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47 Ronin (2013)
0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Inventing Edo, 12 April 2014

We want to take a clear, simple look here. The Japanese would have it that way. The film is either tolerated as not that bad, which means there was a starting notion that the film was a horrible idea to begin with, or panned for its denigration, its shallow take of Japanese culture.

What's so above being made into an aesthetic pleasure here? It's a venerable story of old on one hand, iconic in Japan; 47 samurai plot to avenge the death of their dishonored master, restoring justice and honor. More than that it's the underlying noble bushido of it all that it seems cannot be made light of.

The film is indeed not that bad. We find flashes of 300 in the exoticizing and darkening of history, Disney's Pirates in the escapades, a superhero whiff in the graphics and a plaintive wail about the noble stand that is in moments not far from Last Samurai; a hodge podge to be sure but entertaining to watch and this can be chalked I think to the Japanese difference.

The film wasn't such a horrible idea to begin with, there's a Japanese tradition of fooling with tradition in both print and film that it falls neatly into, blending historic Edo with sex and magic; my favorite of the few I've seen is Makai Tensho where samurai of historic legend are resurrected to fight the Shogunate. So why ask of Americans of all people to come up with a po-faced solemnity regarding a foreign purity, wasn't the Cruise film silly and affected?

Much better to leverage the American propensity for cinematic magic. The film felt fresher to me on the surface than any of the recent superhero stuff, the colors are more vibrant, the armors more imposing, the sorcery more mythic, the cherry- blossomed gardens evocative even in this context. Alas the Puritan mindset kicked in and the film sets all this up only to restrain it in bland ways. So it's not a lack of seriousness but a lack of zaniness I lament here.

Not so oddly then, the film turns in the end pious and moralistic about the sacrifice. The dignified seriousness about bushido appears here, an even more problematic aspect.

Bushido is an amalgamation; nonself from Zen, Taoist flow, Confucian obligation, each one originally a Chinese notion. The Japanese contribution is the blending as formalized gesture. It is not the avenging of wrongdoing that stirs in this story and sets it apart as deeply Japanese so much as the formal submittance. Their mission over, the ronin won't overstep any more boundaries.

What they submit to however is the same irrational authority and law that invents in the first place a bizarre notion of dishonor and allows the wrongdoing. It's not mentioned here, it is in the original play; the law stipulates that drawing your sword in the Shogun's place is punishable by death. Anyway the lord agrees to painful seppuku as do his men in the end, both displays of bushido.

So there's a reason why it was promoted by Japanese authorities in the debacle leading up to WWII, why the most known film version of this story was commissioned by militarists in the 40s. The Japanese obsession with formalizing is a short step from rigid unthinking. Not even Zen escaped this during the war, offering up war as cleansing. The conundrum is greatly expressed in a postwar Japanese film called Seppuku; can spiritual practice be social evil?

Anyway back to the film, we have in the end a po-faced dignity about bushido that only succeeds to paper over the continuation of that evil that creates the concept of honor. The film is not as irreverent where it could be then overly serious about a dubious thing - a disappointment.

Roman Days of Our Lives, 10 April 2014

History? Only the imperial machinations around the throne. Drama? Plotting and counter-plotting. Acting? It's only great if you're impressed by good posture and enunciation. (I was impressed by this Livia, her steely determinism)

No, history for me to be effective in a lasting sense has to surround the lived atmosphere, not the staged artifice of a few events. There's no life here, only staging about staging. It's a Roman Days of Our Lives with the only lofty difference being that the actors impersonate historical persons and the same tempestuous games about power are enacted in costume.

Gladiator (2000)
The power of vision, 10 April 2014

Here the interesting thing worth commenting is vision. It's otherwise a typical film of its sort if several years more later it appears to have not been particularly prescient of the wonderful advances we've had since in the way of telling a story.

Its' a reworking of Fall of the Roman Empire, an amazingly clunky epic from the 60s around the same story that signaled the end of its type; in its narrative trajectory this is as stale now. The hero and villain, the conflict, the rising above circumstances and poetic redemption. The stage is of course far more dynamic, it's overall closer to the eye but frames the same one dimension.

Kingdom of Heaven was more evocative for me; there we started by following an ordinary man swept to a far and mysterious historic horizon, the journey was to a place where destiny threatened to reveal itself, though the film otherwise partook of many of the same faults as this, the blacksmith became the hero, the tentative horizon became the painting of brave exploits.

The nested story here is about the power of vision.

It's the vision Commodus creates to manipulate a mob addicted to empty spectacle, the gladiator-movie that we came to see, enough to forego our mundane worries about what's wrong with the state of things. We see the emperor place miniatures of gladiators in a replica of the arena and this is followed by a majestic aerial shot of tiny particles of people flushing towards the Colosseum for the movie.

Then it's the hero's vision of what he can achieve by agreeing to play his part in that spectacle, redemption. He does this by not entertaining, by showing mercy and challenging our demand for bloodshed, though only after this has been sated by protracted killing.

But does any of this does what it says? The answer for me is no. If it did along the lines it sets up, we'd leave this disgusted by the hollow spectacle and not secretly titillated, informed by the possibility of mercy for redemption and not glorying in the revenge.

No the only powerful thing here for me is the further nested vision of Maximus that gives him strength to keep going; the vision of loved ones.

Scott wisely discerned that this had to be bound to a tangible place, the lovely home in the Roman countryside, that it would be our visual tether as we strayed to the accidental world of organized cruelties. It's all anchored on this spot. The shot of his hand caressing the rippling wheat is on his way to meet them, imagined, at first as a much anticipated return from years of war, later as a reunion in the next world.

Scott could have done so much more to visually caress the place in mind but the fact that he places it at the center tells me he was wise to the power of vision and mind. Isn't the shot of the dirt road leading up to the house lined with cypress trees rippling in the wind one of the most memorable images here? Maximus description of the house to the emperor conjures the imagery the camera omits, earthy smells and textures.

Several magnitudes more powerful than any vindication in the arena, the power of this vision would be that of not losing sight of what makes us human, not letting the darkness of dungeons and arenas of life pull this anchor.

Semiotics of the fall, 8 April 2014

This documents the fall of an empire built on power, ambition, money, showmanship, rival dynasties that could leverage thousands in the field of action: Old Hollywood. Falls of this sort, the film announces, are not an instantaneous event of course but a process of decline with many contributing factors. Hollywood was falling for some time and would continue to for several more years until new blood was allowed in.

But this revealingly documents several of the reasons behind the fall. In the Old Hollywood vein of DW Griffith and Cecil DeMille, the human being casts no shadow, is allowed no inner dimension or private space, life is a public display of heroism, its machinations are clear and unambiguous, love is announced, ambition is announced, ordinary humans are only given room to writhe as part of a collective backdrop.

It's clear why this picture was beginning to crumble. By '64 the Beatles had taken hold, preparing the ground where a new collectivity would be the focus of life and discovery and not the backdrop to gestures. The first televised images of Earth from space had been broadcast, visually shattering the notion of fixed stage. The new French philosophies were beginning to rail against any single truth in the historical narrative.

So here we have Rome in an extravagant scale, a cast of thousands clashing in the battlefield or the streets, heroes or villains gesticulating conflict, all to prop something that is absolutely lifeless.

Interesting is how the film itself responds to the broader perceived change sweeping it. It sees a desire for change and openness, underscored by a Christian subplot where an emancipated slave happily feeds thousands of every race in what would in a few years be understood as counterculture metaphor (the rally is quashed by Roman police). The tyrant all through the film props a culture of superficial image, spectacle, power, violence, the same exact things the filmmakers hinged the whole appeal on: chariot races, marches and counter-marches, lavish decor, the final duel.

So here is a grandiose cinematic parade about its own lack of a softer humanity. I count in that the message of tolerance which is foisted on us from the outside, in another stage, with another grandiose leader addressing the crowds.

It wasn't Lean who revolutionized this particular stage in Lawrence, though we had desert space for contemplation and a more dynamic capture. It was Leone, that master semiotician, trained on exactly this sort of Roman spectacle.

The film ends with the tyrant dead and senators haggling with the military commander over the price of the vacant throne, foreshadowing the corporate empire of New Hollywood.

Rest Stop (2006) (V)
Convenient badness, 7 April 2014

It's unthinkable to me how money can sometimes trickle down to a complete waste. It takes a particularly bad film to make me think what is essentially a useless thought: they make them because they can stand them in the videostore in a row of samey titles and people like me will pick them off the shelf for a night with friends.

A girl is menaced by a redneck with a truck around a rest stop, how hard can it be to simply do a decent job?

Here's a glimpse of just how bad. A cop arrives at one point, he's faced with a distraught girl (with clear marks of abuse on her) who yells about being chased around and her boyfriend kidnapped, the same yellow truck she has described arrives at just that moment. What does the cop do? Walks up to the driver, converses for a while, and comes back reassured that the guy was just lost and asking for directions. Eegad.

2 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
Engineering the discovery, 3 April 2014

Life as interminable survival, as an actual train of civilization hurling through a hostile nature (that we broke), with haves and have- nots in the front and back, with the back exploited and degraded for the benefit of those invisible few controllers at the front, and the revolution that bursts forward and shatters boundaries, revealing the extent of the civilized illusion.

There will be plenty of small things to pick up on like an eternal engine that (secretly) needs children to run, but it's a blunt cosmology, as constricting as what it attacks. It was so in Brazil and Matrix and Metropolis all the way back, every time inequality or the mechanization of life is posited as actual enslavement. The more nuanced stance here is the revolution as merely another cog in the machine.

Ironically, I thought the film was more worthwhile not for what it has to say about any state of things but for how it engineers the journey of discovery.

The Korean filmmaker made this after a film where he really pushed himself in the conception of cinematic spaces, there tied to the narrative drive to reconstruct memory. He is less interesting here with the Weinsteins involved, but he has great fun within those small limits.

He sets up a 'sacred engine' and mysterious Architect residing at the front, a sort of religious vision to urge us forward; whatever else happens in between, there's always this promise of revelation ahead, a usual device that never seems to fail. Once we get there it's no more fulfilling of course than when we finally met the Architect in the Matrix, it's always the anticipation that creates the powerful tether.

This sense of anticipation reappears so very effectively in the interim mechanics. It's in the vision that we have of what lies beyond each door to the next train compartment, the dynamic interplay of what we anticipate and what's revealed in that split second that suddenly pushes back the whole horizon of the trainworld: there has been actually a garden and club there all this time, with all this calls forward. This is by far the most captivating aspect here for me, as rich as the lesson-learning is small.

Trains are some of the most cinematic devices opening so much room for dynamic capture, here motion isn't the strong card, Tony Scott or even Spielberg and Del Toro could have leveraged more breathtaking physics. No all the fun here is in the strangeness of the discovery; the Seven in the snow, the plane, the Yekaterina bridge, more details that also broaden the walls.

With Marvel as your yardstick this is unusual and fun, with real difference as the measure it falls short though.

The Den (2013)
4 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Limits, images, 1 April 2014

Here's one of those things that sound stupid if you just describe it, a horror film in the found footage mode entirely assembled via web and phone cams and mostly taking place on a laptop. No it isn't scary, the acting is below par, there's no cinematic craft, the horror plot and climax are atrociously bad, in the end it's no more than a gimmick, but for a while you can see them probing something interesting.

Part of the reason why I think it's so darn clever is in how it threads the practical limitations of what they could do on a tiny budget, around narrative limitations of how much story they could deliver within the former, around broader meta- limitations of how much is possible for a viewer to know as true, going from meagre means to the broad, perplexing questions.

Inspiration after all is nourished and energized by limits, self-imposed or from necessity like a painter has to puzzle about how he can enliven and give depth to a twodimensional surface. It's easy to think of so many things to do with a budget in the millions, which is why unconstrained imagination fizzles out, but how much can you do with just a camera?

Here it's about a viewer in the midst of images, a girl doing a behavioral study over online chat services, who like us is looking to surmise possible pattern and truth; the constraint is that we can only watch.

A lot of the time we stare into a computer environment. Jarring to see in a film but still the groundwork through which we know so many other things these days. We see through a webcam at the girl in her apartment so we acquire a sense of real time. But then things are shifted around. Videos that we were parsing as taking place now are suddenly paused. We connect to random chatters, but have no way of knowing how much is real even within the small confines of the screen. Some of them are pulling pranks, there's a startling Russian roulette scene that ends with bloodshed and everyone laughing.

Among all this is footage of a possible murder.

So this could have been great, about our inability to be grounded in a horizon of shifting images and context; a Blowup for the tumblr age. We could swim far deeper into the videos, form more ambiguous connections, play and replay edges and details, tune in and out of a far stranger parade of the visual strangeness that is taking place out there, some of it feigned, some bizarre or exciting, even stupidity or crass sex would have its place, some strangely poetic in spite of all else.

So they constrained themselves in a powerful way, but halfway through they axe all that and fall back to the convenient limits of tradition: Halloween, Scream 2, Saw and Hostel. It's a throwaway thing by the end which is a shame.

Cloyed flow, 1 April 2014

A question loomed in mind while seeing this. We follow the true story that allows us to tangle with loss and destruction, letting the sombre realization of human frailty in the face of cosmic waves overwhelm us, so that in the end we'll be cleansed by the miraculous power of life to sometimes set up the most impossible redemption.

It happens. It affirms the purpose of not losing sight of loved ones, of looking and nurturing their presence over an unknowable distance. It does let us experience briefly the loss and sorrow of those whose stories weren't so fortunate. And it appears, with respect for those who truly lost that day, in a light that extends this purpose of anticipated reunion in a larger sense.

Yet the rarity of this story, the fact that it ends with this family safe and whole, keeps it from feeling intellectually satisfying, it's just not the feeling so many must have boarded their last flights home with. So the point for me, the real challenge in making a film like this, would be a film that keeps the same vital realizations above but folds them in a more encompassing manner.

A fundamental answer for me lies in the connecting visual logic.

The realizations are powerful and visual: anticipation of presence, indeterminate horizon, fundamental ambiguity as they hope and search but it may well be in vain, presence in a larger sense as still carrying their vision. Here the logic is linear, find, lose and find again, building to the final salvation, emotional but it fizzles quick because there's so much we've left behind.

So how would it be for these to be ambiguously shuffled? Malick would know just how. He has similarly immense backdrops, war, history, creation, but they are re-arranged by the power of internal recollection. Start not necessarily with what happens first but what color you want for the opening urge. I know I would put near the end the image of everyone together on the beach the night before it happens sending out the paper lanterns into the sky. How would you choose to remember?

The commonplace anticipation, 1 April 2014

Sadly competence is enough in horror, I say this as a longtime fan. Take this one for example. It's perfectly competent in every aspect, a potent combination of the house slasher, the 80s splatter film with an Italian dash to it, and if you get up close you can appreciate a slight difference in the order of things, a hint of humorous hysteria here and there. It's sure to go down well with fans.

But if you pull back to the overall vision it's the same stuff. The crux of the thing is that we have a more or less perfect grasp of what it's going to be like: people will be routinely stalked and murdered in a house. So the unique advantage any young creative mind can enjoy as he sets out to work is that we already have the canvas, the space of the story, in our minds, the house, the seclusion, the frantic behavior. Competent gore is a plus, but the real creative challenge, the exhilarating reason to make one of these films now, is how do you stretch that space? Halloween, Deep Red and Texas Chainsaw had pretty radical notions in their time about choreographed space.

There's so much room to play with what we already anticipate that when I see a thing like this that just noodles with small things, it disappoints. The final twist here is ever so commonplace.

4 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
Disillusionment, 24 March 2014

I liked here the first chapter with exploratory Adele. I liked this girl above all, a revelation. Her guarded grace, her aloof interest, her reluctant fearlessness of not being afraid to face she really liked being kissed by a girl or step out on her own in a lesbian bar, she anchors these opposites so well, within them is her story of not being sure if it's a romance film or not.

So I was invested, in a journey where that we wouldn't let artificial constructs keep us from finding out about things but wouldn't do it at any cost either, it promised bold sensitivity. The sex scenes I suppose where the filmmaker's way of having this balance, but it's there that a creeping sense enters the picture.

The filmmaker sets all this up so we can have in the second chapter disillusionment, desire and emptiness, all that seems to plague us. That's all part of life, disillusionment a part of growing, right? There are some poignant scenes, but an opaque weariness takes over. It ends with ambiguous reconciliation and a chance miss potential romance.

The problem for me is that philosophy has completely broken down in the West. It suffuses the mind with complexities, but has no tools to sever them, to address the vital things. A complex web surrounds why, in short, the main question since the ancient Greeks has been what to do with all the transcendent stuff, soul, ideas, beauty, just where to put them. In medieval times the discussion became about ways to know god and limits of that knowing. Science said let's stick to things we can measure, throwing out transcendent conjecture. Modern philosophy thought to take all that stuff thrown out by science and see if they can't be modeled anyway. Kant was in some ways greatly prescient, pinpointing space to mind. Others like Hegel were a trainwreck.

That's what the French were trying to do en route to WWII by placing being at the center—the self for whom life poses a dilemma—,directly model life. The film is about such a self. The French motto is even mentioned that 'existence precedes essence' which says that I first inhabit a life and then know all the other stuff. In the film, opaque existence is contrasted with abstractions of all sorts: classroom talk of time and eternity, Sartre, the gf's paintings of the girl that freeze in the sketch something that was first known as touch.

The limitation for me, evident in the film here, is the underlying mechanistic assumption in the effort to reflect. There's actually a specific difference that can be traced I think to models of perception, but too technical to go on here. Broadly said, if life is a field of nature, they will go on about how the field appears to me, empty. But the only way a garden can appear in the landscape is for someone to first envision a garden there.

So Adele's failure to find fulfillment is in the end no more than the filmmaker's failure to envision transcendent meaning, a reluctance, a lack of faith? This is not anywhere in itself, you have to cultivate it. Our best makers give it their all, I was recently wowed by a film called Stellet Licht about just this. The only thing the film reflects in the end is this inability to cultivate, the dryness as material truth. Not in my house.

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