Archive for July, 2009

Seoul Connection

Thanks to my friend Nate, who is in Seoul, South Korea escaping the American ruse and living his dream, Acme has a few additions to the Korean film collection. He has passed along several films from past and present that are of varying type but all of which are interesting and recommended to those who enjoy Korean cinema, or foreign film in general.
gagmandg1Gagman, a 1989 film from director Myung-se Lee, is a rather funny action comedy about an unsuccessful stand-up comic who yearns to become a big-time film director.  He is joined by two friends who aspire to be actors, and the three concoct a scheme to break into films by doing bank heists, and in the process, there is much hilarity and many nods to Chaplin and Keaton. The film is the director’s homage to these great gagmen.

Friend, a 2001 film by Kyung-taek Kwak, is the director’s semi-autobiographical and tragic story of four Friendposterchildhood friends spanning a number of years in the 1970’s. At the time of its release it became the largest grossing Korean film ever (not how we really care to measure a film’s worth, mind you, but 2001 was a worldwide breakthrough year for Korean filmmakers). It is beautifully shot in and around Korea’s second largest city, Pusan, and reflects the director’s affinity for the place. To keep it interesting storywise, there are elements of sex, drugs, underworld crime, karaoke, and even murder and courtroom drama that are mostly true to life.

posterphoto5992The Power of Kangwon Province, from Sang-Soo Hong (Woman Is The Future of Man), is a release from 1998. This particular film has been regarded as a low-budget masterpiece with a feel for the slow pace and long takes of older Antonioni films but with a directness that is of more recent cinema. A young student and her married professor end a secret love affair, which we sense is very painful for her. Some time later, she travels from Seoul to Kangwon province, an Eastern resort area. Simultaneously, her ex is making his own trip there, although they never meet. The film shows both journeys through a challenging time structure which is linear as a film, but simultaneous as a story. Hong has made several films in which he follows two threads of story occurring at the same time and has said that he sees his films more as stories that fit structures he has thought up rather than films about reality. Through his subtlety concerning story, the viewer has a chance to interpret things occurring rather than being blatantly shown, which make this a very satisfying, smart, and refreshing kind of film to see.

horrorgameGawi, aka Horror Game Movie, aka Nightmare, from 2000, by Byeoun-ki Ahn, is a solid addition to the Korean horror section. It came out amidst a slew of ghost story slasher films, and is definitely one, but it is the great camerawork and visual style of this one that make it worthwhile. The storyline is nothing new – a girl is haunted by the ghost of her murdered friend, and people are being killed off one by one as the story of her death unravels.

Many thanks to Nate for sending these along. Stay tuned for reviews of new Korean films as they arrive. Anticipated releases include A Bittersweet Life and Breathless, both from 2008/9.

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Robert McNamara and The Fog Of War

mcnamaraThe recent death of Robert S. McNamara – the embattled former Secretary of Defense and chief architect of the Vietnam War under both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations – gave me cause to revisit the 2004 Errol Morris film The Fog Of War: Eleven Lessons From The Life Of Robert S. McNamara. The film is essentially a one-on-one sit down with McNamara (Morris appears only as a disembodied voice) on the subject of war – and ultimately the impossibility of being able to predict, with complete accuracy, the path that war will take (hence the ‘fog’). I had forgotten what an arresting film this is, both as a remarkable biographical documentation of a man who remains among the most hated figures in the history of U.S. politics, and as a portrait of someone who caused (either directly or indirectly) an enormous amount of hurt in his lifetime and has come, now near the end of it, to reevaluate what he has done. In many ways it is Morris’s most academic film, as its step-by-step presentation of McNamara’s testimony feels at times like a finely-tuned, scrupulously informed college lecture. But Morris also has a knack for pushing his subjects just far enough out of their comfort zones – his questions, when we do get to overhear them, are blunt and poignant without coming off as callous or insensitive. One of his greatest strengths as a documentary film maker has always been, in my opinion, that he seems able to establish a certain rapport with his interviewees without compromising his own journalistic integrity. His subjects rarely seem defensive. And while many of McNamara’s answers sidestep the greater moral questions of his legacy, there are a number of moments when he does actually break down, overcome with emotion. Throughout, he appears lucid and extremely bright, despite his advanced age, and the entire film is loaded with fascinating political anecdotes from his time in office. That he struggled with the legacy of a terrible war is evident; it is to Morris’s credit, however, that he refrains from over-editorializing McNamara’s side of the story, and that he maintains the film’s focus on the nature of war, and the lessons that McNamara seems to genuinely want to impart. The film’s powerful epilogue paints a haunting portrait of McNamara and the legacy of the Vietnam War: that this man, who had a greater role than any other in the war’s design and execution, is left hollowed out and nearly broken in its wake.

UPDATE: Check out Errol Morris’s blog post on the legacy of Robert McNamara, “McNamara in Context.”

Toots – A Film About Toots Shor

toots2Now here’s a documentary that has it all. Toots Shor, saloonkeeper in New York City from the 40’s through the 60’s is profiled by his granddaughter, Kristi Jacobson. In the process, she delves into NY history as far back as 1900, using amazing archive photographs and newsreel footage. In addition to all these great materials to work with, she uncovered a lost, fortunately preserved oral taped interview with Shor made by an historian back in the 1970’s, when he was out of the limelight and near the end of his life. The story of Toots is told also from many perspectives in interviews that took years to gather. Entertainers, sports figures, newsmen, sports writers, novelists, and even gangsters are in the mix.  It is worth mentioning that this is a straight, no chaser documentary – meaning that although this is a personal film, Jacobson is not trying to reckon with a family member’s sordid past. There is no attempt to psychoanalyze anyone. However, he is shown warts and all, and still remains an interesting and admirable man of his times.

The man was a legend, and hearing the stories of various interview subjects is really where his story is told. It really makes you wish you had a chance to pop in for a drink or a meal at Toots Shor back in the day (really the 1950’s was the peak) andToots witness him joking around with Jackie Gleason or slapping Frank Gifford on the back. You pretty much could have, as well. Amazing as it seems now, there was an openness that you get a sense of – a lack of velvet-rope exclusivity that is really appealing. There is so much in this film you’ll want to watch it a couple of times. The original score by Mark Suozzo is absolutely brilliant, and puts you right in the times. The DVD also has a really informative and interesting commentary track with Jacobson in which she describes the process of making the film, where she got certain materials, etc. DVD Released Jan. 13,2009 on Indiepix.

Indie Arts Fest 2009 Acme Video Showcase

lostskeletonofcadavraSaturday July 18th is Indie Arts Fest downtown if you don’t know already, and in the evening, hopefully after a nice sunny day, Acme will be presenting 2 films projected outside at the Tazza Caffe. Come by around 8:00 or so, showtime is around 8:30, running til midnight. This year we have a Sci-Fi/Lo-Fi theme, and will kick it off with a spoof of 50’s/60’s sci fi called The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra by Larry Blamire. Nearly a classic now in it’s own right, this tackles every cliche of the era and is super entertaining and well done.

American-AstronautNext up will be a lo-fi indie feature called The American Astronautlost-skeleton-c by Cory McAbee. With a grainy home-made look, recognizably junky sets, wacky space-western storyline and a few rock ‘n roll set-pieces, it also is an indie classic. Both films are in black and white, and will look great outside. See you there!

Gran Torino – Clint’s Ode To A Changing America

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The Ford Gran Torino was among the last American muscle cars produced in the 1971-1975 decline of Detroit factory performance cars. From about 1957-1970, American companies designed and built many particularly beautiful and fast cars. Corvette, Mustang, GTO, Challenger, AMX, Camaro, Firebird, Barracuda, to name a few. Originally conceived for racing purposes, these cars were later developed for street use, and were marketed specifically to the young using very powerful advertising tools like movies,television and magazines. The resulting street culture was dangerous and short lived in some ways, but today is a huge subculture involving young and old alike. Restoring, showing and collecting these cars is now the industry, kept alive by enthusiasts who undoubtedly feel these cars represent who they are or want to be.

1970 marked a definite shift away from the pursuit of faster and more outrageous cars for street purposes. Safety issues and manufacturing costs played a part, but mostly the new decade was shaping up to be hard economically for America. The country plunged into a record recession caused mainly by the reckless Vietnam War. Sound familiar? After 1973 there were shortages of fuel due to upheaval in the global oil industry and soon the focus was on energy efficiency. U.S. companies persisted in the marketing of muscle though, but increasingly failed in both design and execution. The 1972 Gran Torino is a perfect example. It was an ugly, terrible car by most muscle car standards. Now, though, in an age when cars are SO boring, the car of the movie may have some retro appeal, but it is the symbolic nature of this particular beast in the 2008 Clint Eastwood masterpiece Gran Torino that is more powerful.

The name Gran Torino comes from the Italian city of Turin, or Torino. It is the capital of the Italian automobile industry, headquarters for Fiat, Alfa Romeo and Lancia, just as Detroit has been the home of the big three American companies Ford, GM and Chrysler. The car was actually more of a standard level of automobile, a replacement in name and design for the mid-level Fairlane line that Ford had. Like they had for about a decade, the companies would offer a performance model at the high end of their lines with special engines and added sport features. These were always limited production cars, the most costly, and supposedly the best the companies had to offer. In 1972, Ford putting a big V-8 and some stripes and mags on a bloated family car and calling it Gran Torino was a lame attempt at preserving muscle car prestige. It signaled the end of an era and the tough times that lay ahead.

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It is an interesting choice of car and title for a film about a bitter man near the end of his life, struggling with the scars of his past and his relationship with the world around him. Clint’s character Walt Kowalski is one of the last of an old breed in a relentlessly changing world. He is a retired Detroit auto worker and Korean War veteran. A widower, he sits alone and stares with hatred at the world around him, especially his neighbors next door, a family of Hmong. His view of them is shaped by his past, the enemies he fought and killed in Korea. To him they are just more “gooks” and he’s bitter that his neighborhood has gone to shit and he blames them. When a gang tries to recruit the young boy next door, Kowalski will be drawn into their lives and be called to action, unwillingly at first. Through helping to boy and his family, he comes to know them and realizes that he has much to give, including the symbol of his youth.

He’s had the Gran Torino in his garage since it rolled off the line in 1972, and it has a special significance for him because among other things he actually worked on the assembly of the car. To him it’s a mean green street machine, an expression of his character that he preserved and cared for, a reminder of how things used to be in his life. This film is an ode to that past, and to ours as Americans, and a sort of poem to deal with the last century as we move into the next.

From about 1972 to present we have witnessed the downhill slide of the American auto industry as international competition (specifically Japan’s Big Three – Honda, Toyota and Nissan) took hold of the market with better and more efficient products. Most recently, to the amazement of American consumers and auto workers alike, it’s as if the U.S. industry has finally gone careening like a giant idiotic boulder down a huge mountainside with no brakes and certainly no will to reverse course. General Motors, once the world-dominating auto company, has just gone out of business, leaving its employees marooned. Chrysler and Ford may soon follow. Failure to make better products and to embrace new technologies is to blame, as is most certainly collusion with the oil industry. We are seeing the total collapse of an industry through reluctance to move in a responsible, forward-thinking way.  Since seeing this film at a snowy winter midnight screening, it has resonated more and more to me as a timely and poignant powerhouse of a movie.

It should be said that I have been a fan of Clint Eastwood the actor all my life, even in the cheesy films like Every Which Way But Loose (“Right turn, Clyde!….”) and the weaker recent ones like Bloodwork. I guess I’ll watch him in anything. He’s always been a favorite action hero. More recently, specifically since Unforgiven, I have watched all of his directorial films and witnessed a great progression and range of material. Starting in 1971, using skills he learned from director Don Siegel over the course of making five films together, he began directing on his own. Play Misty For Me is a powerful little thriller made on a small budget and no paycheck for Clint. It was a fairly successful start and is a real favorite of mine since I first saw it on a TV rerun in 1976. Since then, he’s directed great Westerns like Pale Rider and Unforgiven, excellent period dramas like Bird, a film about Charlie Parker, and The Bridges of Madison County, as well as top notch hits like Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby. In 2008 he had two films completed – Changeling, an underrated and chilling period thriller, and Gran Torino, a film that could be a capstone. He has hinted in recent interviews that it may be his last role as an actor. I hope not, but if that is true, he’s ended a long career triumphantly.

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The screenplay was written by Nick Schenk, surprisingly not a Hollywood insider but rather a first-timer who wrote the story sitting in a bar with friends in Minneapolis. Supposedly, material for the story developed over many years, from encounters with veterans he’d met on different jobs and Hmong people he worked with during a stint at a VHS factory in Bloomington, Minnesota. A blue collar guy, Schenk was interested in the plight of war vets and factory workers, but learning about the Hmong propelled the story in a new direction. The story of the mountain people of Laos, displaced during the Vietnam war and migrating from refugee camps in Thailand to the U.S. impressed him, and those he met revealed to him the fact of many Hmong who were recruited and fought alongside U.S. soldiers against the North Vietnamese. Details of their cultural traditions and family life also became known, and he came up with the scenario of Kowalski being drawn out of his isolation and prejudice through helping this family next door. The boy and his sister face tough problems, and Kowalski is the guy righting wrongs all through the story, both for them and himself.

When Clint got the screenplay, he decided to produce and direct it without any changes but for location. It would be set and shot in Michigan instead of Minnesota as Schenk intended. The story of Kowalski’s transcendence from hate for the world and his neighbors to redemption is classic and compelling, and watching Clint as Kowalski, it’s as if he’s infused all the best from his past roles to make this one indelible. It’s as personal as it gets in many ways, carrying a weighty message about ways of dealing with problems, understanding and sharing. By meeting his challenge and taking responsibility Kowalski is redeemed, in the process presenting a more realistic kind of hero, with more depth and certainly more human. It’s all there, some humor included, but this time the Dirty Harry style violent revenge is cleverly reworked so that Kowalski can make the ultimate sacrifice for people he once mistook for old enemies.

As the credits roll, Clint can be heard singing his ode Gran Torino, a gravelly, ghostly voice from beyond. It’s the final signature on the film, and while it’s sad, there is a feeling you get that as bad as things can be, life in this world is what you make of it. Time will march on, changes will happen, and if there’s a good reason to look at the past, it’s to guide us into the future and not live with old mistakes.