Category Archives: ★★★★

Asako in Ruby Shoes (2000, Lee Je-yong)

I’m a fan of Korean films. My introduction to the industry and my love for it is well documented here at The Stop Button, or at least it will be as soon as I get the archives up and going (next month, hopefully). And I’ve seen some great Korean films. I’ve seen some good ones too, but I have seen a couple great ones. But they were great comedies. These films manage to combine romantic comedy with the human heart in conflict with itself better than any American film has done since… well, I can’t even think of one off the top of my head, but I’ll bet it was in black and white. In other words, as of yesterday, I had never seen a great Korean romantic drama. The ones I had seen, some were good, some were just all right (I’ve yet to turn off a Korean film)….

I made a note to myself at the beginning of Asako in Ruby Shoes: “Films that start with the musical score over the production company logos… it’s a bold move.” Such a movie either signals something awful–bold because it’s obnoxious–or something else. If it weren’t for Asako, I wouldn’t have an example of something else. It means you’re establishing the film with its music before it begins… you’re not giving the viewer a moment outside the context of your film. Its literary equivalent is telling some of your story in the Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data information.

There were moments–about an hour in–when I thought Asako was going to fail. Well, not fail, but slope down and level off at two and a half or three. The film had just moved back to one story-line from another and the intensity lessened. Except–I realized at the end of Asako–Lee knows what he’s doing. I found I was waiting for the end, for example, to see how good he was going to do, not hoping for it not to fail too much. That sensation is exciting, since I don’t have it very often. Maybe with Bringing Out the Dead, since I’d forgotten its ending, I got excited. It doesn’t happen often enough.

It’s hard to describe the film though and it’s a shitty one to write-up in a lot of ways, because there’s no easy way for one to see it. Actually, I suppose you could join Nicheflix or buy it for eight bucks off eBay. There’s a transfer issue with the DVDs though, so you can’t deinterlace it, which is a pain when you’re watching it on a computer, which wants to deinterlace. (Deinterlacing, generally speaking, is a good idea). So I had to go through a whole process to watch this film–and I was only fifteen minutes in when I discovered how to correct the problem–but those first fifteen minutes were amazing. There’s some other film that kept having these wonderful false endings, where each time you expected it and were happy with it, then they kept getting better and better. I can’t remember what it was or when I saw it.

I’m already at the longest post of the year to date and I haven’t said much about the acting. Both the leads are great. Lee Jung-Jae is famous and I’ve seen a bunch of his stuff (though none of it hinted that he could be as good as he is in Asako). Tachibana Misato is apparently not famous and has two films available through Netflix–both are action movies starring Americans who couldn’t get work here anymore–which is too bad, because her performance is probably the better of the two. And he’s real good. They must be good, I hardly ever mention actors who don’t have some marquee value.

If I didn’t have to get up in four or five hours, I’d watch Asako again. It’s that good. (It’s so good I just used ‘that’ in a lousy way, all for emphasis).

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written, directed and edited by Lee Je-yong; director of photography, Hong Gyeong-pyo; music by Cho Sung-woo; produced by Koo Boo-han; released by Cinema Service.

Starring Lee Jung-jae (U-In), Tachibana Misato (Aya), Awata Urara (Rie) and Kim Min-hie (Mia).


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The Ice Storm (1997, Ang Lee)

When I was a wee lad, I loved Ang Lee. I loved him only for The Ice Storm, never having seen Sense and Sensibility or his Chinese language films. I avoided Ride With the Devil after the reviews (both professional and from peers) and Hidden Tiger, Crouching Dragon was a truly sleep-inducing experience. I gave up my Lee love after that one, though, and when I came across The Ice Storm on Netflix, I realized I’d forgotten it. I hadn’t forgotten the book, of course, since I started reading Rick Moody about the same time I stopped seeing Ang Lee films. After reading the book, I recognized the differences, but now, watching the movie again, I can’t specifically remember them. The novel is a novel and the film is a film. The Ice Storm is the best example of a great book being adapted into a great film that I can think of….

Maybe what Lee needs is a subject as confining as The Ice Storm. Most of the shots are inside and his work there is amazing. I can’t remember a film where the focus effected me as much as this one. The story moves between 8 characters and–sometimes, not always–Lee uses the focus to signify which character’s POV we’re in. There’s a lot of juxtaposing and rhyming, but the film maintains a lyric sense about it. The music is used in an interesting way, because sometimes it does something, other times it does something similar, but entirely different. Half of the film takes place during the titular ice storm, but the film manages not to de-emphasize the first hour. The pacing makes the second hour feel like a (somewhat longer) third act, which it isn’t.

All of the acting is good, with Jamey Sheridan probably turning in the most unexpectedly excellent performance. Elijah Wood is really good too. But, it’s just such a dreary film, it’s hard enough to experience without talking about. The film–with its sudden exterior shots, just as encroaching and constrictive as its interior ones–is probably drearier than the novel even. There’s maybe five of these exterior shots–wooded path, daytime, but they resonate so strongly. They do work that the written medium cannot do, which is a hell of compliment.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ang Lee; screenplay by James Schamus, based on the novel by Rick Moody; director of photography, Frederick Elmes; edited by Tim Squyres; music by Mychael Danna; production designer, Mark Friedberg; produced by Ted Hope, Schamus and Lee; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Kevin Kline (Ben Hood), Joan Allen (Elena Hood), Sigourney Weaver (Janey Carver), Henry Czerny (George Clair), Tobey Maguire (Paul Hood), Christina Ricci (Wendy Hood), Elijah Wood (Mikey Carver), Adam Hann-Byrd (Sandy Carver), David Krumholtz (Francis Davenport), Jamey Sheridan (Jim Carver) and Katie Holmes (Libbets Casey).


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Star Wars (1977, George Lucas)

Watching Star Wars as an adult–as a cynical adult–is an interesting experience. There are plenty of frequent reminders of the first film’s “faults,” from Alec Guinness and Harrison Ford deriding the dialogue to many of the second trilogy’s reviews citing it as a weak film. As near as I can tell, I haven’t seen Star Wars since early 1999, when I prepared for Episode I. I’m pretty sure I watched the original edition, from the “Definitive Collection” LaserDisc. This viewing was back when no one had any idea how stingy Lucas was going to be with the original versions of the films.

Tonight I watched a recreation of the 1977 version. It’s called the “Classic Edition” and, if you know where to look, it’s available online. I’d love to link to a torrent or something, but I’d rather not get the blog taken down, not before I get the beautiful new version up (by the end of the month, hopefully). This 1977 is pre-A New Hope even… The result–and the experience–is magical. Star Wars‘s brilliance is not impossible to quantify. This film is very much from the director of THX 1138 and American Graffiti–I’d love to say the Han/Luke relationship mirrors, resembles, or continues the Curt/Steve relationship from Graffiti, but someone else already has. The beauty of Star Wars, what kept people going back in 1977 and so on, is in the characters. Much like Graffiti, Lucas again creates this wonderful cast of characters, all of whom have these nuanced relationships with each other. It’s not R2D2 and Chewbacca playing the 3D chess, it’s C3PO looking at Princess Leia during the Death Star run. It’s Leia saying “Good luck” before the swing.

The swing is another example of something in Star Wars–unrelenting adventure. There’s a difference between unrelenting action and unrelenting adventure. Action is about killing bad guys, adventure is about beating impossible odds. Star Wars is about attaining the impossible dream.

Still, when I started watching the film–probably until the Sand People attack–I found myself trying to figure out what Lucas was doing differently back then. I was trying to identify how he went bad. It’s visible really early, during the Jawas selling the droids. Lucas used to be excited by what he was putting on film and he’s not anymore (at least not with the second trilogy, who knows if he’ll direct again). I’ve probably seen Star Wars fifteen times, the first time when I was three–and I can’t remember ever being more entranced than I was tonight, at twenty-seven.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by George Lucas; director of photography, Gilbert Taylor; edited by Richard Chew, Paul Hirsch and Marcia Lucas; music by John Williams; production designer, John Barry; produced by Gary Kurtz; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia Organa), Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin), Alec Guinness (Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Kenny Baker (R2-D2), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), David Prowse and James Earl Jones (Darth Vader), Phil Brown (Uncle Owen), Shelagh Fraser (Aunt Beru), Jack Purvis (Chief Jawa), Alex McCrindle (General Dodonna) and Eddie Byrne (General Willard).


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Black Narcissus (1947, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)

If you’ve never seen a film by the Archers (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger), you’ve never seen a film like one of theirs’. If you have seen a film by the Archers, and you sit down to watch another of their films, you’ve still never seen a film like the one you’re about to watch. I’m not much of an Archers scholar–Black Narcissus is probably their most famous film and this viewing is my first–but I have seen a couple, not counting their last film–the awful Australian tourist film, They’re a Weird Mob (to be fair, Powell directed and Pressburger wrote, usually they shared duties).

The film’s story–nuns in the Himalayas–is probably impossible to describe. So much of the film depends feeling, on little things. Describing the film, also, would cheapen it. I’ve had Black Narcissus to watch for quite a while and kept putting it off. I don’t know why, probably because the Archers made such great films, my expectations were incredibly high. The film met those expectations and even surpassed them, since it had me off-guard throughout, even when what I assumed was going to happen did. Black Narcissus doesn’t “give” the audience a lot, it expects them to take a lot from it. I can’t imagine what my response to this film would have been ten years ago, when I was first getting into Criterion laserdiscs and might have come across it for the Martin Scorsese commentary. (I could get Goodfellas at seventeen, but Goodfellas isn’t all that quiet).

There’s so much to look at in Black Narcissus, so many things one could talk about, I’ve mostly run out of ideas. The acting is great–the supporting cast has a lot to do and they’re all wonderful. You know these characters, even though there are quite a few, right away. Jack Cardiff’s cinematography is famous on this film and it is amazing–even more, I suppose, since it was all shot with miniatures and matte paintings–but the editing is fantastic too. The editing makes a lot of the film.

I can’t recommend this film highly enough… certainly don’t wait around to see it like I did.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed and produced by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; screenplay by Powell and Pressburger, from the novel by Rumer Godden; director of photography, Jack Cardiff; edited by Reginald Mills; music by Brian Easdale; production designer, Alfred Junge; released by General Film Distributors.

Starring Deborah Kerr (Sister Clodagh), Sabu (Young Prince), David Farrar (Mr. Dean), Kathleen Byron (Sister Ruth), Esmond Knight (Old General), Flora Robson (Sister Philippa) and Jean Simmons (Kanchi).


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