Serpico – Al Pacino plays the only honest cop in New York City in this Sidney Lumet film that’s based on real life but nonetheless feels pretty fake. It’s not the corruption that’s unreal, nor Officer Serpico’s honesty and perseverance, but rather his total shock that this kind of corruption (mostly cash payouts by small-time mobsters) existed in the NYPD and the lengths the film goes to to create the sense that his moral outrage is uniquely heroic. The film at times seems to want to explore Serpico’s paranoia, but never goes so far as to suggest that he might himself be flawed in some fundamental way (his fears are justified and he’s always the victim of bad cops in his professional life and women who dare to demand too much from him in his personal life). I don’t know what the actual facts of the case are, but whether or not everything in the film is fact, the film fails to convey that verisimilitude. Pacino’s performance is pretty solid, cluttered as it is with a collection of truly bad hats, and it seems the performance from this era that he went back to most often during his early 90s comeback (his characters in Glengarry Glen Ross and Heat sound a lot like Frank Serpico and almost nothing like Michael Corleone). Lumet films the story in his gritty, on location in the mean streets of New York, not entirely TV-like style that mostly just stays out of the way of the big actor in the middle. The #16 film of 1973.
Exiled – Another quirky gem from director Johnnie To is this gangster film about a guy who wants to go straight and live a normal life with a wife and a baby. Unfortunately for him, his escape plan involved a failed hit on the boss and now, a pair of his old friends are after him, with two other old friends showing up to help him out. The five shoot it out for awhile, then team up to fight the really bad guys. The bulk of the film is extended action sequences as they try to raise money for their escape and run into a lot of bad luck along the way. The film isn’t as dark as Election 2, nor is it as whimsical as Sparrow, nor quite as upfront about its formal games as Mad Detective or Written By (both of which were written and directed or co-directed by Wai Ka-fai, unlike this film) it occupies an emotional terrain more akin to The Good the Bad & the Ugly (perhaps the source of its otherwise mystifying Netflix comparison to Spaghetti Westerns). As always, To’s action scenes are excellent: he’s essentially John Woo with a sense of humor and with a total lack of self-importance. The #7 film of 2006.
Bigger than Life – James Mason plays a mild but happy schoolteacher pater familias who contracts an arterial inflammation for which he is prescribed the new wonder drug cortisone, which cures his pain but has the unfortunate side effect of turning him psychotic. This being both a 1950s melodrama and a Nicholas Ray film, his insanity manifests itself as an incisive critique of 50s suburban repression and ideas of family and masculinity and capitalist success etc etc. The key question: is Mason’s psychosis purely a result of the drug, or does the drug merely set loose the latent evils trapped in his everyday-guy mind? I think it amplifies what was already there, twisting the average James into a megalomaniacal tyrant. Mason, always a favorite here at The End, is tremendous in the role, both as the nice guy and as the scenery-chewing lunatic. Ray’s direction is a bit too obvious at times (a shattered mirror stands out), but one can chalk that up to generic imperatives, especially when so much of the film is so uniquely Ray in look and feel and the way profoundly complex emotional responses are elicited out of the simplest material. The #7 film of 1956.
About six months ago, I started this roundup of my trip to the Vancouver International Film Festival. I didn’t make it very far then, but since I actually didn’t watch any movies at all this week, I figure now’s as good a time as any to finish it. Plus, It’d be nice to have it done before I go the the San Francisco International Film Festival in a few weeks. Here’s a ranked account of what I saw:
1. Oxhide II – The best film I saw at the festival is this realtime chronicle of the director Liu Jiayin and her parents preparing, cooking and eating dumplings. It consists of only nine shots, with each setup spaced 45 degrees clockwise from the last. This structure doesn’t make the film feel quite as rigid as it sounds, as Liu varies the position of the camera vertically: table height, over the shoulder, on the floor, etc. It’s a film about a process, sure, but one that elevates everyday activities to the level of ritual and tradition. Not a documentary, or an exercise in verité “realism”, but a wholly scripted, formalized film that nevertheless feels as relaxed and effervescent as anything I’ve ever seen.
2. Like You Know It All – Hong Sang-soo’s films, at least the three I’ve seen (this along with Woman on the Beach and Woman is the Future of Man, are what would happen if Apichatpong Weerasethakul decided to make a series of Woody Allen movies. Like Allen, Hong’s films follow the romantic misadventures of a neurotic film director; like Apichatpong, his films have a bifurcated structure, wherein the first half sets up characters, situations and themes with the second half consisting of variations on those characters, situations and themes. In this one, Hong’s director first travels to a film festival, where he’s to serve on the jury. He’s rather indifferent to that task, however, preferring to drink with the staff and nurture a grudge against the younger director being honored with a festival retrospective. In the second, he travels to his old school to lecture, and finds the students are largely indifferent to him and his films. In both halves, the director attempts to hook up with the wife of one of his old friends. It’s lighter and funnier than Hong’s other films, and largely because of that, it’s my favorite.
3. Written By – For the second year in a row, Kelly Lin starred in one of the most entertaining films of the festival. Last year it was in Johnnie To’s Sparrow, this year it’s this film written by frequent To collaborators Wai Ka-fai and Au Kin-Yee, and directed by Wai. It’s a kind of post-modern family dramedy, where the father dies in a car accident and his wife and daughter bring him back to life by writing a novel wherein they die in the accident and he lives. But then, the father in the novel decides to write his own novel where he dies and his wife and daughter live, and realities begin to merge and fall apart, and it gets crazier from there. What makes it great, though, is the very real human emotion that underlies it all: a deep sense of grief and sadness balancing out those narrative games. It’s the kind of balance Charlie Kaufmann strives for and never quite achieves.
4. Eccentricities of a Blond-Hair Girl – This was my first film by Manoel de Oliveira, the 101 year old Portuguese filmmaker who’s the only director still working who started in silent films. It’s a remarkably elegant little film, one that feels like a perfect short story. It starts with an odd framing device, as a man recounts the tale to the woman next to him on the train (who strangely looks at us the whole time), setting up that this is most definitely a story being told. It’s about a man who becomes obsessed with a beautiful woman, defies his family to marry her, and comes to regret his decision in a more or less surprising way. The film has a relaxed style that’s totally charming and increasingly rare, and at a mere 65 minutes, it’s refreshingly short in a world where the most mediocre romantic comedy manages to be two hours long.
5. Bluebeard – Another first time experiencing a director for me is this film by Catherine Breillat, the descriptions of whose other films don’t sound appealing to me at all. But I really enjoyed this telling of the classic fairy tale about a rich giant who is rumored to kill his young wives. Like Eccentricities it’s a recited narrative, with the framing device being two young girls reading the story in their attic and occasionally (often hilariously) commenting upon it. The performances are uniformly terrific, with Marilou Lopes-Benites as the youngest, cruelest girl stealing the show. The medieval setting is wonderfully realized, especially considering the low budget the film had to have had. The ending though, I didn’t really care for: I thought it was cheap and unnecessarily mean, but my wife didn’t have a problem with it, so maybe I’m being too sensitive.
6. Rembrandt’s J’accuse – Peter Greenaway’s essay film about Rembrandt’s painting “The Night Watch” uses elements of his film Nightwatching as historical recreations to tell the story of the making of the painting and the hidden stories that lie within and behind it, which mainly amount to Rembrandt’s critique of the guys who commissioned the painting, accusing them of murder. The film doubles as a call for increasing public literacy of images, of teaching people how stories can be told without words, a concept that has obvious implications for cinema. Greenaway himself breathlessly narrates the film, and his angry, excitable delivery keeps things exciting, even when it amounts to little more than a history lesson in the politics of medieval Amsterdam. Like de Oliveira and Breillat, this was my first Greenaway film, and I really should see some more.
7. In Search of Beethoven – This documentary about the life of the great composer wouldn’t be anything special, a good story told well, were it not for its insistent focus on the music. So many documentaries focus on personal anecdotes and scandals as if that was what made their subjects great. This film is both smart and humble enough to know that Beethoven is interesting because of the music he wrote first and foremost, the rest (the early struggles, the deafness, his love life) is secondary. All the stories are there too, of course, but we not only get to hear the greatest hits (the Moonlight Sonata, the glorious 9th, etc) but also the less Baby Einsteinish material (like the demented late String Quartets) and director Phil Grabsky not only gives us extended performances of the works, he has his talking heads explain exactly what made them innovative and great. It’s almost certain that a person who knows more about classical music than I do wouldn’t be as excited by this, but as someone who’s both interested and ignorant, I thought it was fascinating.
8. The Headless Woman – Lucrecia Martel’s film has been making the festival rounds since 2008, and my feeling about it in the six months since I saw it has changed more than any other film on this list. María Onetto plays a wealthy woman who may or may not have hit and killed a child with her car. We never see it for sure, and she doesn’t seem to know either. How much of that is caused by the bump on her head and how much a coverup orchestrated by her well-connected family is unclear as well. The film raises a ton of fascinating possible allegorical meanings: the guilt of rich white people, the powerlessness of bourgeois women, the history of people being “disappeared” in Martel’s native Argentina, and so on. The problem is that while those ideas are lots of fun to talk about and bat around, the actual experience of watching the movie is kind of boring. I go back and forth with which aspect to emphasize.
9. Air Doll – Like Bluebeard, a fine film that takes an unpleasant turn at the end. Directed by Kore-eda Hirokazu, it’s about an inflatable sex doll that comes to life. The story is a muted Pinocchio with the doll wandering the streets and learning about human life (including getting a job at a video store, which seems natural enough). The relaxed pace is nice, helped along by a cute score and some very pretty lyrical imagery and the makeup effects on Bae Doona, who plays the doll, are quite good. The ending more or less destroys the film’s mood of cock-eyed innocence and wonder, which is nice if you’re going for pointed satire or dark comedy, but I just found the tonal shift jarring.
10. Unmade Beds – This film by Alexis Dos Santos comes dangerously close to obnoxiousness, following as it does a pair of hipster immigrant kids as they try to sort out and get going with their lives. But the characters, and the young actors who play them (Fernando Tielve and Déborah François), are charming and heart-felt enough to overcome their generational stereotypeness. François in particular is quite adorable. It’s a touching movie that captures the kids of its moment in the way few mainstream films have managed to thus far.
11. Face – The craziest Tsai Ming-liang film I’ve yet seen. Recurring star Lee Kang-sheng is off directing a movie in Paris, but is having idea and cast problems. It’s basically Tsai’s homage to Truffaut’s Day for Night, with a little 8 1/2 surreality thrown in for good measure. There’s even an amazing Wellesian Hall of Mirrors sequence in a snowy forest. One’s enjoyment of it is entirely dependent on your tolerance for watching Laetitia Casta slowly black out a window with electrical tape or writhe around as a vampire Salome. Me, I’d watch her do anything. The wife though, she hated this movie.
12. Pelléas and Mélisande: The Song of the Blind – A documentary about the staging of the Impressionist opera by Claude Debussy that manages to convey both the demented beauty of the music, the weird and rather confusing staging of the opera and the love the performers have for the music and their profession. It’s a cool insight to a world we don’t see much of, but doesn’t really do anything new with the form, certainly not compared to Greenaway’s Rembrandt doc, nor does it explore the music, or Debussy, as comprehensively as the Beethoven doc.
13. The Young Victoria – The only film we saw at the festival to get any kind of real theatrical release, which is unfortunate because while it’s a fine film for what it is, obviously I liked a lot of other movies a lot more. Emily Blunt is pretty terrific as the Queen-to-be, even if she’s way too pretty for the part. The film works well for the most part, focusing on Victoria’s romance with Albert and her learning how to wield what power she has, and there’s relatively little melodramatization of history (though a late sequence with Albert getting shot in an assassination stands out as particularly ridiculous). Still, pretty costumes, pretty sets, pretty people with pretty accents. Whee!
14. ZMD: Zombies of Mass Destruction – This low-budget horror film takes a scattershot approach to social commentary that tends toward the funny and entertaining, if not particularly mind-blowing side. A small town in the Pacific Northwest is overrun with zombies, which the locals alternately assume is God’s punishment for tolerating gay people or a plot by Islamic terrorists. This creates a few problems for our heros: a gay couple in town to visit one of their mothers and the local Iranian-American family. Humor both broad and gory ensues. It’s a fun movie that tries a bit too hard to be a cult classic.
15. Way of Nature – This near-wordless documentary chronicles a year in the life of a Swedish farm. It’s kind of cool, but really not as interesting as it sounds. Nor is it particularly pretty to look at. It’s just a process film that is only fitfully fascinating. The nice moments it does have are pretty cool (yet another film showing sheep giving birth, must be some kind of zeitgeist thing).
16. Kamui – A sweeping ninja epic that somehow manages to feel about five hours long. It’s not that it’s slow or anything, on the contrary the cutting is as fast as any Hollywood actioner, but rather it packs so much plot, and changes setting so many times that it feels less like one story than a five-part serial jammed together. Unfortunately, there isn’t much in the way of character to hold one’s interest. In tone and look it’s somewhat similar to Tony Jaa’s Ong Bak 2, but without the great stunt work, intensity or commitment to true thematic darkness. But, you know, it’s got ninjas.
17. Queer China, ‘Comrade’ China – A documentary about LGBT folks in China that shines a light on an important subject, but does so in the cheapest way possible, filmically speaking. Really, it looks like a public access show, which gives it a certain samizdat charm but makes it really hard to look at. Which is too bad, because some of the stories are really interesting.
18. Moroccan Labyrinth – Normally, with any kind of film, fiction or non-, I like when the filmmakers refuse to pander to the audience by explaining every little detail of their story. However, this documentary about the history of Morocco’s relationship with its across-the-Strait neighbor Spain assumes way too much about its audiences familiarity with the subject, such that a term will be used for 30 minutes of the film before someone explains what it means, and then only obliquely and in another context. What I did get out of the film, though, was that it’s mainly a call for elderly Moroccans to get full military pensions from Spain because they fought for and helped win the Civil War for Franco and the Fascists. Well, sign me up for that cause. Ugh.
Green Zone – Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass reunite in a misguided attempt to either bring real-world political relevance to a Bourne-style action film, or to bring a Bourne-style excitement to the real world political thriller genre. It’s one of those schizophrenic movies where neither style entirely works and the combination of the two makes the whole even worse than it should be. Greengrass’s editing here is generally better than it was in the incoherently hyperactive Bourne films, but the plot is full of holes and really quite nonsensical: its dumbass conspiracy theory succeeds in making the reasons the US went to war in Iraq look comparatively logical and well-thought out.
Under the Roofs of Paris – A fantastic little early musical from French director René Clair (Le Million, À nous la liberté) about an itinerant sheet music salesman who falls in love with a girl with an abusive gangster boyfriend (who also happens to be married). He wins the girl, gets framed for a crime and loses the girl to his best friend. And there are songs. Clair should get more credit: his early 30s musicals are better than Lubitsch’s in pretty much every way: his camera moves more and more expressively, the songs and singing are better and the stories, with their bittersweet mix of comedy and tragedy are much more interesting. The #5 film of 1930.
The Mummy – Boris Karloff plays the title character in this excellent 30s horror film directed by Karl Freund, the great cinematographer of German Expressionism (The Last Laugh, Metropolis). Karloff is brought to life by Egyptologists, and walks the Earth in search of the woman he loved thousands of years earlier, who conveniently enough is reincarnated in the body of the only woman in the film. The plot is essentially the same as the Brendan Fraser remake, but treating it seriously makes it even more effective than that admittedly entertaining film. It manages to be both moving and funny on its own terms, without any of the winkiness of the post-modern adventure film. Karloff doesn’t wander around in bandages, by the way, he’s in human form with a ton of great extreme closeups like the one above. The #10 film of 1932.
Wordplay – A fine documentary about crosswords and the people who do them, focusing on Will Shortz, the editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle. It’s entertaining enough, especially for someone like me, who has at times, had issues with crossword addiction. There’s a bunch of celebrity interviews, and we see the likes of Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart, Ken Burns, Daniel Okrent (who kind of invented fantasy baseball, which you think they should have mentioned here) and the Indigo Girls working on and talking about the Times puzzle. The dramatic structure of the film is the big Crossword tournament, which honestly isn’t that dramatic, partially because the contestants, while likable enough, aren’t particularly compelling. They’re essentially just a nice, friendly group of geeks. The #30 film of 2006.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown – A farcical melodrama from Pedro Almodóvar, with Carmen Maura as a voiceover actress who breaks up with her boyfriend, badly, tries stalking him, sets her apartment on fire, helps her friend, who may have unwittingly abetted Islamic terrorists and meets Antonio Banderas, her boyfriend’s son. The first half of the film drags a bit, as we’re trying to piece together exactly who all these characters are and what they are doing, but halfway through, when most everyone assembles in Maura’s apartment, the film takes off in a whirl of wackiness. I liked it a lot more than the more accomplished, less fun and kind of distasteful Talk to Her. The #8 film of 1988.
Hot Tub Time Machine – John Cusak, Craig Robinson and Rob Corddry get caught in the titular device and travel back to 1986, the time when they were in high school and their lives completely fell apart. They attempt to follow traditional time travel rules, but give that up in hopes of making themselves, and their futures, better. The film is pretty funny, lots of wacky humor and a fair amount of gross inappropriateness. Craig Robinson is that standout, as he is on The Office, and Rob Corddry tries really hard and is sometimes successful. Cusack, though, seems to be sleepwalking through the whole thing, and his is the least interesting storyline and character. A great, charming actor like, say, John Cusak could have done great things with the role. Too bad he didn’t show up here.
Red Cliff – I watched the two part, five hour international version of this, because that’s the kind of guy I am. It’s John Woo’s adaptation of the Three Kingdoms, familiar as China’s great national epic to Chinese literature scholars and video game players. And as an adaptation it’s wonderful: most of the elements in the film are straight out of the book. It chronicles the early stages of a civil war during a lull in the Han Dynasty as Prime Minister Cao Cao invents a pretext to attack Liu Bei (a popular general from the West) and the area of Wu (the prosperous and independent-minded South). Liu Bei’s advisor Zhu-ge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) goes south to form an alliance with Wu, their leader (Chang Chen) and greatest general Zhou Yu (Tony Leung). The first half of the film follows the forming of the alliance, the second half the lead up to the Battle of Red Cliff and the actual battle itself. The actors are pretty good, especially the two leads, though I do think the film might have worked better with the original casting: Chow Yun-fat as Zhou Yu and Tony Leung as Zhu-ge Liang). It’s a film almost without precedent, most comparable to the painstaking recreation in Gettysburg, its also the kind of film that Kingdom of Heaven should have been but mostly failed at. That Ridley Scott film got bogged down in melodrama and in ascribing complex historical forces to personal animosities. Red Cliff does that as well, but it works the same way The Illiad does: it’s mythical enough that the incongruity between history and melodrama doesn’t interfere with the enjoyment of the film. The #8 film of 2008.
Gold Diggers of 1935 – The last of the films in my Busby Berkeley boxset, and unfortunately it’s more Dames than 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933 or Footlight Parade. I think the main difference between those great movies and these latter two duds is that they’re about a group of people at work, whereas the other two are about madcap rich people at play. Amateurs putting on a show as opposed to professionals trying to survive in a business. That gave the backstage musicals a hard edge to counteract the general syrupiness of Dick Powell and/or Ruby Keeler, without it, the films are unmoored in a not particularly funny world of froth. Even the musical numbers here aren’t that great: “Lullaby of Broadway” is a great tune, and it has a bold ending, but it’s nothing compared either of the last two numbers in Footlight Parade, and the song certainly doesn’t get stuck in your head the way even Dames‘s “I Only Have Eyes For You” does. The sequence does have some fantastically massive synchronized tapping, and the film’s other number has a funny reference to King Vidor’s The Crowd, with moving grand pianos in place of workers at their desks. The #17 film of 1935.