Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Film Review #179: Throne of Blood
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Toshirô Mifune, Minoru Chiahi, Isuzu Yamada

A couple years ago, Redhouse Arts Center screened Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) as part of a special Master Directors Film Festival, six classics spread over a couple weeks that the daily paper declined to give much coverage because they were “just some old movies.” Attendance was uneven, yet a sizable number of the audience for Rashomon said during the talk-back session afterward that while they’d seen the movie before on DVD, they had braved dreadful weather at the last minute for the rare joy of seeing it on a big screen.

This movie gives us the ready shorthand term “Rashomon-like.” It hardly seems possible to imagine our culture’s understanding of point-of-view without this film’s presence, even though many people now actually haven’t seen it on any screen. In ancient Japan, a woman is raped in the forest and her husband killed. At the trial, four witnesses – we quickly see they’re defendants – give four accounts, each revealing a little more detail. These jostling flashbacks form the film’s narrative.

A big screen amplifies Kurosawa’s deep blacks and creamy whites, his astonishingly lovely screen compositions and masterful shots. One of the better known – film students diagram this – is the single-take, long, unbroken, pristine tracking shot that follows the man and his wife through the foliage, for which Kurosawa built a looping rail through the forest that would carry a swiveling camera to allow filming the couple’s progress without cuts. In a story about the difficulty of knowing the truth – indeed the depth of our yearning for truth – this single virtuoso scene packs enormous emotional wallop.

In 1957, Kurosawa is back in the woods, with another complicated tale of violence set in feudal Japan. Throne of Blood is Kurosawa’s adaptation of Macbeth (in 1985 he returned to political tragedy with Ran, his take on Shakespeare’s King Lear). Throne of Blood is the classic, enduring tale of a once-honorable warrior who loses his way in familiar woods, perhaps befogged by a lust for power, and – egged on by a calculating and ambitious woman – betrays his friends and principles, achieving the throne but briefly before his downfall. And by the way it’s scary as hell.

There have been so many screen versions of Macbeth – just since 2001, the UK, Australia, Germany and India have each released new ones – that there’s not much point in worrying about plot spoilers. Anyway, two warriors on their way back to the Cobweb Castle after defeating some rebels lose their way in Cobweb Woods. Washizu is played by the great Toshirô Mifune, Kurosawa’s frequent lead actor, accompanied by fellow warrior and friend Miki (Minoru Chiahi).

In the foggy, rain-soaked woods, they come upon a ghostly old woman with a spinning wheel (Chieko Naniwa), who – counterpart to Shakespeare’s three witches –predicts Washizu will take over the throne but Miki’s sons will occupy it later. She also predicts nothing will harm Washizu until the Cobweb Woods move to the walls of the castle. Pretty much following Macbeth in bare outline, Washizu and Miki’s return to the castle brings about Washizu’s murder of his king – pushed forward by his wife, the Lady Asaji Washizu (Isuzu Yamada) – followed by his murder of Miki, his wife’s madness and an advancing army’s siege, during which they cut down the surrounding forest and use the tree branches as camouflage to approach the walls.

Throne of Blood is not justly famous for its translation of Shakespearean language. The DVD version that I watched with two friends Sunday night – even Laurinda willingly watched gore in honor of Halloween – carried subtitles so ham-fisted they had us cracking up at times. When flocks of crows invade Washizu’s throne room during the final siege, one character supposedly wails, “The birds are badly crying.”

But Kurosawa achieves his eloquent dread visually and with few monsters other than the manifestations of our own inner demons. So Washizu may be feudal, superstitious, but right along with him we are overtaken by this sight of misplaced black birds, a viscerally terrifying sign of doom. More than the conventional visitation of the ghosts of his victims, there are the trees oddly rustling across the foggy night plain. Or Washizu’s grisly end, shot down by his own archers for bringing this fate upon their castle.

Or right from the start, back to that early scene in the woods, when Washizu and Miki have lost their bearings and can’t believe it. Over and over – twelve times Kursawa varies this shot – they try galloping confidently into the trees, hoping the way home will appear and open to them. Everything unfolds from this.

This review appears in the 10/30/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. Netflix currently has four Kurosawa titles available to “save,” suggesting a wavelet of re-release ten years after his death. “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not opening theatrically in Central New York & older films of enduring worth.
Film Review #178: Caribbean Film Festival at Syracuse Community Folk Art Center October 23-26

Early in Guttaperc, Barbadian filmmaker Andrew Millington’s first feature film, the 10-year-old Eric’s grandfather wordlessly throws down a copy of George Lamming’s classic novel of Black West Indian identity and coming of age, In the Castle of My Skin (1953), for the boy to read. Audiences might take the hint too.

A reluctant summer visitor at his grandparents’ drowsy seaside village while his parents vacation in New York, Eric (Richard Weekes) is bored. His grandfather (Clairmont Taite), proprietor of a small cement factory, considers Eric spoiled and despises the Euro-slanted education Eric’s getting, which omits vast stretches of Barbados’ own political and intellectual history. He sets about filling in the gaps for his grandson. Meanwhile, elderly Sister Pam (the great Jamaican actress Leonie Forbes, a casting coup for Millington) – whom Eric first encounters when she forcefully thwarts his attempt to steal candles from her religious alter – also decides he might just be worth educating in African folk ways still preserved in the countryside.

Eric’s story, narrated in voice-over by an older Eric, unfolds just as his grandfather becomes embroiled in labor unrest over a scheme to displace the village with resort development. The title comes from a sling-shot given to Eric by a village boy. This simple, rough implement, both toy and weapon, provides a ready image of the characters’ fork-in-the-road choices as well as the mental acceleration available when events converge – if we aim our attention properly.

Reminiscent of the deceptively leisurely pace of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep and filmed with the same tender eye, Millington’s 1998 film opens this fall’s four-day Caribbean-themed film festival at Community Folk Art Center this Thursday evening. Andrew Millington will be present and on hand Friday too for a screening of a rough-cut of his new film, Zora’s Dream, which also uses a grandparent-grandchild relationship, this time set in South Carolina’s Sea Islands.

Astutely curated by Qiana Williams, CFAC’s new education director, this film festival offers an engaging collection of recent indie features, award-level animation shorts and documentary. Williams’ thoughtful choices speak well for Caribbean film-making both in terms of its cinematic accomplishment – these are admirably well-made movies – and its success in blending art with political comment.

The Caribbean produces some of the best animation in the world – I am fond of Juan Padrón’s Vampires in Havana myself – and the seven-year-old Animae Caribe, under the umbrella of the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival, attracts some of the best short animation submissions from around the world and is building a regional network that now includes Cuban filmmakers. On Saturday, CFAC brings Animae Caribe founder Camille Abrahams to present eight award-nominated shorts from this year’s festival, just held in September. As a bonus for kids, artist Yvonne Buchanan conducts an animation workshop after the midday screening.

Ghanaian-born filmmaker Yao Ramesar, who now lives and teaches and makes movies in Trinidad, says that he first met the Black woman who told him the world would be destroyed in a fiery “Apocalypso” twenty years ago in a dream. His 2006 Sistagod, which screens Saturday night, is the first of a projected trilogy exploring that subject. Like Guttaperc, this film has a now-grown narrator looking back. Mari/Sistagod (Indigo Minerve plays the child and Evelyn Caesar Munroe the adult) explains her father was a white US Marine sniper – “one of 467 wounded in Desert Storm” – who married his Trinidadian rehab nurse (Nicole Minerve) but left her when their too-dark daughter ignited his distrust. Mari endures her mother’s grief-struck madness, her grandmother’s loss and, when the spirit enters her at 18, an exorcism by “our aspiring televangelist, Father Divine” (Michael Cherrie). World destruction arises from the fevered dances of costumed revelers in the annual Carneval, led by the blue devils. Edmund Attong’s cinematography and editing are especially worth watching here.

The fest winds up Sunday afternoon with ¡Yo Soy Boricua, Pa’ Que Tu Lo Sepas!/I Am Boricua, Just So You Know! (2005). Noted Puerto Rican actress Rosie Perez enlisted the able documentary team of Liz Garbus and Rory Kennedy to assist her first directing effort, a highly interactive, rollicking cultural road trip she takes with her sister Carmen and her cousin Sixto Ramos, framed by New York City’s annual April Puerto Rican Day Parade. They return to the family village of Aguadilla, consider the 4000-year-old indigenous Taino culture that Columbus encountered in 1493, meet Miami cousins and Nuyorican poets, examine 1950s migration to the mainland, sterilization campaigns, Pedro Albizu Campos’ nationalist movement and the rise of the Young Lords of the 1960s. Infectious and sophisticated, Yo Soy Boricua packs its 85 minutes full.

Such first-rate programming by Williams bodes well for CFAC’s year ahead.

This review appeared in the 10/23/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column usually reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not open theatrically in Central New York & older films of enduring worth.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Film Review #177: Where the Money Is
Director: Marek Kanievska
Cast: Paul Newman, Linda Fiorentino, Dermot Mulroney

In this unheralded but sometimes delicious little heist film, cop cars’ lights whirl outside the cabin in the night woods and a bull-horn warns, “Put your hands above your heads! You’re surrounded!”

Seemingly nonchalant, Paul Newman’s Henry Manning turns to Linda Fiorentino’s Carol Ann MacKay and makes a proposal directly from his outlaw heart to hers: “You haven’t lived until someone has said those words to you!”

Fittingly, since a first-rate chase ensues, I was in my car somewhere on East Genesee Street late Saturday afternoon when I heard on NPR that Newman died Friday night. Somewhere in the middle of commentator Bob Mondello’s appreciation of Newman’s long career – over 80 roles in 56 years, not counting stage work – I re-routed myself down Erie Blvd. East to Emerald City Video. They were looking over their inventory to make a Newman section up front. They don’t have The Color of Money anymore, Scorsese’s 1984 sequel to Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961), which won Newman an Oscar for reprising pool player Fast Eddie Felson. Mondello mentioned Fast Eddie, as did lots of writers in the Sunday papers. And I already had Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition (2002) at home – one of my top ten favorite movies – in which Newman plays the Irish gangster John Rooney to Tom Hanks’ hit man.

Despite his legendary younger roles, Newman played older men well – as in Rooney’s sorrowful but thoroughly corrupt mobster-father or, as early as 1982, the deeply world-weary lawyer Frank Galvin in Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict. Who can forget the wallop in that long, long shot of Newman striding up the street and – not a single skid mark – slapping Charlotte Rampling full across the face?

Where the Money Is (2000) hasn’t made the memorial lists but it’s got one of Newman’s best old men. This old bathrobe of a movie is just fine on DVD on a rainy fall night, though it didn’t do very well in theaters. Three weeks’ wide release, three more on drastically fewer screens, and it was gone – on to 20 other countries or so and DVD, largely, safe to say, on Newman’s name. I saw Where the Money Is in a theater the first time and called someone afterward to say what a pleasure it was to watch Newman work.

Ostensibly set in a lush but scraggly part of rural Oregon, filmed in Montreal, and directed by England’s Marek Kanievska, Where the Money Is regards Newman’s bank-robber Manning, who we learn - along with Carol Ann - had eluded police for 30 years until a power outage trapped him overnight in a bank vault. The film’s title and aura play on 1930s-era real-life bank-robber Willie Sutton, who escaped incarceration often and explained that he robbed banks “because that’s where the money is.”

After learning mail-order Tantric yoga to fake a stroke that gets him transferred from prison to a nursing home, instead of picking up his stashed millions and fading north to Canada, Manning crosses paths with Carol Ann MacKay. While it’s hard to swallow that ex-prom queen-turned-nurse Carol Ann has never been out of this town – this is not long after Fiorentino’s steamy role in John Dahl’s The Last Seduction – it’s easy to see where her first suspicions about her stroke patient's fakery will go. An impromptu lap dance in the nursing home fails to startle Manning out of his repose, so she takes him on a picnic. After warning “Last chance!” she grandly shoves his wheelchair off the dock into a lake. Well, let us just say that soon Carol Ann and Manning team up to rob an armored payroll truck. Carol Ann’s husband, ex-prom king Wayne (Brian Mulroney) – credibly jealous after he watches Manning dance with Carol Ann in a roadhouse – insists on coming along and so furnishes both stupid moves and betrayal.

There’s much in this minor key movie that’s both sweet and deftly managed. A wry, affectionate use of music includes the likes of the Cars’ My Best Friend’s Girl and Stephen Lang’s Sexy. Manning’s revenge on the sleazy orderly who steals his watch and hits on Carol Ann satisfies, as does Wayne’s well-deserved undoing. On the other hand, the elderly nursing home residents provide comic turns that move the plot along, but there’s not a cheap shot anywhere about getting old. Henry Manning has achieved that with considerable, ingenious grace. The best parts come when Manning emerges from quiet into the moment’s chaos to deliver some under-stated line to Carol Ann – they’re well-matched as the two most alert characters in the movie – for example, when she rescues him, without any plan except the wild driving she loves, from the van taking him back to prison.

“That’s my girl,” he growls, opening one eye as she frees him. “What took you so long?”

This review appears in the 10/2/2008 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not open theatrically in Central New York & older films of enduring worth.