Monday, December 31, 2007

Best films seen 2007

Top films seen either in theaters or on new DVD releases this past year:

  1. Charlie Wilson's War
  2. Paprika
  3. Equinox Flower
  4. Sweeney Todd
  5. Waitress
  6. The Taste of Tea
  7. Apocalypto
  8. Black Book
  9. The Lives of Others
  10. Blood Diamond
  11. Letters from Iwo Jima
  12. Babel
  13. Volver
  14. Pan's Labyrinth
  15. Children of Men

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Taste of Tea

This film may be easier to experience than describe. Beautiful, cosmic, and goofy, this Japanese family comedy is overlong at 143 minutes, but never fails to entertain. Writer-director Katsuhiro Ishii's 2004 feature won several awards and was featured at Cannes.

The episodic story features overlapping vignettes following the lives of six members of the Haruno family in their strange world. The daughter is plagued by a giant-size version of herself, and the lovesick teenage boy has trains coming out of his head. Mom is trying to restart her career in anime, hypnotherapist Dad practices on his family, and the sound mixer uncle is drifting, unable to resolve emotional issues. Grandpa is just strange, listening to tuning forks, striking poses for Mom and hiding in his room.

Then there are lots of quirkier minor characters, including cosplayers, yakuza, a horndog manga artist aspiring-musician brother-in-law, and a free-spirited dancer. There are lots of little throwaway scenes, both charming and hysterically funny, and nature panoramas beautifully photographed. Legendary anime director Hideaki Anno has a cameo as -- an anime director.

This is reminiscent of an Ozu film as a quiet family story, with not much action but just the progress of life. While the gentle humor sometimes recalls Ozu, there are outrageous gags as well, a lot of surrealism and general strangeness, adding up to lots of fun!

Here's the music video that brother-in-law made with Grandpa:

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Golden Compass

The headline in tonight's paper reads "Atheistic Agenda?" I hope this sensationalized criticism sells lots of tickets. Then Hollywood will make the sequels and we'll find out about that atheism thing, since the theological problems in the novels are much more convoluted as Pullman's original trilogy progresses.

But you sure can't tell it from this film.

I enjoyed the movie, for lots of reasons. The production design is very good, ditto the special effects. The performers are well-cast and the performances uniformly good. The young lead, Dakota Blue Richards, can speak volumes with her eyes, and Sam Elliott was born to play Lee Scoresby.

The movie gets a couple of down-checks for over-simplification, particularly moral over-simplification, and an all-too-abrupt ending. But this is a largely satisfying fantasy. It's unclear how much the over-simplification and skating over plot points weakens the film. It bothered me, but I've read the book. People new to the story seem likely to find it more confusing.

Does this film assail religion? Not particularly. This is a fantasy after all, and patently not set in our world. It attacks authoritarianism, and indicates that there's a struggle to preserve free will. Anyone who feels threatened by that might wish to avoid the film.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Genre bending: Avalon High by Meg Cabot

The heroine of Avalon High has it tough. Transplanted into a new life and school when her parents take a sabbatical, she is forced to spend days floating in her pool, be a track star and hang out with the most popular kids.

Ok, maybe she doesn't have it so tough, but she still has a lot of problems, which are slowly revealed in this entertaining novel. Actually, it doesn't take a whole lot of figuring out, though Meg Cabot wisely saves a twist or two for the end of the book.

OK, I like young adult novels as a class, but it is seldom that I find myself reading a girls romance story. Fortunately I was reassured by my favorite YA librarian: "It's okay, Dad, it's pretty geeky."

And geeky it is, as Cabot nicely fuses the classic YA problem novel, romance and fantasy, and manages to turn the blend into a page turner rather than a hodge-podge Cabot show a nice sense of pacing and the book is quick and fun.. Hey, I'm a sucker for Arthurian fiction, and rather fond of the Tennyson poem "The Lady of Shalott" that Cabot uses for chapter epigraphs.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Classic quickies: The Seven Samurai

This is my favorite film, but I'm not very successful in persuading people to watch it. Maybe the idea of spending over three hours reading subtitles for what sounds like a martial arts film is daunting. I'll admit the first time or two I watched it, I was not all that impressed. But it's really important to watch the full-length version, not one of the shorter cuts extant. The film is full of richly developed characters and little vignettes that make it rich.

Although it seems like a war story, and its definitely a men's movie, Akira Kurosawa's theme is social change and progress. There is humor and pathos in plenty for the patient viewer. The two stars, Takeshi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune absolutely light up the screen among many fine supporting performances. Shimura's strength and confidence nicely plays off Mifune's over-the-top scenery chewing, even as the director plays off the tropes of John Ford westerns against those of historic Japanese samurai stories.

Classic quickies: The Wrong Man

Forget for a minutes that this could be the title of about half of Hitchcock's movies. For a fifty year old film, The Wrong Man (1957) still packs a lot of power and resonance. The performances are nearly flawless: Henry Fonda wonderfully understated as a musician wrongly accused of being a robber, and Vera Miles compelling as the wife driven to madness by stress.

The viewer is grabbed by the treatment of suspects before the Miranda decision's obvious impact on criminal investigations. Does this have modern echoes under the USA PATRIOT act? In any event, Hitchcock tells a true story, using fictionalized narrative in an almost documentary way. The result is offbeat, but worthwhile viewing.