Non-Japanuary shorts

Lost Buildings (2004, Chris Ware & Ira Glass)

The story of architectural historian Tim Samuelson and his grade-school fascination with old buildings. Glass of This American Life did the sound and Ware did illustrations in a cool vertical aspect ratio – makes sense, since it’s all about buildings. Tim meets photographer Richard Nickel, and they tour the buildings of their favorite architect together, preserving their memories as they’re torn down. Tragic ending, beautiful story.

Les Horizons Morts (1951, Jacques Demy)

Simple, romantic story. A man alone in his crumbling apartment recalls being dumped by his girl for another man, considers drinking poison but seeing the cross on his wall, decides against it. A student short, I think, with nice camera work.

Glas (1958, Bert Haanstra)

Glassmaking, first by hand then in a bottle factory, edited rhythmically with excellent music added afterwards. At least as wonderful as the other Haanstra shorts I’ve seen. Won the oscar (beating a donald duck short). I should look up his features sometime, since I’m always so impressed by the shorts.

Won in a Closet (1914, Mabel Normand)

Mabel dreams of a neighbor boy, but is pestered by two bumpkins. Somehow her dad and the boy’s mom get trapped in a closet together, Mabel thinks it’s an intruder, and since this is a Keystone production, it ends with twenty people running around and falling over. One nice split-screen shot, but I’d argue with the film preservationists who called Normand a “singular cinematic talent in the making.”

More from the film preservationists:

By the time Won in a Closet was released by Keystone, Normand had already appeared in nearly 150 movies and was a beloved screen presence around the world. As one of the founders of Keystone, the comedienne was well placed to take on new responsibilities and become one of cinema’s earliest female directors. … The story follows the Romeo-and-Juliet romance of Mabel and her beau, played by Charles Avery. As the plot careens into antics and pratfalls, Mabel’s father and Charles’s mother find themselves trapped in a large wooden closet, surrounded by spurned suitors and bumbling neighbors.

A Bashful Bigamist (1921, Allen Watt)

A slight improvement. A woman invents an ideal ex-husband so her new husband will aspire to be better, but she uses a photo of uncle Oswald, who returns from Africa the next day. Much misunderstanding ensues, accompanied by vase-smashing and pistols.

The husband was Billy Bletcher, who would later voice characters in Mickey Mouse cartoons. Cartoons in the intertitles drawn by Norman Z. McLeod, future director of Marx Bros and WC Fields comedies. No music on either of these silent shorts, so I listened to some Ennio Morricone

Area Striata (1985, Jeff Scher)

Dots, lines and patterns. Hyperkinetic geometry. Beautiful indeed but it kinda made me feel ill. Delicate music by a Bach quartet.

Trigger Happy (1997, Jeff Scher)

Negative silhouettes of objects and toys in (of course) rapid motion, set to an extremely happy song by Shay Lynch.

Scher says: “It began as an attempt to make an animated ballet, but as I was shooting the dance turned rowdy, into more of a nocturnal revel. . . . The trigger I was happy about was on the camera, but the title also fits the velocity of the imagery. Much of the animation happens by the rapid replacement of one object with another. It’s the afterimage in your eyes that animates the difference between the shapes, as one is replaced by another, and another”

Caged Birds Cannot Fly (2000, Luis Briceno)

Some very short segments showing different caged birds in would-be humorous situations… either stop-motion, 3D or some combination thereof. I liked the Stereolab song better than the film.

Downton Abbey seasons 1-2 (2010)

Addictive series full of distinct characters getting into overblown soap-opera situations. It concerns changing social structure in the early 1900′s – specifically, bookended by the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912 and the start of WWI (for Britain) in August 1914 – then season two takes us to the end of the war. An extremely busy series with excellent writing and acting and no wasted time.

Upstairs:

The Earl Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville, star of Asylum) is in charge of the “abbey” (mansion? I see no monks).

His American wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern of Once Upon a Time in America and The House of Mirth) provided all the family’s monetary wealth, has scary eyes.

Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery, who played the murdered decoy-Cate Blanchett in Hanna) is the oldest daughter who should be married by now, but drives away all suitors except a Turkish diplomat, who dies in her bed provoking hushed scandal. She’s supposed to hook up with Matthew in order to keep the fortune in the family, but they drive each other away until the end of the post-s2 Christmas special.

Lady Sybil (Jessica Findlay) is the kinda nice middle daughter who turns political, gets excited about equal rights for women, and finally runs off to Scotland or someplace to marry the chauffeur.

Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) is the youngest daughter, defined mainly by her fights with Mary, which quickly escalate (Mary scares off her would-be-fiancee, Edith writes to the Turkish embassy explaining how their diplomat died). She also has a wartime fling with a neighboring farmer.

The Dowager Countess (the great Maggie Smith), Crawley’s mom, hangs around to provide the official old-world upper-class perspective on everything. She grudgingly agrees to some of the major changes and improprieties, thus staying a lovably wonderful character instead of an increasingly out-of-touch old sourpuss.

Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) is a distant cousin who becomes heir to Downton after a nearer cousin dies on the Titanic. He moves his law practice into town to familiarise himself with his future estate, is being set up to marry Mary, but instead gets engaged to Lavinia. He’s injured in WWI in the same blast that mortally wounds William, and will never walk again. But of course, he walks again.

Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton, Shaun of the Dead‘s mother, also in Match Point) is Matthew’s mom, a contentious nurse who takes over the house when it becomes a recovery home for wounded soldiers during the war.

Lavinia Swire (Zoe Boyle) is the beloved fiancee of Matthew, who is too perfect to ever leave him or do anything wrong, so instead she’s killed off by Spanish Influenza.

Downstairs:

Mr. Carson, head butler (Dennis Potter regular Jim Carter), is the servant equivalent of Maggie Smith – knows exactly his place, and everyone else’s.

Mrs. Hughes, head housekeeper (Phyllis Logan, star of Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies) is a benevolent leader and problem-solver, like a female Carson but friendlier.

Mr. Bates, Crawley’s valet (Brendan Coyle of an upcoming, annoying-looking Poe adaptation/bio-pic) and servant during the Boer War (1900-ish), is hired and allowed to stay despite his controversial leg injury. He and Anna fall in love, but Bates is secretly married, and after his wife takes all his money and still won’t agree to a divorce, Bates possibly kills her. But we’ll see in season 3.

Ms. O’Brien, head maid (Siobhan Finneran of the Andrew Garfield starmaker Boy A) is evil and resentful, always scheming with Thomas, causes Cora’s miscarriage.

Thomas, first footman (Rob James-Collier), is possibly even more evil, also a closeted homosexual. Coincidence? He gets out of the war by arranging a hand injury, A Very Long Engagement-style, loses his fortune in a black-market scam, then achieves his long-held goal of taking Bates’s job as valet.

William, second footman (Thomas Howes), is a hapless, bullied fellow, lovestruck for Daisy.

Anna, head maid (Joanne Froggatt of an upcoming movie with description “a teenage boy’s descent into the dangerous world of the Internet”), is Bates’s sweetheart.

Gwen, maid (Rose Leslie), is learning to type so she can leave service and hold a proper job, secretly assisted by Sybil.

Ethel (Amy Nuttall) is the s2 replacement for Gwen. Even more of a free-spirited, liberated woman than her predecessor, she gets knocked up by a hospital guest and leaves the house in shame. Good, I was sick of her.

Mrs. Patmore, cook (Lesley Nicol), is losing her sight until the family sends her off for cataract surgery – spends the next ten episodes berating Daisy.

Daisy, cook’s assistant (Sophie McShera) is cute, tiny, guilted into marrying William on his death bed from war injuries.

Molesley (Kevin Doyle) is assigned to be Matthew’s servant, keeps almost getting regular plot threads but he’s not quite interesting enough so they get pushed aside.

Branson (Allen Leech) is the commie chauffeur who manages to marry into the family – but never gets invited into the house.

Crew:

Writer/producer Julian Fellowes was an actor for years, appearing in a Bond movie and bunches of miniseries, also wrote Gosford Park, Vanity Fair, The Young Victoria and a new version of Titanic with Toby Jones.

Buy from Amazon:
Downton Abbey season 1 DVD
Downton Abbey season 2 blu-ray

Zebraman 2: Attack on Zebra City (2010, Takashi Miike)

In the original Zebraman, made in 2005, family man Sho Aikawa is obsessed with an old TV series that’s set in 2010, the year the film takes place. This one jumps ahead to 2025. The only recurring character is Asano, the young student who shared Sho’s love for the Zebraman series, who now provides care for refugees from Tokyo. Sho wakes up, can’t remember the last 15 years (his family is never mentioned), so Asano fills him in.

Oh, where to begin? The Governor of Tokyo (Guadalcanal Taka of Beat Takeshi’s Boiling Point and Zatoichi) has renamed it Zebra City and instituted the “Zebra Time” policy, by which for ten minutes a day, nothing is illegal (cue amusing montage of violence), and the Zebra Police walk the streets in poor neighborhoods killing everyone they see.

Where has Zebraman been all this time? He was in a centrifuge run by the governor’s mad midget doctor. After years of spinning, they succeed in separating black from white. So he is mostly white, and his dark side became the governor’s “daughter,” the Zebra Queen (Riisa Naka), who is also incidentally a pop star.

And what of the alien infestation from the first film? Well, the only remaining alien presence is inside a ten-year-old girl – actually she’s twenty-five, but the force required to imprison the alien has kept her from growing. Eventually she’s sent to the centrifuge and the alien is released to terrorize Tokyo again – part of the Zebra Queen’s plan to displace Zebraman as the legendary hero by saving the city.

Where does Asano fit in? Asano (Masahiro Inoue, star of a series called Kamen Rider) and his buddy Ichiba (Naoki Tanaka) help out victims of Zebra Time, are accumulating an army of the injured to overthrow the governor. Ichiba is a Zebraman obsessive (not Asano, strangely) and once played the title character in a revival of the show. Also there’s a dark fellow with bad-boy bangs named Nimi (Tsuyoshi Abe of Initial D) who’s in love with the Zebra Queen.

Action! The Z Queen kills her rival in the pop charts and her “father” during successive Zebra Times, but can’t defeat the giant alien. She also sort of kills Nimi, and he finishes himself off. Zebraman isn’t sure what to do about the giant alien, but Ichiba remembers the final episode of the rebooted series, instructs Z to eat the alien – which he does before floating balloon-like into space.

Weird movie, then. More nutso fun than the first one, with all subtlety out the window. We get a couple Zebra Queen music videos, clips from fake TV episodes, and a “Stop AIDS” advertisement.

There was a forty-minute direct-to-video spin-off called Vengeful Zebra Miniskirt Police – why oh why wasn’t it included on the blu-ray?

Buy from Amazon:
Zebraman 2 Blu-ray/DVD

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960, Mikio Naruse)

“Bars in the daytime are like women without makeup.”

Set in the Ginza district where female hostesses converse with male patrons, trying to keep the regular customers coming to their bar in a high-competition area, all told from one woman’s point of view – so naturally I thought of Mizoguchi (Street of Shame, etc.), whose movies I haven’t especially liked. But in the commentary D. Richie compares this to Bresson, which seems more apt. Quite an excellent movie.

Mama (Hideko Takamine of Floating Clouds, Lightning, and thirty years earlier, Ozu’s silent Tokyo Chorus) is the head hostess at one bar, moves on to another when business starts declining because one of the girls left, luring away some regular customers. Mama’s been doing this for a long time and isn’t getting any younger, sees other girls escape through various means (suicide, marriage, or getting financial backing to open one’s own bar) but she doesn’t manage herself, ends up back where she started, ascending the stairs to work another day in another bar.

Mama falls for married businessman Fujisaki (Masayuki Mori, star of Ugetsu) but he’s moving away to Osaka.

Her manager Komatsu (Tatsuya Nakadai, the “hobo swordsman” of Kill!, star of the second section of Kwaidan) comes along when she switches bars. He’s in love with her, finally moves on after he catches her with Fujisaki.

Junko (Reiko Dan of Red Beard, Sanjuro) is a sexy young thing who stays at Mama’s apartment, sleeps with Komatsu and steals away Goda (Ganjiro Nakamura of Ozu’s Floating Weeds and The End of Summer), the older man who’d offered to set Mama up with her own (second-rate) bar.

Yuri (Keiko Awaji, the showgirl sold out by her mother in Stray Dog) is the ex-employee who ditched with some good customers, later kills herself with pills (possibly by accident), ruining the family she leaves behind with her debts.

Sekine (Daisuke Kato, professional rotund sidekick actor) acts like a factory owner looking for a mistress, turns out to be broke and married.

From the writer of a bunch of major Kurosawa films as well as Afraid to Die. Cinematographer was Masao Tamai, a Naruse regular who also shot Godzilla.

P. Lopate:

Though we cannot but sympathize with Keiko, we are also allowed to judge her dispassionately. She comes across at times as self-righteous, at other times as hard. … Asked to help pay for an operation that would correct her nephew’s polio, she discards the plea as too expensive, and we never do find out if she springs for the loan. In short, she is a very human mixture of generous and self-protective. …

Naruse’s gift here is being able to keep alive surprise and the fresh possibility of hope, even as you know deep down that he’s going to snatch most of that hope away. Endurance is the final antidote to despair, and that he does not extinguish. For a director whose vision is so frequently called pessimistic, what continuously engages and enthralls in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is a lightness of touch, deft and coolly understated, like its cocktail jazz score.

Buy from Amazon:
When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Criterion DVD)

Zebraman (2004, Takashi Miike)

Seems like an extremely good movie by about the halfway point, but it gets long and drags seriously through the second half. Still, I was excited enough about the sequel to rewatch the original.

Sho Aikawa (Scars of the Sun, Gozu) is unappreciated at home (especially by his young son, who’s bullied since his dad is the schoolteacher) and not too respected at work either, but he can escape into his hobby, which is watching the seven episodes of a quickly-cancelled TV series from his youth and making his own Zebraman costume.

TV’s original Zebraman:

A weird bit of animation:

Sho meets a mother (Kyoka Suzuki of Bullet Ballet) with a wheelchair-bound son, and bonds with the son over Zebraman. Meanwhile, a series of villains in funny costumes that seem straight out of the old episodes arrive in town. Whenever Sho faces one of them, he turns from a sad man in a silly suit into an actual superhero, culminating in a big fight against a green-slime alien overlord during which Sho can fly and briefly transforms into a pegasus zebra with a laser cannon.

Sho imagines Kyoka Suzuki as his sidekick Zebra Nurse:

Evil crab man:

Besides the long, drawn-out scenes where Sho connects with either the wheelchair kid or his own son, the movie pads its runtime with a couple of underequipped cops sent to track down the source of the alien invasion (I think they are Atsuro Watabe of Three Extremes and Koen Kondo of 13 Assassins), and a school principal (prof. Kyoto) who’s aware of the aliens and of the Zebraman connection, has copies of unfilmed show scripts that correspond to recent (and future) events.

Professor Kyoto:

Some cops:

From the writer of Ping Pong. The same year, Miike made Izo, part of Three Extremes (which I can’t remember at all) and a TV-movie sequel. Nice comic references to Ring (Zebraman fights the backflipping, well-dwelling Ring ghost in an episode) and Pulse (the principal tries to contain the aliens by sealing doors with red tape).

Buy from Amazon:
Zebraman DVD

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011, Tomas Alfredson)

On the way out, I commented that this should really have been a miniseries, since Gary Oldman is conducting an investigation into Tinker (Toby Jones), Tailor (Colin Firth), Soldier (Ciaran Hinds) and Poor Man (David Dencik of both Dragon Tattoo and its remake) but we know nothing about the four men, so aren’t invested in the outcome (except through the cathartic rifle-shot of tortured ex-operative Mark Strong). And Chris told me it WAS a miniseries, starring Alec Guinness. Not only that, I now see that Tinker Tailor follows The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, and is followed by Smiley’s People (another miniseries), all tied into a seven-part series of novels. So this two-hour movie is hardly the whole story.

Colin Firth is hiding behind Poor Man’s head:

But as a film, it works. Alfredson (Film-grain-happy director of Let The Right One In, with the same cinematographer) has the best cast you could hope for, including Gary Oldman as the lead, John Hurt as the (late) boss of it all, and someone named Benedict Cumberbatch (TV’s latest Sherlock Holmes) as Oldman’s main man. Such a very British cast and film (plus a notable scene in Hungary), I’m surprised they hired a Swede to direct.

It’s complicated how Oldman identifies the mole in MI6′s spy ring – something to do with a Russian who’s fed information by everybody, but only true information by one of them (Firth, of course, since he’s the most respectable-looking of the crew). Side plots include Tom Hardy (who was he in Inception?) hiding out at Oldman’s place with his flashback story of a woman he failed to save, Cumberbatch’s file-snatching escapade (spying on the spies), Firth stealing Oldman’s wife, and the sad, trailer-by-the-river life of Mark Strong.

A Dangerous Method (2011, David Cronenberg)

Keira Knightley (Atonement) is amazing as a perverse mental patient turned psychoanalyst. The movie is mainly focused on her (sometimes quite inappropriate) relationship with Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender of Hunger and Inglorious Basterds), but also about Jung’s relationship with Sigmund Freud (cigar-chomping Viggo Mortensen).

Doesn’t sound like Cronenberg’s usual fare, but his movies have always concerned themselves with sex and the workings of the mind, and Keira proves herself a great Cronenbergian heroine, having fits and jaw-locking facial tics when trying to discuss her past, the mind perverting the body.

Vincent Cassel returns from Eastern Promises in a small role. Sparkling sunlit photography by Cronie regular Peter Suschitzky. Closing titles tell us that Keira’s character Sabina Spielrein returned to her native Germany and was murdered by nazis. Jung has previously been played by Max von Sydow and Freud by Liev Schreiber, Bud Cort, Alec Guinness and… Max von Sydow.

Mission: Impossible 4 (2011, Brad Bird)

Another installment of the consistently high-quality series, the best thing Tom Cruise has ever gotten himself involved with. He escapes from prison, climbs the highest building in the world with malfunctioning suction gloves (a much better use of Dubai than in Sex & The City 2), gets into so many car accidents, sneaks into the Kremlin (all you need is a fake mustache) and stops a nuclear missile from destroying San Francisco.

Jeremy Renner is a spy-turned-accountant-turned-spy with a dark past (he failed to protect Ethan’s wife from getting killed by foreign agents), Simon Pegg is the comic-relief tech spy with an awesome rear-projection screen used to fool a Kremlin guard into thinking a spy-infested hallway is empty, and Paula Patton is the sex-appeal spy who gets to kick the enemy spy (Lea Seydoux, Mysteries of Lisbon) who murdered her boyfriend (Josh Holloway) out of a 300-story window.

Ving Rhames gets a cameo at the end, and Tom Cruise’s wife is still alive if anyone gives a shit about that. Brad Bird knows how to plan an action scene and shoot it coherently, and that’s really all we wanted.

Three Ages (1923, Buster Keaton)

I watched this again after seeing Intolerance and realizing this was a parody. I didn’t love it the first time – maybe my least-loved of all Keaton’s features, so thought I need to give it another shot. Well, I still don’t love it but it’s got some good scenes.

Love triangle:

Three time periods – modern, roman and caveman (with stop-motion dinosaurs) – featuring the same cast: Buster wants The Girl (Margaret Leahy, who won the role in a beauty contest), but she’s grabbed away by Wallace Beery (best known as the star of Barton Fink‘s unfilmed wrestling picture). The Girl’s parents (Lillian Lawrence and Keaton’s longtime anatagonist Joe Roberts) prefer Beery, but Keaton’s tenacity and stunt-survival skills win the girl’s hand in the end.

Her parents:

Best bits: Keaton jumping from one building to another and missing (an actual stunt-gone-wrong), his car falls apart while he’s driving it, Buster’s rival plans to pummel him during a football game – come to think of it, all my favorite parts are from the modern segment. The cave era is all downhill after the animated dinosaur. Roman spends too much time with a man in a lion costume, and has a classic bit of racism when all the negro servants come running when they see Buster throwing dice.

Buy from Amazon:
Three Ages DVD