THIS JOURNAL DOCUMENTS MY INTAKE OF ONE BOOK, ZINE, CD OR DVD A DAY. RATINGS ARE: ***** = Godhead, **** = Great, *** = Good, ** = Fair, * = Why Bother?

Friday, August 22, 2008

Graham & Joe & Trev & Carol

Trevor Howard's Brit Lit Films

No, it's not '60s sex comedy - I'm referring to the principles in Turner Classic Movies' recent programming salute to the films of British actor-par-excellence Trevor Howard, who starred in films directed by Carol Reed as well as ones written by or based on the writings of Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene. The films I watched this night included:

Outcast of the Islands (1952) ****
Directed by Carol Reed
Based on the novel by Joseph Conrad

The Third Man (1949) *****
Directed by Carol Reed
Based on the story by Graham Greene

The Heart of the Matter (1953) ****
Directed by George More O'Ferall
Based on the novel by Graham Greene

Besides the value of the quartet of notable names mentioned above, there were a number of "two-fers" on offer in this evening's programming: two films directed by Carol Reed (Outcast of the Islands, The Third Man), two set in exotic colonial-era settings (Maylasia in Outcast of the Islands, Sierra Leone in The Heart of the Matter), two back-to-back films starring one-name only actresses (Kerima in Outcast of the Islands and Valli - the moniker Italian actress Alida Valli used in her Hollywood films - in The Third Man), and two written by Graham Greene (The Third Man, The Heart of the Matter). (For the record, Greene collaborated with Carol Reed on three classic films: besides 1949's The Third Man, they worked together on 1948's The Fallen Idol - also starring Trevor Howard - and 1960's Our Man in Havana).

What's in a (full) name?: Valli

Anyway, throughout the night I was struck by the consistent pedigree of Howard's filmography, as he seemingly always appeared in quality pictures, including a number of stellar adaptations of British literary classics (besides Greene and Conrad, let's not forget Trev's turn in the film adaptation of Noel Coward's Brief Encounter).

Following are some thoughts on two of the three films that aired this night. I can add nothing about The Third Man that hasn't already been said, so why bother? Like The Maltese Falcon, it's an example of a perfect, flawless film. ('Nuff said!) Besides, I've always been a sucker for those British colonial empire pics - give me a pith helmet and an exotic locale, and I'm in hog heaven (especially if Joseph Conrad or Graham Greene are penning the tale) - so my main interest this night was on Trev's celluloid exploits in Africa and Southeast Asia. It's too bad that both films are currently unavailable domestically on either VHS or DVD.


Outcast of the Islands (1952)
Directed by Carol Reed
Based on the novel by Joseph Conrad
Cast: Sir Ralph Richardson (Captain Lingard), Trevor Howard (Peter Willems), Robert Morley (Almayer), Wendy Hiller (Mrs. Almayer), Kerima (Aissa), Annabel Morley (Nina Almayer)

Missed the first half-hour of Outcasts of the Islands, but caught the rest of this curio that screened as part of Turner Classic Movie's recent all-night tribute to British actor Trevor Howard. And, as usual, I was drawn into a movie by the compelling face of a beautiful starlet, in this case the mysterious Kerima. Ah, Kerima - a woman so mysterious, she warrants nary an mention in Danny Perry's Cult People. (Speculation: Had she been born in a different era, Kerima could have married Lew Alcindor and the couple could have had the divine-sounding name of Kareem and Kerima Abdul-Jabar. Alas, 'twas not to be.)

Kerima: One word, one love

Though born in Algeria, her exotic looks enabled her to play a number of different nationalities in her brief screen career, including an Egyptian in Land of the Pharoahs (1955), a Vietnamese woman in The Quiet American (1958) and even a "she-wolf" in the Italian horror film La Lupa (1953). Here she plays a mute Malayan "savage" girl, Aissa, the devoted daughter of a blind village chief.

Kerima's temptation eyes

Kerima's temptation eyes captivate Trevor Howard's scalawag colonial trader character Peter Willems to the point of obsession; and who can blame him - I likewise had to put the remote control down when I saw her. Unfortunately for Willems, the attraction soon becomes obsessive.

Savage Love: Trevor Howard goes native

Outcast of the Islands was an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's 1896 novel; though partially filmed at Shepperton Studios in England, the novel was set in Southeast Asia and was partially filmed on location in the Malayas, Borneo and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) - the latter being the birthplace of the film's star Trevor Howard. Conrad described Willems as a "worn-out European living on the reluctant toleration of that settlement in the heart of the forest-land."

Howard as the worn-out Willems, with Carol Reed

Worn-out? All Movie Guide's Hal Erickson described Howard's Willems character more graphically as "a degenerate British expatriate who wanders aimlessly around a Malayan island" and added that the supporting cast of characters wasn't much better. "None of the characters is particularly likable; even Howard loses audience sympathy for his plight by betraying one of his closest friends (Ralph Richardson), a ship's captain who'd raised Howard from boyhood. The unrelenting pessimism of Outcast of the Islands was such that the American distributors felt the need to ease the characters' pain by editing the picture down from 102 minutes to 94."

But for the definitive analysis of this neglected Carol Reed gem, one must turn to the write-up at Britmovie.com:
The success of The Third Man propelled Carol Reed to the peak of his career, making him a director of international importance whose movies accomplished the rare merger of commerce and art; they earned praise from the reviewers and sold plenty of tickets as well. His decision to strike off in a new artistic direction rather than cautiously husbanding the profitable aptitude for thrillers he had displayed was courageous. Weighing up a number of different potential film assignments, he settled on an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's second novel, An Outcast of the Islands (1896), a work which Korda - a Conrad enthusiast - had been urging him to film. The endeavour would require a large and convincing cast and a Far Eastern locale, most of the movie was shot on location in the region where the story was actually set: Ceylon, Borneo and the Malayas.

Kerima signs on for the cast of OUTCAST

The plot of Outcast is soundly constructed, yet the story is largely psychological in emphasis, and it is the passions of the characters which determine the events rather than the other way around. The boredom and restlessness from which Willems suffers in Sambir leaves him vulnerable to temptation and, since there is no money to steal, lust replaces greed, insatiable lust for Aissa (Kerima), the beautiful daughter of the blind chieftain Badavi (A. V. Bramble). The girl's tribesmen, allies of Lingard's rival Ali (Dharma Emmanuel), are thus able to blackmail Willems into revealing the treacherous route into Sambir, which the old captain has incautiously shown his young protégé.

Willems: On the Route To Mandalay

From Willems' first sight of the hypnotic Aissa to his final realisation that she is his doom, Reed's camera follows the course of his swelling passion with silent eloquence. Although Kerima has no dialogue, she is all that one could hope for in an Aissa - a dark-eyed beauty who moves about with regal but savage pride and communicates great emotional intensity. As the agent of Willems' downfall, she is completely persuasive. In the case of Almayer, Reed is entirely faithful to Conrad's depiction of the trader as a self-important prig. The epitome of a respectable burgher, Almayer has felt compelled to transport his stuffy bourgeois life all the way to Malaya, with every bit of pietism, hypocrisy and smugness intact. His cosy domestic environment is made to seem airless and numbing, a miniature Kensington inhabited by his well-corseted, tea-bearing wife and his shrill daughter Nina (Annabel Morley, Robert Morley's daughter). The scapegrace Willems is repelled by the pompous proprieties of Almayer's home -having abandoned his own in Singapore - and the rancorous scenes between the two men, which are among the strongest in the movie, leave the audience more sympathetic to the sneering Willems.

Robert Morley as the priggish Almayer

Reed follows Conrad in establishing Almayer's stance towards Willems as one of outraged respectability throughout and in unmasking Almayer as the embodiment of self-interest and heartlessness. His loathing for Willems is fuelled more by anxious fears that Willems may supplant him with Lingard and become a partner than by disgust over Willems' deterioration. Our loyalties gravitate decisively towards Willems when the latter comes to Almayer to beg for a chance to set up his own trading post (presumably as an alternative to betraying Lingard). His physical and emotional condition is pitiable, but Almayer turns him away ruthlessly. When the vengeful Willems returns at the head of the Badavi tribe - following the safe passage into the lagoon - we are not unhappy to see Almayer sewn up in his hammock and swung to and fro over a fire by the sadistic natives.

Kerema and Willems Under the Boardwalk, Native Style

Outcast is easily the least appreciated of Reed's major movies. Yet the Far Eastern milieu is as lush and reverberant as we could possibly have hoped it would be, and the story is almost never vitiated or debased by commercialism. Other than the softening of Lingard, there is not a single artistic compromise of significance in the movie. Beyond its other laudable attributes, it stands as one of the most powerful evocations of human degradation ever to reach an audience through a commercial medium like film. Its moods are all potent because Reed's direction and Wilcox's camerawork are supplemented by Conrad's dialogue, which Fairchild sensibly and skilfully interpolated into his script. By transcribing Conrad's dialogue so faithfully, Reed and Fairchild have also preserved the distinctive rhythms and intonations of each player in the drama.


The Heart of the Matter (1953)
Directed by Carol Reed
Based on the novel by Graham Greene
Cast: Trevor Howard (Harry Scobie), Elizabeth Allan (Louise Scobie), Maria Schell (Helen Rolt), Denholm Elliott (Wilson), Gérard Oury (Yusef), Peter Finch (Father Rank)

Graham Greene's 1948 novel The Heart of the Matter deals with Catholicism, guilt and moral change in its main character, Scobie, a British police officer stationed in Freetown, Sierra Leone who realizes he has more in common with the locals than he has with his boorish fellow ex-pats. It also deals with an extra-marital love affair but, Scobie being a devout Catholic, you know how that will end. Globe trotter Greene - whose penchant for situating his stories in exotic Third World locales led to the coining of the expression "Greeneland" to describe them - drew on his real-life experiences as a British intelligence officer stationed in Sierra Leone during World War II for his novel, which won 1948's James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction and was later included in Time Magazine's lists of the "100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005."

While his nagging wife Elizabeth (Louise Allan) is away in South Africa, Scobie falls in love with widow Helen Rolt (Maria Schell, sister of Austrian actor Maximilian Schell), a sensitive survivor of a U-boat sinking who collects stamps and dons a Jean Seberg haircut decades before A Bout de Souffle.

Maria Schell

How do you solve a problem like Maria? Well, Scobie's "belief" leaves him in a moral no man's land; he can't leave his wife and he can't continue to see the woman he loves and still go to confession as a good Catholic. Hence, Scobie chooses the typically Catholic response of masochistic self-denial. Though it's a sin, Scobie decides to kill himself, risking eternal damnation for himself while "freeing" the women in his life to not be tied down to him. Of course, the "human" response to his moral dilemma - be honest and be with the one you truly love instead of living a lie and honoring God by your loyalty to the marriage oath (one that does not acknowledge that people change and the person you marry is not necessarily the same person later in life), doesn't appeal to the pious penis-punishing policeman. Scobie reluctantly breaks secular law when he accepts a loan from Arab smuggler Yusef (Gerard Oury), but he will not take the bigger risk of breaking spiritual law. It is here that Scobie is meant to come across as a noble martyr, but to me it merely pointed out the smallness of the man in ways all the brow-beating by his status-conscious wife and the constant indignities of his job (in which he is passed-over for advancement by younger and lesser men) never could.

I haven't read nearly enough Greene novels as I should have, but of the ones I've read I've noticed two things:
1) Greene understood love and intimacy as well as any author I've ever read (especially in his brilliant The End of the Affair, a novel that I think I marked up every other page with underlines and highlighting and spoke volumes to me about the failings of my romantic relationships). Some of his observations about love are as eloquent and cogent as anything written by Shakespeare - or Dylan or Hal Hartley, for that matter!


2) Greene was obsessed with Christian - and specifically Catholic - values and the struggle to avoid sin. This is most unfortunate. Perhaps it's related to Greene's alleged bipolar disorder. For he was a renowned womanizer who couldn't enjoy his vices. Strike up another one for the masochistic Church!

While Greene's religious convictions ensure the inevitable outcome of his novel and this faithful film adaptation, it doesn't mean that this isn't a totally enjoyable film. I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that it was shot on location in Sierra Leone. According to TCM film expert Robert Osborne, the film's producer originally wanted to shoot the entire film at England's Shepperton Studios, but Trevor Howard insisted on location shooting. Go Trev!

Critics rightly consider this to be arguably the finest screen performance by Trevor Howard, with some suggesting that no other actor could have come close to portraying the role of Scobie. The Heart of the Matter was nominated for four British Academy Awards (BAFTAS) - including best film and best actor for Howard - and the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, and boasted a stellar supporting cast that included Denholm Elliott as the snivelingly suave home office spy Wilson and a young Peter Finch as the spiritually disillusioned (but beer-loving!) Father Rank.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Maltese Falcon (*****)

The Maltese Falcon
Directed and written by John Huston, from a book by Dashiell Hammett
USA, 1941, 101 minutes
Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Sam Spade), Mary Astor (Brigid O'Shaughnessy), Gladys George (Iva Archer), Peter Lorre (Joel Cairo), Sydney Greenstreet (Kasper Gutman), Elisha Cook Jr. (Wilmer Cook)
"The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter."
- Sam Spade to gunsel Wilmer

"You'll take a slap and you'll like it!"
- Spade to Joel Cairo

TCM aired a Peter Lorre tribute last night, and this A-list classic came on right after the excellent RKO B-noir The Stranger On the Third Floor. What hasn't been said about The Maltese Falcon? It is, quite simply a flawless cinematic experience. I've seen it a million times, but I sat there transfixed, unable to get up because it really is a perfect film, with great dialog and great characters (yes, yes, Peter Lorre was great in M and Mad Love and Arsenic and Old Lace, but for me this is his defining screen performance, one that created the Lorre character caricature he continued to call on as he carved out a quite successful career in Hollywood). I wanted to grab a snack, but couldn't. With the possible exception of Sidney Greenstreet's explanation of the history of the falcon "The Knights Templar paid tribute to Charles V, blah blah blah," there isn't a moment in the film that misses a beat. I could watch it over and over and over again. Sometime we forget what an "essential" classic really means. It means The Maltese Falcon. Believe the hype.

The Stranger On the Third Floor (****)

The Stranger on the Third Floor
Directed by Boris Ingster
RKO, USA, 1940, 64 minutes
Cast: Peter Lorre, John McGuire, Margaret Tallichet, Elisha Cook Jr.

Saw this last night during TCM's Peter Lorre tribute...

Neglected RKO B-movie notable for being an early, textbook example of film noir. Great cinematography with nod to German Expressionism, tilted camera angles, surreal dream sequence and Peter Lorre as a charmingly loopy lunatic on the loose from the looney bin. And whatever happened to the beautiful female lead, Margaret Tallichet (Mrs. William Wyler)? What a face "Talli" Wyler had! Weird...her looks reminded me of my friend Nicole, a resemblance so striking it makes me believe in Hindi reincarnation now. By the way, Elisha Cook, Jr.'s cabby character is named "Joe Briggs." I wonder if drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs took his moniker from this film?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Asian Mystique (*****)

The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls & Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient
by Sheridan Prasso
PublicAffairs, 2005, 464 pages

My girlfriend saw this book at Daedalus Books & Music and handed it to me, saying "This has you written all over it." She can read me...like a book, I guess. It's true that I have a well-documented interest in Asian art, food and culture (especially Japanese cinema and pop culture), and an aesthetic preference for slim, dark-eyed, dark-haired women - which naturally biases me towards the attributes of almost all Asian women. Not that I've ever dated anyone even remotely Asian before Amy, who is a Halvsie (Japanese mother, American father) born right here in (not so Far) Eastern Baltimore.

Anyway, I realise that it's a thin, nuanced line between having a natural preference for something and a politically incorrect obsession, which is usually tagged with the dreaded and distasteful adjective "Yellow Fever."

"What are you looking at, you objectifying Eurocentric racist?"

And, given the Seinfeld Preference Principle - aptly referenced in Prasso's book - I'm probably a racist in that regard. In the Seinfeld episode "The Chinese Woman," the following exchange takes place:
Jerry: "Helloo? Who is this? Donna Chang? Oh, I'm so sorry, I must have dialed the wrong number.
Elaine: "Donna Chang?"
Jerry (redialing): "I should have talked to her; I love Chinese women."
Elaine: "Isn't that a little racist?"
Jerry: "If I like their race, how can that be racist?"

Anyway, this is a great and detailed look at Occidental misconceptions and stereotypes about the Orient and Asians, from Madame Butterfly up to Lucy Lui. More later as I make my way through this exhaustive study - it's a long read!

Booklist review:
Prasso, who has lived in Phnom Penh and Hong Kong and written for Business Week, nearly turns the fascination of Western men with Asian sexuality into a subject of numbing correctness. Fortunately, though, her determination to explore "our relationships and interactions, our misconceptions and stereotypes" doesn't suck the life from her compelling topic--perhaps because she is not above taking readers into the girlie bars of Bangkok and Manila, the personals ("Red Hot Asians") of the Village Voice, the cinemas and TV screens of West and East, even the home of Mineko Iwasaki, who inspired Arthur Golden's best-selling Memoirs of a Geisha. Using this frame of reference effectively, Prasso explains the symbiotic nature of Western fantasy and Asian fulfillment--often to great profit--of that fantasy, the roles that Asian women play and defy in the West, even the dangerous implications of this still-active fantasy upon global politics. Especially interesting are her observations on the emasculated role of Asian men in Western media--picture, for instance, Jackie Chan even kissing a Western woman.

Publishers Weely review:
Prasso, a former Business Week Asia editor, asks if Westerners can look objectively at the Eastern region, blinded as they are by "issues of race and sex, fantasy and power." It's this worldview-one the author admits succumbing to and feeling a "sense of loss" in giving up-that clouds cross-cultural relations. Prasso's ambitious agenda focuses on both Asian women and our perceptions of them, exploring the historical and pop cultural roots of the "Asian Mystique" and ending with a "reality tour of Asia." Her stories about the lives of Asian women from diverse cultures and socio-economic backgrounds are compelling. The Japanese woman who inspired Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha shares her distaste for the novel's "misinterpretation" of her "flower and willow world." A Chinese investment banker struggles with modern demands and traditional expectations. With the author in tow, a Filipina prostitute navigates a seedy red-light district. Prasso has an almost voyeuristic fascination with sexual mores, and the result is a frank, at times graphic, exploration of how some Asian women cope with stereotyping-and with Western males looking for one-night stands. But when the author moves from reportage to social anthropological analysis, the book loses focus. Self-conscious ruminations, such as the incongruity of dancing with Filipina prostitutes to Madonna's "Like a Virgin," sometimes intrude and distract. In addition, Prasso never really gets a grip on the Asian Mystique's effects on foreign policy, concluding, not surprisingly, that it is "much harder to measure and more difficult to prove." Nevertheless, Prasso's work and travels have opened her eyes, and this book might do the same for others.

Monday, August 11, 2008

In the Stacks (***)

In the Stacks: Short Stories about Libraries and Librarians (2003)
Edited by Michael Cart
Overlook Press, paperback, 288 pages

Saw this at Daedalus Books & Music marked down to $4 so, as a card-carrying librarian, I had to pick it up. Former librarian Michael Cart has assembled an anthology of some of the best short stories about the reader's nirvana - the library. Among the heavy hitters here are such major figures as John Cheever ("The Trouble With Marcie Flint"), Alice Munro ("Hard-Luck Stoires"), Saki, ("The Story of St. Vespalms"), Ray Bradbury ("Exchange"), Francine Prose ("Rubber Life"), and Italo Calvino ("A General in the Library"), with Jorge Luis Borges's "The Library of Babel" being probably the most famous, with its typically fantastic, Twilight Zone-esque speculation about the possibilities of an "infinite" library.

And there's even an espionage-tinged murder mystery solved by deconstructing the Library of Congress classification system, Anthony Boucher's "QL 696. C9." In this 1943 story, a head librarian trained as a cataloguer is murdered, but not before typing this clue to her assassin's identity. Working in a library, I can attest that cataloguers are indeed a curious lot, so I enjoyed the hilarious description of them by one character as, "...a few turn out to be born cataloguers. Those are a race apart. They know a little of everything, all the systems of classification, Dewey, Library of Congress, down to the last number, and just how many spaces you indent on an index card, and all about bibliographies, and they shudder in their souls if the least little thing is wrong. They have eyes like eagles and memories like elephants."

But I was disappointed to see one glaring omission: where's Aimee Bender's "Quiet Please"? This is my favorite short story about libraries and librarians, which was brought to my attention by a former girlfriend, a fellow librarian who worked at the same branch as me. It's about a young female librarian who, in mourning after the death of her father, decides one day to take every male patron she meets into the back office for sex. "This is the sex that she wishes would split her open and murder her because she can't deal with a dead father," Bender writes of the young librarian. Of course it's a metaphorical story in the fantastic style of a Kafka or Borges, but it was so "un-librarian-like" that I fell in love with it, and recall asking my then-sweetie if we could reeanact certain scenarios in the story. She blanched, saying this far exceeded her Reader's Advisory responsibilities - not to mention the librarian code of conduct. She was probably right; it would have been very un-professional. But hot!

Aimee Bender's stories are wonderfully strange and highly recommended; "Quiet Please" is included in her short story collection The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (Doubleday, 1998).

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

6ixtynin9 (***)

Ruang Talok 69 (เรื่องตลก 69)
Thailand, 1999, 115 minutes
Directed by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang
Cast: Lalita Panyopas, Sirisin Siripornsmathikul, Prompop Lee, Surapong Mekpongsathorn, Tasanawalai Ongartittichai, Black Phomtong, Sritao, Arun Wannarbodeewong

On the heels of rewatching Pen-Ek Raranaruang's 2003 masterpiece Last Life in the Universe (aka Ruang Rak Noi Nid Mahasan or เรื่องรัก น้อยนิด มหาศาล), I discovered the director's earlier black comedy 6ixtyni9 (Ruang Talok 69, 1999) - thanks to also discovering that I got free movies on the Sundance Channel as part of Comcast's Digital On Demand service. I've never understood all the channels I get on digital cable, boorishly confining my viewing to Turner Classic Movies, MSNBC, the two all-soccer channels (Fox and Gol TV), and The Tennis Channel. But, considering my outrageous monthly cable bill, I'm going to have to take advantage of all the free movies I found listed On Demand.

This movie is far froma masterpiece, with its tone fluctuating unevenly between comedy and drama, but it has a fine performance by lead Lalita Panyopas and shows the early but as-yet-unrefined promise of a developing auteur in search of the stylistic flourishes that would finally come to fruition in 2003's Last Life in the Universe.

I read a review on the wonderful Twitch website that sums it up better than my words could:
As any fan of Asian film can tell you there are two major film producing countries on the rise right now. While Hong Kong is trying to fight their way out of a massive industry decline triggered by the reversion to Chinese rule and Japan seems content to hold steady the film cultures of Korea and Thailand have exploded to the forefront, both in terms of quantity and quality of the films being produced. And without a doubt one of Thailand’s brightest lights is writer / director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang.

Ratanaruang exploded onto the international scene with the absolutely stunning Last Life in the Universe, a film sensation that triggered a rush to track down his earlier works. Monrak Transistor – his 2001 effort – was still in print and easy enough to come by, but 1999’s 6ixtynin9 proved much more elusive with only a grainy Hong Kong produced VCD edition available on a fairly limited basis. But 6ixtynin9 proved to be one of those little films that just wouldn’t go away. Lauded in its own country – the film was Thailand’s Oscar submission that year – it tended to win converts whenever someone was lucky enough to track a copy down and it continued to grow in reputation until the good folks at Palm Pictures picked up rights for a North American release.

But enough of the background. What about the film? Lalita Panyopas stars as Tum, a low ranking employee in a Bangkok financial services firm – an industry sector that has been hit hard by an economic recession. Tum arrives at work one morning to find an impromptu staff meeting in session. The firm has been forced to lay off three employees and, unwilling to single anyone out for termination, the unlucky trio is decided by drawing lots. Tum, of course, is one of the unlucky three sent packing. This places her in a horrible situation. She has been financially supporting her parents and younger siblings and is now a single woman with no support network and little to no chance of finding legitimate work in the midst of the current hard times. Faced with the real prospect of having to turn to prostitution to make ends meet Tum begins shoplifting and fantasizing about suicide. Until one morning she discovers a box left outside her door, a box full of money, and sees a possible way out for herself. Here enters the continual case of mistaken identity brought on by a faulty apartment door number (the film’s title is a play on this), rival gangs, illegal passports, dope smoking youth, over exuberant police officers, nosy neighbors, an amputation and rather a lot of blood.

The summary makes 6ixtynin9 sound like a fairly busy, high energy film but like all of Ratanaruang’s other films it is actually a very quiet, meditative piece. Much like Japan’s Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Ratanaruang loves to dress his films up in genre convention when they are actually psychological mood pieces. The gangsters are window dressing, what really matters here is that Tum is a woman in an incredibly difficult situation with some harsh moral decisions to make. How will she bear up under the stress? What path will she choose? The obvious point of comparison is Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave – a film that shares several significant plot points – but where Boyle’s film revolves around issues of greed Ratanaruang’s turns on desperation. How far are you willing to go to survive?

Key to making the film work is Panyopas’ performance as Tum and she does an admirable job charting Tum’s progression from a woman caught up by forces beyond her control into becoming one of those forces herself. She is giving very little dialogue to work with and has to rely on body language, frequently carrying her character entirely through her eyes. She has a quiet sense of grace and strength to her, more than enough to allow you to buy into the wildly excessive situation Ratanaruang drops her in to.

Where the film struggles a little bit is in the balancing of humor with the darker, more serious elements. Ratanaruang has a bit of a dreamer in him, as well as a healthy dose of absurdism, and he struggled to mesh those impulses with the ‘real-world’ feeling he also wants to maintain in his films until he finally struck a perfect balance with Last Life. There are some awkward moments here where you can tell he’s aiming for humor but the situation is paced and played just a little too realistically to laugh, and also some character moments that just don’t seem to fit with the tone of the rest of the film. Which is not to say that 6ixtynin9 isn’t a good film – it is, very – but fans of Last Life will need to approach this as an example of a master still learning and experimenting with his craft rather than coming in expecting the degree of balance, polish and subtlety of his most recent work.

As for the DVD itself it is short on extras with only a trio of trailers and some web links but it sports an excellent, high quality transfer of the film itself. There are some small amounts of film grain, the occasional speck of dust or hair on the print but this is far superior to any version I’ve seen in the past and is most likely the best this film is ever going to look on DVD. The one somewhat jarring aspect of the film transfer was the choice to black out areas of the screen where Thai subtitles originally appeared. This happens very rarely and I can only assume that the Thai prints available for the DVD transfer had these original subtitles burned directly into the film and the blacking out was required to allow the English subtitles to overlay without interference. The English subtitles have the occasional problem with grammar and spelling but are perfectly serviceable and easy to read.

- Posted by Todd at January 4, 2005 07:54

Monday, August 4, 2008

Graphic Witness (*****)

Graphic Witness: Four Wordless Graphic Novels
by Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, Giacomo Patri and Laurence Hyde
Firefly Books, 423 pages, 2007

(Wordless review of these wordless graphic novels:)

OK, I can't resist...here's the synopsis of this essential read from the back cover:

"The power of a story told through images lies in its universality. It can be read anywhere by anyone, regardless of langauage, making it an ideal medium for social commentary and criticism. Four rare wordless are reproduced here, by some of the greatest woodcut artists from the first half of the 20th century, as a testament to their roles as graphic witnesses. The stories they tell reflect the political and social isues of their times: economic depression, social injustice, war and fear of nucler annilhilation. While the context my hve changed, the issues, sadly, remain relevnt today."

Wordful reviews of Graphic Witness:
January Magazine

Sleeper (****)

If You Are But a Dream, I Hope I Never Wake Up

Smart (1995)
Arista Records

The It Girl (1996)
Arista Records

Please To Meet You (1997)
BMG Records

I'm late to the party, not discovering Sleeper until I picked up a sampler CD for Rhino's 4-CD Brit Box compilation of late '80s to '90s Britpop indie shoegazer bands at a neighborhood yard sale around the corner. One of my favorite tracks on it was "Sale of the Century" by the hitherto unknown Sleeper. Investigating further, I learned that they had eight UK Top 40 hit singles and three UK Top 10 hit albums but only made a blip on the stateside music radar when they covered Blondies' "Atomic" on the Trainspotting soundtrack (after Blondie refused to allow their version to be used). I saw that movie, but still no recognition, so I found their first two albums on eBAY and picked them up for the ridiculously low price of no more than $2 or $3 each - including postage! (They also recorded a third LP, 1997's Please To Meet You, but I haven't picked that up yet.)

I'm here to report that if you liked Elastica, you'll love Sleeper. In fact, you won't be blamed if you listen to "Inbetweener" and swear it's an Elastica tune. Elastica was three girls and a guy, while Sleeper was three guys and a girl (a polarity kind of like, locally, Baltimore's Thee Katatonix and D.C.'s The Pin-Ups - but with talent!). But both bands were fronted by talented femme chanteuses. Everyone knows Elastica's Justine Frischmann, who was not only the front femme for Elastica but also famously dated both Suede's Brett Anderson and Blur's Damon Alburn. But you've probably never heard of Sleeper's Louise Wener, who these days makes her living as a (quite popular) novelist.

Louise Wener: A Stunner and a Strummer

But if you like the '90s Britpop sound of Blur, Oasis, Lush, My Bloody Valentine, Pulp, Echobelly, et al, you should really like Sleeper. (BTW, Sleeper opened for Blur during the 1995 Parklife tour.)

Though 1995's Smart sold over 100,000 copies and included the early indie singles "Delicious" and "Swallow" - and the later high-placing "Inbetweener" (#16 UK Charts) and "Vegas" (#33, featuring Blur's Graham Coxhon on saxophone - and a personal fave with its line about "he lives in a flat, islands of crap" that reminds me of my own dense domicile) and the early Nirvana/grunge-influenced "Alice In Vain" - the next year's platinum-selling sophomore effort The It Girl represents the band's best work, with their guitar-driven sound augmented by tastefully restrained synth and keyboard accents. Produced by Stephen Street (famous for his work with The Smiths, Morrissey and Blur) it included the standout "Sale of the Century" (which was their biggest single success at #10 on the UK charts) as well as "Nice Guy Eddie" (also #10 UK Charts), "What Do I Do Now?", the snarky "Lie Detector" (from whence comes the Clara Bow "It Girl" reference that the album takes it title from), "Statuesque" (another Trainspotting soundtrack song; it's included on the Trainspotting #2 CD) - and the wonderful "Stop Your Crying." The difference between Smart and The It Girl is comparable to the change between Oasis' Definitely Maybe and (What's the Story) Morning Glory? A clear jump.

According to Wikipedia, singer/guitarist Louise Wener, like Justine Frischmann, was one of Britpop's biggest female stars, placing highly in Melody Maker's and NME's "Sexiest Woman" polls several years running. The other band members - the so-called "Sleeperblokes" - were guitarist/keyboardist Jon Stewart, bassist Diid Osman and drummer Andy Maclure. Sideman John Green also played keys/synth for the band live and in studio. Wener and Stewart met in while living in Manchester, adding the rhythm section when Sleeper relocated to London in the early '90s.

Louise and the Sleeperblokes

By the way, Wener was born in Ilford, East London, and thus is a fan of the football team West Ham United.

Sleeper released its third album, the string- and horn-laden over-production Pleased To Meet You in September 1997, but the album's first single "She's a Good Girl" tanked on the charts and the end was nigh. In his definitive chronicle Britpop!: Cool Britannia and the Spectacular Demise of English Rock (2004), author John Harris quotes Wener's reaction to the single's failure: "I knew we were as good as done for. I can remember walking down Oxford Street, looking at everyone, thinking, 'I'm back in the throng.' I had no illusions that anything else was going to happen. We did TFI Friday that week, when we knew for sure, and I was drinking from midday onwards...I was in the men's loo of this curry house, just lying down, puking. There I was, knowing my whole career was over."

A novel approach to post-rock stardom

Sleeper split up in 1998, right around the time Britpop waned as a musical genre.("It happened to us and we thought we'd be the only ones," Wener recalled, "But then everyone started to go, so that was kind of satisfying."). Wener then began her 'second act' in showbiz, re-inventing herself as a novelist. Wener has written four novels: Goodnight Steve McQueen, The Big Blind (retitled The Perfect Play), The Half Life of Stars and Worldwide Adventures In Love. According to Wikipedia, she also teaches poker courses(!) and is in a new band called Huge Advance with partner Andy Maclure.

Wener can also be seen as an interviewee in the 2003 Britpop documentary Live Forever though, regretably, her own band isn't covered (while, aggravatingly, the decidely non-Britpop Massive Attack is! I mean, Britpop was about guitars and Massive Attack is not about guitars! Ack!)

Louise Wener in LIVE FOREVER

Sleeper is a band that more than lived up to its name, flying well under the radar and being criminally neglected despite its solid contribution to a defining British musical genre of the early to mid-'90s. So wake up Britpop fans and seek these albums out!

Sleeper Singles & EPs:

There's a lot of them. To purchase, see Matt's CD Singles.

Alice In Vain EP, November 1993

Swallow, February 1994

Delicious, May 1994

Inbetweener, January 1995

Vegas, March 1995

What Do I Do Now, September 1995

Sale of the Century, April 1996

Nice Guy Eddie, July 1996

Statuesque, September 1996

She's a Good Girl, December 1996

Watch Sleeper:

"Inbetweener" and "What Do I Do Now" live:

"Nice Guy Eddie" video:

"Sale of the Century" Video:

"What Do I Do Now" music video:

"Delicious" and "Little Annie" from Glastonbury 95:

Louise Wener Sings Marc Bolan's "Life's A Gas" on TFI Friday:

Related links:
Sleeper (Wikipedia)
Sleeper Bio (All Music Guide)
Sleeper Timeline
Sleeper post - "Because Midway Still Aren't Coming Back" blog
Louise Wener (Wikpedia)
"My Life As a Pop Star" by Louis Wener
Louis Wener's Novels -Fantastic Fiction
"Delicious" music video
"Inbetweener" music video
"Nice Guy Eddie" music video
"Sale of the Century" music video

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Dr. Strangelove (****)

Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
USA, 1964, 93 minutes, b&w
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay by Terry Southern (from a novel by Peter George)
Cast: Peter Sellers (Group Captain Lionel Mandrake/President Merkin Muffley/Dr. Strangelove), George C. Scott (Gen. 'Buck' Turgidson), Sterling Hayden (Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper), Keenan Wynn (Col. 'Bat' Guano), Slim Pickens (Maj. T.J. 'King' Kong), Peter Bull (Russian Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky)

My girlfriend had never seen Dr. Strangelove, so we went to the Charles Theatre revival screening Saturday to correct that sin of omission. It's strange to think that almost 45 years after its release Kubrick's film is still amazingly relevant - and Terry Southern's cynical script about mad idealists in politics and the military not that far of a stretch from current events thanks to the Bush Adminstration. At one point in the film, Peter Sellers' American President character Merkin Muffley assures his Soviet Union counterpart, "Dimitri, you know the United States would never launch a pre-emptive attack!" The statement's unmistakable parallel with the 2003 invasion of Iraq caused the crowd to roar with cynical laughter. Kudos to George W. Bush for making an outlandish and fictitious black comedy a very unhumorous and stark reality.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Last Life in the Universe (*****)

Ruang Rak Noi Nid Mahasan (เรื่องรัก น้อยนิด มหาศาล)
Thailand, 2003, 112 minutes, color
Directed by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang
Written by Prabda Yoon & Pen-Ek Ratanaruang
Cinematography by Christopher Doyle
Cast: Tadanobu Asano (Kenji), Sinitta Boonyasak (Noi), Laila Boonyasak (Nid), Takashi Miike (Yakuza boss)
“One day the lizard woke up and realized that it was all alone on this earth.”

Feeling depressed, I rewatched this film last night and its beauty perked me up. After Blade Runner, this is probably my second favorite film of all time. What's it about? I'm not good with plot synopses, so here's an excellent one from FilmsAsia.com's Soh Yun-Huei:
"Kenji (Tadanobu Asano) is an obsessively neat Japanese man who is living on his own in Bangkok, and earning a living by being a librarian at the Japanese Cultural Centre. A look through his house would reveal exactly how meticulous Kenji is -- all his belongings are organized by size, shape, colour, day to be worn, and so on. Kenji has also been contemplating suicide for some time, and fantasizing about what his death would be like. His orderly life is thrown into disarray when his estranged Yakuza brother turns up at his doorstep, seemingly on the run from his big boss. However, that's far from the only incident that will shake up Kenji's life. An unfortunate series of events leads Kenji to become acquainted with a woman called Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak), who's basically his antithesis. She's disorganized, messy, and does not worry about the finer details, and when Kenji ends up at her beachside house, his obsessive-compulsive nature kicks in and he offers to tidy up the place. Gradually, a romance develops between Kenji and Noi, despite their differences and a language barrier."
So much for plot, though that doesn't begin to describe the depth and meaning of this film which is felt more than understood. For each time I watch it, I learn and notice more. I think it takes several viewings to "see" certain films, and this is certainly one of them. I never noticed the Ichi the Killer movie poster in the opening shot - an "inside joke" because it's a film by Takashi Miike starring Tadanobu Asano, both of whom appear in the film. I never noticed Yukio Mishima's novel Black Lizard on Asano's bookshelf. And I never noticed (until I studied the credits) that the film's sisters Nid and Noi are played by real-life sisters: Laila Boonyasak (Nid) and Sinitta Boonyasak (Noi).

Sister Act: Laila (center) and Sinitta Boonyasak (right)

But seeing and fully understanding are not the same thing, as Last Life in the Universe still leaves one with many questions. Namely, is Kenji a yakuza (we see one shot of his tattooed back)? Is that his gun or his brother's? Does he sleep with Noi (it's only suggested but we get no in flagrante delecto proof). Why can't he go back to Osaka? Does he get the girl in the end or is that only a fantasy? What does the fantasy sequence when a stoned Noi watches all the clutter in her house - flying papers and detritus - get cleaned up via reverse editing? Does he get away at the end or is it merely just another fantasy, like the visions he has of Noi's dead sister Nid?

Kenji keeps a spotless kitchen

Though I recently screened another Thai film (Tears of the Black Tiger) at my library film series, Last Life in the Universe remains my favorite Thai film and Pen-Ek Ratanaruang my favorite Thai director. Maybe it's because of the cinematography by Christopher Doyle, whose work here and with Hong's Kong's Wong Kar-Wai (In the Mood for Love, 2046) give gravitas to my considering him the world's best director of photography.

Speaking of images, those of lizards and geckos abound in last Life in the Universe. A gecko is a permanent fixture on the wall at Noi's house.

This gecko is not as chatty as Geico's

Noi's gecko keeps cool by the ceiling fan

A copy of Yukio Mishima's novel Black Lizard is clearly shown on Kenji's bookshelf. And Kenji is obsessed with a children's book called The Last Lizard, obviously identifying with the cool, aloof, lonely reptile.

Kenji's book: THE LAST LIZARD

In a voiceover, Kenji narrates the book's text as he stands on a bridge contemplating jumping into the river below:
The lizard wakes up and finds he's the last lizard alive. His family and friends are all gone. Those he didn't like, those who picked on him in school, are also gone. The lizard is all alone. He misses his family and friends. Even his enemies. It's better being with your enemies than being alone. That's what he thought. Staring at the sunset, he thinks. "What is the point in living, if I don't have anyone to talk to?" But even that thought doesn't mean anything...when you're the last lizard."

The lizard's tale is reprised in the film's trailer:

The cool, aloof Tadanobu Asano gives what is for me his greatest performance as the quiet, anal-compulsive neatnik librarian Kenji who's constantly trying to "off" himself like Bud Cort in Harold & Maude.

Thai film poster made for hanging

He's almost other-wordly in his unassuming pureness, like Prince Myshkin in Dostoyevsky's The Idiot. As a card-carrying librarian myself, I want to be him because he's the coolest librarian ever depicted in film. And not only is he polite and clean, but he's very can-do when it comes to killing bad people or defending women from being roughed-up - admirable qualities for today's multi-skilled Librarians 3.0. Kenji is obsessed with a children's book about the last Lizard on earth, the lizard being as quiet and aloof a reptile as Kenji appears on the surface.

And, of course, I was quite taken with the lovely Sinitta Boonyasak, the "someone to talk to" who gives Kenji's life purpose and saves him from being "the last lizard on Earth." (Or does she?)

Still as a gecko: Quiet moments define the film's tone

As a couple, Kenji and Noi are The Odd Couple, complete opposites. She is as messy, cluttered and unfocused as Kenji is compulsively neat (he has to arrange all the soap bars in the men's room at work in symmetrical stacks and line up all his kitchen knifes in a straight line) and orderly. She's a relaxed stoner, he's unfailingly uptight and sober. And when she talks, she can be chatty, talking quickly in the rapid-fire bursts of a bar girl, whereas Kenji is never more than a monosyllabic converser.

I loved the film's minimalist tone and dialogue - according to a DVD interview with director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, famous Thai writer Prabda Yoon (his first name is Thai for Pravda, the Russian word for "truth") - whose dad was a famous Thai journalist - helped strip the screenplay down to this surreal, dreamy still-life tone full of long silences. No one says a whole lot in the film, especially the tongue-tied Kenji. I ran across a website where dedicated fan Drew of Drew's Script-O-Rama actually transcribed the entire script (!): Last Life in the Universe Dialogue Script.

As FilmsAsia.com's Soh Yun-Huei observes, "Much of Last Life in the Universe deals with the romance that forms between Kenji and Nid, who are both loners not used to reaching out to others. Perhaps due to the characters' quirks, Pen-Ek has taken a very detached approach in his direction, almost similar to Takeshi Kitano's films." Huei also rightly points out the film's similarity to Lost In Translation, another film about love, loss and alienation in a land in which both protagonists are outsiders. But I think Pen-Ek's film is better and more rewarding upon repeated viewings. For one thing, the language barrier is even more pronounced here. "Kenji and Noi do not speak each other's languages, so they turn to a fractured English to communicate, and Pen-Ek manages to flesh out the difficulties that the situation brings about."

I'd also like to find the soundtrack, which uses ambient electric piano to augment the long silent patches with a dream-like calmness.

Last Life in the Universe's creative trio of writer Prabda Yoon, cinematographer Christopher Doyle and actor Tadanobu Asano also teamed up for Pen-ek's next film, Invisible Waves (2006), so if you like the first collaboration, check it out. Unfortunately, it hasn't been released in the States, so unless you have an All-Region DVD player or want to watch it on your PC...