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Thursday, Nov 29, 2007

MIDNIGHT EAGLE (dir. Izuru Narushima)


It’s curious to note the continuing influence of Western filmmaking on the usually idiosyncratic foreign cinema. Instead of incorporating or exploiting Hollywood’s hackneyed entertainment principles, some countries simply embrace them without exception. Japan has maintained a wonderfully oblivious take on American moviemaking over the last few decades. They still enjoy the power of giant monsters and an amplified level of acting. Over the last 20 years, thanks to the advances in technology, more cross culture cooperation has, sadly, led to more and more Eastern films feeling like warmed over Tinsel Town junk. Take Midnight Eagle. This two hour plus work of international intrigue wants to emulate the overproduced popcorn product that clogs up the summer Cineplex. Luckily, it’s much better than most of the malarkey considered marketable by our own studio suits. Sadly, it also suffers from some unusual aesthetic choices.


Troubled war photographer Yuji Nishizaki has seen enough. Escaping to the mountains of the Japanese Alps, he hopes to erase from his mind the tragic memories of what he’s seen. Unfortunately, further heartbreak occurs when his wife dies, leaving him alone with a young son named Yu. Sister-in-law and magazine reporter Keiko is angry at the absentee father and takes the boy to live with her in Tokyo. Without an emotional or familial anchor, Yuji is left suffering and desperate. While on one of his lonesome retreats, he witnesses a bright flash in the sky, a crash on the side of a far off peak, and an accompanying Air Force survey. Wanting to avoid anything awful, he slinks back to his sheltered life. But when best friend Oaichi hires Yuji to shoot photos of the investigation, the jaded journalist suddenly finds himself back in harm’s way. Seems an American Stealth bomber, loaded with a rogue nuke, is lying in ruins, and if the Japanese don’t reach it in time, the atomic device is destined to wind up in the hands of the advancing enemy force.


Like a series of subplot ships slowly meandering downstream to a final narrative focal point, Midnight Eagle has to be one of the most languid political thrillers ever conceived. Deliberately paced to emphasize every melodramatic moment and frequently substituting martyrdom for suspense, this intriguing if ultimately cold genre effort argues for Japan’s increasing reliance on archetypal tricks to support its spectacle. Set mostly in the frozen climes of the nation’s noted mountains, director Izuru Narushima maximizes his location, pushing the boundaries of believability in the process. Our heroes - friends Yuji and Oaichi - spend days in the bitter cold, even getting involved in firefights and battle-instigated avalanches. Yet they never once seem to suffer from frostbite or hypothermia. While we get an explanation later indicating that both men have frequented these snow-covered ranges for years, such tolerances are telling. Midnight Eagle is not out to be the realistic geopolitical potboiler it promises. Instead, it will offer a passive pro-peace platform, using an unnamed enemy (North Korean is inferred) and a reckless ally (the USA has apparently reneged on a “no nuke” flyover policy) to show why Japan must lead the cause for international harmony.


It’s a solid statement, and one that works for the most part. Because he looks so world weary and haggard, actor Takao Osawa is a decent movie messenger. He’s lost so much - courage, wife, son, sanity - that his last act transformation into active participant seems totally logical. Similarly, the diminutive Yuko Takeuchi is excellent as the driven Keiko. Her scenes opposite Osawa are excellent, especially when she is deriding his lack of familial concern. In fact, Midnight Eagle works much better as an interpersonal drama than a showboating F/X actioner. We really feel the connection between the characters, and experience the emotional issues right along side them. Unfortunately, the narrative keeps interfering to bring us more War Room bravado and implied chest puffing. There are a couple of governmental insights that work, almost all involving Tatsuya Fuji’s Prime Minister. There is an especially telling scene where an aid finds the leader crumbled on a rooftop, crying. Once he’s seen, the attempt to regain his composure is memorable.


So why, exactly, is Midnight Eagle so underwhelming? It could be that we never really comprehend the hazard. Of course, nuclear annihilation has its impact - it’s a post-modern given. But there is never any real danger except from the camouflaged troop’s bullets. Typically, a Hollywood thriller would have a preemptive problem that shows us the scope and the scale of the threat at hand. Here, everything is implied. No tragic test runs on an outer island. No visualized example of the devastation predicted. Not even a clear idea of how much damage the bomb can cause (a presentation on the impending tragedy is all charts and graphs). What we need here is a figurative explosion - something to shock us into understanding the consequences at stake. It is obvious that Narushima wants to build the dread little by little, making every moment away from the problem count. Yet the sad situations with the characters occasionally sidetrack the supposed suspense by making the family more important than the fate of a nation.


Midnight Eagle is also a very claustrophobic film, the mountainside locales reduced to snowbound medium shots with very little scope. It’s a telling artistic choice, since the very rare instances where the camera does pull back take our breath away with their visual insinuation. Additionally, sequences of supposed cat and mouse play out in steps, not showcases, and we never really fear for Keiko or Yu’s well being. Instead, we recognize their role as catalyst for the last act tearjerking. This is indeed an attempted four hanky weeper, characters committing acts of noble altruism that are meant to get the waterworks flowing. Oddly, we’re left unmoved by all this exploitation. Perhaps it’s because we see through the ruse Midnight Eagle is fostering. We understand that Yuji and Oaichi must suffer, and their newfound friend in the military is programmed to die for his country. Since a certain level of predictability exists, we don’t get as caught up in the finale’s machinations as we should.


All of this leaves Midnight Eagle as a perfectly serviceable entertainment. It does reach the ditzy dizzying heights of a Michael Bay blockbuster, and rarely rates concern as a work of nail biting thrills. Still, the winter setting does provide some erroneous shivers, and the storyline is measured in such a way as to constantly keep our attention. When Hong Kong took the crime genre to heart, imbuing the dying film style with all manner of artistic and ancient tradition, it reinvented and revitalized the format. While it would be interesting so see how Japan handles the post-Godzilla disaster epic, Midnight Eagle is not out to be so grand. Instead, it’s a veiled call for calm in a world burdened by dozens of unnecessary conflicts. While the meaning is righteous, the manner of its delivery may be too sluggish for Western ADD adrenaline addicts. It’s acceptable, not epic.


Midnight Eagle - Trailer

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Thursday, Nov 29, 2007

THE ORPHANAGE (dir. Juan Antonio Bayona)


It’s safe to say that, before Guillermo Del Toro, Spanish horror (and its Mexican counterpart) were reserved for the famed Paul Naschy and his old school ilk. It was all religious symbolism and mannered moralizing. But thanks to the bigger picture boos presented by this cinematic NeoWave (which includes Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu), a whole new world of artistic innovation has opened. It’s been a real entertainment epiphany. Del Toro has even moved into the role of mentor, guiding the work of others into the movie mainstream. Thanks to his vision and approach, we now have the magnificent movie The Orphanage. Combining classic haunted house motifs with a real sense of sentiment, filmmaker Juan Antonio Bayona has delivered a stunning work of wonder. It signals the continued influence of the Hispanic aesthetic on the frequently failing fright flick.


It’s been several decades since Laura has been back to the place of her childhood - a rundown foster home that holds some decidedly mixed memories for the now middle-aged mother. She’s returned to buy the place and start her own special needs school, and she’s brought along her doctor husband and her own adopted son. While the building has a tragic history, Laura hopes she can bring a little light back to the space. Within the first couple of weeks, young Simon seems preoccupied and distant. While prone to having imaginary friends, he’s suddenly developed a flock of them. And where he used to be open and honest, he’s now secretive and aloof. As plans draw near for the facility’s Grand Opening, Laura seems haunted by a spectral old woman. This creepy visage visits the home, breaks into the property’s shed, and more or less makes a nuisance of herself. Then someone disappears. Struck by the loss, Laura must investigate the awful crone, as well as decipher where her loved one could have gone to. Suddenly, the horrid past of the orphanage comes into full view, and in order for our heroine to survive, she must face the untold terrors within.


Bolstered by cinematic atmosphere so ripe you can practically pick it and eat it, The Orphanage is a deliriously delicious creep out. Directed with substantial style and a fabulous flare for the moody by Spanish whiz Juan Antonio Bayona, this is appealing adult fantasy at its most enlightened. Similar to witnessing a motion picture marriage between Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, and Mexican madman Guillermo Del Toro (who produced this incredible effort), the insidious tale of a foul foster home and the haunted legacy it carries is a major triumph of instinct and imagination. Bayona and his collaborator Sergio Sanchez aren’t covering new ground here. All countries have their haunted house stories, from the demonic dwellings of Italy to the spooked sanitariums of New Zealand. But The Orphanage strives to do something different. It wants to impart a clear emotional core to the film, to make all loss - be it simple or supernatural - become part of the character’s personal concerns. Thanks to some amazing performances, a gorgeously Gothic setting, a flawless sense of dread, and various artful ‘X’ factors, what we wind up with is a true terror classic, the kind of film that will only build in reputation and respect as the years pass.


It’s intriguing to see how Bayona formulates his fear. The Orphanage has bows to many macabre symbols, from the little child in the face-covering burlap sack (recalling all hooded fiends) to the moments where the paranormal parks itself directly in the path of reality (you name the ‘parallel truth’ motion picture). Requiring an endemic narrative to achieve these aims, the director gets incredibly lucky here. Sanchez sets up not one, or two, but three intriguing plot threads. We have the contemporary tale of modern family Laura, Carlos, and their adopted son Simon. The young boy’s secret (he’s sick, and this review won’t spoil the reveal as to the nature of his disease) meshed against his mother’s memories of this mysterious mansion have a centered, present-day appeal. We feel for these people and understand their desire for a better life. This echoes the issues in the flashbacks. We learn that Laura lived during a time when the orphanage suffered a scandalous setback - several students were poisoned by a vengeful teacher, and their deaths meant the end of the hospice. That this woman suddenly thrusts herself back into Laura’s life many years later is just the first sign that things here won’t be smooth sailing.


Then there’s the main mystery. Without ruining the plot, it involves an interfamilial fight, the sudden appearance of an imaginary friend, the development of a spirit ‘game’, and the eventual disappearance of someone close to Laura’s heart. All of this plays out in jigsaw puzzle plausibility, pieces falling into place with evocative regularity. As he builds his story, Bayona evokes his producer, as well as the similarly styled works of Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento. Indeed, The Orphanage is often the most Italian looking Spanish horror film ever made. Some could call it an overall European conceit, but the fact remains that overwhelming homes with hidden secrets have long been a favorite of the Mediterranean masters. Toss in some sly dark humor, a dash of epic eeriness (the costal locale with its menacing lighthouse and shoreline play a crucial role), and some stellar performances, and you have a film that tunnels its way directly into your subconscious and begins to do battle.


Special kudos have to go out to Belen Rueda. As Laura, whose loss is further complicated by he own slipping grip on reality, she gives an incredibly soulful turn. When she’s wandering helpless through a group of potential clients, their handicapped children lost within an insular world of thoughts and troubles, the analogy is plastered all over the actress’s fragile face. As little Simon, Roger Princep avoids child actor precociousness to really get to the heart of his character’s individual concerns. He doesn’t respond well to the move, and his desire to make his imaginary friends happy has a fiendish, Exorcist like quality to it. Even Geraldine Chaplin has an amazing cameo moment when her supposed psychic powers are truly put to the test. The rest of the cast is wonderfully potent, especially the problematic Mabel Rivera (as Pilar) who frequently resembles an insane corpse. As the reason for all the paranormal portents, she makes an icky effigy. In fact, everything about Bayona’s visual style screams scary. From the tumble down home to the often hazy horizon, we appear to have stumbled directly into a ghostly gateway. 


Thankfully, Bayona and Sanchez avoid easy answers and formulaic finishes. The Orphanage is a wonderfully complex thriller that gets more and more insidious as the ending unfolds. There is more to this mystery than a whodunit and why. Instead, we get the evils of the past visited on those outside the initial foul fray, and restless spirits imposing their undead will on those arrogant enough to live among them. It all adds up to one of the best genre endings in recent years, a sad if celebratory resolution that gives us closure, comfort, and a healthy dose of the creeps. Comparisons to Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth are totally appropriate. In Bayona’s mind, not all stories end with ‘happily ever after’. Sometimes, you have to suffer greatly to achieve a state of grace. Under such a philosophy, this movie was tortured from the opening frames to the final credits. It’s so elegant and exceptional that it must be the byproduct of something very bad. While it may be nothing more than a Hispanic phase of the already fading spook showing, The Orphanage stands apart. It’s as timeless as it is terrifying.


The Orphanage - Trailer

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Thursday, Nov 29, 2007

Unrequited love, the all consuming crush, the exasperated horror of hormonal changes, the tedium of school, trouble with parents, the emergence of individual identity. The adolescent struggle and all of its attendant rites, rituals, and humiliations are ever present in the storytelling of My So-Called Life. Rather than employing such episodic conceits as melodramatic posturing or self-righteous lessons, the writers chose instead to blend these moments into the textured fabric of the overall story arc that runs throughout the series. Furthermore, Shout! Factory has assembled a loving, insightful, and extensive package of extras to accompany the 19 original episodes.  In addition to interviews and (select) episode commentary from creator Winnie Holzman and executive producers Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick, there are insightful interviews and episode remarks with writers, directors and many members of the cast, including Claire Danes. They have also included a 36-page booklet with tribute essays from Holzman and famous fans such as Joss Whedon and Janeane Garofalo. The teenager in us all can relate.



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Thursday, Nov 29, 2007

Legacy gave the long overdue re-issue treatment to Sly and the Family Stone’s catalogue this year. The Collection is for anyone who loves great music. Fraudulent transcendence is one of pop music’s prime currencies—a contemporary band such as the Polyphonic Spree, for example, may share the Family Stone’s gimmick of fashion and embrace of community, but their supposedly ecstatic music lacks any sense of mortal urgency. Understand this: Sly & the Family Stone’s music is not just a feel-good grandiosity, but a bid for higher things, once-attainable things of irregular power, things that would prove more vulnerable to humble truths than musical fantasy.


Sly and the Family Stone - Medley [Live on the Kraft Music Hour]

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Thursday, Nov 29, 2007

While his infamous Midnight Movie El Topo remains an established cult classic, few actually know the true cinematic legacy of this celebrated surrealist. Beginning life as a radical and poet, Jodorowsky fell into film as a means of extending his performance art pretensions. The results remain some of the most confounding masterworks ever conceived. This brilliant box set collects all his early works – the short film La Cravate and his three major ‘60s/’70s epics (Fando y Lis, El Topo, and The Holy Mountain). Visually arresting, philosophically strident, and brutally strange, they stand as excellent examples of this director’s unquestioned vision. 


El Topo - Trailer

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