2003 Milk Plus Droogies

Best Picture
Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Director
Quentin Tarantino, Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Actor (tie)
Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean

Best Actor (tie)
Bill Murray, Lost in Translation

Best Actress
Uma Thurman, Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Supporting Actor
David Hyde Pierce, Down With Love

Best Supporting Actress
Miranda Richardson, Spider

Best Screenplay
Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation

Best Foreign Film

Best Cinematography
Harris Savides, Gerry

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McBain Recommends
-Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
-Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
-Kill Bill vol 2
Shroom Recommends
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Joker Recommends
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-Songs from the Second Floor
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-War of the Worlds
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-Man on the Train
-28 Days Later
Lorne Recommends
-21 Grams
-Cold Mountain
-Lost in Translation
Merlot Recommends
-Top 20 List
-The Man on the Train
-Safe Conduct
-The Statement
Whitney Recommends
-Femme Fatale
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-Grand Illusion
Sydhe Recommends
-In America
-Looney Tunes: Back In Action
-Whale Rider
Copywright Recommends
Top 20 List
-Flowers of Shanghai
-Road to Perdition
Stennie Recommends
Top 20 List
-A Matter of Life and Death
Rodney Recommends
Top 20 List
-The Pianist
-Talk to Her
Jeff Recommends
-Dial M for Murder
-The Game
-Star Wars Saga
Lady Wakasa Recommends
-Dracula: Page from a Virgin's Diary
-Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler
-The Last Laugh
Steve Recommends
-Top 20 List
-Princess Raccoon
-Princess Raccoon
-Princess Raccoon
Jenny Recommends
-Mean Girls
-Super Size Me
-The Warriors
Jason Recommends
Top 20 List
-Old Boy
-Million Dollar Baby
-Head On
Lons Recommends
-Before Sunset
-The Incredibles

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The Blog:
Saturday, March 08, 2003

Bowling is a Dangerous Sport

Oh, my aching body, you would never think it, but bowling can result in some aches and pains if you don’t really know how to throw the ball correctly. So now I basically, just want to sit in my comfy chair and relax tonight, but first, another collection of odds and ends from this week in viewing:

*Ah Fei was the only film I saw this week, and the only screening of the Cinematheque Taiwanese mini-film festival that I was able to attend. Recently, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Chicago donated over 120 prints from the last 30 years of Taiwanese Cinema to the Wisconsin Center For Film and Theater Research (it may seem kind of odd, but Madison is home to the third largest film archive in the US; it is also home to some influential scholars with a deep interest in Taiwanese cinema, which is why we’ve had complete retrospectives of the films of Edward Yang, and a near complete retro of the work of Hou Hsiao-hsien, one of those scholars, a personal favorite of mine, David Bordwell, is also now working on a book on Hou). Speaking personally, such a large donation could yield a treasure trove of information, especially in future retrospectives, shedding new light on the Taiwanese New Wave of the 1980s.

The Taiwanese New Wave is similar to the French New Wave; most cinephiles have heard of Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, et al, but we haven’t heard much about the many one-shot wonders who made one personal film in the late 1950s, early 1960s. Likewise, many knowledgeable cinephiles have heard of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-liang, but who in American has really heard of Wang Tung, Wan Jen, Ke Yi-Cheng, or Chen Kun-hou? The Taiwanese New Wave occurred at a historical moment when the KMT government began to open up, and the government-controlled Central Motion Picture Company began to support a new generation of filmmakers who were concerned with such notions as the current-lived reality of Taiwan, and the idea of Taiwanese identity and history (previously, Taiwanese cinema had been limited to popular cinema and propaganda films). These concerns may have made the films less accessible to Western art-house viewers, who weren’t familiar with such events as the February 28th Incident (featured in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s City of Sadness) of the 1950s White Terror (featured in Hou’s Good Men, Good Women and Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day), and all I can say is thank god for program notes, but they were fertile ground for the directors and screenwriters of the New Wave.

If Ah Fei (d. Wan Jen), a Taiwanese film from 1983, is known at all in the West, it is because it was scripted by Hou Hsiao-hsien, and while it does not equal the heights of the films of the New Wave luminaries, it is a very effective domestic melodrama in it’s own right, set against the backdrop of Taiwan’s transformation from a former Japanese colony to the urbanized, capitalist state of today. The film, using an episodic format, follows the titular character, a young Taiwanese women called Ah Fei, from her childhood in the mid-1950s rural Taiwan, through the urban poverty of the early 60s, to the new affluence of the 1970s and 1980s (after university, she ends up working as an advertising executive in Taipei). Ah Fei is torn between two parents, who are very unhappily married. At the beginning of the film, Ah Fei’s father is a wastrel, a somewhat abusive drunkard, gambler, and philanderer, while her mother, the daughter of a wealthy rural doctor, suffers largely in silence, occasionally exploding into a rage. After a miscarriage and a scandal involving her father’s seduction of a local housewife, which forces them to give up their house, they move to the slums of Taipei.

At that point, the roles reverse, and the father becomes a much more sympathetic character, as he bonds with his formally distant daughter, supporting her desire for education (one of my favorite scenes is when he takes Ah Fei to an Italian restaurant for spaghetti after the radio announcement of her success in the high school entrance exams), while Ah Fei’s mother, for the lack of a better term, becomes a colossal, miserly bitch, given to bitter recriminations and harsh treatment of her children. As times goes on, Ah Fei’s father leaves to become an expatriate worker in the Philippines, and the family begins to enter it’s period of affluence, graduating from the slums to a relatively spacious apartment in a new building. But Ah Fei can not escape the domineering presence of her mother (who has all but removed the spine from her husband after he returns later in the film), especially after she finds out about the high-schooled aged Ah Fei’s relationship with a boy.

Later, after college, with Ah Fei in her mid-20s, still living at home and financially supporting her family, meets the same man, precipitating a crisis between her mother, who uses a combination of guilt, shame, and raised voices to control her daughter (at one point, she locks Ah Fei out of her own apartment), and Ah Fei, who wishes to marry him. The two of them eventually tearfully reconcile, as Ah Fei models her wedding dress for her mother on the eve of her marriage, and it’s hear that the film most resembles an American chick-flick tearjerker, especially with Ah Fei’s father looking on, smiling as the two of them tearfully embrace, but then the film cuts to an exterior shot, looking through the big picture window, into the apartment, before panning across the apartment block, dwarfing the characters, one of many stories in the vast urban expanse of Taipei.

The best thing about Ah Fei is the succession of actresses, both child and adult, who portray the character, all are soulful, wide-eyed young girls, who collectively deliver an excellent performance, of a largely reserved character who is mostly an observer in the life around her, speaking only on occasion. Stylistically, the film follows the New Wave trend of relatively long shots and static set-ups (though, let’s say, not as long or as static as some contemporary Hou Hsiao-hsien movies); a common shot, is a static long-shot, with the camera peering at events through a door, it seems to be a common shot in Taiwanese cinema. The film also shares the common episodic narrative structure, sometimes just cutting between time periods, and at other times using dissolves and graphic matches (one vivid example occurs during the transition between college and her advertising career). While the domestic melodrama is at the forefront of the plot, the development of Taiwan is omnipresent, especially in the mise en scene; especially in the settings, as the family moves from the Japanese-style rural house (which is actually a mixture of Japanese and Chinese architectural elements) to the ultramodern, Western-style apartment in Taipei.

The film also hits upon the conflict between traditional and modern values, especially as Ah Fei and her mother vie for the direction of her own life (and which leads to Ah Fei living a somewhat alienated existence), as Ah Fei struggles to assert her own independence, as a financially successful modern woman, yet still under the control of her mother, and expected to support her family (with one of them, her older brother, probably best described as a dead beat). This conflict is probably best visualized by the contrasts that the film draws between the two prospective marriages in the film. The marriage between Ah Fei’s mother and father was an arranged one, while Ah Fei chose her husband; in the flashback to the wedding, we see Ah Fei’s mother in her traditional red and gold wedding dress, but Ah Fei wears a very elaborate, Western-style, white wedding dress (the only real memorable instance of characters wearing white is in the beginning of the film, during a Confucian funeral). An interesting theme, common to many films, and I can not wait to see it elaborated in future retrospectives.

*Simply put, last week’s episode of 24 was one of the best hours of television I have seen in a long time (at least for a show not associated with Joss Whedon). For a plot-dominated show, an entire episode almost devoted entirely to characterization is a relative rarity, and it was as well-executed as the shows tried and true plot twists (and the final three-way view of the nuclear bomb was poetic in my view, utilizing the shows stylistic traits to great expressive effect). I mean, they actually made Kim Bauer relevant to the storyline in perhaps the episode’s most moving moments, as Jack and daughter have their “last talk.” But there was also the reactions of Kate Warner and President Palmer to Jack’s decision. But really, I think the episode belongs to Xander Berkeley, who plays the doomed George Mason; even if his appearance in the Cesna was predictable (I spent most of the show wandering how long it would take Jack to figure out that Mason was on-board, especially since the director refused to show the back of the plane), it was powerful. His counseling of Jack and sacrifice is among this season’s top three emotional moments (the other being the earlier conversation between Mason and his estranged son, and the Jack-Kim conversation). Give this man an Emmy!

Most surprisingly, in terms of plot, a show ostensibly about a terrorist nuclear attack is now apparently beginning to move towards a larger story of a massive government conspiracy to instigate a war between the US and three (unnamed) Middle Eastern countries, involving members of the NSA, CIA, the military, and Congress (even though the President is a virtuous person), it’s something of a throwback to the 70s style government paranoia thrillers like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. Wow, that’s surprising, (1) for coming from a show on Rupert Murdoch’s FOX network, and (2) given our current political and military climate; I’m surprised Ari Fleischer hasn’t told the American people “that they need to watch what they are watching on TV.” I actually looked for conservative political commentary on 24 on the Internet, but I couldn’t find any. If anyone has any links, post them in comments, I would be interested in reading them.

*Came across this article on some Buffy news boards, it’s part one of a round table discussion of the seventh season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer conducted by David Lavery and Rhonda Wilcox of Slayage: The Online International Journal of Buffy Studies (yes, this is a serious academic website), James South, professor of philosophy at Marquette University (he edited a book Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy which is out this March; it is part of the a popular culture/philosophy series which includes The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’oh of Homer and Seinfeld and Philosophy), and Salon critic Stephanie Zacharek. There is one comment in particular from James South, which is a useful description of the television that I enjoy:

One reason it's too early to make a real assessment is because it's clear the writers have just given up making episodic television. That's not meant as a criticism, just a statement of fact. There is no longer any way to assess an episode or series of episodes until we've see the trajectory of the entire season. The show has become so dense with allusions to itself, the story lines so complicated, that no closure is possible within any one episode.

*Lastly, while I was waiting for the screening of Ah Fei to begin, I was reading the program guide for the Wisconsin Film Festival; in the promotional essay detailing “Wisconsin’s Own Filmmakers” I came across a few sentences that caught my attention: “And while we’re not sure whether Saving Human Lives in which a lonely hitchhiker waits for a ride along a rural highway on a bleak wintry day is autobiographical, filmmakers and Wisconsin natives Joe Pickett, Matt Lee and Mark Proksch assure us that it was shot in the coldest weather ever.” I was just idly scanning this essay when I came across this passage, but the name Mark Proksch stood out because I went to high school with a Mark Proksch. Since it was not a common name, I thought it might be the same guy, and then I noticed the name Matt Lee, who was one of my best friends in high school (the two of them had gone to UW-Eau Claire for college), and who I haven’t seen since 1998. Apparently they started a film collective called Cine-Magic in St. Paul which makes 8mm short films, a trip to their website confirmed it was the guys I knew. Though I won’t be able to attend their screening, as I already bought my tickets, I was able to view their short film Saving Human Lives online here. I thought I would post it here as a shout out to them. Hmmm, maybe I should invest in that camera I was always talking about buying.