and lean frame make him ideal for playing the female parts in their street performances. After Jang-sang takes violent exception to their troupe's leader pimping Gong-gil out, they head to Souel, where they hook up with three other performers and make good money mocking the King (Jeong Jin-yeong) and his consort Nok-su (Kang Seong-yeon). They're thrown into irons when a minister sees this, although Jang-sang talks him into sparing their lives if they can make the King laugh. This succeeds, and gets them lodgings within the palace, but exposes them to greater dangers: One of the King's advisors opts to use them as Hamlet did, to smoke out traitors in the court; meanwhile, the dangerously unstable King becomes extremely taken with minstrelry in general and Gong-gil in particular.

It's not difficult to see why the King and others are drawn to Gong-gil. I haven't seen Lee Jun-gi in anything else, but he looks disconcertingly feminine; if not for an early shot revealing a flat chest, I'd strongly suspect it was a woman in the role. Lee doesn't go out of his way to mince or act girly, but in a way that only makes him more convincing - a girl who opted to be a street performer wouldn't be a delicate flower. It makes for an intriguingly ambiguous relationship with Jang-sang, one that could easily be a close friendship and which could just as easily be romantic, but Lee doesn't play Gong-gil as coquettish, but almost trapped by his appearance.

Full review at HBS.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 January 2007 at The Brattle Theater (Altman in the 1970s) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

M*A*S*H is now probably best known as a television series, which isn't surprising; the series lasted over a decade and even during its lower points was one of the medium's bright spots. Still, that's the kind of success necessary for a later version to outshine this film, considering the talent involved.

Robert Altman, of course, is the big name, though he wasn't at the time. Though not his first movie, M*A*S*H was his first in what would later become his distinctive style - the large ensemble cast, overlapping dialogue, and improvised dialog all appear here. It's almost surprising, for someone like myself who grew up with the TV series, that the film isn't really just a feature-length version of that but a no-fooling Altman picture, with its own strengths and occasional weaknesses.

The "story" is thin to the point on non-existence: Doctors "Hawkeye" Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and "Duke" Forrest (Tom Skerritt) are drafted and assigned to the 4077th, a "Mobile Army Surgical Hospital". They're soon joined by "Trapper John" McIntyre, and fight the insanity of war with their own brand of foolishness. The main targets of their tomfoolery are self-righteous Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) and regular army chief nurse Margaret O'Houlihan (Sally Kellerman). There's a whole slew of other characters, all of whom will have at least one scene to shine in.

Given the way the film is structured, it's not surprising to see that it would later be made into a TV series: Though certain themes carry on throughout the film, it takes a meandering route to get from its opening to the symmetrical ending, sticking a series of stories together rather than having one overarching plotline. The vignette about Duke mistaking Hawkeye for his driver that opens the movie is almost completely unrelated to the football game that occupies the final act, other than them sharing the same characters. This works out pretty well, as it allows the cast more latitude for improvisation and gives Altman the chance to jump back and forth between light tomfoolery, the serious business of performing surgery three miles from the front lines and the satirical bits that bridge the two.

Full review at HBS.

El Topo

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 January 2007 at The Brattle Theater (Special Engagements) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

The hell...?

Probably no full review of this one, since I can't be sure whether it just made no sense, period, or it made no sense because I nodded off at some point or another. Terrible habit, that, opening your eyes in a movie theater and being pretty sure it was just for a second or two, but...

The gist of the movie is pretty straightforward - black-clad gunfighter wanders through surreal Mexican landscape, but, wow, did it not work for me. Alejandro Jodorowsky's comics at least seemed to have something beyond being screwed up to recommend them, and he just seems to get way too much enjoyment out of the blood and guts for my taste. The end result is like David Lynch, only with less interest in telling a coherent story.

And yet, I'll still see The Holy Mountain tonight, glutton for punishment that I am.


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