Tuesday, January 19, 2010

#3: What Dreams are Made Of: "The Maltese Falcon" (1941) and "Chan is Missing" (1982)

The Maltese Falcon, directed by John Huston, and Chan is Missing, directed by Wayne Wang, are two American detective films from very different decades. They both exploit and overturn aspects of the detective narrative formula, and make very pointed statements about the American Dream.

poster sources: here and here.

The Maltese Falcon and Chan is Missing involve detectives trying to find something that is lost, the titular Maltese falcon statue in the former and the cabdriver Chan in the latter. Both films share a jaded outlook and stark black-and-white cinematography that illustrates the gray, ambiguous worlds their characters inhabit.

Regarded as a film noir classic, The Maltese Falcon starts out with a different case than expected: a woman (Mary Astor) walks into the office of Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) and hires them to follow a man. What happens afterward leads to a search for the mysterious Maltese falcon, with other suspicious characters - particularly Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) - as well as the police on their tail.

In Chan is Missing, Jo (Wood Moy) and Steve (Marc Hayashi) are not private detectives, but two taxi drivers. They have to search for the fellow taxi driver Chan Hung - and the $4000 they lent him for a business deal. What starts out as a search for a missing person becomes  a set of conversations, confrontations, and realizations about self-doubt and Asian-American identity.

Partnership in both films is incredibly strained, with a clash of personalities and generations in Chan is Missing, and dislike and mistrust between partners in The Maltese Falcon (although the opposing team of Cairo and Gutman make such a great team that Lorre and Greenstreet were paired together in several later films). There are humorous bits of conversation in these films, but the humor leans more towards the dark and bitter. Women are barely present in Chan is Missing, but come across as more sympathetic and human than the deadly (but admittedly kind of awesome) femme fatale in The Maltese Falcon.

The tone and pace in The Maltese Falcon are more brusque and staccato, reportedly (I have not read the book) following its Dashiell Hammett source novel as well as the tone of detective films of the time. Scenes in Chan is Missing are more fluid than blunt, probably due to driving scenes and more walking through locations. It's a more quiet film, with the plot turning more on words and revelations rather than the slaps and gunshots of Falcon. Neither film is too blunt or boring, though, due to the focus on plot and presence of strong characters.

Both films are set in San Francisco, although Chan is Missing occurs more specifically in and around Chinatown. The Maltese Falcon does have several shots on location, but was filmed primarily at the Warner Brothers studios in Burbank. While made in the 1980's, Chan is Missing was not shot in color due to the cheaper cost of black-and-white film. This decision gives the film a distinctive look and a stronger connection to the detective films it parallels - including the Charlie Chan films alluded to by the name of the titular character.

I might recommend seeing Chan is Missing first in the double feature, since The Maltese Falcon is a more dramatic film and might create unfair or other expectations for Chan. However, some viewers might prefer something more realistic after the action-packed melodrama of Maltese. It might also be interesting to compare the more standard film noir/detective film tropes in The Maltese Falcon with their distorted, selective use in Chan is Missing. Whatever order you watch them in, I recommend seeing these films together because of their shared location, jaded nature, and revisions of the detective genre. As stated in the beginning, both films have very sharp statements to make about the fabled American Dream (and any similar desire) of finding success and living happily ever after. The Maltese Falcon comments about the dream itself, while Chan is Missing comments on how immigrants really fit into that dream.

- - -
- an earlier, pre-Code version of The Maltese Falcon was made in 1931.
- Bogart, Lorre and Greenstreet later worked together on Casablanca; and Lorre, Bogart, and Conrad Veidt (also in Casablanca) were in 1942's spy comedy All Through the Night. This site offers a great synopsis of the Lorre-Greenstreet film partnership; scroll down the page to the paragraph that begins: "Lorre's work with Sydney Greenstreet during these years became known as the "Little Pete-Big Syd" pairing in films..."
- Peter Lorre also starred in the Charlie Chan copycat Mr. Moto films, although it is said that those films are slightly more respectful of their stereotypical character than the Charlie Chan films were.
- Chan is Missing director Wayne Wang has gone on to make critically-acclaimed independent films as well as very mainstream films such as Maid in Manhattan, starring Jennifer Lopez, and Last Holiday, starring Queen Latifah. His most well-known work is probably the film adaptation of The Joy Luck Club.
- Chan is Missing lead actors Wood Moy and Marc Hayashi display great versality and charisma in the film, but have not found any substantial roles on film or TV since, according to their IMDB profiles.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

#2 - Dangerous Games: "13 Tzameti" (2005) and "Intacto" (2001)

13 Tzameti, directed by Géla Babluani, and Intacto, directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, are two European thrillers from the early 2000's about young men pulled into events run by international networks of powerful and deadly people.

Poster pictures from here and here.

Both films are incredibly high-concept, sometimes straining credibility and bordering on ridiculousness. Yet great control over tone,  as well as excellent production and performance,s make these extreme scenarios work.

"Tzameti" is "13" in the Georgian language, and the film concerns the story of a young Georgian immigrant in France, Sébastien (George Babluani, the director's brother). He works hard at his construction job in order to support his near-impoverished family. While repairing a roof, Sébastien observes his employer behaving very strangely. From this mundane beginning, Sébastien is drawn into a manipulative situation neither he nor the viewer expects (that is, if you avoid trailers, synopses, even posters - don't look at ANYTHING!).

Intacto can be considered more of a supernatural concept disguised as a thriller, depending on what you believe luck is. It begins with a falling out between two major players in the luck exchange: Samuel (Max von Sydow) and Federico (Eusebio Poncela). Afterward, we are introduced to the main character, Tomás (Leonardo Sbaraglia), the only survivor of a plane crash. Due to his survivor's luck, he becomes a prime candidate for recruitment into the luck game - a gambling ring doggedly pursued by police investigator Sara (Mónica López).

The high-stakes machinations in both of these films escalate into scenes of terror. The forest run scene in Intacto is particularly noteworthy, and the lightbulb in 13 Tzameti and use of photos and touch in Intacto can all be nightmare fuel for the active imagination. (In fact, I did get a bit of a nightmare from the latter.) Alliances and vendettas are formed, while the intially helpless main characters gradually become more active and independent actors as they learn more about their situation.

13 Tzameti is shot entirely in black-and-white, adding to the film's brutal minimalism. Intacto is also stylishly shot, but in rich colors, incorporating sweeping shots and vast horizontal compositions in some key scenes. Intacto bustles with more sound and energy, while 13 Tzameti quietly builds up before sudden moments blasting in sound and tension, overturning everything with blunt force.

Some have taken the events and characters in 13 Tzameti to stand in for the exploitation of immigrants and other workers. Nearly all the characters are purposefully made ciphers, with only a telling clue or gesture as hints to their personality. Plot points are pushed by actions in the present. In contrast, the pasts of the characters in Intacto are very important to the plot. While Intacto may have less global and existential relevance than 13 Tzameti, it does execute its police investigation plot in a better manner.

Watch 13 Tzameti first before Intacto. This not only provides a cool stylistic progression from stark black-and-white to color, but also keeps plot points more unpredictable. What do these characters really win in the end? How would you fare in their situation? That's for you to wonder about at the end of this thriller double-feature.

- - -

- The English-language remake of 13 Tzameti (called 13, also directed by Babluani), is set to release later this year, so I'd advise seeing the original before promotion for the remake spoils the experience.
- Intacto director Fresnadillo later directed 28 Months Later, a solid sequel to 28 Days Later that coasted over its plot holes through great direction and performances. Fresnadillo is at time of posting attached to the film adaptation of the excellent video game Bioshock.
- Through the internet, I found out that the Bollywood film Luck steals a scene and situation from 13 Tzameti, and has plot elements similar to both of the films in thise double feature.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

#1 - Fantasy in Wartime: "Pan's Labyrinth" (2006) and "The Spirit of the Beehive" (1973)

The first pair of pictures I have for you: Pan's Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno), directed by Guillermo del Toro, and The Spirit of the Beehive (El espíritu de la colmena), directed by Victor Erice.

Poster pictures taken from here and here.

I promise that I will not to give away any spoilers in these posts. Any plot points mentioned are those obvious at the start of each film.

Both are Spanish-language films set in Spain during the 1940's, when the country was under the fascist rule of Franco. Both also center on the actions and imagination of young girls: the younger Ana (Ana Torrent) of The Spirit of the Beehive and the older Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) of Pan's Labyrinth.

Ofelia begins imagining that she is drawn into a mystical quest by a faun and other creatures, while Ana (in an amazing sequence) becomes so enraptured and affected by a showing of James Whale's Frankenstein that she can't get the film's characters and events out of her head.

However, while Ofelia's fantasy world is shown in detail, we mostly get just verbal and visual clues of what Ana is imagining. The wartime setting is also more evident in Beehive than in Labyrinth, although that is probably due to the different settings: Ofelia is stepdaughter to a high-ranking military official and surrounded by soldiers, while Ana's peaceful family of bee farmers lives nearly isolated in the countryside.

Pan's Labyrinth is faster-paced and more brutal than the languid Spirit of the Beehive. The conflicts between Ana's mother and father are not violent, especially compared to the actions of Ofelia's dictatorial stepfather. But the troubles still run deep and fracture Ana's family. One commentator noted that the family in Beehive is never shown on screen together. Ana has a sister of similar age to play with, but this sister does not care much for Ana's questions about Frankenstein's monster. Ofelia, on the other hand, soon has a baby sister to be responsible for, which gives her a different sibling relationship than Ana has but also conflicts with her fantasy world. Compare the mother and father figures -including Ofelia's faun - in the two films, and you'll find a complex picture of family and what goes into the formation of inner worlds.

Both films are sumptuous to the eye. Pan's Labyrinth is saturated with rich blues and browns, with fantasy sequences filled with red and gold. The Spirit of the Beehive takes place in the country, in and around a beautiful house fitted with windows like the honeycombs the family tends. The painterly film is bathed in a more yellowish gold, accentuated by white and brown walls and furniture.

I'm not sure which film to recommend for watching first in the double feature. While only around 90 minutes long, The Spirit of the Beehive is set at a very tranquil pace. It lacks the momentum of the narrative in Pan's Labyrinth, and needs some patience from the viewer before everything comes together in the last act. It's the type of film I categorize as perfect for a summer afternoon. Watching Pan's Labyrinth first might give you some impatience with the pacing in The Spirit of the Beehive. However, the more shocking impact of the events in Pan's Labyrinth might give you the taste for something relatively more peaceful, where the real dangers are only hinted at before appearing towards the end. It might also be better to see Labyrinth before Beehive so that the act of finding comparisons can maintain your attention during the latter.

Whichever movie you see first, I hope you enjoy both of these film, or at least find something to like in them. They both offer different treatments of the same period in history, and they both give respectful looks at the development and influence of young imaginations in times of conflict.

this image via haxpyslime on tumblr.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

What to expect

First up for the double-feature recommendations: Pan's Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno), directed by Guillermo del Toro, and The Spirit of the Beehive (El espíritu de la colmena), directed by Victor Erice. Post should be up in about a week from now.

Possible future recommendations:
- The Fallen Idol and The Rules of the Game (La règle du jeu)
- The Maltese Falcon and Chan is Missing
- The Dark Knight and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (idea from Rocchi's Portal)
- Hara-Kiri (Seppuku) and Sisters of the Gion (Gion no shimai)
- Last Year at Marienbad (L'année dernière à Marienbad) and Carnival of Souls
- the WWII quadruple-punch of The Longest Day, Is Paris Burning (Paris brûle-t-il?), Army of Shadows (L'armée des ombres), and  Inglourious Basterds.

Something I forgot to mention in my previous post: The Maiku Hama detective trilogy is awesome.

the intro post!

Hi! I'll be making double-feature recommendations here every month. If I have the time, I might post more often. Maybe I'll throw in a music or food item or two.

Here's some info so you can get an idea of what kind of person is making these recommendations.

Favorite films include: the Star Wars Original Trilogy, Le Samouraï, Laura, Fulltime Killer, Grave of the Firefiles (Hotaru no Haka), M, Night and the City, Eyes Without a Face (Les yeux sans visage), The Leningrad Cowboys Go America, The Descent, Brother (Брат), 28 Days Later, Zodiac, Roman Holiday, A Little Princess, Kill Bill, Psycho, and more.

The recent releases I enjoyed most were District 9 and Inglourious Basterds. For the former, I'm glad to see Neill Blomkamp's first feature do well; I've been a fan of his short films and ads for a while. Three directors who make movies I like are Jean-Pierre Melville, Danny Boyle, and Johnny To. I'm looking up more stuff by Guy Maddin, as well as more works from female directors. Kenji Mizoguchi's female-centered melodramas Sisters of the Gion (Gion no shimai) and Osaka Elegy (Naniwa Elegy) are great stuff.

I like TV, theater, dance, sport (especially soccer), nature, life, food, and other things.

Some of my favorite books are Kamikaze Girls (Shimostuma monogatari) by Novala Takemoto, World War Z by Max Brooks, Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! by Mark Binelli, The Devil and the White City by Erik Larson and I, Claudius by Robert Graves.
I enjoy reading anything by Shirley Jackson, Kazuo Ishiguro, H.P. Lovecraft, China Miéville, and Thomas Ligotti.
I also like classic Chinese and Japanese poetry and literature in translation.
The supernatural stories of Henry James are cool too.

I also like comic books, manga, magazines, and any other printed/illustrated works.

My 20 favorite songs of 2009:
1) "The Fire and the Thud" - Arctic Monkeys feat. Alison Mosshart
2) "Purexed" - P.O.S.
3) "I Walk Alone" - Music Go Music
4) "Percussion Gun" - White Rabbits
5) "Hurt Feelings (Reprise)" - Flight of the Conchords
6) "Hold The Line" - Major Lazer
7) "Angus" - Pintandwefall
8) "Heads Will Roll" - Yeah Yeah Yeahs
9) "Heavy Cross" - The Gossip
10) "United States of Eurasia" - Muse
11) "Come Wander With Me" - British Sea Power
12) "Baptized By Fire" - Spinnerette
13) "Fog" - Nosaj Thing
14) "Bonsai Hada (Ordinary Skin)" - Shiina Ringo
15) "Gaman (Frustration)" - Tokyo Jihen
16) "Rocking Horse" - The Dead Weather
17) "Undelivered Letter" - Quantic and His Combo Barbaro
18) "Too Fake" - Hockey
19) "Mannequin (Overthrill remix)" - Noah
20) "People" - Chester French

Welcome. Feel free to correct my grammar at any time.