Wednesday, October 24, 2012


"This is no dream...this is really happening!"

I wonder how many documentary programs have used Mia Farrow's panicked cry to illustrate the dark side of swinging '60s psychedelia? I know I have seen it in more than a few. It's certainly an iconic moment, coming midway through a crucial sequence of Roman Polanski's 1968 chiller Rosemary's Baby. The sweet and trusting Rosemary Woodhouse has been drugged without her knowledge, and her sudden declaration occurs when the surreal fantasy the narcotics instigated intersects with the cruel reality she is suffering: a cult of Satanists have made her their unwilling concubine.

Classic horror movies always play on the anxieties of the times. Found footage shockers are popular right now because modern moviegoers are finding themselves increasingly under surveillance in our everyday lives. A film like Paranormal Activity taps into the very real issue of privacy rights and how, more often than not anymore, we surrender much of those rights ourselves. Who filmed the footage in that movie? One of the victims. Who turns out to be the murderer? Someone close to him. The killer isn't just in the house, but you're sharing the same modem.

And so it is that Polanski, working from a novel by Ira Levin, builds a scary story that spreads itself across the generation gap. The malevolent forces that prey on the Woodmans are older people, and they dig at Rosemary's anxieties about motherhood, about creating new life and being a parent to the next generation. The metaphor? That change is happening and we might not be ready to handle what's next. There may be a riot going on, but no one is sure they can really take charge when they get what they want.

Or, if you prefer, Rosemary's Baby is simply a story about a woman caught up in weird goings on, and how she slowly realizes that not all is right with her neighbors, their friends, or even her husband (an earnest and ever-brilliant John Cassavetes). The film intensifies on a slow burn, building the weirdness slowly, shifting from goofy to scary by degrees, and yet never losing its black sense of humor. In a lot of ways Rosemary's Baby is camp, but it's pure camp, as equal in its sincerity as a piece of genre fiction as it is full of cinematic pranksterism. (Ever notice that the villain's name, Roman Castevet, not only shares a first name with the writer/director, but the last name sounds suspiciously like that of its male lead?) There are lots of funny, killer details that almost look like kitsch all these decades later. Ruth Gordon's pink hair, or the paintings on the Castevet wall, which include a rendering of a famous fire and a parody of more traditional religious and patriotic paintings that features deformed devil worshipers attacking an innocent. Most of this is clearly intentional, and some of it has only gotten funnier with age. I mean, could they have known Charles Grodin would become Charles Grodin and how ludicrous that sad moustache of his would end up looking?

Which isn't me watching Rosemary's Baby from a hipster's perch, giggling at how old fashioned and tacky it is, because I wouldn't use either of those disdainful phrases. On the contrary, I have a lot of respect for how brilliantly Polanski skewers both the young and the old. The character of Guy Woodhouse is a would-be actor who pays lip service to art but is really just looking to get famous (apparently this is not a new societal malady). Next to him, the Satanists almost look harmless. They may be corny, but they believe in something. Guy will sell out anyone.

Amidst all of this kidding around, however, is a serious scary movie. Polanski uses humor to set his audience at ease, and then he strikes from the other direction. Tense journeys into dark hallways, ominous portents, and even the occasional gore--he never lets us forget that something isn't quite right in the top floor apartment. The dream sequences in Rosemary's Baby are some of the best ever in a film. Polanski establishes a wonky logic in Rosemary's nightmares, one that is as random as it is contrived, leading us from the boogie men of her subconscious to the honest-to-goodness boogie men all around her. Mia Farrow is kind of remarkable in the role. She manages to maintain a believable innocence, even when the armchair quarterbacks in the audience should otherwise be screaming, "Oh, come on, how can you not tell something is wrong?" Again, the most insidious writing goes to Cassavetes. The way the husband tweaks at his wife's insecurities to keep her from disrupting the plan is laced with a cold cruelty. If one wanted to read too much into it, there are maybe some unkind (and not necessarily true) parallels to be made between this performance and the driven man who gave it, not to mention the filmmaker who shaped it.

Rosemary's Baby has been on out-of-print on DVD in North America for some time now, and the new Criterion release has been manufactured in high-definition (there is also a Blu-Ray version). The new widescreen disc image looks extraordinary, maintaining the unreality even as it improves on the overall clarity and resolution. Detail looks incredible--you could spend a ton of time poring over the nooks and crannies in both the Woodman and Castevets' apartments, every prop appears carefully chosen--and yet the new print manages not to sacrifice the exaggerations. The colors in particular have an almost-over-the-top quality. Farrow's yellow sun dress and bright hair is meant to directly contrast with her sickly pallor as the movie progresses, just as the dinginess of the apartment the couple moves into is brightened up by their new decoration, only to become stifling again. Particularly compare the later apartment scenes to the outdoor shots when Rosemary tries to make a run for it. The sun never sets!

In terms of new extras, a featurette featuring current interviews with Roman Polanski, Mia Farrow, and producer Robert Evans is most welcome. Rosemary's Baby is a film with its own lore. Indeed, I first rented it after watching the documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture, which numbered Rosemary's Baby as one of the amazing string of hits Evans produced as the head of Paramount.

There is also Komeda, Komeda, an inviting documentary about music composer Krzystof Komeda, as well as an archival interview with author Ira Levin and some of the author's notes.

All in all, Rosemary's Baby is an impressive reissue just in time for Halloween. If you're looking for something creepy to watch before the holiday, then throw this on your biggest screen, turn out the lights, and crank it up. Once you're good and scared, just keep reminding yourself, this isn't's just a dream. 

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Sunday, October 21, 2012


It starts with a simple act.

A father and a son are on their delivery route, selling bread out of the back of their rickety, horse-drawn cart. To get off a back road and onto the main one, they climb out of the cart and move a row of rocks to clear the way. It's not an act the man who owns the land the trail runs across takes kindly too. His soil, his rocks, his right. However, the land actually once belonged to the deliveryman's family. Mark (Refet Abazi) believes that if he no longer has an inalienable privilege to travel what was once his grandfather's estate, taken away from him in some kind of labor dispute that resulted in the redistribution of the property, then the new owner, Sokol (Veton Osmani), can at least honor his family's tradition and let the village use the shortcut. They have words, and words lead to violence. Sokol is dead, and Mark is on the run.

A simple act in the first scene leads to murder only a few minutes later. This is how Joshua Marston kicks off The Forgiveness of Blood, an Albanian family drama rooted in tradition and universal emotion. This is Marston's second feature, following his lauded 2004 debut, Maria Full of Grace. The American director co-wrote the script with Andamion Murataj, a native of Albania (and a cinematographer normally), creating an authentic story showing the dangerous influence of ancient law on modern culture.

The people in the area where The Forgiveness of Blood is set live by an old system called Kanun. Once blood is shed, Kanun dictates that it must be answered in kind. The feud between the two families will not end until both sides are satisfied that they have exacted enough pain on their enemies. Mark goes into hiding, leaving his family to fend for itself. According to the law, the women of the clan are to be left alone, and the sons will be safe as long as they stay under house arrest. Both the teenager Nik (Tristan Halilaj) and his elementary school-aged brother Dren (Elsajed Tallalli) are forbidden to go outside, or they will likely be killed, the ultimate payback for what Mark has done. Their mother can still work, and their adolescent sister, Rudina (Sindi Lacej), is forced to take over her father's delivery route. There is no other way for them to make money.

The primary narrative of The Forgiveness of Blood follows Nik and Rudina as they cope with the absurd situation that has been forced on them. They are regular 21st-century teenagers, with cell phones and ambitions of their own. Nik likes girls and he dreams of opening his own shop, presumably an internet café of some kind. Boredom overtakes him when he's in lockdown, and his restlessness develops into a kind of neuroses. He grows more irresponsible the more Rudina starts taking charge. Other men are competing with her to sell bread to her clients, and so she starts trafficking in cigarettes. The imbalance that says she is off limits is tested by friend and foe alike. Nik still expects her to clean house and make dinner; one of Sokol's cousins breaks the rules by threatening the girl when she's on the job. This leads to both children wanting to come to some kind of mediation with the other family, something that can only happen if their father either goes to jail or gets killed.

The true conflict of The Forgiveness of Blood is not the warring clans, but a battle within the generation gap, with additional touches of the culture clash resulting from the introduction of technology into a rural area. Mobile phones and first-person shooter video games look like anachronisms, like the film crew wasn't paying enough attention to the background details in their backwoods period picture. Though Nik can be pouty and selfish, it's hard not to identify with the unfairness of the situation. His entire life comes to a screeching halt, and any attempts he makes to become a part of the process of fixing it are rebuffed by the religious and tribal elders. Any American who grew up in a Christian household and argued with parents over rules imposed by the Bible can relate to Nik's frustration at being beholden to Kanun. This set of standards doesn't reflect his chosen morality, and as long as he is forced to stick by them, he can't come into his own. He sees a world that is changing faster than his neighbors are ready to contend with.

The juxtaposition this creates with Rudina makes for some splendid commentary. Her plight is the opposite: she is being forced to grow up too fast, and so she is getting into things she shouldn't. There is one tension-filled scene where she goes to the neighboring city to try to buy contraband cigarettes, despite having no real idea what she is doing. The image of her driving her horse and buggy across a bridge while cars and trucks get jammed up behind her makes for a powerful illustration of just how off the map her upbringing has been. Marston has to do very little to fill us with fear, watching this innocent willingly jump into a dangerous situation.

But anyone who saw Maria Full of Grace knows that Marston's talent is in making a whole lot out of very little. His is a cinema of the observed, of individual moments driven by small gestures. The most poignant elements of The Forgiveness of Blood grow from behavior and action rather than dialogue or contrivance. Nik's obsession with the cracks in his bedroom wall needs no further explanation, and so it's fitting that when Rudina demands to know why he has made them worse, he says nothing. Both of these young actors are exceptional finds. Marston guides them properly, and they appear unmannered and ordinary on screen. These are just a couple of kids, they just happen to be here. The filming style, which largely uses natural light to achieve an almost painterly visual aesthetic, leans toward off-the-cuff, probing shots more akin to documentary than indie melodrama. I wouldn't quite call it mumblecore, it's more planned than that. Marston keeps The Forgiveness of Blood in the moment without ever forgetting it's an actual film. His storytelling could easily be compared to the Dardennes, as well as much of what is currently coming out of South America (such as is rounded up here in Christopher McQuain's review of The Milk of Sorrow).

The best fictions take us from a life we know and plops us down in another, allowing us to experience the unfamiliar and find elements we recognize within it. While I know little of Albania, much less what it would be like to grow up there, The Forgiveness of Blood delivers a story that anyone should be able to find identifiable elements within. Joshua Marston is an empathetic author, one who engenders empathy from his audience. In both of his films, he avoids judging the events, and instead just relates them so that, in turn, we can relate to them.

For a complete rundown on the special features, read the full review at DVD Talk. Images here were taken from promotional materials and were not taken from the Blu-Ray under review.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (Blu-Ray) - #147

If I could go back in time and rejoin myself in a position just prior to having seen In the Mood for Love, I would do it in a heartbeat. Oh, to relive that first taste of love! To fall under the spell of Wong Kar-Wai's romantic tragedy as an innocent once more! Sure, In the Mood for Love gets deeper and more fulfilling the more often you watch it, but nothing will ever compare to that first blush of discovery, of experiencing its lush pleasures unaware.

In the Mood for Love takes place in Hong Kong in 1962. It begins as two couples, the Chows and the Chans, rent rooms in neighboring apartments. Tellingly, only one spouse from each couple is there to look at the rooms; their absent halves will be absent for most of the movie, and when they do appear, it's either just off screen or with their faces just out of frame. Mrs. Chan (played by Maggie Cheung Man-yuk, from Clean and Irma Vep) is renting a room from the elderly Mrs. Suen (Rebecca Pan), while Mr. Chow (Infernal Affairs star Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) takes the space next door with the Koos. The floor of their building is its own community. The older landlords regularly share meals and play mahjong late into the night.

For Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan, however, this welcoming environment soon becomes a place of deep loneliness. Their partners are increasingly absent, both apparently called away to work overseas in Japan. The husband and wife that remain eat take-out noodles in their rooms, passing each other in the hallway going to and from the restaurant, on their way out and coming back home from work. They share pleasantries, and discuss a mutual affection for martial arts stories. The connection between them is tenuous at first, but as time passes, they begin to notice they are alone at the same times. Other telltale clues emerge, and before long, they realize that their missing spouses are having an affair.

It's fitting that once the truth is revealed, we never see Mrs. Chow or Mr. Chan again. Their presence is felt, but for all intents and purposes, they are gone and not coming back. The pair they left behind becomes friends, bonding over their shared heartache, and eventually falling in love themselves. Except, the true heartbreak of In the Mood for Love is that these jilted romantics are both too good for their respective spouses and too committed to their marriage vows to follow through on their own feelings. They don't want to stoop to being cheaters themselves. Instead, they spend their time role playing, trying to imagine how Mr. Chan might have seduced Mrs. Chow, and vice versa. They rent a hotel room, but it's to lock themselves away, dreaming up martial arts serials together, imagining a more noble and passionate life than the one they share in the real world.

In the Mood for Love is the second part of a semi-official narrative trilogy that starts with Wong Kar-Wai's second feature Days of Being Wild and concludes with the more recent 2046 [review], which picks up with Mr. Chow years later, alone, a successful writer, broken-hearted. The film perhaps best exemplifies the writer/director's improvisational style, notable for having begun life as a comedy about food before morphing into the sad tale of love's failure. In the Mood for Love has its own unmistakable rhythm, something comparable to the duplication and growth in Alain Resnais' adultery drama Last Year at Marienbad [review], but more self-contained and grounded. You'll be amazed by how many times two people can walk up and down the same stairwell and how it can have a different meaning every time. Pain and disappointment compounds and self-replicates even as love blossoms, the repetition creating echoes that deepen the emotions rather than dull them. Additionally, Mark Galasso's music cues enhance the drama by signaling the different sentimental beats, working the audience to a point where our response to the familiar melodic strains becomes almost Pavlovian. The orchestration is like a glacier slowly blanketing the film in icy sorrow.

The reason so many romantic comedies don't work is the same reason that an untraditional, experimental film like In the Mood for Love does. It's because most romantics, the true ones, are actually cynics. They want to believe in love, but experience has taught them to be distrustful; at the same time, they staunchly defend their romantic ideals. Sure, it would be lovely to see a version of In the Mood for Love where Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow throw caution to the wind and succumb to their passions, but something would be lost as a result. Their love is purified by their pain. Ironically, they are more the married couple than the absent lovers. Their lives devolve into routine and familiarity. Perhaps the true secret of their maintaining their connection is that by denying their desires, those desires increase. As long as they are together, they have something more to look forward to.

In a better world, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung would be the biggest stars on the planet. What they do here is remarkable. The emotional core of In the Mood for Love relies on what isn't said. The communication is all in gesture and expression. Even when the two are speaking, more often than not they are pretending to be someone else. Their games fall apart because they can't fake being what they are not, and there is more honesty in these acts of pretend than you'll find in most performances in mainstream love stories. There is a scene 2/3 into In the Mood for Love when Mrs. Chan breaks down. The pressure of the gossip about her relationship with Chow and the inevitability that she will lose him is too much for her to bear. The actors go to two different places here: she is given to great heaving sobs, he must stand stalwart and resolute. Both portrayals are devastating. The true agony of a relationship ending is evident in how they hold themselves, how they look away from one another. The hurt vibrates through every fiber of their being.

For all the resonance of In the Mood for Love's narrative, what makes it even more special is how beautiful it is to look at. This is the kind of film you could just as easily put on mute and let it run in the background. Directors of photography Mark Li Pin-Bin and Christopher Doyle (Hero) and art director Man Lim-Chung work with Wong Kar-Wai to create a nearly surreal, painterly version of early-'60s Hong Kong. The urban landscapes appear inspired by Edward Hopper, with their solid colors and idyllic lighting, turning the cramped spaces into almost otherworldly, futuristic visions. (Indeed, in 2046, when the story leaps from the real past to an imagined science-fiction future, it's not much of a leap at all.) Part of our willingness to stick with the movie's reverberating storytelling pattern is our willingness to keep staring at all the lovely detail, be it the red-hot décor of the hotel getaway or the hypnotic patterns of Maggie Cheung's amazing wardrobe. In much the same way we revisit our favorite songs (indeed, even on the soundtrack itself, which uses Nat "King" Cole as part of Galasso's score), we also revisit our favorite images, like flipping through a book of photos and paintings.

It's like I said at the outset, In the Mood for Love is a movie you will want to revisit again and again. Your understanding and appreciation of it will only increase, even as you yearn to be as innocent as you were when your path and it first intersected. Because if you could somehow get back there, if Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan could always keep meeting for the first time, then they would never have to endure the anguish that will inevitably follow, and you might still believe that a better outcome is possible.

For a complete rundown on the special features, read the full review at DVD Talk. Images here were taken from Criterion's DVD edition (ca. 2002) and were not taken from the Blu-Ray under review.

Saturday, October 6, 2012


The final movie in Eclipse's Kenji Mizoguchi's Lost Women also turned out to be the last film the director made. 1956's Street of Shame not only shows how far Mizoguchi has come as a cinematic storyteller, but it provides a fitting finish for the thematic arc that he began with Osaka Elegy [review] in 1936.

Street of Shame is set in Tokyo's red-light district. The effects of the war that we saw in Women of the Streets [review] are still felt, particularly when the women in the film travel away from the cathouse. Much of Tokyo and the surrounding countryside have yet to be rebuilt, and at least for this pocket of society, the men have yet to reclaim their dominance, if they are around at all. Efforts to clean up the rubble, both literally and morally, are gaining traction, but there is also resistance. There is an anti-prostitution law that keeps threatening to pass, and it looms over the characters for the length of Street of Shame. If the profession is outlawed, what will the women do for income?

There are five primary women whom we follow in the film. There is the old guard, and the younger prostitutes. The older women mostly work in service to their family. Yumeko (Aiko Mimasu) has been at it the longest; her husband died twenty years ago and she's been working in the brothel to make money to raise their son. On the same front, the plain Hanae (Michiyo Kogure, Drunken Angel [review]) has taken up the profession because her husband suffers from an unnamed illness (it appears to be largely mental), and they have a baby to feed. There is also Yorie (Hiroko Machida), who dreams of leaving the job to get married. Her failed efforts serve as a cautionary tale to the others. For as rough as life is inside the salon, the women who work there have long since become accustomed to it; things are different outside their neighborhood. Change where you live, and you'll get a whole new set of problems.

While the older women appear to do what they do for others' sakes, the younger generation has taken to this work for themselves. The beautiful and calculating Yasumi (Ayako Wakao, Floating Weeds) was left with no alternative when her father was arrested for embezzlement. She carries on the family business, loan sharking on the side, and eventually conning her way into a larger payoff. Yasumi has found a way to take care of herself. She is a survivor, a predator rather than prey.

Mickey shows up at the start of the movie, a new hire at the house. Played by Machiko Kyo (Rashomon, and also Floating Weeds), Mickey strikes a more modern figure. She is curvaceous and dresses like American movie stars. Like the bad girls in Women of the Streets, she embraces the lifestyle of a juvenile delinquent, and she gets by taking what she wants and manipulating whom she can. When she steals Yorie's best client, it creates a direct clash between the generations. She represents a new cynicism, dispensing with pessimistic wisdom as if it was just practical. When her father comes looking for her, however, we learn that much of her self-possession is born of difficulty and pain.

Writer Masashige Nakamura, working from a novel by Yoshiko Shibaki, builds Street of Shame as a multi-faceted drama, giving each individual woman her own screen time. The narrative structure is almost like a series of interconnected vignettes. There are Yorie's attempts to leave, and Hanae's difficulties keeping her husband from going under, alongside Yasumi's long con and Yumeko trying to reconnect with her son. The latter two storylines have the most satisfying set-ups and conclusions. Those two women end up somewhere different at the end of Street of Shame, one better and one worse off than she started, while their co-workers struggle only to stay in place. Mickey in particular gets no real change at all. She is the unwavering center, the one who will always be, regardless of the debates of politicians and moral arbiters. Mizoguchi has been telling Mickey's story for twenty years. She and the girls like her are not going anywhere.

There is no more tragic evidence of this than the final scenes of Street of Shame, when a first-timer is tarted up and trotted out in hopes of selling her virginity for a premium. The girl is frightened and sad, but her fate is sealed. Her coalminer father can't work, she has to do something. She stands as an open-ended answer to the uncomfortable question that comes up more than once during Street of Shame. Every time the prohibitive law is raised once more, the owner of the brothel uses scare tactics on his employees. "If they take this away," he asks, "what will you do?" He acts as if he is doing them a service, but his fear mongering ends up being self-condemning. The man bullies them as if they can do anything about the law, which of course they can't. He can panic them as much or as little as he wants, it doesn't matter: their fates are sealed.

This may be the one depressing thing about Kenji Mizoguchi's Lost Women. The difficult subject matter Mizoguchi tackles never seems to get easier, the situations his characters endure never really get better. Yet, as his own skills improve, he does bring us closer to an understanding of who these women are and why they end up selling themselves. He turns our judgment to sympathy and then empathy. Street of Shame contains the most discomforting scene of all four movies, and sums up what Mizoguchi presents as the fundamental problem with how society treats ladies of the evening. When Yorie first leaves, Hanae's husband is overly eloquent in telling her to go and never come back. He says no one who works in a whorehouse is human. Mizoguchi frames this moment so that Hanae is in the shot, passively listening as her husband, who makes her life more difficult than anything, denigrates her and strips her of her dignity. She says nothing, because what can she say? Once again, a prostitute is run down by the one who benefits from her work the most. It's heartbreaking, and regardless of what else happens, ensures we, as an audience, will be on the side of the working women. After all, we have benefitted from their plight in our own way, we have watched their stories. In the long run, all an artist can do is move us, and through these four movies, Kenji Mizoguchi never failed in that regard.

Monday, October 1, 2012


My reviews of non-Criterion movies from September.


Bachelorette, Kirsten Dunst and Isla Fisher lead a great cast into some crass territory the night before the wedding.

Compliance, dramatizing real-life events about extreme prank calls made on fast food restaurants and their employees, a film to test your ethical fortitude.

For a Good Time, Call...or as I like to call it Phone Sex and the City. I know that's not funny, but neither is the movie.

Looper, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a time-bending hitman. From the director of Brick and The Brothers Bloom.

The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson's latest bid for a slot amongst the American classics of the 1970s. I'd say he got there.

Red Hook Summerthe latest Spike Lee film, takes us back to some familiar ground to tackle difficult subject matter in a fiercely compelling fashion.


The Babymakersperhaps the least funny comedy of the year. I like Paul Schneider and Olivia Munn, but there's no salvaging this weak script. Directed by Jay Chandrasekhar (Supertroopers).

Battle Circusa 1950s Korean War movie in which Humphrey Bogart, I kid you not, provides the template for Hawkeye Pierce.

Bored to Death: The Complete Third Season is unfortunately also the last of this literary comedy with Jason Schwartzman.

Damsels in DistressWhit Stillman's return to cinema proves he is as charming and anachronistic as ever. Plus, Greta Gerwig!

The Dark Mirrora psychological thriller from Robert Siodmak, starring Olivia De Havilland as twins, one of whom may be a murderer.

Korczak, Andrzej Wajda's devastating drama about a doctor in the Warsaw ghetto in WWII.

The Loved Ones. Inventing a new genre: torture prom. Absolute trash.

Macbeth, Orson Welles' skewed version of Shakespeare finally makes it to DVD.

Man-Trap, a post-noir love triangle gone wrong.

My Son JohnLeo McCarey's 1952 propaganda drama. "Mama, I think our boy may be a Commie."

Pursued, an excellent melding of western and romance starring an appropriately fatalistic Robert Mitchum.

The Salt of Life, another charming slice of Italian life from the director of Mid-August Lunch.

Secret Beyond the Door, in which Fritz Lang attempts to do a cover version of Hitchcock'Rebecca.

Windjammer: The Voyage of the Christian Radicha fluffy 1958 documentary noted for its use of the Cinerama widescreen format--which the Blu-Ray does an awesome job replicating.