Postman Blues

PostmanBluesSABU, Japan, 1997, 110 min.

The movie starts with a montage that shows that the director knows what he is doing. The monotony of the titular postman sorting mail at the post office is intercut with that same postman out on delivery, dealing with the daily annoyances while riding through the city on his all-too-small bike. It’s a charged and quirky little scene that increases intensity until the splash-screen of the title.

This opening is very indicative of SABU’s style, which is on display for the entire film. The story is a mixture of heart and humor, punctuated by violence and full of an understanding of how people turn their feelings into actions.

The postman (Shin’ichi Tsutsumi) is at the end of his rope. Sick of his job and a life lacking in possibilities. He fatefully delivers mail to an old high school friend, Noguchi (Keisuke Horibe) who happens to be a member of the Yakuza and also happens to have just cut off his pinky, which he promptly loses.

After that fateful encounter, the postman returns home to re-examine his life, which causes him to reach out to a girl he only knows through a letter he stumbled upon. Sayoko (Kyôko Tôyama) turns out to be the love of his life, and also happens to be dying of cancer. Their love is told in a great montage. No words, just a simple outing in the city that ends in a beautiful waterfront scene.

The postman also meets Hitman Joe (Ren Ôsugi) at Sayoko’s hospital, an aging assassin whom he quickly befriends. Hitman Joe is waiting to hear about his audition to be the King of Killers, the title given to the best hitman around.

But that friendship, as well as the one with Noguchi, compound the other problem the postman has. One which he isn’t even aware of: the police offers who happen to think he is a drug runner, a terrorist, a criminal mastermind, or maybe even a serial killer. Their interest in him escalates through coincidence, happenstance and hilarious assumptions. This case of mistaken identity drives the film closer to its climax.

The last act of the film is a chase scene where all the main characters, and some fun new additions, are destined to converge. It’s reminiscent of SABU’s first feature, Dangan Runner, which consists essentially of layered chase scenes where even the chasers are finding themselves being chased. But in the case of Postman Blues, the action set-piece, which could have just been fun, is made truly touching by the circumstances around it.

It’s the sincerity that makes it work. Tsutsumi’s postman is an earnest and honest fellow. His love for Sayoko is real. His friendship with Hitman Joe and Noguchi are real. And when his desire and happiness to be with Sayoko make him pedal his bike impossibly fast, it just puts a smile on your face.

When the end credits splash across the screen, you may feel cheated, but SABU isn’t done with you yet. It’s a bold move to continue the film from there, but what transpires afterwards is a wonderful denouement that really elevates this film from a quirky romantic action comedic into something really inspired.

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Sorcerer

SorcererWilliam Friedkin, 1977, USA, 121 min.

William Friedkin’s remake of Clouzot’s Wages of Fear is more accurately described as another version of the original source novel. The similarities to the first film seem to be in concept only. But what a concept!

A group of desperate men are hired for the dangerous (suicidal) job of driving trucks of dynamite over harsh terrain. In this version, the dynamite is needed to put out an oil fire. The rig is where most of these men work: an already dangerous job in a dirt-poor town on the edge of a jungle.

Each man has their own reasons for being in that town, but they are now all desperate to leave. And the money at the end of this suicide mission can get them their tickets.

How they got to that position is the subject of the first part of the film. Each character is introduced in scenes that show what happened that made them leave their home. One was a murderer, another a terrorist from Isreal. There’s also a French embezzler, and a low-life robber from New Jersey played by Roy Scheider.

We see why they are in South America, and then we see why they have to leave. Life in this town is terrible. Everyone is poor and dirty. The streets are made of mud, the houses made of broken wood and sheet metal. Everyone seems sweaty and miserable.

That is one of the great things about this film. It’s so real. This town seem like it exists and its inhabitants actually live there. The oil rig looks real, and the accident and explosions have a real visceral impact. The movie has an almost documentary feel. The soundtrack by Tangerine Dream isn’t used too often, but when it is the music is very effective.

The actual driving sequences are filled with tension from the moment they start until the film’s finale. The realism was incredible. It looked like they really drove these giant rickety trucks through the jungle, over mountains and bridges and through mud and rivers. It reminded me a lot of Werner Herzog.

The rope-bridge sequence is stellar. Just look at that image above! The film goes all-out in those moments, and the tension is real. It’s a powerhouse sequence that shows off Friedkin’s chops. It’s real, guerrilla film-making at its best.

Movies like this don’t get made very often. The cast and crew were invested in this film. It must have been hell to get footage like this. But that’s what this story needed. It needed realism: Dirt, sweat, blood and the passion to make something special. And that’s what we got.

 

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My Favorite Films of 2014

The phrase “Best Films” doesn’t mean much coming from anyone. We all have our opinions and tastes and that’s what makes each critic unique. So below you will find my favorite films of 2014. The Top 10 to be exact.

There were a few other films that didn’t make my list but deserve your attention for various reasons. Tusk for it’s perfect tone, The One I Love for its slow reveal of a bizarre story, and two really cool martial arts films: Die Fighting, and The Raid 2.

I thought each one of the ten below were great films. I hope that, if you haven’t yet, you check some of them out. And please let me know what I missed. There is nothing better than watching a great film that you haven’t seen before.

10) Obvious ChildGillian Robespierre, USA, 84 min.ObviousChild

‘A wonderful and funny take on the one-night stand pregnancy story. Written and directed with a smart and sweet style, its full of truthful moments. The whole thing is anchored by a great performance by Jenny Slate, who manages to be very funny and very real at the same time.

9) Snowpiercer – Joon-ho Bong, South Korea, 126 min.Snowpiercer

Bong has made a habit out of making films that defy genre conventions. His latest continues that trend in telling the action-packed, funny and strange story of a train circumnavigating a frozen Earth in the apocalyptic future. It’s full of social commentary, unforgettable characters and scenes, and many twists and turns. If I had to describe it, which I can’t, I would say it’s like the video game Bioshock on a train.

8) Locke – Steven Knight, UK, 85 min.Locke

A man taking phone calls in a car for eighty minutes. That’s it. But the film is written like a thriller, and as it went on I was compelled by the story and the character that was developing. Tom Hardy fully realizes the potential for the smart dialog and turns the character into a real person. A real person that had real feelings and motivations and had me caring about what happened to him.

7) InterstellarChristopher Nolan, USA, 169 min.Intersellar

I didn’t care about the science behind this. It’s a big film that makes you think about big questions. It’s bold and messy but full of great ideas and lots and lots of scale.

6) Under the Skin – Jonathan Glazer, UK, 108 min.UnderTheSkin

Glazer is one of the most interesting filmmakers working today and this film deserves it’s comparisons to Kubrick. Scarlett Johansson is the perfect choice for this otherworldly tale of an alien seducing and killing men in the Scottish countryside. The style is experimental, yet refined, and contains incredible images that I will never forget.

5) Gone Girl – David Fincher, USA, 149 min.GoneGirl

The idea behind this film is great, but for it to work the director has to pull off a very tricky balancing act. Fincher is definitely the one for the job. His direction is so precise that the idea of Ben Affleck killing his wife or him just being an ignorant jerk are both equally compelling. It’s a complex task but the film works like a well-oiled machine.

4) Grand Budapest Hotel – Wes Anderson, UK, 100 min.GrandBudapestHotel

This film felt like Wes Anderson took all the of the good things he learned from his previous films and combined them into one beautiful and charming movie. The production design is superb as always, and the nostalgic framing and effects work so well for the story being told. It also helps that the film is full of amazing characters and performances from an ungodly amount of incredible actors.

3) Two Days, One Night – Dardenne Brothers, Belgium, 95 min.TwoDaysOneNight

The Dardenne Brothers have a great style. They do not tell you what is going on in the film. The characters talk like they are real people and don’t explain plot points to an audience. While you watch you slowly learn what is going on and who the characters are. To make things even more real they film with a naturalistic style. Natural light, no music. Just great performances by all around, especially Marion Cotillard, who plays a factory worker who has to convince her fellow employees to give up their bonuses so she can keep her job.

2) Big Hero 6 - Don Hall and Chris Williams, USA, 102 min.BigHero6

I think this is a perfect film. The directors, writers and animators know what makes movies great. Beautiful animation, a touching story, imaginative characters, and a unique setting: San Fransokyo, a Japanese American hybrid futuristic city. And what a sense of adventure! What struck me the most was how they understood the concept of a team. These genius lab students turned super-heroes have unique skills and each one gets a chance to shine throughout the film. Throw in the super-likeable Baymax and his fist-bumps, and you really have a winner of a movie.

1) Whiplash – Damien Chazelle, USA, 107 min.Whiplash

A film about the price of excellence. Miles Teller plays a young jazz musician trying to be the best at his craft. Not just good, but the best. And J.K. Simmons, in the most unforgettable performance of the year, is just the man to get him there. He’s the mythologically legendary conductor who runs an ensemble with the best musicians in the school. Watching him drive Miles Teller to musical heights and personal lows is thrilling.

The editing and music are amazing and tie together perfectly. And it all builds through some powerful turn of events and into a dynamite ending. Chazelle directed the hell out of that ending. After the film was over, I just had to lean back and take a deep breath because I was spent. Now that is the sign of a good film.

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Butt-Numb-a-Thon 16: BNAT 16 Candles

sixteen

Every year Harry Knowles of Aint It Cool News puts on a 24 hour theater event for his birthday. He programs a mix of old films and not-yet-released films, trailers, shorts, live appearances and other fun things.

The films that were playing were not known to the audience in advance, so going is sort of a leap of faith. Especially if you live far away from Austin, Texas.

The whole thing goes down in the Alamo Drafthouse. It’s a great theater. Stellar projection without a bad seat in the house.

I was lucky enough to get a ticket this year. Was it worth it? Yes, I can whole-heartedly say that it was a great experience. The crowd was great and it was fun to watch movies in the atmosphere that was generated.

But the films are what it’s all about!

1) Hooper - Hal Needham (1978)

Hal Needham is one of the greatest stunt men who ever lived and he uses all his knowledge directing this gem. Burt Reynolds stars as an aging stunt man who feels like he still has something left to prove.

The film is full of stunts and actions scenes that you won’t forget. Including a bar fight to end all bar fights. It’s not only action, either. It’s full of so much charm that you can’t help but smile throughout.

2) Kingsmen: The Secret Service – Matthew Vaughn (2015)

Wow. This film put the theater into fits of joyous hysterics. Matthew Vaughn has been making great films for awhile now. He has managed to bring a mix of slick big-budget production values, indie spirit, and a fun off-kilter sense of humor.

This story of a secret agent organization is brilliantly fun. It’s aware of tropes, and in fact uses them to its advantage. Colin Firth and Samuel L. Jackson are great, and the tent-pole scenes are unforgettable. Highly recommended.

It didn’t hurt that Samuel L. Jackson stopped by to intro the film.

3) The King and the Mockingbird - Paul Grimault (1980)

This film was started way back in 1938 and finally released this year in the USA. It was a long road for this animated feature.

The premise is enchanting, and the imagination and the animation are great. But the film has pacing issues and suffers from variations of quality and tone. It’s a very interesting film oddity that influenced a lot of animators over the years, but it just isn’t that great as a film.

4) Inherent Vice – Paul Thomas Anderson (2014)

Paul Thomas Anderson is a remarkable director. That doesn’t mean his movies are always great, but they are always interesting. He has a handle on writing and directing like no one before him.

This reminds me of The Master in that it has great writing, great characters, great scenes, and a really weird ending. But the peices don’t seem to come together. Still, the film was really good and I think another viewing might reveal it to be even better.

5) The Interview  – Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (2014)

Lots of fun! Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg were in attendance. King Jong Un banners were unfurled and confetti rained down when they appeared.

See my review here.

6) 1941 - Steven Speilberg (1979)

Speilberg’s follow-up to Jaws and Close Encounters is a huge mess. The amount of acting talent on the screen for this film is unreal, but it’s over-long, over-wrought, and just… a mess.

I think Speilberg was given too much leeway and too much budget. Good comedy comes from the finding it at that moment, but if each scene is structured like a big-budget action film, there isn’t room to let that comedy breath.

Still, there are some memorable bits, but they are surrounded by too much rubble.

7) Captains Courageous - Victor Fleming (1937)

The classic book is put on screen with vim and vigor in this Victor Fleming adaptation. All of the acting is great, especially Spencer Tracey as Manuel.

The film has a sense of adventure, and the script really sets up the story well. A real classic in every sense of the word.

8) Million Dollar Mermaid - Mervyn Leroy (1952)

A wonderfully made old Hollywood film. It tells the story of swimmer/actress/performer Annette Kellerman (played by Esther Williams) and her rise to fame and fortune. But it ends up being more about her love-affair with her manager played by Victor Mature.

It’s melodrama, but a good old Hollywood melodrama in the best sense of the word. It’s just a warm hearty helping of nostalgia.

9) Santiago Violenta - Ernesto Díaz Espinoza (2014)

I can’t review this film in good conscious. I am a huge fan of Ernesto Díaz Espinoza’s Mirageman, so I was excited to watch this. But the opening didn’t grab me and I ended up succumbing to sleep (I was very tired by that time). I woke up for the ending, but that didn’t grab me either. I’ll have to watch it all the way through sometime soon.

10) A Christmas Horror Story - Grant Harvey, Steven Hoban and Brett Sullivan (2015)

This horror anthology revolves around Christmas and stars William Shatner. That should be a recipe for a good time. And yes, it was. Nothing special, but it was a solid outing for a horror anthology, which is rare.

This one has santa vs. zombie elves, krampus, changlings, ghosts, and a really cool ending. If you are a fan of the genre then definitely check this out when it’s released next Christmas season.

11) Son of Kong - Ernest B. Schoedsack (1933)

Carl Denham was in a bad place after his disastrous display of King Kong ended up destroying the city. He winds up in some dead-end shipping job, but then rumors of a treasure on that island send him out on another adventure.

There, he meets the titular son of kong, and good old-school stop motion fun ensues. This is more light-hearted than the original, and Robert Armstrong and his lady love (Helen Mack) are likeable onscreen. And the ape is great of course. One of the better entries in the series.

12) Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies – Peter Jackson (2014)

We got to see this in 2D 48 fps. That is probably the best way to see it. The 48 fps is odd, but there is zero motion blur and the clarity is amazing to behold.

The film itself was a fitting finale to the series. One huge battle, some talking and wrapping up of various sub-plots. The series was never great, but this one at least keeps it fun.

Overall, it was a good film to end BNAT on. I just wish the event could have lasted longer! I was having so much fun! I wanted to watch more movies!

Oh well, there is always next year. Will I be there? Yes, given the opportunity I would get tickets in a heartbeat. What’s better than a celebration of film with people who are obsessed as I am?

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The Interview

the-interviewEvan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, USA, 2014, 112 min.

The Interview is a funny film. In Seth Rogen’s and Evan Goldberg’s second directorial outing they tell the story of a hapless TV host (James Franco) and his producer (Rogen) getting the chance to conduct the interview of the lifetime.

Aaron Rapaport produces Skylark Tonight, hosted by his friend Dave Skylark. Their typical lineup includes vapid celebrity-worship programming, but Aaron yearns for something more. After finding that Kim Jong-Un, the leader of North Korea, is a huge fan of their show, Aaron manages to land the titular interview with the controversial dictator.

It comes at a particularly fitting time, as the fictionalized Kim Jong-Un is acting particularly aggressive towards the US. Everyone is dying to talk to him, and suddenly Skylark Tonight has a chance to do something really noteworthy. The CIA is also particularly interested in the interview, and convince the two protagonists to attempt to assassinate the dictator.

What follows is a well-written tale of friendship, journalism, mixed allegiances and broad-but-funny humor. The preposterous plot works because the two directors have the talent to keep things moving and not let them get bogged down in international politics. They keep the story personal to the characters.

The North Korea and Kim Jong-Un pictured in the film are based on reality, but quickly turn into farce. For a film like this to work, you have to quickly establish that even though the story is based on real life, the events and characters are pure fiction.

That line could be tough to walk, but the film does it beautifully. I never once felt like I was too far from reality. Or too close. The tone is kept purely in a zone where the comedy works best. Just look at the laugh-out-loud Eminem scene for a great example of this.

There are some great jokes and dialog here. A lot of it feels ad-libbed, a skill that Rogen and Franco are really good at. And the supporting cast really helps. Everyone is having a great time, and that translates to the viewing audience.

Sure, some of the humor is a bit stupid but who cares? It’s all fast and light and lots of fun. And the story does have some interesting turns, especially in it’s (completely fictional) portrayal of Kim Jong-Un. That is a tough performance to make work well, but Randall Park brings much more to the role than you would expect.

Overall, The Interview is fun and innocent and undeserving of any controversy that it has caused. Seeing it with a crowd is the way to go. It’s a shame that people are going to be deprived of an experience so entertaining and uncomplicated. Maybe someday this grapefruit will be real.

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