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Review: Detroit

Aug 04 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]221783:43719:0[/embed] DetroitDirector: Kathryn BigelowRelease Date: July 28, 2017 (Limited); August 4 (Nationwide)Rating: R It takes a while for you to realize that Detroit has main characters. The characters introduced in the aforementioned opening have no significance to the rest of the plot, and to some extent seem to exist primarily to show an African American police officer breaking things up. It's unique in the film. Aside from John Boyega's Dismukes, a security guard (his second job) who gets caught up in the whole thing and is referred to as an "Uncle Tom" for believing in the fundamental goodness of the police (for a while anyway), there isn't really anything like that. Once the riots are underway, white folks become the pretty clear enemy, and they stay that way from beginning to end. Spoiler: This is no white savior narrative. But before I get into that (and believe me, I'll get into that), it's worth discussing what Detroit is actually showing: war. Kathryn Bigelow's last two films, The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, were set in actual warzones, and this feels like a natural progression. The movie feels like it's documenting a war. The camera shakes in close up throughout, and it's disorienting and violent. It's a literally dizzying reflection of the feelings of its characters, the ones who eventually come to the forefront. As the riots progress, we begin to see some of the same faces over and over again, though we also see new ones who have little significance but add to the constant tension. But because of this, I genuinely wasn't sure if we would ever have a "protagonist." It's an ensemble film, so in a sense we don't, but the film does ultimately end up following one character in particular, and it wasn't the person I expected. (It's not a spoiler, but I'll leave it anyway.) The film's key sequence, when everything comes to a head and you finally learn what the movie is about, is the better part of an hour spent at the Algiers hotel. With an almost exclusively black clientele (minus a couple of white out-of-town women, whose presence is important for a whole host of reasons), it becomes the site for a disturbing case study in police brutality. After someone fires a starter pistol at police and the national guard on the streets, the hotel is swarmed. Now, considering this is a place with literal sniper fire, it makes sense that they would take a threat like that seriously. But what happens is more complicated than that. As a white guy, I'm not particularly concerned about or by the police. I feel safer with police around than I do when they aren't. I know that is not the case for everyone. I know some people feel the exact opposite way. They will walk out of Detroit and say, "Yeah, pretty much." (History has a habit of repeating itself.) But to someone like me, the film is a genuinely frustrating one. The characters, based on real people from stories about an actual event that took place during the riots. Its development was not unlike the one that begot Zero Dark Thirty, though the methods for information gathering on ZD30 are arguably suspect, what with its particular depiction of the use and efficacy of torture... but I'm getting off track. I trust the events as they are depicted in this film. Bits and pieces may well be fictionalized, as sometimes they must be, but it seems not only plausible but probable that something like this would happen. And that leads to a person who looks like me to feel really gosh darn conflicted. Because as the events occurred, nearly none of what happens "had" to happen. There was an "easy" way to deal with the police, who came in screaming and violently throwing people up against the wall. People could have told the truth, and I wanted to believe so badly that it would have made a difference. And the thing is, everyone was telling the truth, but no one was telling the whole truth. The not-real gun is mentioned only once; by that point, it's way too late.  But here's the thing: If I told the police what had happened, I have every reason to believe that they would trust me. And maybe that's foolhardy, but I genuinely think so. I also have every reason to believe that the men depicted in Detroit (and perhaps many police officers working today) wouldn't have believed them. If they said, "It was a toy gun and not a sniper rifle," would that have made a difference? Certainly they didn't seem to think so, otherwise they presumably would have brought it up in the first place. But even after the building is torn apart looking for a weapon and them finding nothing (including said starter pistol), do I think the whole truth would have saved anyone? No, not really. And that is infuriating. But as much as it's infuriating, I genuinely think it's vital. And I think it's particularly vital that white people watch it, because it's not a movie about them. White people are not the protagonists, and their experience isn't the focus; they exist primarily as foils to hammer all of this home. There's not a lot of that, certainly not enough of it, but unlike a film like Moonlight, this confronts whiteness. Get Out did that in a very different way, and it was critically acclaimed for that (and everything else about it). And it stirred up bullshit controversy from folks who didn't see it and claimed it was racist. Get Out took aim at the more subtle racism that pervades our modern society, whereas there's nothing subtle about the actions of the police in Detroit. But you know what? There's overt racism all over this country, bubbling barely underneath the surface. (Source: Seth Steven-Davidowitz's Everybody Lies) To really grapple with Detroit and what it portrays is not a pleasant thing. It dramatizes a barely historical version of the events that we see played out in the news all the time, and the inherently visceral nature of cinema (in comparison to police dash cam footage) makes you think. It makes you think about where we've been. It makes you think about where we are now. It makes you think about how far we've come, and how far we haven't. It makes you think about what the President of the United States said seven days ago. It makes you think about what the Justice Department has made moves towards doing earlier this week. And whether it ultimately changes anything or not, working to connect those dots and contemplate some truly unsettling conclusions is an important first step. It's certainly changed the way I approach certain things, as I think the past however many words has made clear. I have no doubt that parts of this review are problematic, and I only scratched the surface of everything this film brings up (regarding the aforementioned white women and John Boyega's characters in particular). And those are things I hope to talk about with people as they see the film (because they really, really should.). Detroit won't change the world. It won't fix racism or even put a chip into its armor. But maybe it can start a dialogue with people loathe to talk about these kinds of issues. I hope so.
Detroit Review photo
History, but not really
In the opening scene of Detroit, a large group of African Americans are rounded up and arrested en masse for having an indoor party; their crime: not having a liquor license, supposedly. They are put in the backs of...

Review: Dunkirk

Jul 21 // Rick Lash
[embed]221733:43672:0[/embed] DunkirkDirector: Christopher NolanRelease Date: July 21st, 2017Rated: PG-13Format: IMAX 70mm Dunkirk tells an early,  yet historic story from World War II when Allied (then only British and French) forces are being pushed back to the sea centering around the town of Dunkirk. The film opens, effectively, on a group of soldiers walking through abandoned French streets when fliers begin to rain down from above. One of the soldiers grabs one and we're treated to a glance of what they see; that is, a German advertisement encouraging the Allies to surrender with a graphic map detailing how bleak their situation is. It's a somber tone-setter which is quickly augmented by the realities of war as a soldier grabs several out of the air in an attempt to collect it for toilet paper. And then, things get chaotic, and never really slow down. Despite several attempts to void his bowels, this solider, our soldier, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) never clearly gets to. The act of surviving becomes so all-encompassing that it's to the point where his body forgets it needs relief. And that's the point: an experience so immersive that nature's calls go unheeded: literally everything but survival is forgotten. It's no accident that immersion is at the forefront of the piece. The action is tightly wrought, like floss wrapped round your fingers too many times: the blood continues to pump, but has no where to go; the flesh turns white; and sensation builds as numbness should set in. Nolan designed the film, from his insistence in shooting film rather than digital, to the carefully orchestrated score by Hans Zimmer (simply amazing), to the avoidance of digital effects and the minimal quantities of dialogue to be immersive. If you were to pass Christopher Nolan on the street today and shout out at him, "Hey Chris! Where should I go see your dope new movie Dunkirk! Dark Knight rules!" He'd probably yell back, "Hey asshole, you don't know me!" Or just pepper-spray you to the face. But if he deemed you with a response, he'd be sure to recommend you take the time to find an IMAX theater showing Dunkirk with a film projector. It's how he intended audiences to see the film. Film is known for feeling more real and alive. And IMAX film formats not only capture more information, but the screen size allows more to be displayed, and using film projectors does this best for the format. Couple this with the use of real, true to life and 'historically accurate' warships, fighter planes, and props (like scale models and stand-ins for large group shots) and you have a movie that pops off the screen like few others. There's a shot from above of three British Royal Airforce fighters flying in wing to wing formation that was one of the crispest, most real feeling moments I've ever seen that I wanted to screen grab live because I knew nothing I could share in a review would do it justice. This is a reference shot, but it's a poor imitation of a cheap knockoff. It's true, not everyone's going to see it in this format--which is unfortunate, but if you're wondering if you can, it turns out Dunkirk's website will help you figure that out. Search here to see if any 70mm showings are near you. If they're within driving distance, I'd consider making the trip: it's that worthwhile. The experience was so immersive that I failed to recognize both Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hardy (in fairness, his face is obscured for most of his screen time). I was actually lauding Nolan for going with relative unknowns entirely. Cillian Murphy does make a cameo (an early Nolan collaborator from Batman Begins), but it felt well-incorporated and didn't jar. The lack of dialog didn't jar either; it served the purpose of letting the action and tension dictate emotional response and immersion. The film's a triptych, with three non-linear sequences taking place on land, air, and water. Yet, despite this, our lead, if you can pick one out, Tommy, doesn't open his mouth to speak until something like 30-40 minutes into the movie, outside of a single word. The dialog is noticeably reduced and it worked so well. There are no grandiose speeches, no overblown discussions on politics or course of action that can bog movie paces down. It's frenetic. From the first time shots are fired, the pace of the movie builds and carries until the finale. This is all done without enemy soldiers ever really appearing on screen, and with the violence and horror of war (which are quite viscerally present) not being exploited for gore or shock value. The reality is one in which every person present accepts that they may very well be killed at any given moment, but they still operate within the rules of their world while best trying to survive. With the pace not waning, these rules are eventually put to the test and war stretches conventions to the point that they break when individuals survive. Yet in spite of that grittiness, the film focuses on sacrifice and the willingness to put oneself at risk for others. These moments pile up throughout the film so that bleakness is balanced with inspiration and grief with triumph. It's a movie about a retreating army, a defeated group (at least for the moment) that achieves victory through survival, with the one most-noted casualty coming from the unlikeliest of sources. War turns conventions, much as Nolan's committed filmmaking does, and in one microcosm within a this microcosm, we're reminded that heroic deaths need not be grandiose, they only need conviction behind them. It's incredibly resonant. In reviewing this film, I find myself hard pressed to compare it to others. It's a standalone. I say this, knowing that Nolan took inspiration from a variety of sources (for inspiration on total settings in war movies to inspiration for pacing and tonal setting in movies in general). And in trying to score it for two separate websites, I only know that it has no real failures: it is a great film, one that just far outstripped it's summer competitors.
Take a bow, Mr. Nolan, and cue the appla
Christopher Nolan is a well-known name. As modern-day filmmakers go, his name is near the top of the list of directors that studios will trust with boatloads (literally in this case) of money to bring projects to life. Strang...


Neill Blomkamp's newest OATS short brings us to Vietnam

With the required Fortunate Son time
Jun 29
// Anthony Marzano
Following up on the heels of the release of yet another sci-fi story with Sigourney Weaver last week, Neill Blomkamp's OATS Studio has released a new sci-fi short film on both YouTube and the game distribution platform Steam....
This Corner of the World photo
This Corner of the World

Trailer: Acclaimed anime In This Corner of the World looks like a moving war-torn romance

This looks like something special
Jun 14
// Hubert Vigilla
I'm not familiar with the films of Sunao Katabuchi, but after watching the trailer for In This Corner of the World, I want to seek out his previous anime features: Princess Arete and Mai Mai Miracle. Katabuchi was also a...


Tom Cruise: Top Gun Sequel is on like Donkey Kong

Topper Gun. Top Gunnest. The Top Gun.
May 24
// Rick Lash
Though industry rags (yes you, Variety) have yet to run with this blasphemy, reputable rags like USA Today are reporting on the revelation that aired on some little known news program from ... and let me confirm I'm getting t...

Review: The Wall

May 03 // Rick Lash
The Wall photo
Anything but simple
The premise is simple, the film anything but. Iraq, 2007. The war is coming to an end, but maybe someone should have told that to the "bad guys." Two American soldiers. Not just any American soldiers, but a sniper team, ...

Call of Duty movies photo
Call of Duty movies

Call of Duty cinematic universe in the works because companies want your money

Money money money money money money
Apr 06
// Hubert Vigilla
Everyone wants a cinematic universe these days. Marvel/Disney have the big one. DC/Warner Bros. have a troubled one. Hell, Universal Studios is trying to launch one with classic movie monsters (see the Mummy reboot with Tom C...
Planet of the Apes 3 photo
Planet of the Apes 3

New War for the Planet of the Apes trailer sets up primate revenge and man's last stand

Talking apes? That's bananas!
Mar 30
// Hubert Vigilla
Matt Reeves' War for the Planet of the Apes is just two months away. The movie didn't make our most anticipated movies of 2017, which may have been a mistake on our part, or maybe a sign of general iffiness. Rise of...
Apocalypse Now: The Game photo
Apocalypse Now: The Game

An Apocalypse Now video game is looking for funds on Kickstarter

I love the smell of crowdfunding
Jan 28
// Hubert Vigilla
Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now is a dark, maddening, sprawling masterpiece about the horrors of war. It's still one of the best movies about Vietnam and its impact on the American psyche, and it's often ranked among th...
9-min Great Wall trailer photo
9-min Great Wall trailer

9-minute trailer for Zhang Yimou's The Great Wall is more than just Matt Damon

Maybe the trailer is overcompensating?
Dec 01
// Hubert Vigilla
The old myth was that astronauts could see The Great Wall of China from space. A new 9-minute trailer for Zhang Yimou's The Great Wall has been released, and I'm pretty sure it can be seen from space. They have free wifi up t...
Star Wars: Rogue One photo
Star Wars: Rogue One

Final trailer for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story mentions the odds and raises the stakes

May the Donnie Yen be with you
Nov 28
// Hubert Vigilla
I know, I know--we already said there was a final trailer for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Now we have two final trailers. You can blame Disney and Lucasfilm for wanting to hype the movie one last time now that the public can buy their advanced movie tickets. Go buy tix already, duders. Check out the second final trailer for Rogue One below.

Review: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Nov 14 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221033:43193:0[/embed] Billy Lynn's Long Halftime WalkDirector: Ang LeeRating: RRelease Date: November 11, 2017 You may recall complaints about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey being shown in HFR 3D. Audiences said it looked strange and artificial, which is why neither of the two sequels had HFR screenings. That was just at 48 frames per second. With Billy Lynn, more frames per second doesn't translate into greater verisimilitude. Instead the high frame rate tends to make the movie look amateurish and fake. This is experimental technology, and only two theaters in the United States are equipped with the projectors to properly show the HFR version of Billy Lynn. The full experience is underwhelming on the whole with a few exceptions. What does HFR look like? Picture an HD cooking show shot with a consumer-grade digital video camera. Or maybe a local news broadcast viewed on an LCD viewfinder. Movements tend to look overly smooth. In some shots, the figures in the foreground look like they were inserted via green screen. In an early graveyard scene, it felt as if Lee was laying Colorform decals of his actors onto a flat background. 3D never looked so artificial. Other scenes felt like HD versions of cut scenes from 90s video games. I was reminded how expensive things can often be so tacky. It doesn't help that the cinematography lacks life. The film is built out of mechanical, workmanlike medium shots, flat close-ups, and pristine tracking shots. Lee continually returns to the POV of Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn), like a riff on the symmetrical POV dialogue scenes in an Ozu film. There's a problem. Since Billy's eyeline is not trained at the viewer like the people he's speaking to, the Ozu effect is lost from inconsistency. It's one of many curious choices with the overall way the film was shot. The movie doesn't look clinical but synthetic. In terms of camera placement and movement, the movie almost feels as if it was shot by a first-time cinematographer. In fact, the film was lensed by John Toll, whose credits include The Thin Red Line, Almost Famous, and Cloud Atlas. High frame rates may make amateurs of pros. Occasionally the HFR works well. When Bravo Company takes the field before the game starts and throws some footballs around, the vast length of the field is captured thanks to depth of the tableau. But it's also a tech-demo shot ("Let me show you what this baby can really do!"). The battle scene and halftime show--the sole justification for the technology--are pretty spectacular as well, though more the Iraq scenes than the halftime show. At the Dallas Cowboys game, the troops are meant to share the stage with Destiny's Child. Destiny's Child body doubles, to be more precise. Just when the halftime show seemed like something real, the blatant fake-Beyonce took me right out of the scene. So much of Billy Lynn is about small character moments rather than big spectacle, which makes the decision for HFR filmmaking somewhat baffling. Billy flirts with a cheerleader (Makenzie Leigh) after a press conference. It's a medium shot with a dark curtain as the background. The distracting look of the frame rate and the lack of 3D depth in the shot called attention to the artifice of the scene and the superfluous use of this technology to tell this story. It would be a bad shot and a poorly blocked scene in 2D, but in glorious 4K 3D the banality of the shot is much more apparent. I've spent all of this time complaining about the look of the film that I haven't even gotten to the scenes that work. That ought to say something. Lee's got a good lead in Alwyn, who carries the imperfect movie on his back. He has the all-American look coupled with vulnerable eyes. He's a kid always at the verge of breaking, trying to tamp down the unspeakable hurts. Vin Diesel is the late philosopher warrior of Bravo Company, essentially playing Vin Diesel. Kristen Stewart makes a solid impression in her brief supporting role as Billy's anti-war sister Kathryn. A tense Lynn family dinner scene feels more real than the stadium stuff. Garrett Hedlund makes the most of his screen time as the driven head of Bravo Company, a strong center that orients the group. All of the boys in Bravo have an easy camaraderie, though some of it's built on the same old war movie cliches. This may be just a roundabout way of saying the real immersive material in a movie has nothing to do with 3D or frame rates or spectacle and everything to do with the emotional content. I think about an alternate universe in which Billy Lynn was shot in the same way as The Ice Storm or Brokeback Mountain (and with no fake-Beyonce). I wonder how much more moved I would have been. I wonder what kind of movie this would be. As it is, there's a good movie in Billy Lynn that's constantly struggling to break out and breathe. Witness in 120 frames per second and 4K 3D the folly of mismatched form and content. It's ironic yet fitting that Billy Lynn's technology gets in the way of what works in the film. This is a movie about people using troops as a means to an end--they're good for ratings, they're good as a recruitment tool, they put butts in seats, they're fantasy figures, they can angle for a movie deal (a cloying, winky, meta element to the film that's too on the nose). It's also a movie about disregarding our troops as people. Lee had good intentions, but is feels like the tragedy of these heroes is just an excuse to play with some new cinematic toys.
Review: Billy Lynn's photo
High frame rate, low level execution
I can say this about Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk: Ang Lee and his cast have their hearts in the right place. Adapted from Ben Fountain's novel of the same name, the film is constantly trying to remind its viewers about th...

Hacksaw Ridge photo
Hacksaw Ridge

First trailer for Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge

Someone is still giving him money
Jul 28
// Matthew Razak
Mel Gibson isn't a good guy. He's also a really talented director. This kind of sucks because it's hard to watch his stuff without being sick with yourself for watching his stuff. I'm running into that problem after watching ...

Captain America: Civil War - #TeamIronMan v #TeamCap and Obama-era foreign intervention

May 11 // Hubert Vigilla
Both Iron Man and Captain America's sides are justified in-character by their experiences over the course of 12 other films. It might speak to the strength of long-form stories allowing characters to develop through choices and actions over time, and to then have a major interpersonal conflict stem from the ideological differences between characters. Given the collateral damage and technology-run-amok in Avengers: Age of Ultron, it makes sense for Tony Stark to consider international approval. It would keep his own ideas in check (i.e., creating something like Ultron) if there had to be political consensus before moving forward, and that consensus could then justify direct action and mitigate any personal guilt over the deaths of innocent people. This makes more sense than Tony Stark going full neoconservative fascist douchebag as he did in the Civil War comic by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven. HYDRA's decades-long infiltration of the US government and SHIELD in Captain America: The Winter Soldier leads to Steve Rogers' distrust of oversight, which may involve parties with motives and interests outside of the greater good. On top of that, we're talking about the United Nations as the overseeing body, an organization which stood idly by during the Rwandan genocide and whose actions these days include strongly worded letters of condemnation. Could you imagine the Avengers assembled to draft a letter? In a way, Tony's trust in his own judgment backfiring so badly led him to the security of the Sakovia Accords. On the other side, the complete failure of those in power to stop HYDRA led Steve away from the compromise and institutional oversight of the Sakovia Accords. There's also a generational conflict that tempers the Iron Man and Captain America worldviews. Tony Stark has grown up in the era after Vietnam with a certain gray or cynical view of military conflict. This is not a doveish view on Tony's part, however, but maybe one that adds ambivalence to the view of intervention and combat. Captain America, on the other hand, is a product of the greatest generation who could align in a black-and-white good-vs-evil battle against the Axis powers, HYDRA (i.e., science Nazis), and fascism. Of course, Cap doesn't really talk much about Dresden or the atomic bomb--that would complicate the moral arithmetic of utilitarianism. Civil War doesn't talk about the possibility of non-intervention and the use of diplomacy, but that sort of discussion would be silly in the context of superhero films. The Avengers fight massive hordes of faceless alien/robot/science Nazi goons hellbent on eradicating humanity. When that's the situation, the only viable option in the particular story being told is some sort of large-scale action set piece. (You don't bring a strongly worded letter to a gun fight.) It's maybe no surprise that in Alan Moore's Watchmen, the grand solution to fixing a world at war involves something extraterrestrial. Real life situations are far more complicated and can't be treated with the cavalier sense of moral righteousness seen in superhero movies. The foreign interventions of the Obama administration show how even careful deliberation or a humanitarian goal can backfire. Drone strikes are meant to eliminate select terror targets and reduce civilian deaths, but innocent men, women, and children have been murdered by American drones (see National Bird). The moral righteousness of Captain America's stance does nothing to mitigate the heartbreak and tragedy (and potential war crimes charges) of airstrikes against Doctors Without Border hospitals in Afghanistan or Yemen; Presidential apologies are of little consolation either. With regard to the Syrian Civil War, the complexities of the various factions involved, interfactional alliances, allegiances to various outside parties/countries, and a host of other factors have meant little direct or immediate action by the United States, which is still trying to figure out the quagmire it caused in Iraq under Bush; ditto the ISIS-led power vacuum the US created when Obama, under the counsel of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, used airstrikes along with French, British, and other NATO forces to assist Libyan rebels in the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi. All superhero movies often have something inherently hawkish and/or libertarian about them, sometimes occupying various ideologies at once. Some may have a more activist streak (many are vigilante stories, after all), while others are more authoritarian (many are world police stories, after all), and these Avengers movies tend to be all about the positive things that the Earth's mightiest heroes can do even when they accidentally kill innocent people. As our own Jackson Tyler pointed out last year, The Avengers is all about American exceptionalism, unable to commit to a full critique of its own ideological foundation. They're power fantasies, after all, and like fairy tales or myths or any fantastical stories that are told, maybe there are certain limitations in what can be addressed. These are simplifications of conflicts, and rarely with a one-to-one conversion regarding its real world referents. Superheroes can do a lot when it comes to embodying certain aspirations, ideals, and anxieties, but there isn't much room in a tentpole blockbuster to address the complications and nuances of real world national and international politics. The closest Captain America: Civil War can get to nuance is its ambivalence about the #TeamIronMan v #TeamCap argument. It comes down on neither side explicitly, allowing both to exist as the correct solution to a narrow hypothetical situation involving the world of the film. These are still heroes (again, the foundation remains), but one is a sheriff while the other is the gunslinger who turns in his tin star, one is the by-the-book cop while the other is the loose canon who lost his badge. This isn't neocons taking on liberals, it's more like Buzz Lightyear v Woody. Similarly, Captain America: Civil War isn't a diagnosis and treatment of the current state of the world but more of a collection of symptoms. I'm reminded of a two-page Superman story from 1940 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. The Man of Tomorrow soars through the air, kidnaps Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, and then brings them both to justice before the League of Nations. All that power, and he rights major wrongs so easily and justly, preventing the deaths of countless millions in the process. If only real world foreign policy were that easy. In retrospect, it's a very sad Superman story.
Civil War and politics photo
Imperfect solutions, true believers
Now that we've all seen Captain America: Civil War, it's about time to open up the #TeamIronMan v #TeamCap debate. On the one hand, you have Iron Man as a guilt-addled pragmatist who feels UN/international oversight is a nece...

Tribeca Review: National Bird

Apr 18 // Hubert Vigilla
National BirdDirector: Sonia KennebeckRating: TBDRelease Date: TBD We're introduced to three American whistleblowers involved with drone warfare in Afghanistan--two women and a man--each of them haunted by their role in the U.S. Air Force program. There are supposed to be checks between various operatives in charge of a drone strike, and yet something is bound to go wrong. We've all read or watched stories about innocent victims of this type of warfare, and in the most disturbing and important moment of National Bird--maybe the primary reason the documentary exists and is essential--we watch actual footage of a drone strike mistake. Targets enter vehicles and they drive down a road in no particular rush. They stop somewhere to pray. They drive again. Prior to this tense situation we're told that the Air Force trains their people to distinguish between civilians (particularly women and children) and actual terror suspects, but from so high up they're just black and white blobs. Two voices recreate the conversation between operatives, who receive incentives to strike rather than show discretion. They're like sadistic children waiting above a trail ants with magnifying glasses. There is no human regard in their words. We watch the strike and its aftermath. The explosions are like a futurist nightmare, and victims rush away waving for mercy. Cutting from the cameras in the sky, we go to cell phone footage on the ground of the murdered men, women, and children. The images are from their relatives. The up-close footage is thankfully grainy, and the bodies are difficult to discern in the digital noise, but you can easily make out the wails of grief and rage from their loved ones. There were 23 deaths in this strike, none were militants. According to a report from The Intercept, the United States killed more than 200 people using drone strikes between January 2012 and February 2013; only 35 of them were the intended targets. These tragedies are common, and given the increased reliance on unmanned warfare, they tragedies may become even more common. Even U.S. optimistic numbers suggest that innocent civilians are killed between 10% to 15% of the time. Despite the power the film achieves in its final half, I can't help but think there's a structural flaw in National Bird. Kennebeck spends a long time with the whistleblowers in the United States first, introducing their issues with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and overwhelming guilt for their role in the deaths of civilians. Yet in many ways the film doesn't really begin until we get to the sequences in Afghanistan. It's Afghan innocents that ground the film since its their tragedy that drives the three whistleblowers to speak out. The last half of the movie lends the first half some much needed weight, but I wondered if there was a way to braid the stories of drone-strike victims with the whistleblower narratives rather than saving the Afghan side of the story for later. At one point of National Bird, we watch dozens of Afghani amputees getting fit for prostheses. Many of them are victims of drone strikes and the other hazards of war. Back in the United States, one of the whistleblowers talks about her depression and PTSD, and she breaks down in uncontrollable sobs. Kennebeck sends a camera drone over an American suburb, and in those images of houses laid in a grid there's a hypothetical implication: someday someone might use drones to attack people within the United States. The technology is there, and time moves forward. The fear is the reality: we can't go back.
Review: National Bird photo
Eyes in the sky
One of the most memorable passages in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five involves World War II played in reverse. Bombers flying backwards rebuild cities, and the dead become high school students and babies, and everything r...

Review: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

Jan 15 // Matthew Razak
13 Hours: The Secret Solidiers of BenghaziDirector: Michael BayRated: RRelease Date: January 15, 2016 [embed]220292:42774:0[/embed] For anyone running into 13 Hours hoping for some sort of political charged hit piece (on either side of the aisle) you'll be heavily disappointed. This movie is all Michael Bay and no Michael Moore. While there are a few snide remarks here and there, the movie is surprisingly apolitical, choosing to instead focus on the action-packed adventures of six CIA military contractors who protect a secret CIA base after the attack on the US "embassy" in Benghazi. Of course, if you go into the film believing in a certain narrative of what took place that night this movie is going to do nothing, but reaffirm your beliefs. It is stuffed full of Bay's die hard patriotism and love of people shooting things to solve problems.  The movie focuses on Jack Silva (John Krasinski) as he arrives in Benghazi just before the attacks on the embassy. He's introduced to the job by the team's lead Tyrone 'Rone' Woods (James Badge Dale) and then everything starts to catch on fire. The rest of the movie is a beefed up version on what may or may not have happened that night in Benghazi. While the film opens station that this is a true story it is very clearly Michael Bay's version of a true story. What does that mean? Prolific gun fights and plenty of explosions that may or may not have actually occurred. Block long drives, that were most likely very tense at the time, are turned into all out car chases. Bodies are mowed down left and right as bullets rip through them. A bus explodes in grandiose fashion. Men all have six packs and women -- sorry, make that woman -- are all gorgeous. It's pure Bay or it would be if it wasn't about an actual attack and incredibly politically charged. What's horribly annoying is this is probably Michael Bay's most competently made action film in quite some time. Despite it running longer than it needs to, Bay actually pieces together his action sequences with some understanding of the basic of film editing and pulls off an impressively decent pace for the film. The characters, while trite at times, are all given surprising emotional depth and handled with even more surprising care. As Pain & Gain showed us, when Bay wants to actually focus on something other than women's legs and explosions the results can actually be interesting.  However, it is nearly impossible to separate this film from the "true story" it is telling. The producers definitely didn't want to as they kept the horrendous subtitle attached to 13 Hours for all the promotion. In the case of saying something the movie fails again and again. It's blind belief in the heroism of the American soldier and inability to get out of its own cookie cutter cliches lead it from something that could offer some actual commentary into a simple, though emotional, action flick. Ignoring the politics of the subject matter might be both the worst and best thing the movie does, simultaneously making it work and fail at the exact same time. It can probably be best summed up by a point near the movies end after a truly tense 30 minutes of film one of the characters turns to the encampments translator and deadpans, "Your country's gotta figure this shit out." It's deep thoughts like that that rip away at the good parts of the film. Krasinki is probably the highlight and a brilliant bit of casting. His affable nature imbues Jack Silva with a humanity that defies the stereotypical tough-guy stuff. His performance adding layers to the normal bravado we get from patriotic cinema, and in turn pulling out more from the actors around him. It can't truly elevate the film above what it is, but damned if he doesn't try. Despite all the pretense and marketing and "true storying" 13 Hours turns out to be just a decent Michael Bay film made worse by its connection to a political scandal it seems to want nothing to do with. It turns out you can't have it both ways. Either you're making a movie about Benghazi or you're not. Bay tried so hard not to it ironically overwhelms everything else. 
Benghazi Review photo
Not so secret
(Editor's Note: This review was written before the knowledge that there was a 10 Cloverfield Lane trailer before the movie. Press did not get to see that trailer. If I had the film would have gotten a 10/10 off of the wa...

Screenings photo

See 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi early and free

Washington DC screening
Jan 08
// Matthew Razak
Michael Bay has gotten into the habit of doing "smaller" films while he isn't making progressively worse Transformers movies. The last one was the surprisingly adept Pain & Gain and now he's returning the "true ...
Beasts of No Nation photo
Beasts of No Nation

Trailer for Netflix's Beasts of No Nation, starring Idris Elba and directed by Cary Fukunaga

Beautiful, terrible, and intense
Sep 04
// Hubert Vigilla
Beasts of No Nation premiered this week at the Venice International Film Festival, and the early reviews have been extremely positive, earning high praise for stars Idris Elba and newcomer Abraham Attah as well as director Ca...

See American Sniper early and free

Washington DC screening
Jan 12
// Matthew Razak
I thought American Sniper missed its target (sorry) a bit, but there is no doubt that the film is both powerful and well made. If you're into that kind of thing then you probably want some passes to see it... tonight. Ye...

Review: American Sniper

Dec 24 // Matthew Razak
[embed]218766:42085:0[/embed] American SniperDirector: Clint EastwoodRated: RRelease Date: December 25, 2014 You may have heard of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) in the news as he was the most successful sniper in American history. The man is a legend and American Sniper tracks that legend from his first shot to his last. Most of the film is spent in war zones, but it hops back to Kyle's home life every so often to show how his service in the field is tearing him down at home with his wife, Taya Renae Kyle (Sienna Miller) and child. There's also a running story line of an ex-olympic sniper fighting for the bad guys that constantly haunts, kills and scares the soldiers that Chris is protecting. It's the mugguffin (whether he be real or not) that keeps the combat part of the film going. By bouncing Chris back and forth between deployments and home life the movie attempts to show us the effect that killing and constant war has on the sniper. It would be an incredibly interesting approach if the film ever fully committed to it. Instead it is content to focus on the war zone and leave Chris' PTSD and family issues to be background fodder to thrilling war sequences. There's an attempt to create a tension here, but it feels false as the film, much like the soldier, feels far more comfortable and happy when it's taking out enemy combatants. When the movie is doing this it is fantastic. Eastwood's direction is in your face and intense. The kind of war scenes that make your palms sweaty as you watch them. Chris' first shot is a perfect example of this as he is tasked with taking out a mother and child who are moving to destroy a garrison with a grenade. From the moment this scene begins Eastwood pulls you in with a dirty style of direction that is stunning. Every war scene in this film is fantastic. It makes it all the worse when it cuts back home and seems to almost lost interest. Yes, there is tension there, but the movie never cares about it. We get 20 minutes in a battle zone and then two at home until Chris is back again. While that may be an authentic representation of how his time was spent it turns Chris' mental health issues into nothing more than a throw away. The end of the film is a long battle when it should really be focusing on the man. To tell the story of a modern American war hero you can't just tell the story of war. Cooper seems to understand this, imbuing his performance with a certain timidity that you wouldn't expect from a NAVY Seal role. He's great from scene to scene, though nothing that will win him an Oscar. He definitely beefed up for the role though, and it is nice to see him take a departure from the smarmy characters he's been tackling recently. It is a different slant for him and it suits him well.  American Sniper hits on the sniper part of its title, but sadly forgets to talk about the American. This is a complex man who is a hero, but by marginalizing his home life and mental issues we do him and other Veterans a disservice. We should expect more out of our war movies, because our soldiers aren't just heroes, they're men. 
American Sniper Review photo
A missed shot
Clint Eastwood is easily one of the best directors in Hollywood so him tackling the incredible story of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle is something to get pretty excited about. We already know he has the war movie chops tha...

Review: Kill Team

Jul 23 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]215318:39994:0[/embed] Kill TeamDirector: Dan KraussRelease Date: July 25, 2014 (New York, National rollout to follow)Rating: NR  The primary focus of Kill Team is Private Adam Winfield and his family. Private Winfield was the whistleblower who attempted to bring attention to these criminal acts for months. Despite his efforts and his family's efforts, military brass never acted in an urgent way. Private Winfield's own father, who also served and was the reason that Private Winfield enlisted in the Army, reached out to as many professional contacts as he could that might be able to do something. None of these people could help, and many deferred responsibility to other parties. The reason these kills took place was the squad leader, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs. Gibbs is an imposing figure, an all-American freedom machine with the features of a GI Joe. He served tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and in addition to his hardcore machismo, there's a major psychopathic and sociopathic streak to him. He looks at the Afghan population as sub-human, and even makes a necklace of index finger bones for his own amusement. As trophies of his kills, Gibbs also gets tattoos, and he encourages those under him to do as he does. Gibbs is never interviewed for the documentary, and it's no surprise that he'd avoid participating in this film since he wouldn't come out of it in any sort of positive light. A few of Private Winfield's fellow soldiers are interviewed, however, and they are so blunt about what happened it adds additional chill to what they say. It's like they're describing trips to the store rather than the murder of innocent people; as if they're talking about others planting grenades and pulling the triggers rather than themselves. It seems like they viewed the peacekeeping side of the mission as tedious rather than essential, while the firefights were where the fun was at. Private Winfield was coerced to murder an innocent civilian himself under threat of death. The rest of his company knew he wanted to reveal what they've done, and they made it known that if he blew the whistle, they'd kill him and make it look like an accident. If  they could make innocent civilians seem like enemy combatants, it wouldn't be so hard to make another murder seem like part of routine combat. Under that kind of duress, Private Winfield had no choice but to comply. His parents were helpless to help, and Army higher ups weren't too concerned. On top of that, Private Winfield's small in stature and even though he has a lot of heart, his rucksack weighs as much as he does. Private Winfield seems like the only person interviewed that shows any remorse about the killings. He recalls the moment and calls it the worst thing in his life. The other troops who are so matter-of-fact describe a kind of compartmentalization of military action and civilian life. Back home, a troop may be filled with angst and anxiety that they try to tamp down as best as they can. They express no desire to kill when on leave, but things are different when back in Afghanistan. Obviously this isn't the case with all troops and the documentary isn't painting everyone who serves in the same light, but Kill Team does a good job of profiling just how dark these impulses can become. Much of the film's focus is on Private Winfield's fate and how his family copes with the legal defense. In some ways this points out part of the film limitations in its exploration of this issue. No doubt a lot of this had to do with access, and director Dan Krauss makes the most out of his time with the Winfields. While some of Private Winfield's fellow troops participate in the documentary, none of their families appear. Part of me wonders how their experiences were and what their personal stories involved, especially in the case of Gibbs's loved ones. Did they notice something wrong? Did they know what was happening? How do they feel now that they know what's happened? One minor issue I had with Kill Team had to do with its presentation, of all things. When Krauss is in documentary journalism mode, the film is brimming with power. The more cinematic flourishes in the film seem less effective, though. The cinematography is nice, but it seems like a bit of a distraction -- a kind of garnish rather than something that complements the content. There's also the slow crawl of text from Facebook chats between Private Winfield and his father, which are more affected than effective. It's a testament to the power of this story, maybe, that I'm critical of a choice of presentation that gets in the way of the facts. Quibbles aside, Kill Team is an important film that may be the first of many to come. Once again, as we're told in the film, this is something that happens more that we think. Other units have engaged in similar actions, and the civilians who witness it are going to harbor deep and legitimate resentments that will be passed through villages, conveyed to the next generation. When more of these stories are revealed and more time has passed when the last troops have left, we may get a larger and more complicated picture of the country and the conflict. The silence can't last for long.
Kill Team Review photo
Examining US troops that murdered innocent Afghan civilians for sport
The war in Afghanistan is the longest military conflict in which the United States has been involved. The operation is nowhere near as successful as hoped, which is part of the reality of fighting a war in Afghanistan, a less...

Tribeca Capsule Review: The Project

May 05 // Hubert Vigilla
The ProjectDirectors: Shawn Efran and Adam CiralskyRating: TBDRelease Date: TBD When Prince is on screen, he keeps talking about the situation in Somalia in terms of action movies, even comparing the country to Mad Max. Coming from the creator of the world's largest private military company, it's an unintentional but revealing description. In an action movie, the plot of a PMPF movie would go like this: a ragtag group of a few hundred Somali volunteers would transform from underfed and untrained civilians into the best and brightest fighting force in East Africa. Movies aren't real life, though. In The Project, the PMPF plot is more like this: a ragtag group of a few hundred Somali volunteers is so malnourished that their legs break while running; they've never worn footwear with laces and require boot training before firing rusted guns (the PMPF was disallowed new weaponry because of an arms embargo); and they may be secret spies for the pirates. When the PMPF embarks on their first missions, there's a genuine fear of the group's catastrophic failure. The main guide for The Project is Roger Carstens, a former Special Forces lieutenant colonel embedded with the PMPF to film and observe how they conduct operations. Former UN coordinator Matthew Bryden is included in the film as a counterpoint, citing lack of oversight. While the whole story of the PMPF is incomplete (e.g., no exploration of reported beatings and killings of trainees) and unfolding (e.g., needs more about the multiple factors causing a dip in Somali piracy as well as the origins and rise of al-Shabaab), I still think that directors Shawn Efran and Adam Ciralsky have created a worthwhile conversation starter, and I hope they continue to follow the story.
The Project Rreview photo
The Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF) vs. Somali pirates
At the end of The Project we're shown events that happened in March 2013 involving the Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF). There's  a harrowing stand-off with Somali pirates just off the coast. Since the events and de...


Trailer: Dirty Wars

Apr 23
// Liz Rugg
Dirty Wars is a Sundance selected documentary by director Richard Rowley which seeks to shed light on the extremely covert operations of the United States government's Joint Special Operations Command. Dirty Wars follows inv...

Trailer: Library Wars (Toshokan Sensou)

A Japanese light novel/YA series gets a live-action big screen adaptation
Feb 11
// Hubert Vigilla
Library Wars (Toshokan Sensō) has a concept so strange yet fresh that I'm immediately intrigued. Adapted from a series of Japanese light novels (young adult novels) by Hiro Arikawa, Library Wars also spawned a manga and...

Book: All the Emperor's Men: Kurosawa's Pearl Harbor

Dec 19 // Hubert Vigilla
Then again, that assessment puts a little too much blame on Kurosawa. Before Kurosawa was even attached to Tora! Tora! Tora!, producer Darryl F. Zanuck had big ambitions. Fox had scored a major hit with The Longest Day, a massive production about the D-Day invasion mounted by American, British, French, and German talent. With Tora! Tora! Tora!, Zanuck wanted to do something similar with a Japanese/American co-production about the bombing of Pearl Harbor: a Japanese team would shoot their side of the story, an American team would shoot its own, and a balanced film would be the end result. Kurosawa wound up with the directing job thanks to Elmo Williams, best known for editing High Noon. A fan of Kurosawa's films, Williams showed Zanuck Rashomon and Seven Samurai. Kurosawa accepted, partly because of Zanuck's relationship with director John Ford, who was one of Kurosawa's biggest heroes. It all sounded so amicable, and everyone would be going into the film with the best intentions. Kurosawa actually felt the weight of history on his shoulders to make this movie, and even a sense of fate -- Kurosawa was 56 years old when he took on the project; Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was 56 at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack. But after an agonizing scripting process and just 23 days of shooting, Kurosawa was dismissed from the film. Not without reason. The production was well behind schedule, and the cast and crew reported that Kurosawa had gone mad: he'd show up on set drunk and/or in bad moods; he'd verbally abuse and fire people on a whim; he was even paranoid that the yakuza was after him. As Tasogawa notes in his prologue, upon being dismissed from Tora! Tora! Tora!, Kurosawa said the following to Williams through an interpreter: "If you all insist on dismissing me, I will commit hari-kari and die." (Kurosawa would unsuccessfully attempt suicide almost three years later in 1971.) Tasogawa was an assistant to Kurosawa during this time and translated the Japanese and American screenplays for Tora! Tora! Tora! Tasogawa also translated the screenplay for Kurosawa's Runaway Train, a film that was abandoned prior to work on Tora! Tora! Tora! A runaway train is a metaphor for this whole ordeal; it's like Herzog moving the boat over the mountain for Fitzcarraldo. A still odder coincidence, Kurosawa's first film after these unfortunate productions was the small-in-scope Dodes'ka-den, the title of which is Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound of a moving train (i.e., how they say "clickety-clack" in Tokyo). All the Emperor's Men doesn't read like a memoir until the end but remains deeply involved and compelling. It's more of a journalistic account of how the production unfurled, not quite like those legendary Esquire pieces by Gay Talese, but similar in how personal distance is used to establish humanizing closeness. By keeping himself mostly out of the book, Tasogawa allows readers to feel like flies on the wall rather than tag-alongs. That sort of reader experience shouldn't be discounted. It establishes a tone of balance in search of facts, which might mirror the best intentions of the Tora! Tora! Tora! production. Only in the epilogue to do we see Tasogawa clearly: a man in his early-to-mid-thirties getting drunk on whiskey until dawn with one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. One of the most essential ideas in All the Emperor's Men is the difference in expectations from Zanuck/Fox and Kurosawa. In his foreword, Williams notes that film is a business, especially with a major war film like Tora! Tora! Tora! Kurosawa approached this all differently, which might be hubris, but I think it's more the result of cultural difference. Tasogawa says that film is more director-driven in Japan while it's more producer-driven in America. There's also the problematic matter of two screenplays for two different stories unfolding in one movie. This is not writing an exquisite corpse like the surrealists used to do for kicks. Collaborative writing seems like something that needs to be done side-by-side with real-time discussion rather than thousands of miles apart by post. Kurosawa's side of the screenplay highlighted Admiral Yamamoto as a central tragic figure, and yet he is meant to have a strange human side to him, at one point waddling like Charlie Chaplin. Kurosawa wrote his first draft of the film with two other screenwriters, Hideo Oguni and Ryuzo Kikushima. The first draft was more than 1,000 handwritten pages in Japanese, and more than 650 pages when it was printed and bound as an English version for the producers. (You can apparently find a copy of one of these behemoths in a library in LA.) While there were striking scenes in it that Tasogawa includes in the book, the screenplay was written in evocative prose that wouldn't help a production company determine the budget, let alone where a camera should go. And then so many strange events occurred that seemed to spell doom for the film before it even got underway. Kurosawa went with unconventional casting of non-actors, a decision that would eventually result in a falling out with long-time friend and collaborator Toshiro Mifune. On the U.S. side of the production, rather than picking an American filmmaker on par with Kurosawa, Fox went with Richard Fleischer, best known for Fantastic Voyage and Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. (No offense to the late Fleischer, but I don't think he's even on the same level as Kinji Fukasaku, one of the two Japanese directors that Fox picked to replace Kurosawa.) Tasogawa includes a hilarious mention of the first face-to-face meeting between Kurosawa and Fleischer in Hawaii. As if the high stakes weren't human enough, this small moment of awkwardness and resentment makes everyone in the book even more sympathetic. Somehow amid the reportage and relaying of information, Tasogawa tells a story that's rarely dry. It reads well -- a few slight redundancies here and there, but nothing too distracting -- but more importantly, it left me intrigued throughout. This is particularly true of its explorations of Kurosawa's thematic hobby horses and a bizarre day-to-day shooting timeline that shows just how unhinged Kurosawa had become. Even during some complicated sections regarding studio contracts and insurance, I felt glued. Tasogawa finds a sense of cultural difference and language barriers here as he does in other sections of the book -- in America, a contract is perceived one way, in Japan it's perceived another; and no one in any culture really understands the alien legalese in which contracts are written. But more than intriguing, All the Emperor's Men is a compassionate portrait of its various players. No one comes out totally blameless, no one involved is free from culpability when it comes to the filmmaking fiasco, and no one comes out of the book a bad guy. There's an obvious tragedy for Kurosawa, who seems to have experienced a total breakdown of some kind. Zanuck is tragic as well, particularly given his fate after a series of production losses. And I felt a strange affinity for Williams, a man caught in between Fox and Kurosawa, who himself felt responsible for hurting both the company he worked for and the Japanese filmmaker he'd so admired. There's so much to unpack in All the Emperor's Men, but I wanted to end with the idea of epilepsy as a road to artistry. Kurosawa suffered from epilepsy, as did Vincent Van Gogh and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. As Tasogawa pointed out yesterday, it's been posited that some epileptics may experience emotions more vividly. Here are three artists with such a strange set of aesthetic connections and sensibilities. You can see the expressive color in Kurosawa's later films (e.g., Dodes'ka-den and Kagemusha) as well as his paintings (one seen above) which suggest the textures and mastery of Van Gogh. Dostoyevsky was Kurosawa's favorite writer; the director praised Dostoyevsky for his unflinching compassion in the face of such misery and tragedy. There may be something to this, or maybe it's just the number 56 all over again. Epilepsy is not sufficient for artistry, of course. One can feel something very deeply, but it takes talent and craft to translate that feeling into something that communicates it to others. And so I come back to that idea not of Kurosawa's unmade Tora! Tora! Tora! but Kurosawa's unmakeable Tora! Tora! Tora! To have invested so much for so long, to have strained in collaboration as a kind of unwanted compromise, to feel a weight of history and fate guiding you as you create something -- that's too much feeling to contain, and possibly felt too profoundly. Something inevitably gets lost in translation. In this case, maybe too much that was too important would have been lost, though I wonder if it was even capable of being expressed.
Hiroshi Tasogawa's explores the unmaking of Akira Kurosawa's Tora! Tora! Tora!
There's a song on Cursive's The Ugly Organ called "Art is Hard." The title is so facile and yet you know it's true. In Les Blank's documentary The Burden of Dreams, you watch Werner Herzog suffer potential ruin in order to co...

Flixclusive Interview: Author Hiroshi Tasogawa

Dec 18 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]214108:39331:0[/embed] In the acknowledgments, you mentioned that All the Emperor's Men was based on your Japanese book Kurosawa vs. Hollywood. Why did you decide to write a new book rather than translate the Japanese book into English? I strongly believe that readers with different languages and different cultures need a book written for them. When I wrote my original work Kurosawa vs. Hollywood published in Tokyo in 2006, I had only Japanese readers in mind. In other words, the original book was written on the premise that the author and the reader had many things in common: traditional conception, sensitivity, way of life, and basic knowledge about things Japanese. Too often I have observed that there is no use trying to explain Japanese nuanced key words in a different language because their connotations are easily lost or misunderstood in translation. Also, there are many cases where it is too difficult or simply not worthwhile to try to explain them in a different language. Translated Japanese does not always work in English, anyway. That is why I decided to reorganize the entire structure of my original work and chose to write a new book in English from the very beginning. It was indeed a challenging task. Many passages in the original work have been excised. On the other hand, I could successfully include new materials and fresh interpretations in the English edition. I am also very happy that Elmo Williams wrote the foreword and Peter Cowie wrote the introduction for me in All the Emperor's Men. Those are new to the English edition and I am lucky to be able to include them. Anyway, if you want to write a book in a language that is not your own as I did, it's better to shake off the curse of translation. Then you will have more freedom and spontaneity. You have some great personal anecdotes in the epilogue about your interactions with Akira Kurosawa. What’s the most enduring memory you have of the man? I was introduced to Kurosawa by the prominent film scholar Donald Richie, a long-time close friend of the director. Richie was a professor at my alma mater, Waseda Univerisity. I worked for Kurosawa as an interpreter, translator, and researcher for about 28 months between September 1966 and December 1968. That is when he was working on The Runaway Train and Tora! Tora! Tora! Actually, I was a part-time volunteer assistant to Kurosawa and I was never paid anything for my work. The most enduring memory I have of the man is the six days in May 1968 when I accompanied Kurosawa on his visit to Beverly Hills, California. He went there for summit talks with Fox President Darryl F. Zanuck in an attempt to break an impasse over the shooting script of Tora! Tora! Tora! As soon as his business at the Fox Studio was over, he preferred to be driven immediately back to his hotel. After dumping his business suit and a tie, he would take a quick shower, change into his pajamas and a dressing gown, and he sit down for a drink. It was exactly the same for six days as if set in stone. He flatly refused to go out for sightseeing or to eat out. Kurosawa and I spent long hours at his suite in the Plaza Hotel after work -- just the two of us -- until dawn. Every afternoon after work -- before and after the same dinner via room service of a thick beef file mignon, rare, with baked potato on the side -- we downed two one-liter bottles of Kurosawa’s favorite brand of Scotch whiskey, White Horse. It was indeed a rare experience for me, which is not so easy to forget. Kurosawa was 58 years old and I was 34. I think it was mostly an empty conversation. Kurosawa had no shortage of topics, all of them amusing. I have little or no memory, however, of what we talked about. Most of the time, I was helplessly fatigued and drunk. All I really wanted was to get rid of this 'old drunkard', return to my room, and have some sleep. In later years, not a few fellow journalists despised me as a 'drunken fool' because -- they say -- it could have been in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest exclusive interview with this great filmmaker. About this, I am very remorseful. It could have earned me a fortune. Tetsuo Aoyagi is such a fascinating figure. I’m still not sure how I feel about him. That ambivalence is not a criticism but a compliment to the way you conveyed all the information in the book. I believe you mentioned something about his reputation in the Japanese film industry. Could you elaborate on that? There have been fiercely differing views as to what he had actually tried to do in the Tora! Tora! Tora! production. Some say he was a villain who betrayed and deceived Kurosawa, and others say he was just one of those men who tried to help the director but couldn't. For the past four decades, Aoyagi has refused any interview on the Tora! Tora! Tora! fiasco. I used to work closely with Aoyagi as a friend during the time I served as Kurosawa's assistant. I know Aoyagi well and I remember him as an able, hard-working man. I now know also that he had his own ambition -- and possibly strong ego and greed -- in his younger days. I am not in a position to comment further on his personality or his reputation. Some Kurosawa loyalists say Aoyagi has already been ostracized from Japanese filmdom. I don't know. All I can say is that he was one of those 'lone wolves' in the Japanese film industry and still is. How do you feel about the finished film Tora! Tora! Tora!? I first saw the film at the 1970 world premier at the Criterion Theate in Manhattan. I felt then and I still feel now that the Kurosawa version of Tora! Tora! Tora! would have been a different film in many ways. Most likely, it would have been a better film with more humanized tragic components woven into the Japanese sequences. This feeling is based on my understanding of Kurosawa's mindset and aspirations concerning the Pearl Harbor epic film. What was probably most compromised was the opening scene which Kurosawa thought very important. The entrance of the tragic protagonist, Admiral Yamamoto, the C-in-C of the Japanese Imperial Navy's Combined Fleet. He arrived at his flagship the Nagato on September 1, 1939. That was the day when World War II began in Europe. In this opening scene, Kurosawa was about to describe beautifully a sense of destiny surrounding Admiral Yamamoto who was soon to be the architect of Pearl Harbor attack. For years Yamamoto had risked assassination dangers and tried boldly to prevent a disastrous war with the United States. After Fox expelled Kurosawa from the studio, Elmo Williams -- with the approval by Darryl Zanuck -- revised Kurosawa's final shooting screenplay although they tried to keep the basic storylines. They deleted a dozen scenes, and shortened or rewrote more than 30 scenes. Those changes seriously affected many of Kurosawa's 'pet scenes'. Most regrettably lost was this opening scene. Kurosawa's idea was cheapened almost beyond recognition. I resent it. I've always been curious if a translator is also a kind of literary editor. (Maybe more like Maxwell Perkins than Gordon Lish.) What are your thoughts on the role of a translator and the art of translation? There is an old saying dating back to the Italian renaissance which likens the art of translation to the reputation of a woman. It goes something like this: a chaste one is ugly; a beautiful one raises doubts about chastity. Just think of computer translation. Word-by-word translation so often ends up in ugly nonsense. To be sure, since there are so many different languages in this world we need interpreters and translators to help us communicate beyond linguistic and cultural barriers. That said, some sort of editing and retelling is inevitable and should be tolerated in the course of translation. Sometimes interpreters are criticized as 'interrupters' but we must forgive them because they are useful in many cases. If you suspect some quaintness, just laugh it off. With modern technology, more convenient means of communication, and a globalized world, do you think an ambitious co-production like Tora! Tora! Tora! could get made today without as much trouble, or would there be similar difficulties given cultural differences? You probably have in mind the internet, Skype, and other computerized technology. Technological innovation has indeed revolutionized the speed of communication but not its quality. It is too obvious that the computer will never save the world. Technology has achieved very little in improving human wisdom or in alleviating the human misery of the present world. On the contrary, advanced technology has sometimes aggravated suspicion, hatred, greed, or distrust among peoples. Four decades ago, when Tora! Tora! Tora! production was in progress, we had only the telephone and telegrams to communicate across the Pacific. The computerized means of communication might be useful in speeding up message transmission and perhaps also in closing information gaps between the United States and Japan. But it would be less helpful in closing conception gaps rooted in language barriers and cultural differences. I think that is one lesson we could learn from the Tora! Tora! Tora! fiasco. There's a section of All the Emperor's Men where you discuss a possible link between epilepsy and artistry. Could you elaborate on this? Do you have any personal thoughts on this theory? Several Japanese medical experts who read my book have told me that Kurosawa seemed to have had classic symptoms of 'temporal lobe epilepsy', called the Geshwind Syndrome (also known as 'Gastaut-Geschwind Syndrome'). Doctors say that epilepsy is a type of electrical short-circuit discharge of the brain and that it has significant effects on the behavior of most people who suffer from this trouble. Commonly cited characteristics of the Geshwind Syndrome include 'deepened emotions' such as anger, hostility, and aggression. More recently, psychiatric research has suggested an 'epileptic personality', a complex of traits seen between periods of seizure where the patient is egocentric and displays an explosive impulsivity. Experts say that most likely Kurosawa was a case in point when his 'eccentric behaviors' were witnessed at the Kyoto Toei Studio in December 1968 just before Fox dismissed him as director of Tora! Tora! Tora! In his life, Kurosawa had a strong love of the works by Dostoevsky and Van Gogh. It is quite possible that he had felt an unusual level of compassion and mental affinity with those artists who also were known to have had epilepsy problems.
The award-winning author talks about Akira Kurosawa and the Tora! Tora! Tora! fiasco
With Tora! Tora! Tora!, producer Darryl F. Zanuck hoped to do for the Pearl Harbor attack what The Longest Day did for the D-Day invasion. To helm the Japanese sequences of the film, he enlisted Akira Kurosawa. The director f...


TV spot for Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty

Nov 26
// Hubert Vigilla
The early buzz has been extremely positive for Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, her docudrama about the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden. Many of the early reviews have praised the film for its overall leanness and in...

Trailer: I Declare War

Aug 24
// Nick Valdez
When I was younger and played outside with my friends, we would always imagine up stories that we should follow. There were so many intricacies to our plot lines that, to this day, I still have no real idea what the hell we ...

NYAFF Review: Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale

Jul 02 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]211115:38508[/embed] Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale (赛德克·巴莱)Director: Wei Te-ShengRating: NRCountry: Taiwan  Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale is based on an uprising known as the Wushe Incident. In the early part of the 20th Century, Japan came to occupy Taiwan. The Wushe area was home to a group known as the Seediqs, of which there were a number of clans. The Japanese took the area over, treated the Seediqs like savages (and referred to them as such), and were generally oppressive towards the natives. In 1930, after an incident involving an officer named Katsuhiko Yoshimura at the wedding of the son of one of the tribal chiefs, things finally came to a head. Soon after, Mona Rudao called upon his own men and men from the other tribes to rise up against the Japanese empire. He asked them to become Seediq Bale (translated as "true men") who will go bravely to the eternal hunting ground across the rainbow bridge and be accepted by their ancestors. All of that is true. In fact, the first thing I did upon finishing Seediq Bale was head over to Wikipedia and see how historically accurate it was. And all of that was true. So the framing narrative of Seediq Bale is a sound one. The general events take place in the film the way they did in real life. And certainly key moments of the film could be inferred from the carnage that covered the countryside. But most of the film is forcibly the work of fiction. As the old saying goes: dead men tell no tales. And there are a lot of dead men. And dead women. And dead children as well. Also animals. I would say that the vast majority of things that have a pulse onscreen at some point in the film stop having that pulse by the time the credits roll. Seriously, a lot of people die. I mentioned decapitations in the introduction, and that's because the only way for a man to become a Seediq Bale would be to decapitate his enemy. Without that blood on their hands, he could not cross the rainbow bridge. This means that Seediqs of all ages pick up their machetes and go to battle, ready to hunt heads. If you couldn't guess, Seediq Bale is a brutal movie. There are all kinds of weapons in use (although straight hand-to-hand fighting never enters the mix), and that goes for both sides. Unlike other "savages," the Seediqs use guns, and they are very adept with them. They use arrows as well, but that's as much for the purpose of stealth as anything else. They do not cling to their old technologies and assume that they are the only way to defeat the Japanese. In fact, none of them has the slightest inclination that they actually could defeat the Japanese. Years before the incident took place, Mona Rudao and other Seediq chiefs were brought to Japan and shown planes and ships and weapons. It was a warning, impressing upon them the power of the Empire and the worthlessness of their own artillery. For years, it was enough to keep them in check, but a wild animal can only stay caged for so long. Mona Rudao is Seediq Bale's protagonist, and the film shows him at two important points in his life. The first is when he becomes a Seediq Bale. He decapitates his first enemy and is given the requisite face tattoos affirming his status. Young Mona Rudao (played by Da Ching) is the son of the chief and the hero of the village. He is set to become the next chief, and his father's death and the immediate consequences are the lead-in to the meat of the story. Chief Mona Rudao (played by Lin Ching-Tai) is far less rash, and he accepts and understands what he is up against. As much as he wants to fight back, he doesn't want to see his entire village be massacred. He's far more mature, but no less dangerous. Although I have no interest in seeing the drastically cut version of Seediq Bale, I'm curious what was removed. I've heard that the kept a lot of the violence and decided to forego much of the character work, and that's a real shame. In that way, it reminds me of Das Boot, where cutting the five hour version in half means removing the moments that made it so interesting. Fighting is all well and good (and Seediq Bale has far more of it than Das Boot), but there needs to be something to counteract it. Seediq Bale isn't (and shouldn't be) a two and a half hour movie about decapitations. It should be a four and a half hour movie about the people who do the decapitations.  Well, maybe a four hour movie. Even though I am generally okay with how long Seediq Bale is, there are definitely some moments that could be cut down or removed entirely. About thirty minutes could be cut out without detriment to the story, and that would have fixed some of the more poorly paced scenes. I can't see how cutting more would work. In fact, most of the ending dragged on for me, and that's probably stuff that was kept anyway. Regardless, the extra time gives the characters more room to grow. Aside from Mona Rudao, the film focuses on a number of other characters from his tribe. There are some interesting characters, and most of them are fleshed out enough that their inevitable deaths are worth mourning. As unpleasant as it is to watch decapitation after decapitation, the horrors of war go far beyond the battlefield, and Wei Te-Sheng and co. understand that and pull no punches. They made a movie that takes full advantage of its impact on the human pyche. The most obvious case of this, and one of the more horrifying things I've seen in a movie in quite some time, comes with a mass suicide. Over a dozen people simultaneously hang themselves, because there's nothing else they can do. The ability for them to simply make nooses with branches or scarves, put the nooses around their necks, and jump is really quite disturbing, and the fact that it probably happened the way the film portrayed it makes things so much worse. To push people that far, to give them no other choice than to collectively kill themselves, is terrible, and it happened. Seediq Bale pulls no punches. When it comes to the battles themselves, Seediq Bale is mostly successful at creating real, tense environments. A lot of it is shot on some kind of location, and the jungles usually look quite nice. Most impressive is the quality of the decapitations, which are easily some of the best I've seen in a movie. Considering how many of them there are, that's a good thing. But it's not all sunshine and ponies. Originally I was going to say "rainbows," but it turns out that rainbows are a big part of the problem. Like a lot of Asian films, Seediq Bale's CGI is really unacceptable in this day and age. There are clearly a lot of practical effects used in an attempt to overcome limitations that they must have understood were there, but some key moments are hampered by some very, very ugly CGI. The worst offenders are the animals and the planes. The film actually opens with a hunt, and the boar they are chasing doesn't look like it's there. At all. The planes are even worse, and the big shot where Japanese fighter planes take off looks like it was hand-animated by a first-year art student. Then there are the green screens. I understand that limited budget means that the quality of the CGI will suffer. That happens, and I guess I can accept that, but I can't think of the last time I've seen green screen work in a movie that really tried. There are key moments which take place against a green screen (several of them involving rainbows), and all of them look awful. Although you don't see the green itself, there's a fuzzy outline against the actors's bodies which leaves no doubt that they are in a soundstage somewhere, and not where it seems like they should be. On the whole, the effect is actually used sparingly, but instead of using it during the visceral fight scenes where the action could have masked its poor quality, it happens during the slow moments. That was a huge mistake. But when all is said and done, I have to say that I liked Seediq Bale. I went in thinking that I would either love it or hate it, simply because of how long is was, but that wasn't the case. I didn't love it, and reflecting upon it I still don't. But I liked it quite a bit. The hardest part was getting myself in the mindset of a four and a half hour movie. It's not something I can just sit down and do, and I think most people are the same way. But as long as it was and as difficult as it was to get over some of the visual failings, there is a lot of really good stuff in this film. It's worth getting yourself in the right mindset for. Go see it, and when you get to the other side of the rainbow bridge, maybe we can get face tattoos together. And by that I mean discuss the movie, because I barely scratched the surface here. [Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale will be playing at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center on July 4th at 6:00 PM. The film will be presented in two parts with a break in between.]

[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF...

Review: My Way

Apr 20 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
My Way (Mai Wei)Kang Je-GyuRelease Date: 4/20/12 (Limited) | 5/4/12 (Expanded)Rating: RCountry: South Korea My Way is best thought of as a series of bizarrely connected scenarios. There are reasons why a Korean marathoner/rickshaw-driver (Jang Dong-Gun) becomes a soldier fighting for the Nazis on D-Day, but they are mostly irrelevant. The moments that get the main characters from A to B to C are either glossed over or ignored entirely, and that's completely fine. It's not a miniseries like Das Boot, so it doesn't have time to really connect the dots. But the film says it's based on true events, so skipping the scenes that could possibly explain how they fit together seems kind of counter-intuitive. Regardless, I didn't care all that much. In fact, for most of My Way, I didn't even think about it. It was only in the final section, where the main characters find themselves on the beaches of Normandy, that I realized how ludicrous the whole thing had become. Up until that point I had been so engrossed in the action and the characters that I hadn't stopped to think about much of anything. My Way takes place during World War II, and it uses its characters's international exploits to show the similarities and differences between the ways different countries fought during that war. Kim Joon-Sik, that rickshaw-driver I mentioned earlier, finds himself in the midst of a riot in Japan after he is unfairly disqualified from an Olympic marathon tryout. He is then sentenced, along with everyone else who participated in the riot, to serve in the Japanese Imperial Army in their fight against the Soviet Union. Eventually, Kim Joon-Sik and a number of other soldiers are captured by the Soviets, forced to work in labor camps, and eventually enlisted to help fight the Nazis after Hitler declares war. After that battle goes poorly, Kim Joon-Sik walks to a German outpost and eventually finds himself fighting the Americans on D-Day.  This means that there is a lot of action, and it's very different, because each faction treats battle very differently. That is one of My Way's greatest strengths. The battles themselves, especially the earlier ones, are probably the best I have ever seen. This was South  The film had used over 16,000 extras (though not all of them were soldiers), over 50,000 bullets, thousands of military uniforms and a generally crazy amount of actual, tangible materials to make the battlefield come alive. What the filmmakers did on a budget of ~$23 million (the largest in Korea to date) puts all American studio films, war-themed or otherwise, to shame. As I mentioned, My Way legitimately shocked me. After some of the more intense deaths, I actually shouted in surprise. I can't think of the last time I did that, and I did it more than a couple of times. Like the man run over by a tank. It was sudden, intense, and incredibly brutal. It's probably the most shocking single moment in the film, but there is a pervasive sense of horror as the battlefield changes. When I said that the different countries had different ways of dealing with war, I really meant it. There are four separate militaries that fight in the film, and all but the Americans are given at least a little bit of time behind the scenes to show their inner workings. My Way takes full advantage of this and uses it to show some very powerful i. Watching Japanese soldiers crawl under tanks and blow themselves up is terrifying, but doesn't even come close to seeing Russians place frost-bitten POWs onto stone beds and load them into fires. The imagery is powerful stuff, and it gives the film a lot of visual weight. I never felt like it was exploiting the horrors of war, though. It felt completely justified and, perhaps, even necessary. Unfortunately, My Way falls apart in its final act. When the Americans arrive, bombers and battleships fill the screen, and the CGI does not work. The explosions and on-ground battles look as good as ever, but the constant shots of ship cannons firing and planes dropping bombs or being shot at make it impossible for the scene to feel credible. This is made worse by the fact that the character-to-character moments lose all impact. Honestly, the final end of the final battle brought to mind the opening of Tropic Thunder. The characters cry and talk about the things they wanted to do when they got home (it's even limb-related, funnily enough). I tried to convince myself that it was meaningful, but it just made me want to laugh. I did appreciate the way the end of the film came full circle, but it was not enough to wash the bad taste from my mouth. Up until the entrance of the Germans, though, My Way's ragtag group has a lot to offer. Their interactions felt very real, and there was some really nice character development. Some of the characters had to make some pretty awful decisions (e.g. hanging a former friend for thievery), and seeing their generally human reactions to those things made them feel much more real and much more emotional. I was never on the verge of tears the way I was with The Front Line, but I definitely found myself invested into the events that were unfolding. And that's the part of the film I want to think about. I want to forget that the Germans ever played more than the part of the enemy. I want to believe that  Kim Joon-Sik and co. all died at the hands of the Nazis. It wouldn't have been a good ending, and I probably would have railed against it, but I wouldn't have had to watch such an incredible film spiral out of control. When I hit the halfway point, I knew that My Way was the best war film I had ever seen. When it ended, I didn't know what to think. It seems as though someone gave up (which would explain the bizarre inconsistencies with color and light between shots) and decided to take a turn towards the generic. The final part barely even feels like it's from the same film. But it is, and I have to acknowledge that. It's not even that the ending is bad, because it's not. Honestly, it's pretty good, but it closes up something truly amazing, and it can't hold its own. Nonetheless, so much of the film is so good that I completely recommend it. That being said, if you leave when a body riddled with bullets begins to fall in slow motion during the Soviet-Nazi battle, I don't think anybody will judge you.
In case you'd forgotten, war is quite ugly
It's hard to shock me. My time on the internet has done a lot to desensitize me. But if there's one type of movie that should continue to make me feel truly uncomfortable, it's a war film. War is hell, the saying goes, and an...

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