Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Indie Sunday: How to Cook Your Life and Redacted

Sort-of kind-of a break in the middle of a few days spent mostly on the Brattle's Made In Boston series, though it was more opportunistic than anything: How to Cook Your Life was the final show in the Fall '07 Eye Opener series, and Redacted fit in easily with my need to go grocery shopping. Besides, I figured I wasn't going to get much of a chance to see Redacted - as much as I admire the way Magnolia & HDNet Films run this program to get it in front of as many people who want to see it how they want to, the end result is that these films come and go fast, and Redacted probably got as much attention as it did because it's obviously controversial.

Which is kind of sad - it's a new film by Brian De Palma, which used to be a big deal in and of itself. Now, he makes something that is arguably "important", and it runs for a week on the local boutique house's smallest screen after playing a preview on a cable channel Comcast doesn't even pick up.

How to Cook Your Life

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 November 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Sunday Eye-Opener)

I don't really have a lot to say about this one. It's a documentary with a likeable subject in Edward Espe Brown, good intentions and a nice mix of interviews and how-to footage. It's a lot of fun for fans of the "food movie", I'll bet (I did love watching the guy make bread). It's also kind of limp - the kind of documentary that makes a person feel bad or inferior but doesn't inspire a matching zeal to improve oneself. I found myself watching and sort of ruing the packaged food I eat, but not to the point where I can really consider baking my own bread (I just don't have the time!) or buying into the mumbo-jumbo about connecting with my hands.

Ah, well. If you like food movies or are interested in Zen Buddhism, you'll probably enjoy the film. It didn't hook me in much at all, though.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 18 November 2007 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run)

Remember MTV Unplugged? It was a series of specials where rock stars would do an acoustic set, relying on craft and material rather than raw power. Brian De Palma is doing something similar with Redacted; he was a rock star as a director for a long time, but now that he could use a late-career boost, it's time to pare his lush, flashy pulp style down to something digital and serious.

So he takes on a story inspired by a recent scandal where U.S. soldiers raped and killed a 15-year-old Iraqi girl. Our principal narrator is Angel "Sally" Salazar (Izzy Diaz), a private who joined the military to pay for film school; he's constantly shooting video. He's part of a group manning a checkpoint in Samarra, including bookworm Gabe Blix (Kel O'Neill), college boy Lawyer McCoy (Rob Devaney), senior NCOs Vazquez (Mike Figueroa) and Sweet (Ty Jones), and the pair of Reno Flake (Patrick Carroll) and B.B. Rush (Daniel Stewart Sherman), who are serving as an alternative to jail. At first, the group seems all right - not terribly bright, but capable of the grunt work the Army expects of them, and they're not seeing much action. Two fatal incidents in short succession - with both American and Iraqi victims - take their toll, and soon a couple of the group are looking to take some spoils from a pretty teenager they'd seen on a raid the other day.

De Palma presents Redacted as if it were a collection of existing footage from multiple sources - Sally's video camera, a French documentary about the soldiers at the checkpoint, American and middle-eastern news programs, security cameras, and internet video. It actually winds up fitting De Palma's customary style better than expected: He's a guy who has always loved playing with the camera, and the long POV or tracking shots that often seemed showy in his other films wind up being the natural way home video is shot. He'll also force himself to leave the camera in place when his natural instinct might be to move it or get coverage from different angles, and then compound the effect by making the action an embedded video clip on a static web page.

Of course, he also has a little fun with the medium. A kidnapping scene, for instance, is quick, shocking, and clever. In Sally's opening segment, he talks about how this is the real, unfiltered truth without a bunch of Hollywood editing - and then De Palma cuts to the French documentary with its almost parodic soundtrack and urgent voice-over. That's also where the first of a few head-scratching bits appears - there's a shot of a car approaching the checkpoint from inside the car, and considering the point the narrator is making, I have to wonder how the camera got there. There's several sequences like that - most notably a scene late in the film where Flake tells Rush a story about his brother Vegas - where I wasn't sure whether De Palma was hitting the limits of what he could do with the faux-doc style or whether he was trying to make a point about how even "real" footage is often staged or recreated.

If it's the latter, it may be too subtle a point, as it's almost certain to get drowned out by the potentially incendiary nature of the film's main storyline. It has in the past been relatively unusual for a fictional film this openly critical of a military action to be released so close to the actual event, and Redacted has predictably attracted controversy. I think De Palma does exaggerate for effect and allow the less savory characters to dominate the picture, which is somewhat at odds with the realistic, supposedly "unbiased" style of the film.

I couldn't fault the film for being overflowing with outrage despite that - it's not as though any of the acts it dramatizes and issues it raises should be minimized. Ultimately, I think its main point is that weapons in the hands of people people without the proper respect for the consequences of using them will be abused and make a bad situation worse - and Iraq currently has a lot of people running around without the proper respect for the guns they're toting.

As befits that message, most of the actors playing the soldiers are young and unknown. I like how Izzy Diaz plays Sally - it's a part that could very easily played as naturally having the moral high ground, despite the fact that De Palma writes Sally as naïve, impatient, and maybe not so bright. Diaz also has to demonstrate that despite spending a lot of his "screen time" behind the camera, so we're just getting his voice and whatever body language comes from shaking the camera. Ty Jones is also very good; his Sweet could have stepped right out of Gunner Palace or any of the Iraq War documentaries that have been made. I might have liked a little more from Patrick Carroll; his character takes control of the movie's second half, but his performance doesn't quite expand the same way.

It's a sign of how much I enjoyed the movie, I suppose, that I'm willing to rationalize things like that - say that De Palma and company intended to show just how ordinary such people can seem rather than portray them as unusual. It's a bit rough, but it's the most passionate work by a great director in a long time. A lot of people will probably have their minds made up about it before entering the theater (or seeing it elsewhere, since the subject matter and release schedule almost guarantees a short run), but it's worth a look at the very least.

Also at HBS.

Saturday, November 17, 2007


Saw this with the Chlotrudis folks on Tuesday, kind of cutting in line to do so. I lamely justified it to myself by saying I had arrived nearly as early for a different preview screening at Boston Common five days earlier, only to be told it was sold out (and that cost me $5 in bus and subway fare). It was in one of the former balcony theaters at Harvard Square and we wound up in the far back and right, which reminded me that AMC Harvard Square is one of those theaters where it's vitally important to make sure the film you want to see is on the main screen, because all the others are poorly laid out.

Other reviews aren't up at HBS/EFC yet, so I don't quite know how it's going to be received among that crowd. I'm sort of cringing in anticipation of the reviews I'm expecting to see in certain outlets; just looking at the comments on IMDB shows people calling the title character precocious and wise beyond her years. In fact, I think she's the exact opposite; the movie goes out of its way to present her as childlike throughout.

Still, good movie; well worth a recommendation.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 November 2007 at AMC Harvard Square #3 (Preview)

There are moments in Juno, especially early on, when I worried about its title character being one of those teenagers. You know the type - the self-aware and self-referential ones who talk like thirty-year-old screenwriters who went to private schools and are nostalgic for the John Hughes movies of their youth rather than any actual memory of growing up in a small town.

Fortunately, the cast and crew generally manage to avoid those traps. Yes, writer Diablo Cody writes Juno as ostentatiously quirky at times - an early bit where she sets an easy chair up on her would-be-boyfriend's lawn seems like an awful lot of effort for little payoff. Fortunately, Juno is played by Ellen Page, who genuinely looks sixteen and grasps that Juno is far more child than adult. She's a clever and witty kid, but what she thinks is clever is often just in bad taste. Despite all the sarcasm and music snobbery, she's not mean; she's generally trying to do the right thing. She's also hilarious. Of all the things Page does, perhaps the most valuable is letting what are often precisely chosen words come spilling out of her mouth without making Juno seem particularly bright.

The bright girls, after all, generally don't wind up pregnant at the age of sixteen. There's no question that the father is Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), and initially there's no doubt that Juno's going to have an abortion. Something that the one teenage protester there says gets under her skin, though, so she tells her father (J.K. Simmons), stepmother (Allison Janney), and best friend (Olivia Thirlby), that she's going to carry it to term. She's even managed to find a couple to adopt the kid - sure, Vanessa Loring (Jennifer Garner) seems kind of uptight, but her husband Mark (Jason Bateman) seems cool.

Ellen Page is terrific, and she has to be - she's in every scene, with maybe one or two exceptions. She doesn't have to carry the whole thing herself, though - she gets a lot of help from the supporting cast. J.K. Simmons gives Mac MacGuff a dry delivery that's similar to Page's as Juno, though a little resigned and more mature; Allison Janney is humorously more frantic as Bren. Olivia Thirlby and Michael Cera are a ton of fun as Juno's friends. Cera does charmingly dorky better than any young actor out there, and he's as good as ever as Paulie; Thirlby's Leah is a bundle of enthusiastic eccentricity. Compared to them, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman look almost muted, though they wind up two of the more fleshed-out and interesting characters.

Just because how they relate to Juno provides much of the film's dramatic weight doesn't mean they're not funny, though. Juno doesn't have any characters who aren't, at one point or another, funny - even people at the school who just stand there, talking to someone else while Juno looks at them, tend to make for funny visuals. This seems like an obvious thing, but it's surprising how many comedies don't realize that every character has to pull his own weight in terms of making the audience laugh, or else they're just clutter. Juno the film is remarkably free of clutter, both as a comedy and as a story about Juno MacGuff: Everyone involved is funny, and there's very little in the story to distract us from Juno's tentative steps toward adulthood.

Both writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman are still a little rough at times - their use of music is a bit heavy-handed, for instance, though not as much as the chair motif in Juno's narration. They do manage the potentially awkward turn the story makes down the home stretch without missing a beat, and Reitman has a knack for finding good images. He hasn't yet put all his tendency toward smugness behind him, but Juno suffers from that much less than Thank You For Smoking did.

And, to be fair, Juno might just be "pretty good" if it were a smoother, more polished work. It's a fine line between the title character being well-intentioned with a lot of growing up to do and her being stupid and unlikeable, even with Ellen Page's great performance It's the ability to stay on the charming side of that line that makes Juno one of the most enjoyable comedies of the year.

Also at HBS, when the embargo is lifted.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Love and Honor

Damn you, New York. I'm certain you're to blame for this cold I've been nursing all week.

All in all, I'm sure it probably would have been more sensible to wait for Love and Honor to maybe show up at the Brattle; creative director Ned Hinkle mentioned on a mailing list that he was hoping to book the film for some screenings there, or at least as part of the Sunday Eye Opener. But, you know how it is - someone says "probably" and "hopefully", and you hear "maybe not". So, off to New York.

First, I mistakenly think the ImaginAsian theater, where the film was playing for a week, was at 239 East 9th Street. Well, there is no 239 East 9th Street. There is a 239 East 59th Street. Time to walk. I barely get to the theater in time for the start of the film.

The movie's good, at least. My plan is to check out Diva at the Film Forum at 5:30, and you'd think two hours would be enough time to get there. It's not; I get distracted by a bookstore (so I can buy a map) and a street fair, then when I try to take the subway... Well, there's confusing signage, a hockey game, the smell of urine, a delay for tunnel congestion... Long story short, I don't make it, so it winds up being a $40 movie. Yikes.

And I'll probably do it again sometime. Just with more planning, a transit map, etc.

Love and Honor (Bushi no Ichibun)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 3 November 2007 at the ImaginAsian (Limited Engagement)

As Yoji Yamada's samurai dramas have become bigger and bigger hits in their native Japan, their American distribution has shrank. This is a real shame, because all three (The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade, and now Love and Honor) are films that could appeal to a broad range of people if only the audience was aware they existed.

The man at the center of Love and Honor is Shinnojo Mimura (Takuya Kimura), a 30-koku samurai growing disenchanted with his position as one of the lord's food tasters. He's already considering resigning his position when a bad piece of seafood strikes him down, leaving him blind and out of a job. His family worries about what he will do for an income - they have few contacts left within the castle - until Shinnojo's wife Kayo (Rei Dan) mentions that Chief Superintendent Toya Shimada (Mitsugoro Bando) has offered to intercede on her behalf. Of course, such favors seldom come without a price.

Part of why Yamada's samurai films have been successful even though the genre was nearly as out of favor in Japan as westerns were in the U.S. is that his samurai, rather than being idealized warriors, were instead portrayed as an earlier century's equivalent to salarymen. Modern Japanese could easily relate to the conflict between the samurai's commitment to serve both their master and society's rules and their own desires to feel happy and personally fulfilled. The film overplays this a little early on: Shinnojo discusses leaving the service so that he could open a kendo school, where he would not only accept students regardless of caste, but would tailor his lessons to the individual's strengths! For a moment, it's a little too on-the-nose as commentary about the modern world.

The moment passes, though, and much of the rest of the movie is actually fairly traditional - the villain is well worth the audience's disdain, there is a formal duel (with the expected gore), and ritual suicide is presented as an honorable decision, if not the required one. The system is far from seeming as broken as it was in Yamada's earlier films, although it still occasionally feels cold.

"Cold" is about the last word that would be used to describe Takuya Kimura's and Rei Dan's performances. Shinnojo is a big-hearted but proud man, and Kimura makes it clear that the samurai's stoicism is a mask that he is not particularly comfortable wearing. His despair upon discovering his blindness is genuine feeling, so that when he later begins training for a duel, the question is always in the back of one's mind that it's as much an honorable suicide as an attempt to avenge a wrong. Rei Dan is very good in what appears to be her first film role - it's easy to like Kayo, since she's kind and supportive without concern for her personal position. In many old samurai movies, this character would be played as stupid or weak, but Dan has a nice way of making Kayo a little smarter than she first appears. Watching her, we get that Kayo is aware when she's in dangerous territory, but doesn't have the skills at social politics she would need to make things work out in her favor.

The rest of the cast is quite enjoyable to watch, as well. Takashi Sasano plays the Mimura's long-time servant; he provides a little comic relief as well as being the main characters' sounding board. Kaori Momoi is memorable in her role as the aunt who likely plays and enjoys the social games that Kayo doesn't. Mitsugoro Bando makes for a proper villain, a thorough creep whose lack of theatrics just makes him more detestable.

Yamada and his cast get a lot of little things right. The scenes in the food-tasting room, for instance, feel like both office chatter and ritual. Though this is a fairly tradition samurai tale, there are still some pointed barbs shot at the dehumanizing elements of castle (or corporate) life. And I love the attention paid to the mechanics of how a blind fighter would have to work. Shinnojo is not Daredevil or Zatoichi with highly enhanced senses; though he says he can sense motion, it's not that effective. Instead, we see him maintaining contact with his opponent's sword, trying to keep track of his location.

Love and Honor isn't the best of Yamada's samurai movies, but that's nothing to hold against it - The Hidden Blade was excellent, and The Twilight Samurai deserved every award it got. This one stumbled a little at the start, but is otherwise a very fine samurai story, and I hope more people get a chance to see it.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Boston Fantastic Film Festival: ­Zebraman

You can't have a festival of this type without something from Takashi Miike. Actually, you should generally be able to scare up two or three films by Miike, the man is so prolific. I still haven't watched my DVD of The Great Yokai War yet, so this was my first exposure to "Takashi Miike, family filmmaker", and I liked what I saw. I kind of wish the Festival had scheduled it for an earlier hour and advertised it to families a bit - I would have loved to see how genuine kids reacted to it.

For those unfamiliar with Takashi Miike, him directing a family comedy is roughly equivalent to executives at Warner Brothers getting together and saying "you know who would be a great director for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows? David Cronenberg!"

Although, now that I think about it - that needs to happen anyway.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 October 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

Zebraman actually came out before The Great Yokai War in Japan, although the latter made it to America first. So let the record show that Takashi Miike did have some practice making family films before that better-known one. Though more modestly budgeted, Zebraman is still a bunch of fun, with an injection of crazy that would delight kids it their parents would let them anywhere near it.

Sho Aikawa stars as Shin'ichi Ichikawa, the second-grade supervisor at a medium-sized elementary school. No-one at the school respects him, to the point where the kids are beating up his son. His teenage daughter Midori (Yui Ichikawa) is seeing a much older man. It would probably only be worse if they knew he spent his evenings cosplaying in a papier-mache costume based upon the hero of his favorite 1970s superhero show, Zebraman (which, as if to illustrate how pathetic Shin'ichi is, was canceled after a handful of episodes. The sad thing is, the city is actually in need of a superhero. Midori's boyfriend has a second life as crab-masked villain, and there are enough slimy green aliens lurking underneath the school's gymnasium that the government has dispatched a team to investigate.

The line between playing a superhero story straight and doing parody is hard to find in the best of cases; Miike and writer Kankuro Kudo spend most of their time on the spoofy side, but play it straight enough to earn a bit of suspense. Their pastiche of 1970s sentai programs seems pretty close to spot-on, both in clips and a dream sequence where Shin'ichi fantasizes about the mother of one of his students as "Zebranurse". Affection can come across as disdain when filmmakers try to precisely replicate something that might not hold up to a more critical eye, but they generally find the right mix. The trick, apparently, is that it's okay to initially mock Shin'ichi for dressing up in a stupid costume by having him get his butt kicked early, but the somewhat corny good-intentioned messages of the genre are to be embraced rather than mocked.

Because Miike's name is attached to the movie, I don't know how many kids this winds up playing to outside Japan - the folks who would pick up a foreign family adventure know his reputation. Of course, I don't know who its target audience was over there, or whether it was aimed for the teen and older crowd. If it were remade in the US, Crab-man probably wouldn't be seducing sixteen-year-old girls, and I really doubt that the fungus that has Koen Kondo's military investigator scratching his junk would still be around; they might also tone down the violence with the possessed kids. A lot of the other kid-friendly stuff is done without the slightest hint of irony, though. Kids love green slime, and the CGI for the aliens is almost cute. The hero and the kids who love him are perfectly pure of heart. Some of the details are wonderfully silly, like Shin'ichi's "bedhead" (his hair grows into a zebra's mane when his zebra-sense detects that it's time to save the day!). And the final big action scene is just gloriously over the top.

Sho Aikawa is a lot of fun as the Shin'ichi. He embraces the dorkiness of the character in all its forms - the teacher no-one respects, the loser in a homemade costume, the guy who discovers it's all real but ridiculous. Koen Kondo is similarly fun as the man investigating the apparent alien activity, since he always seems to expect that job would be a little cooler and high-budget, and alternates between trying to elevate it, being disappointed, and finally just giving in to the fact that he's in a low-budget-sci-fi world (but without winking at the audience).

It's great fun, even if the goofiness has a bit more in the way of claws than its American equivalents. Still, it's not too nasty for anyone old enough to read the subtitles, and grown-ups shouldn't find it too terribly juvenile, either.

Also at HBS.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Boston Fantastic Film Festival: ­Cherry Valley

Ugh. I hate punting festival films, but I just could not come up with a thing to say about The District!. I think I drifted off once during it - it was the middle of a four-movie day after staying up late to watch a ballgame on delay the night before. It was also one of those deals where the comedy was coming from such an unfamiliar place as to just not register with me.

Still, The District! was far from bad; it just kind of got blotted out by being between Exiled and Cherry Valley (and Zebraman). Cherry Valley is one I think is going to fall through the cracks unfairly; it's something that seems like it would have mainstream appeal, but it's tough to imagine studios taking a chance on it. Maybe the Sci-Fi channel would pick it up. I think it would be neat to see how well it fit into the After Dark Horrorfest; that's the sort of event where a larger audience may give it a chance.

Cherry Valley

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 October 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

Cherry Valley is undeniably amateur hour, which is part of its appeal. Even if it had the intention of being anything other than sincere, the budget isn't there for much in the way of fakery. That lack of pretense won't necessarily convince anyone that the houses of Cherry Valley, New York is actually haunted, but it might just do a better job of sending a thrill up the spine than its fictional counterparts.

The movie starts with a supposedly haunted house owned by Jeremiah Newton; three of his students at NYU (including director Patrick Steward) go up there to check it out - setting up cameras, tape recorders for EVP, all that good stuff. They may detect something - after all, staying overnight in an unfamiliar house after a long drive and being primed with stories will certainly put you in a receptive mood - and do some follow-up with people in the town. What they find out is that while not many locals have heard of a ghost in Jeremiah's house, many have stories about their own house, of that of their neighbors. Further research leads Steward & company to learn about an eighteenth-century massacre, and a group of "devil worshipers" who used a place on the outskirts of town in the 1970s.

It's probably not too much of a spoiler to say that the filmmakers don't capture indisputable proof of the supernatural on-screen, but even skeptics might find themselves suitably impressed by the sheer volume of stories they dig up. The stories told on screen come from a variety of people, from teens to seniors, men and women, small-towners and college-educated outsiders, so there's not enough of a common thread that a significant chunk can be dismissed all at once. They are much more believable than the expert on the paranormal interviewed, who clai that the existence of ghosts doesn't contradict Einstein. I question the messenger, at least, as I strongly suspect that someone who understands special relativity might not suggest that you can only see ghosts under light that is not electromagnetic in nature (despite electromagnetism being light is).

Like most documentaries, Cherry Valley comes together in the editing room. It's one of the best-cut movies I've seen in a while; no interview segment seems to go on too long, and the jumps between them are smooth. The "haunted house" bits last just long enough for the audience to be right with the guys on screen in terms of freaking out without sucking the sense of danger out.

Where there's no good footage, Steward makes do with some simple, but generally effective, animation. It's something he maybe goes to a little too much toward the end, especially since the leans on the music more in those scenes. It works some at the moment, but a couple minutes later you recognize that the filmmakers have just pushed a button, rather than letting the audience scare themselves by just taking what's on-screen seriously. And as creepy as the scenes in the abandoned houses are, there are some moments that just play as goofy, like when they're on the trail to one of the houses and one guy's allergy to ragweed is revealed as if they'd just seen a real ghost.

As silly as that moment is, it's also charming, showing the would-be paranormal investigators as regular folks. It's not a perfect movie, but I'd like to see a distributor take a chance on it; it would make for a fun Halloween release and better schedule-filler than a lot of fictional ghost stories.

Also at HBS.