The groundbreaking James Shigeta

James Shigeta (Right) in THE CRIMSON KIMONO

James Shigeta (Right) in THE CRIMSON KIMONO

Actor James Shigeta, who along with writer-director Sam Fuller, broke ground in 1959′s  The Crimson Kimono, has died at age 85.  Shigeta was a fixture on mainstream television series, accounting for many of his 88 screen credits.

But his first movie role was in The Crimson Kimono, another sensationalistic and deliciously exploitative cop noir from the great Sam Fuller.  Always looking to add some shock value, Fuller delivered a Japanese-American leading man (Shigeta), an inter-racial romance and a stripper victim.  The groundbreaking aspect of The Crimson Kimono is that Fuller’s writing and Shigeta’s performance normalized the Japanese-American character.  Shigeta’s Detective Joe Kojaku is a regular hardboiled, jaded and troubled film noir protagonist.  Other than his inside knowledge of the Japanese community, there isn’t anything exotic or “foreign” about him – as you can see in the clip below.

Of course, Fuller certainly relished the fact that many 1959 Americans would have been unsettled by a Japanese-American man’s intimate encounter with a white woman – another groundbreaking moment in American cinema.

Interestingly, the American-born Shigeta , a Korean War vet, became a singing sensation in 1950s Japan before launching his US acting career.

The Crimson Kimono is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu and Xbox Video; it also plays occasionally on Turner Classic Movies.

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A Most Wanted Man: a last look at Philip Seymour Hoffman’s brilliance

Willem Dafoe and Philip Seymour Hoffman in A MOST WANTED MAN

Willem Dafoe and Philip Seymour Hoffman in A MOST WANTED MAN

Espionage thrillers adapted from John le Carré novels, like A Most Wanted Man, are so good because le Carré, himself a former British intelligence operative, understand that intelligence services, riddled with bureaucratic jealousies and careerist rivalries, are not monoliths.  His very human spies spend as much energy fighting each other as they do fighting the enemy.  As a result, le Carré’s stories are more complex and character-driven than a standard “good-guys-hunt-down-a-terrorist” thriller plot.

That’s also the case with A Most Wanted Man, with which le Carré moves from the Cold War to the War of Terror.  Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Günther, the leader of a German anti-terrorism unit in Hamburg.  He must track down a possible Chechen terrorist while parrying off other German security forces, the CIA (Robin Wright), a shady banker (Willem Dafoe) and a do-gooder human rights attorney (Rachel McAdams).  It’s the classic le Carré three-dimensional-chess-against-the-clock, and it works as an engrossing thriller.

But the A Most Wanted Man’s biggest asset is a searing performance by the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Günther is a canny and determined guy who needs to outsmart everyone else and manipulate forces beyond his control – and Hoffman nails it.  His final scene is a spectacular explosion of emotion.  (So soon after Hoffman’s death, it’s impossible to watch him here, with a huge belly and with his character chain-smoking and swilling whiskey, and not think of his final relapse into his ultimately fatal addiction; for this reason, A Most Wanted Man may be even more effective after a few years have passed.)

That being said, Robin Wright’s role as a duplicitous, shark-like CIA officer is under-written and doesn’t let her show her acting chops like House of Cards.  Dafoe and McAdams are good in their roles.  I was distracted by Grigoriy Dobrygin’s performance as the Chechen, which looked like bad Jeremy Davies without the twitches.  The fine German actress Nina Hoss (Barbara) plays Hoffman’s assistant, and I hope we start to see her in more English language roles.

But the bottom line is that A Most Wanted Man is, overall, a satisfying thriller, and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance is reason enough to catch it in the theaters.  (BTW le Carré’s screen masterpiece is the 1979 series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which is available on DVD from Netflix.)

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Stream of the Week: ON MY WAY – two unhappy people can find joy together

on my wayThe extraordinary Catherine Deneuve goes on an escapist road trip in the satisfying French drama On My Way. She plays a woman chained to the stress of running a failing restaurant and caregiving for her mother. Her marriage was scarred by infidelity (both ways) and her life has been one of relationship carnage. After she suffers a personal betrayal, she needs to get away and abruptly leaves the restaurant mid-service, embarking on a random road trip through the French countryside – made even more random because she is geographically disabled. After a series of misadventures, she ends up taking the 11-year grandson (who doesn’t remember meeting her) to his other grandfather (whom she hasn’t met because she refused to attend her daughter’s wedding). She suffers many an indignity along the way, but rediscovers her happiness in an unexpected niche.

On My Way is directed and insightfully co-written by Emmanuelle Bercot, who acted in Polisse, one of my Best Movies of 2012.

Deneuve, once the world’s most beautiful woman, has a pretty solid claim on being the world’s most beautiful 70-year-old. She’s also a good sport, willing to take a part that explicitly references the passing of her youthful beauty at several story points.

On My Way is available streaming on Amazon Instant and iTunes.

[SPOILER ALERT:   Here are examples of the references to the aging of her looks.  Her age-approximate boyfriend dumps her for a 25-year old. The 30ish guy who picks her up tells her that he was imagining her as she was young during sex.  She resists - until forced by circumstance - to attend the reunion of beauty queens. ]

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LAND HO! – rowdy geezer roadtrip to Iceland

Paul Eenhoorn and Earl Lynn Nelson in LAND HO!

Paul Eenhoorn and Earl Lynn Nelson in LAND HO!

Here’s a really fun movie.  Land Ho! features a vibrant and irascible geezer who conscripts an old friend into a rowdy road trip to – of all random places – Iceland.  It’s a showcase for Earl Lynn Nelson, who essentially plays himself in the movie.  Nelson is a 72-year-old Kentucky doctor who is a force of nature and has possibly an even dirtier mind than The Movie Gourmet’s.  He is a friend of the 29-year-old writer director Martha Stephens who was INSPIRED to see the possibilities in sending him off on an adventure and filming the results.  His friend (and ex-brother-in-law) is played by an actor, Paul Eenhoorn.

It all works.  Nelson – an unapologetic hedonist – is funnier than hell, and Eenhorn stays right with him as the more reserved and sometimes aggrieved buddy.  Land Ho! is a string of LOL moments, whether Nelson is providing politically incorrect fashion advice to young women or unsolicited marital advice to a honeymooning couple or pulling out a joint and proclaiming “It’s time for some doobiefication”.

This is a geezer comedy that doesn’t make the geezers cute.  Nelson may be a piece of work, but there’s nothing in Land Ho! that isn’t genuine.

I just have two knocks on the movie.  It’s only 95 minutes long, but it would be crisper at about 87.  And, as The Wife pointed out,  there’s really no need for the huge jarring subtitles to let us know precisely where these guys are in Iceland.

Nevertheless, it’s worth a watch.  The audience at Sundance loved this movie, and I think Land Ho! is a hoot-and-a-half.

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BOYHOOD: why is this movie so profoundly moving?

Eller Coltrane, Ethan Hawke and Lorelei Linklater in BOYHOOD

Eller Coltrane, Ethan Hawke and Lorelei Linklater in BOYHOOD

Boyhood is a profoundly moving film – and I’m still trying to figure out why.  It’s a family drama without a drop of emotional manipulation – there’s no big moment of redemption and no puppies are saved. It’s just about a boy growing up in a family that we all can recognize and going through a series of moments that all of us have gone through.  Still, I found myself responding very emotionally and, hardass as I may be, I  had a lump in my throat and moist eyes during the last half hour or so.

There’s a sense of fundamental human truth in Boyhood that comes from the amazing, risky and groundbreaking way that writer-director Richard Linklater made this movie.  Boyhood traces the story of Mason (Eller Coltrane), his big sister (Lorelei Linklater) and their divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) from the time when Mason was six-years-old to when he is going off to college at age 18.  Linklater and the cast shot the movie in 39 days over a TWELVE YEAR PERIOD.  So the cast members actually aged twelve years without the need for creating that effect with makeup or by switching the child actors.  Other than Linklater’s own Before Sunrise/Before Sunset/Before Midnight series of romances spaced nine years apart, he only movies that have used this technique of aging-in-real-time have been documentaries, most notably the 7 Up series and Hoop Dreams.

Besides the authenticity that comes from the aging-in-real-time, the key to Boyhood is the reality of each moment.  Each scene in the film is universal.  Every kid has had to suffer the consequences of the life decisions made by his/her parents. Every kid has felt disrespected by a parental edict or disappointed when a parent has failed to come through.  Everybody has been bullied in the school bathroom.  Everybody has felt the excitement of connecting with a first love – and then the shock/humiliation/heartbreak of getting dumped.  No scene individually moves the plot forward.  But each scene helps complete our picture of who Mason is and how he is being shaped by his experiences.

Of course, when parents divorce and when a kid’s family is blended with that of a step-parent’s, those are especially big deals.  All those things happen to Mason in Boyhood; he has control over none of them, but they all have a lasting impact on his life and development.  And when his mom decides to better herself by working her way through college and grad school to become a college instructor, her self-improvement makes her less available to her kids – and that’s a big deal, too.  (This part of Linklater’s story is autobiographical.)

As we trace Mason’s early years, we relate to these universal experiences and, without noticing it,  start rooting for him and his sister.  By the time he is 15, we are hooked and so seriously invested in him that it’s easy to feel as much pride in his high school graduation as do his fictional parents.

The actors who begin as children and age into young adults – Eller Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater (the director’s daughter) – are very good.  Arquette and Hawke are also excellent in playing warts-and-all parents; each parent grows (in different ways) over the twelve years as much as do their kids.

So what’s it all about – as in, what’s life all about?  That question is addressed explicitly by four characters in separate scenes in the final 35 minutes of the movie – by Mason as a brash and cynical, bullshitting 17-year-old, by his mom in a self-reflective meltdown, by his dad in a moment of truthful humility and by a potential girlfriend wise beyond her years.  Whether any one of them is right and whether any one of them speaks for the filmmaker – that’s up to you.

Linklater has made other films that are exceptional and groundbreaking, most notably the Before series.  His indie breakthrough Slacker followed a series of characters, handing off the audience to one conversation to another – a structure seemingly without structure.  He followed that his Waking Life, another random series of conversations with his live actors were animated by rotoscope.  Even his recent dark comedy Bernie is offbeat -  a sympathetic take on a real life murderer (who is now out of prison and living in Linklater’s garage apartment).  But Boyhood is Linklater’s least talky movie – and his masterpiece.

Boyhood is an important film – a milestone in the history of cinema.  (I sure didn’t expect that I would ever write that sentence.) It tops my list of Best Movies of 2014 – So Far and it may turn out to be the best film of the decade.  It’s a Must See.

Eller Coltrane in BOYHOOD

Eller Coltrane in BOYHOOD

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Movies to See Right Now – the really good movies are here

Patricia Arquette and Eller Coltrane in BOYHOOD

Patricia Arquette and Eller Coltrane in BOYHOOD

Our patience has been rewarded – an onslaught of really good movies is finally out now. I haven’t yet seen two of the highly anticipated movies that are out today:

    • Richard Linklater’s family drama Boyhood – potentially the best movie of the year.
    • Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final performance in the John LeCarre espionage thriller A Most Wanted Man.

I HAVE seen and recommend:

  • The smart and entertaining I Origins , which works both as a scientific detective story and as a meditation on romance.
  • The sci fi thriller  Snowpiercer is both thoughtful and exciting, plus it features amazing production design. You can also stream Snowpiercer on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play, Xbox Video and DirecTV.
  • Lucy – a Scarlet Johansson action vehicle that rocks.
  • The credible and politically important HBO documentary The Newburgh Sting, which exposes the FBI’s manufacture of a fake terrorist attack to arrest some New York dumbasses.  It’s playing on HBO.

There’s also an assortment of recent releases to Video on Demand:

    • I loved the rockin’ Spanish Witching and Bitching – a witty comment on misogyny inside a madcap horror spoof, which you can stream on Amazon instant, iTunes and Xbox Video.
    • Life Itself, the affectionate but not worshipful documentary on movie critic Ebert’s groundbreaking career, courageous battle against disease and uncommonly graceful death Life Itself is streaming on Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu and Xbox Video.
    • The oddly undisturbing documentary A Brony Tale, about grown men with very unusual taste in television shows.  Brony Tale is available streaming on iTunes.
    • The Congress: a thoughtful live action fable followed by a less compelling an animated sci fi story.  The Congress is available streaming on iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.
    • Robert Duvall’s geezer-gone-wild roadtrip in A Night in Old MexicoA Night in Old Mexico is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu and Xbox Video.
    • The art vs. technology documentary Tim’s Vermeer is a yawner.

I recommend setting your DVR to record Wild Strawberries on July 28. If you have found the work of Ingmar Bergman just too dreary, this is a great choice. There’s no denying that Bergman is a film genius, and he’s influenced the likes of Woody Allen, Scorsese, Coppola, Altman, Kieślowski and basically much of the last two generations of filmmakers. But I don’t recommend that casual movie fans watch gloomy movies that “are good for you” – I want you to have a good time at the movies. Wild Strawberries is the story of an accomplished but cranky geezer.  His indifferent daughter-in-law is taking him to be honored at his college. On their road trip, they pick up some young hitch-hikers and then a stranded couple. Each encounter reminds the old doctor of an episode in his youth. As he reminisces, he can finally emotionally process the experiences that had troubled him, helping him finally achieve an inner peace. It’s a wonderful film.

WILD STRAWBERRIES

WILD STRAWBERRIES

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Lucy: pedal-to-the-medal summer fun

Scarlett Johansson in LUCY

Scarlett Johansson in LUCY

Supposedly we only use 10-20% of our brain capacity, and in the sci fi thriller Lucy, Scarlett Johannson gets to show what it would look like if we could harness 100% of our intelligence.  Johannson plays the title character, who is captured by an especially merciless Chinese crime lord and then get dosed with a designer drug that unharnesses her full brainpower.  Processing more information much faster than everyone else is a superpower that allows her to wreak mayhem upon the bad guys.  She’s in a race against time to find and snag the rest of the world’s supply of the drug and to download what’s she’s learned to a brainiac scientist (Morgan Freeman) before she implodes.  Kind of a sci fi D.O.A. 

French director Luc Besson is an unapologetic lover of American action films.  He really does excel at action, notably in the underrated parkour film District B13.  He has also delivered kickass female characters in Leon: The Professional (Natalie Portman’s breakout role) and La Femme Nikita.

Fortunately, Besson has Scarlett Johannson’s magnetic screen presence at his disposal.  Here, she gets to show off an amazing intensity that comes when her character’s superbrain is whirring away.  Her throaty voice turns out to be perfect for delivering very authoritative statements.  Of course, she looks great in a t-shirt (first half of movie) and a little black dress (second half).  She doesn’t take herself too seriously and clearly has fun with these roles where she is kicking some serious  ass.

Not too deep and with great eye candy visuals, Lucy is pedal-to-the-medal summer fun.

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I Origins: a thoughtful romance that muses on the boundaries of science and spirituality

Michael Pitt and Brit Marling in I ORIGINS

Michael Pitt and Brit Marling in I ORIGINS

The romance I Origins (which opens tomorrow) explores the conflict between science and spirituality. Our scientist protagonist (Michael Pitt) is completely empirical and militantly anti-spiritual. He is obsessed with the study of iris scans and patterns of the eye (the “I” in the title is a pun). He is hoping to prove that eyes can be evolved, which he believes will debunk the Creationist pseudo-science of Intelligent Design. He meets a model (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) – and they don’t meet CUTE, they meet HOT. Through a string of scientifically improbable coincidences, he is able to track her down for a second encounter that is sharply romantic. They fall in love – an attraction of opposites because she is mercurial and vaguely New Agey.

Along the way, he gains a new lab assistant (Brit Marling), who is just as smart and more driven than is he. Together they find the lab breakthrough to prove his theory. The main three characters are affected by a life-altering tragedy. Seven years later, the story resumes with the public release of the discovery. As our hero takes his victory lap over religion, he is faced with new evidence that cannot be explained by science…

Writer-director Mike Cahill (Another Earth, also starring Marling) has constructed a story that sets up a discussion on the limits of empiricism. I give Cahill extra points for raising the issue without ponderosity or pretension. Some critics have harshly judged the movie, but they see it wrongly as a corny religion-beats-science movie instead of a contemplation on the possibilities. And they altogether miss the fact that the film is basically a romance, which Cahill himself sees as one of the two central aspects of I Origins.  Cahill explores and compares the intense lust-at-first-sight, opposites-attract type of love with the love relationship based on common values and aspirations.

There are, however, two shots involving pivotal moments in the story (and both involving billboards) that are such self-consciously ostentatious filmmaking that they distracted me, rather than bringing emphasis to each moment.

Pitt, an actor of sometimes unsettling affect, is very good here, as he was in The Dreamers and Last Days.  Berges-Frisbey and Marling deliver fine performances, too. If Marling is in a movie, it aspires to being good – I loved The East, which she co-write and starred in. Archie Panjabi, without the boots and the upfront sexiness she wears on The Good Wife, is solid in a minor part.

I Origins works both as a scientific detective story and as a meditation on romance. I found it to be smart and entertaining.

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The Newburgh Sting: war on terrorism…NOT

The Newburgh Sting is a credible and politically important documentary from HBO. In 2009, the FBI arrested four American Muslims with what look like bombs outside a synagogue.  The Newburgh Sting examines the case by showing us the actual FBI surveillance videos and audios, along with talking heads of relatives and community members. And a different reality emerges.

As the story unfolds, the FBI enrolls an informant – a serial con man who needed FBI leverage to hang on to the ill-gotten gains of a previous scam. The informant heads to hardscrabble Newburgh, NY, and flashes cash and expensive cars; he pretends to be an international terrorist who will pay $250,000 for a “job”. The informant finds a local hustler who will say anything to scrounge some cash. The hustler rounds up three more unemployed guys who will also do anything for a little money, let alone $250,000. The informant describes and plans the job, organizes the job and provides all the materials (including fake bombs).

Whether or not this meets the legal definition of entrapment is one thing. But, as a matter of policy, it’s clear that – absent the FBI informant paying them to do so – these guys would never have been involved in such a scheme. It’s also easy for the audience to conclude that the FBI only stopped a “terrorist incident” that it manufactured, spending resources that could have been used against real terrorists with the actual means to carry out an attack.

The most distasteful part of the story is the cable news coverage of the arrests, trumpeting the FBI’s spin: the capture of a terrorist cell intent on mass murder of Americans. By the time we watch this, we have seen the video of the informant and the dumbass suspects actually plotting the “attack”, and we have a pretty clear picture of the personalities involved and what really happened. Because of the surveillance videos, it’s definitely worth a watch.

The Newburgh Sting is playing on HBO.

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Snowpiercer: thinking and hacking one’s way to the front of the train

Tilda Swinton in SNOWPIERCER

Tilda Swinton in SNOWPIERCER

Snowpiercer is that rare sci fi thriller that effectively explores some serious questions without becoming ponderous or pretentious.  Here’s the setup. In an attempt to fix global warming by chemically cooling the earth, mankind has moved the needle too far and has instead FROZEN the planet. The only survivors are a few thousand humans packed into a nuclear-powered, “self-sustainable” train that rattles around the earth on a circuitous track. The wealthy elite lives in comfort at the front of the train, while their cruel armed guards keep the wretched, unwashed poor in the back of the train. Naturally, the poor revolt and assault the front of the train.

So we have a conflict in a claustrophobic space, and the thrills come from how the poor think and fight their way up car-by-car. Because the train’s systems have been engineered to prevent this, it takes a lot of ingenuity. And it takes a lot of violence, too, and because the elite has almost run out of bullets repressing previous revolts, that violence is often of the medieval hacking-and-thumping sort.

The train in Snowpiercer, of course, is an allegory for a society with an extreme disparity of wealth – and it’s not far removed from similar societies in human history and even today.  In Snowpiercer’s most pointed moments, the mouthpiece for the elite continually tells the poor that they are undeserving and lucky to get the morsels that they are allowed. But the more challenging question – and one that Snowpiercer leaves the audience to ponder – is what are the limits of order; naturally, we’re all against repression, but how about when the very survival of the species is up for grabs?

The production design of Snowpiercer is exceptional. The snowy planet is cool, but the best part of Snowpiercer is experiencing each part of the train, including the greenhouse car, the aquarium car, and (my favorite) the disco car. The imagination that went into creating a mobile space that must sustain itself with making its own food, treating its own water, educating its own kids, etc., is remarkable (and Oscar-worthy).

As the stonefaced leader of the uprising, Chris Evans is okay but doesn’t get to do much. That’s too bad, because I know he can act from his quirky role in The Iceman as hitman Mr. Freezy, who works out of his ice cream truck. Because I don’t watch superhero movies, I was unaware that Evans has recently starred as Captain America in The Avengers and as Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four movies.

The best performance comes from Kang-ho Song as Snowpiercer’s most interesting character, a high-tech locksmith addicted, along with his 17-year-old daughter, to a drug of the future. Tilda Swinton is gloriously outrageous as a loathsome middle manager for the evil elite. After a spate of emo dramas, Octavia Spencer gets to swing her axe through a herd of bad guys. And Ed Harris, John Hurt and Alison Pill are all reliably good too.

I’m a big fan of Korean writer/director Joon-ho Bong, who made the brilliant 2003 detectives-hunting-serial killer movie Memories of a Murder (also with Kang-ho Song) and the 2009 drama Mother, which made my yearly Best Of list.  Memories of a Murder is available on DVD from Netflix, and you can find Mother on DVD from Netflix and streaming on iTunes, Vudu and Xbox Video.  He also co-wrote the upcoming on-the-seas thriller Sea Fog (Haemoo) which plays at the Toronto International Film Fest this fall.

You can also stream Snowpiercer on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play, Xbox Video and DirecTV.

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