Lights in the Dusk (2006, Aki Kaurismäki)

Supposedly part of a comic deadpan losers trilogy, but given what little I’ve seen of Kaurismaki’s cinema (Hamlet Goes Business and two shorts) it seems you could grab any three movies and call those his comic deadpan losers trilogy. This wasn’t awfully comic, either. I remember laughing a bit in the first half hour, but after our hero goes to jail and gets increasingly hopeless and depressed, nobody would call it a comedy anymore.

Koistinen is a loser security guard with a good heart and little apparent sense, no interests and no friends. One day a hot blonde starts pursuing him. They date, she asks questions about his job, finally drugs him, steals his keys and hands them over to her actual gangster boyfriend who robs the jewelry store Koistinen was supposed to be protecting. K. spends some time in jail (framed for participating in the heist), gets out, lands in a halfway house, is fired from an even more menial job as a dishwasher (again prompted by the fatale girl’s boyfriend) and in the last minute is found destitute on the streets by the snack bar girl who always liked him and given a happy, hopeful final couple of seconds (in the film, not in his life – he survives).

I was enjoying the rock songs. I thought one of ‘em was in the same style as “Rich Little Bitch” from Hamlet Goes Business, until I realized it’s the exact same song. He used the same song (and prominently) in two movies twenty years apart. Movie is great to look at, and very Jarmusch-cool (although I know it’s actually vice-versa) but the story is kinda minor and depressing.

V. Rizov:

Newcomers to Kaurismäki should understand that a character’s facial expressions give almost no clue as to what’s going on; everyone has a poker face that makes Buster Keaton look thoroughly emotive. A visit to Kaurismäki’s land of perpetual misery is always perversely comic — the characters and situations shoot past miserabilist drudgery quickly: The worse things get, the funnier they are. But Kaurismäki’s sentimentality is a double-edged sword, as it prevents his movies from being shallow one-note exercises but can also suck the life from them.

I. Johnston:

Underneath it all, and in spite of a popular tendency to read his films along hip-cool-quirky lines, Kaurismaki is an old-fashioned romantic, layering his films with a charming retro appeal. There’s a wider political-ideological connotation to this, a deliberate disassociation from the values of the globalised monetarist contemporary world in favour of those “loser” heroes of his who simply fail (where they don’t more overtly refuse) to adapt to the demands of that world. Kaurismaki loves his characters, those few — in the case of Lights in the Dusk, Koistinen and Aila — who maintain values of humanity, authenticity, love, and moral action. And the director places them in a social environment that seems out of kilter with the modern world: hence, the retro décor, the pop songs from years past, the tango music, and the old-fashioned rock’n’roll (hip-hop’s made no impact here).

The snack bar girl apparently plays the lead in that movie about the photographer for which I saw trailers for three months before it came and went quietly one week at the Landmark.

Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny (2006, Liam Lynch)

Katy told me Jack Black was in a depression after this movie failed, so I felt bad for skipping it and thought I’d rent it to cheer the guy up. Maybe it’s director Liam Lynch who’s in a depression… if your feature debut bombs, do you get a second chance? I hope he’s at least working on a second album (and more music videos).

The celeb cameos are as good as you could hope for – meaning the film isn’t weighed down by the awkward injection of whichever actors would say yes, but they actually have funny parts that work with the movie. Amy Poehler as a waitress: (“do we have to pay for all these refills?”, “No, you’re so pretty you get everything for free.”), Neil Hamburger gets about one line, Dave Grohl was apparently the devil, Tim Robbins is surprisingly good at silly comedy under lots of makeup – only Ben Stiller is a problem as a prophetic Guitar Center employee, and even that is only because his scene goes on too long.

After an outstanding musical intro (a kid who is perfect as a young Jack Black with Meat Loaf as his metal-disapproving father), the D members meet and perform open mic nights, but in order to win the big open-mic grand prize they’ll need the titular pick made from satan’s horn. It’s a mix of some original episodes (biggest fan Lee is in the movie; they borrow then trash his car) and music videos (the final scene is basically the “Tribute” video with a less catchy song, and there’s a hilarious shroomy Sasquatch sequence). Kept me entertained.

Holiday (1938, George Cukor)

Dreamer Johnny (Cary Grant, a year after The Awful Truth) is supposed to marry Julia (Doris Nolan, who wasn’t in the movies for long) but finds that he has more in common with her sister Linda (Katharine Hepburn, a few months after Bringing Up Baby and somewhat less manic). After his upcoming vacation with fiancee and friends E. Everett Horton (Astaire’s straight man in The Gay Divorcee) and Jean Dixon (the heroine’s sister in My Man Godfrey) Johnny plans to quit his job and spend a year rethinking what to do with his life. Turns out this is quite unacceptable to Julia, who has big plans for Johnny’s career in her father’s footsteps. Out of love for the girl, Johnny nearly accepts this boring and restricted new life for himself, but wait, free-spirit Hepburn, similarly imprisoned by class/career expectations, is also in love with him, so he and she go off on holiday together.

Cary, stuck between his witch-hatted old fiancee and flat-hatted new fiancee:
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KH impersonating her stuffed giraffe:
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Lew Ayres (Dr. Kildare himself) plays the girls’ tragicomic drunk brother. I thought he was E. Everett Horton the whole time because it turns out I don’t know who E.E.H. is. This was a remake of a 1930 version in which E.E.H. plays the same character he does here. Katy and I liked it a whole bunch, but I was looking forward to seeing a holiday, and the movie takes place between two holidays. I thought I’d seen this before, but may have been confusing it with Charade – a color movie starring Grant and a different Hepburn filmed 25 years later, oops.

Tragicomic Lew Ayres:
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EEH and Jean Dixon vs. the butler:
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Roger & Me (1989, Michael Moore)

It’s fun to see the pre-Awful Truth days when every corporate headquarters didn’t have an Official Michael Moore Policy and when Moore was thrown out of an event not because of who he is but because one of Ralph Nader’s relatives was with him. It’s also fun to see what a good movie Moore can make when he devotes all his time and energy to a single cause instead of bouncing from one populist hot topic to the next (Columbine, Fahrenheit) or tackling issues that are too large to fit in a movie (Sicko). He stays (mostly) in Michigan, covers a couple years’ worth of plant closings, visits and revisits local people (the eviction deputy, for one) and tries to get answers from (and stir up debate against) the corporate overlords and policies seen to be the cause of the problems. We’d been meaning to watch this for a long time, and thought the week of G.M.’s collapse (and Moore’s latest email about it) made for good timing.

Drag Me To Hell (2009, Sam Raimi)

These days when I hear “Sam Raimi’s got a new movie” I’m not all that excited. When I hear he’s got a new horror movie it sounds slightly desperate so I’ll wait for reviews. When the reviews are all positive I run out to see it. But I am hereby calling bullshit on those reviews, because this isn’t a great movie, or a creative revitalization – it’s a generic horror flick. Alison Lohman (the lead reporter who I don’t remember liking much in Where The Truth Lies, also in Big Fish) gets gypsy curse, spends the whole film understanding then trying to rid herself of said curse, puts boyfriend (Justin “Mac Guy” Long) and spirit guide in danger (not to mention getting herself in all sorts of embarrassing situations), and so on. It’s funny/horrifying that she does get dragged to hell in the final minute, her screaming face melting off as demon claws pull her beneath the molten rocks, but the 99 minutes before that weren’t worth the payoff. What’s worse is the visual style… I don’t mind missing those Evil Dead low-budget hallmarks like the anamorphic lens spin, the stop-motion and camera-speed effects and the slow 360-degree “where’d the danger go?” pan, and I don’t miss Bruce Campbell (not after My Name Is Bruce), but these things are replaced by a movie consisting of close-ups 85% of the time, as if shot by a damned TV director or an indie neo-realist. I mean, the movie had its effective shocks and a sad/hilarious old gypsy woman and David Paymer, so I don’t regret watching it, but I do regret that it wasn’t a whole lot better.

Up (2009, Pete Docter)

I knew that an old guy flies away with his house using hundreds of balloons, along with a boy scout stowaway, and that’s all I knew. If I’d have realized there would be a giant comic bird and a pack of talking dogs I might’ve been less anxious to watch this – but shit, it’s Pixar and they can do no wrong, so we ended up loving it.

Features a montage of a happy couple from childhood to marriage to her death many years later – the saddest thing I’ve seen in ages, used to give us insight into our seemingly cranky protagonist… a boy with an absentee father… a childhood hero turning out to be unworthy (actually a murderous egomaniac, an Incredibles-reminiscent supervillain). It’s a very adult cartoon.

Also a fun short about storks and clouds, Partly Cloudy, directed by animator Peter Sohn (who also did a voice in Ratatouille).

Dong (2006, Jia Zhang-Ke)

I assume this was on my must-see list because a bunch of New Yorker critics put it on their best-of-year lists paired with Still Life. Given how unimpressed I was with Still Life overall, I should’ve known better than to seek out its lesser-known companion piece. But I’m also drawn to 70-minute movies and figured it couldn’t hurt (it did; it put me to sleep).

We meet a painter at Three Gorges Dam.

Later he goes to Thailand.

Recommended listening: Psalm 69 by Ministry.

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Supposedly “Dong” means “East” in Mandarin – not to be confised with Tsai Ming-liang’s Dong, which means “The Hole” in Taiwanese.

Ian Johnston for Bright Lights:

A week after starting on Dong, Jia decided to make Still Life, from then on shooting the two films in parallel. In fact, the films share some of the same footage, including nonprofessional actor Han Sanming. Han’s appearance in both films playing a demolition worker alongside real workers raises some interesting questions about the “documentary” nature of Dong. It seems to share here the aesthetics of Jia’s fiction filmmaking, where questions of form – the composition of the image, the placement and movement or lack of movement of the camera, shot length – have as important a role as a film’s content, and the way that content reflects a social reality. This slippage between documentary and artifice in Dong is interesting, but the film itself is a minor work of limited appeal. One of its problems is that although Jia feels a generational and artistic affinity with Liu, Liu’s painting style – the focus of Dong – is of the most banal representational realism, far away from the challenges of Jia’s aesthetics. Moreover, the second half of Dong is very weak, with the scenes in Bangkok, in striking contrast to those in Fengjie, appearing touristic and inauthentic.

Scott Tobias: “In every case, the backdrops of Jia’s films are extraordinary: Momentous, politically engaged, and strongly attuned to the consequences of progress on a macro scale. And in every case, he also seems oddly incapable of doing anything interesting in the foreground.”

Nightmare Detective (2006, Shinya Tsukamoto)

The two stars of Big Bang Love: Juvenile A are back – Ryuhei Matsuda (the weak hero) as the titular Nightmare Detective and Masanobu Ando (tattooed superdude) as a curly-haired regular detective. It would seem like an inversion of their roles in the other film, except amazingly it’s not – the title character is weaker than everyone else in this movie. He has the power (at great personal risk) to enter the nightmares of others, but not to do anything else, so once inside he’s just bitter and afraid. It’d be kind of hilarious but there were always too many terrifying blurs of action to laugh.

your (very upset) nightmare detective:
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I suppose our main character is Keiko (played by singularly-named Hitomi). That’s her at the bottom warming her hands on a giant plastic brain-looking creature. Keiko works with rookie Wakamiya (Masanobu Ando) under chief Sekiya (Ren Osugi of MPD Psycho and Achilles and the Tortoise). Initially Keiko has a strained relationship with the others, since she formerly worked a desk job and doesn’t handle crime scenes well but all that’s forgotten when the shit goes down.

Ando and Osugi:
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Movie has a very video look, a la Haze or MPD Psycho. The horror action is never seen – pieces of blades or the color red may be glimpsed, but mostly you know that a fast, screaming blur is approaching the character, something unstoppable and terrifying (Tetsuo-like).

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The screaming blur is actually nightmare terrorist/suicide-assistance provider Zero (played by our director), who takes phone calls from depressed people then comes to slaughter them in their dreams, causing them to kill themselves (all with stabbing implements, I believe) in reality while still sleeping. He’s sort of a Freddy Krueger for hire. After a couple of people die, Wakamiya dials Zero (ha) as part of the investigation and ends up suffering the same fate, telling Keiko as he awakens “I didn’t even realize that I wanted to die.”

Zero/Shinya Tsukamoto:
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So Kagenuma, the nightmare detective, is drawn quite unwillingly into the investigation, more than halfway through the movie. He turns out to be juuust enough of a hero to get the job done, actually rushing the villain in a fit of bravery. Keiko, having dialed up Zero herself leading to a three-way battle inside her head, decides to live after all.

Tsukamoto: “The killer appears to be revealing the true terror of death to the willing.”

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Much of the online writing on this movie mentions the crappy performance of Hitomi in the lead role. I guess I just figured she was your typical buttoned-up brainiac movie detective and wasn’t supposed to emote. Or I was spending all my energy thinking “where is the nightmare detective? why is he barely in the movie?” From the look of the trailer, the upcoming sequel looks quieter, more contemplative, with less violent stabbing. This was great – Tsukamoto’s movies seem to get better and better – so I’m looking forward to it.

Big Bang Love: Juvenile A (2006, Takashi Miike)

Ah, I was right when I watched Scars of the Sun and assumed that it wasn’t Miike’s primary focus of 2006. This movie (AKA 4.6 Billion Years of Love) is where all the innovation went. After all, the man himself called this his masterpiece.

Opens with a clapboard, a guy reading poetry about light and the past and the five senses, an older fellow telling a kid about homoerotic rites of manhood, then suddenly Masanobu Ando is doing a frenetic dance against a white background. Later there are intertitles, crazy sets, unusual CGI, and an animated segment of someone frying on the electric fence.

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Masanobu Ando also starred in Kids Return, played a villain in Battle Royale:
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Once you unlock the story from all the craziness, it’s about two guys sent to prison together – tattooed tough-guy Kazuki (Ando) and weak, sensitive, gay Ariyoshi. K likes A and looks after him, but doesn’t quite warm to his sexual affections. Both are frustrated, yearning for escape (symbolized by their long conversation in an imaginary outdoor field in front of a pyramid and a space shuttle).

Ryuhei Matsuda (Ariyoshi) is the guy on the poster of Oshima’s Gohatto and the star of Nightmare Detective:
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At the end it turns into a whodunit, as Ariyoshi is suspected of strangling Kazuki to death. He’s caught in the act, and tells everyone he did it but nobody believes him capable so the investigation continues.

Warden Takatsu is Ryo Ishibashi, star of Audition, recently seen in Suicide Circle:
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But it’s not the kind of whodunit where the audience participates and could possibly guess the culprit. We’re just left to wonder “Did Ariyoshi kill him, and how?” because the other inmates don’t get much to say until after the investigation is underway. I figured Kazuki could’ve let A. kill him, a la In the Realm of the Senses, but no – it was giant Tsuchiya who works in the infirmary and regularly summons A.’s co-worker from laundry duty for sexual liasons. Even Tsuchiya didn’t think he could take Kazuki – he attacked him as a way to commit suicide, and when K. let himself die, T. took his own life a couple days (hours?) later.

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Sounds like kind of a sad story, but the filmmaking is so invigorating there’s no time to be bummed out.

D. Kalat from TCM (?):

For a film whose premise is a homoerotic romance set in a prison, Miike has studiously avoided the obvious, the cheap, and the cliché. The prison itself is not so much a set as an abstraction—the architect appears to have run out of ink and paper before he got around to designing the usual attributes of a prison: cells, bars, walls.

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Tom Mes:

There is a lot of meditation in Big Bang Love, Juvenile A too. It’s perhaps one of Miike’s most meditative films ever. Oddly, on the one hand, because it was produced by Hisao Maki, responsible for Silver, Family and several other of the most thick-headed turkeys in Miike’s career. Not so oddly, on the other, because it was scripted by the great Masa Nakamura, writer of Dead or Alive 2, The Bird People in China, Young Thugs: Nostalgia and several other of the very finest films in that same career. The big bang of the title is also the clash between the two furthest extremes in Miike’s filmography and the spectacle of its scattering stardust is one to behold.

Yes, but is it any good? This is a Takashi Miike film. It will make you wonder, curse, marvel, tremble, scratch your head, grow bored, and awaken rudely. Celebrate it.