Film Review Of Lee Chang-dong’s “Secret Sunshine” (2007)

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Having re-watched 2007’s much-lauded Secret Sunshine, one can’t help but draw comparisons between Korea’s Lee Chang-dong and Japan’s Hirokazu Koreeda, not only in their style — realistic, character-driven dramas on a variety of themes — but also in the disconnect between their most-loved films (at least back at home) and their best, as well as the respective flaws of each director. For, in many ways, the lackluster Green Fish (1997) is to Korea what After Life (1998) is to Japan: films that rightly heralded 2 new talents, even though the evidence typically proffered for such was wrong, coming, as it had, too early in their careers, when they were still developing their sense for art. Yes, the two would go on to craft better films, but just as interesting as the films, themselves, is this on-screen evidence: evidence that might get things wrong, but shows all the little paths a director could have taken, instead, thus crystallizing the art a lesser film might otherwise occlude.

And so, Lee Chang-dong’s excellent Secret Sunshine — a film far superior to Green Fish — has a number of representative moments: moments that show a director both at his height and not, moments that, in the midst of really fine execution, nonetheless point to something better that is waiting for uncovering. Rather than hunt for examples, however, I’ll just start at the film’s end, which is usually where these tendencies come and so often get mis-managed. Lee Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon) has just returned from a mental health hospital, and decides to go get a haircut. Pale — Pollyanna, even — something’s clearly not ‘all there,’ despite her release. She is, as we’ve come to expect, accompanied by the film’s perpetual loser, Kim Jong-chan (Song Kang-ho), a wannabe lover who takes Shin-ae’s moods, spurnings, and general abusiveness with glee in the hopes that ‘somehow, somewhere’ the two can be an item.

As per Jong-chan’s luck, however, he takes her to a salon manned by the offspring of her child’s murderer. She nervously approaches Shin-ae, begins the haircut, and Shin-ae — despite a large portion of her hair now being lopped off — runs out into her own backyard. Jong-chan arrives soon after, smiling at her (as if there’s anything funny), and offers to hold up a mirror she has found to cut her own hair. He’s smiling, still, as she sits there with the scissors, looking at herself (we see glimmers of her face in the mirror), trying to complete the task, and the viewer is immediately struck by the import of these last few minutes. Here is Shin-ae, clearly NOT alright, and given to the same life-patterns the film only hints at — unhappy relationships, self-loathing, an inner void — that she is repeating yet again, albeit with a quickly-narrowing way out. Jong-chan, too, will continue to ‘be there’ for her, to give her money, rides, and unwanted attention, for just as Shin-ae’s path has been cleared, so has Jong-chan’s: … Continue reading →

Dan Slevin (Rancho Notorious Podcast) on “Woody Allen: Reel To Real”

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Earlier this week, I was interviewed by Dan Slevin — editor of FishHead Magazine — for his Rancho Notorious Podcast, on my book, Woody Allen: Reel To Real. The interview focuses on Woody Allen’s film work, my reactions to it, as well as the e-book process.

According to Slevin, the book is “a massive undertaking, and one of the most significant pieces of film archaeology you could come across.”

You can listen to the interview here, a little past the 1 hour mark.… Continue reading →

Review Of John Sayles’s “The Brother From Another Planet” (1984)

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Near the end of John Sayles’s The Brother From Another Planet (1984), the film’s unnamed protagonist (Joe Morton) looks out of a train’s back-window as it pulls away, thus leaving him to reflect on things the viewer can never really know. Now, this may be an issue to some, but to those that get the fundaments of art, Morton’s ‘what’ is immaterial, perhaps even a distraction. This is because the film spends so much time showing Morton in bewildering situations, as well as his silent (albeit quite legible) reactions to them, that this particular scene is merely an extension of the same: poetic shots, familiar images cast anew, and elided (not ‘omitted’) details that help the viewer imbue their own perspectives into the film’s narrative. It helps, too, that Morton doesn’t budge, but merely stays there, in a shot that doesn’t linger too long, content as it is to simply capture the man’s recession and all that it makes him think.

And don’t let the film’s premise fool you: Morton is, at film’s end, a ‘man’ in the deeper sense of the word, for he does precisely what men must do. He re-considers his life, he weighs again his options, and comes to deal with the compulsory fallout. No, none of this is probed very deeply, and The Brother From Another Planet is not even close to broaching the sort of greatness that John Sayles’s later films would, but it’s technically well-wrought, and manages to anthropomorphize a being that is neither human, nor ever given the opportunity to speak. The latter is the more important vis-a-vis the artistic arc, for it ensures the film’s demands must be picked up by Morton, himself, through his emotive glances, subtle gestures, as well as Sayle’s occasionally brilliant writing. And this brilliance (sporadic as it is) comes through in many places: from the choice to have Morton’s character first appear in a nigh-abandoned building with a dark, extraterrestrial feel, to Virgil’s ‘tour of the night,’ which could have so easily devolved to mere political posturing, yet exposes, instead, the sort of intellectual fraud that nips at the credibility of black communities, and even in the film’s depiction (one of the first and deepest in art, really) of a videogame otaku, whose addiction is given an oddly effective philosophic thrust. These are the sorts of ideas the film touches upon, satirizing white people, black people, and the personages from ALL camps that claim to be each other’s intermediaries.

The film’s basic thrust is this. An extraterrestrial (Joe Morton) crash-lands on Earth, takes on (or already has?) the appearance of a black man, finds himself in what appears to be a noisy, unfathomable landscape, and must learn to become a resident of Harlem all the while lacking the ability to speak. He has, naturally, a few alien features: 3 toes, an ability to heal wounds, fix broken machinery, remove his own eyes, and understand language. Yet his emotions and his … Continue reading →

“The Devil Finds Work”: James Baldwin On Film

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James Baldwin was, no doubt, one of the deepest American thinkers to have ever lived, and, even more importantly, a damn good writer — a skill that, if ever missing, makes all the great thinking in the world quite sterile, and oftentimes irrelevant.

I’ve called Baldwin’s work blackness without bullshit because unlike, say, in the time of empty ‘nationalist’ posturing back then, or of frauds like Cornel West and Al Sharpton today, James Baldwin refused to accept any demands placed upon him by any race or creed, and, therefore, had a longevity that so many others in his niche do not. And I use the word ‘niche’ intentionally, for James Baldwin (like James A. Emanuel) is pigeon-holed as a black writer, first, despite all evidence to the contrary. Yes, he wrote of prototypically black things — gay things, as well, and literary things; European things — but in a way that dissented from the fads, ideologies, and self-limiting perspectives that afflict so many to this day. One only needs to read his reactions to black leaders (such as his brilliant take-down of Elijah Muhammad in Down At The Cross) to realize that he was, and still is, on the margins, neither desired by revolutionary blacks, who preferred polemic, nor liberal whites, who wanted their allies to be a bit more narrow-minded, and therefore more easily squirreled away into some ‘side’.

Among the many books he’d written, I’ve always found one particularly difficult to categorize: in fact, as all great writing should be, when deeper possibilities come open. The book is The Devil Finds Work, a long essay on American film as filtered through a racial lens. No, this is not true film criticism, in the sense that James Baldwin is able to give the reader a blueprint for understand good and bad art qualitatively, but it’s not the wan social analysis that passes for film crit in academic circles, either. So, here are some of my favorite quotes from the book, which — as per the James Baldwin aesthetic — combines some important social insights with flat-out great writing.

On Lawrence Of Arabia (1962):

“For, this overwhelming desert, though it exists geographically, and was actually filmed by an actual camera crew, sent there for that purpose, is put to a use which is as far from reality as are most of the people we encounter in it. The least real of these people is Lawrence himself. This is not O’Toole’s fault: but so grave an adventure can scarcely be ascribed to the vagaries and idealism of a single man. Lawrence’s courage and steadfastness are given as admirable, because hard-won — here, the film, unconsciously, rather patronizes Lawrence; his complexities are barely — or, rather, perhaps, endlessly — hinted at, that is to say never illuminated. His rapport with the Arabs is of great use to the British, whose attitude toward him, otherwise, is at best ambivalent. The film takes the view that he was a valiant, … Continue reading →

James Berardinelli Knows Film (And Woody Allen) Better Than Most

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[The following essay is an excerpt from my book, Woody Allen: Reel To Real, now available via Amazon. The full essay can be read on the book’s website.]

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What’s In A Name? Six Major Critics Of Woody Allen

Critic #3: James Berardinelli

Coming off of Dan Schneider’s cerebral highs, it would be easy to dismiss James Berardinelli as a rather ‘plain’ writer not too different from many online critics. Yet if one is aware of the things that have gone on in film criticism over the last few decades, it is clear that Berardinelli is above and beyond most writers in his ability to get at the core of a film, and stay there. No, he is not a stylist like Roger Ebert, but while Ebert would sometimes get lost in his own reveries, or even fail to tackle a film at sufficient length (see Stardust Memories), Berardinelli has a tendency to — well, to be right, which is an underrated skill in a world where mere opinion, no matter how poorly argued or wrought, indubitably reigns. It is for this reason that Ebert once championed Berardinelli[34] in the same way that he’d later do for Schneider, even as these two critics were in some ways closer to each other than to Ebert. In an interesting aside, Berardinelli was also the subject of one of the longest (and deepest) interviews ever conducted with a film critic, via the “Dan Schneider Interviews” on Cosmoetica.[35] In it, Berardinelli comes off precisely in the way of his reviews: as a ‘populist’ critic who does not preen or bullshit, but merely writes of a given film, and that film’s art. This helps differentiate him quite a bit from other critics, and of his twenty or so reviews of Allen’s work, most of them are spot-on, and put him squarely in the camp of Allen’s ‘champions’ — silly and unfortunate as that phrase will sound to future generations parsing these men’s work.

Perhaps the most indicative of the above qualities is James Berardinelli’s review of Manhattan.[36] Like Ebert before him, he does not fall prey to most of the cliches surrounding the film, and even when he gets quite close to calling it a ‘love poem’ or ‘letter’ to the city, he saves things somewhat by opting for the word “valentine” instead. No, this is not some great stylistic breakthrough, but it shows that, at the very least, Berardinelli gives a damn about the craft, even in the smaller moments of switching a familiar word for a slightly different one. The film’s cinematography is praised, and Allen’s love for the city duly noted, but such commonplaces merely serve as the critic’s de facto ‘hooks’, for they lull the reader into being more open to Berardinelli’s deeper (and therefore less familiar) comments on the film. Chief among these is that Manhattan has a “darker” quality which belies its “whitewashed, … Continue reading →