Saturday, April 26, 2008

Jason goes to SFIFF--day 2

Here we go, with last Friday.

First up, as soon as I could get up to the city after work, was the Russian war-less war movie, "Alexandra". The title refers to an old woman, introduced in the film's beginning being ushered on and off trains, escorted by a phalanx of soldiers. Funny, she doesn't look like a typical prisoner. But all is made clear when she's finally reunited with her soldier grandson. Turns out, she's just going to live on the base in Chechnya with her grandson and the other soldiers for a while. As the only female on base, and the only non-military perspective, she's a refreshing change of pace and reminder of home comforts to the restless soldiers, waiting for orders to either attack or redeploy. She's the only on unafraid to go to market and befriend the occupied ostensible enemy. As such, she provides an elegant figure to point out the banality and ridiculousness of war. It's a slow movie--much of the point is about how little happens. But patience is rewarded.

Next up was the Japanese karate movie, "Black Belt" ("Kuro Obi"). Director Shunichi Nagasaki claims his goal was to make a realistic movie about real karate. I'd give him average marks in that goal but excellent marks in making a kick-ass, serious dramatic film. It's certainly a huge step above the average chop-socky cheese, but it's still extremely melodramatic--which I wouldn't even count against it were it not billed as a more serious, intelligent karate movie. In 1932, Japan invaded Manchuria, and the military police started annexing dojos for their own purpose. When they try to annex a small dojo with only three students they are rebuffed. The weaker (but possibly wiser and more faithful) student Choei is injured by a sword, but aggressive, attacking Taikan and smart, defending (as per the sensei's teaching) Giryu successfully defend the dojo. However, the next day many important things happen. First their aging sensei passes away, and passes on his black belt (kuro obi) to Choei, to decide who will carry on his teaching. Second, the military police return with two pieces of news--that their chief committed suicide after Giryu humiliated him, and they have a new edict. They aren't to close the dojo, they are to bring them to headquarters where they'll teach karate to the military. On the way, their ambushed by the dead chief's children, and Giryu--guilt-ridden and refusing to defend himself--is stabbed and falls over a cliff into the water. However, he survives when he's found by a little boy who's impoverished family nurses him back to health. Meanwhile, Kaitan relishes his role and power as a teacher, taking over more dojos on behalf of the emperor. However, when the military captain's side pursuits threaten the daughter of Giryu's new family, things come to a head, even though Giryu is dead set against fighting anymore. What really brings this movie to a higher level is the fact that the main characters are played by real karate experts. There are no wires or special effects, and at times it appears no choreography. So while the drama is melodramatic and above average, the fight scenes are excellent.

And finally, the late show was Dario Argento's long-awaited Third Mother movie, "Mother of Tears". 30 years ago Argento made a masterpiece of color and dream-logic imagination called "Suspiria", about a witch haunting a dance academy in Freiburg, Germany. A few years later, he made "Inferno", about another witch in New York, in which he inserted passing references both to the witch in "Suspiria" and to a third "Mother", Mater Lachrymarum, the Mother of Tears, who lived in Rome. Ever since then, his fans have patiently waited for his third mother trilogy. Now it's finally out, and I was there for the U.S. premiere. Story in a nutshell--a box is found chained to a coffin in a cemetery that's being relocated. It's opened and translated, awakening Mater Lachrymarum who turns all Rome into crazy psychos and calls witches from around the world to her. Sarah Mandy (my pretend girlfriend Asia Argento) has to fight them by discovering her latent white witch powers and listening to the spirit of her dead mother (Asia's real life mother Daria Nicoladi). Ever since its premiere at the Toronto film festival, there's been a debate over whether it's a return to form or a continuation of Dario's recent disappointments. I'd put forth the thesis that it isn't a return to form so much as blatant pandering to his fans--and I'm on record saying I like being pandered to! This is possibly Dario Argento at his bloodiest, sexiest, most perverse, most over-the-top, funniest, and even most misogynistic (although having Asia as the heroine blunts that charge somewhat). I loved it, that's all I can say.

BTW, Dario was very close to attending this screening, but he just got Adrien Brody to star in his next film, "Giallo", and that accelerated production so he couldn't make it.

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