Movie Roundup: Classics Returns! Edition

La danse – Director Frederick Wiseman’s documentary about the about the Paris Opera Ballet surely can’t be called verité: it’s too damned pretty for that ugly moniker. The film follows several dancers and choreographers as they plan and perform several different ballets. Wiseman’s hands-off approach results in near total confusion in terms of who is doing what and when, you know, all those irrelevant things that so often seem like the sole purpose of narrative film. With nary a narrator to tell us what’s going on, we’re instead forced to focus on what we are seeing, namely, the dance itself. Almost devoid of context (we do hear a little of the conversations between choreographer and dancer, which sometimes provides motivation but is just as often baffling to the untrained observer), we take in the movements of the dancers on the most visceral level: it’s the human body in motion in its purest form, and purity of the image of that motion is the purity of cinema itself. More than just being a neutral observer, however, Wiseman consistently finds the most striking of angles in which to frame his long takes, using the mirrors and clutter of the studios to full effect, as well as adopting any angle but the straight-ahead proscenium view for the performances. It’s one of the best pure documentaries I’ve seen in quite awhile and it has forever ruined So You Think You Can Dance for me. The #5 film of 2009.

Artists and Models – I think I just don’t think Jerry Lewis is funny. Sorry. I’m more than willing to admit that it must by my own failing. I do like director Frank Tashlin quite a bit, but this Lewis and Dean Martin comedy just didn’t work like I wanted it to. Martin’s a struggling painter and Lewis is his mentally disabled roommate who dreams up fabulous scenarios for comic books. Martin gets a job turning those dreams into actual comics, but tries to hide it from Dorothy Malone, who also draws comics (exploiting her roommate (Shirley MacLaine) in the process. There are also spies a Gabor and Anita Ekberg. Zaniness (but not much aactual hilarity) ensues. I thought MacLaine stole the movie: she managed to be both funny and likable, her singing of “Innamorata” to Lewis on a staircase is easily the highlight of the movie. The #23 film of 1955.

The Last Airbender – It’s really not that bad. I saw it in 2D, Roger Ebert’s 1/2 star review seems mostly to be a critique of the crappy 3D. The rest of the reviews I’ve seen, seem to be about the TV show. As I’d never heard of the show until a couple weeks before the film’s release, I don’t have anything to say about that. As a film, it’s fine. Really choppy and full of exposition, it feels very much like a movie targeted at little kids, attention span-wise. The child actors are generally pretty bad, they say every line with exclamation marks, but the adults are OK. Shyamalan keeps things interesting visually through most of the film, with his standard slightly off-kilter set-ups and angle choices and generally mellow editing (which I always appreciate in an action film). The action sequences are often pretty cool, especially at the climax, and the effects are decent enough, though nothing spectacular. There’s only one scene I thought was poorly shot (a bit of conversational exposition between three of the kids that’s inexplicably shot in alternating extreme close-ups) and there’s certainly nothing as audacious as some of the camera movements in Unbreakable or The Happening.

In the end, I think the source material overwhelmed him, or at least the running time. There’s obviously way too much to fit into 90 minutes and consequently it all feels rushed and worst of all, impersonal. Slowness of pace is one of Shyamalan’s hallmarks as a director: his films always know how to breathe. This one suffocates under the amount of story it feels it has to tell, the plot just never lets up. The result feels weirdly impersonal for such an idiosyncratic filmmaker. Maybe if in the next one the Avatar journeys to the Philadelphia area. . . .

I was hoping for something along the lines of The Happening or Speed Racer, movies that were trashed by critics at their opening but that I really liked (and one of which has grown a kind of cult following). It’s not that good, but neither is it as bad as The Mummy 3 or Quantum of Solace. As mainstream movies go, it’s about the level of Spiderman 3 or a Fantastic Four movie. Not terrible, but I’d hoped for better from Shyamalan.

Predators – Solid, retro action filmmaking, well put together, scripted and acted but it’s missing both the originality and mystery of Predator and the sense of environment and horror from Predator 2 (I might be the only person who likes that one). The cast is great: Adrien Brody, Danny Trejo, Laurence Fishburne, Alice Braga, Topher Grace, Walton Goggins and Louis Ozawa Changchien are a weird but really cool mix. In the end, it’s harmless.

Inception – Meh, it was alright. Like the rest of Christopher Nolan’s films, the thematic confusion is masked by piles of narrative and exposition. It is an improvement editing-wise, for him, though most of the action scenes are still cut pretty badly. That can be explained away in the first two chase scenes by the dream nature of the environments (assuming the first chase (where Saito rescues Leo) is a dream as well), but the snow sequence is just a mess.

The fight sequence with Joseph Gordon-Leavitt in the rotating hotel is easily the best thing Nolan’s ever done. I think the hotel’s rotating too fast according to the established physics of the world, then again, Nolan ignores that physics whenever it’s convenient (remember when Leo says the van has 20 seconds, JGL 3 minutes and the rest of them 60 minutes? Then five minutes later he says they have 30 minutes and JGL has “a couple”, then JGL spends at least 15 minutes setting up the elevator? Yeah, physics.)

The film’s big accomplishment, as far as I can tell, is that it didn’t piss me off as much as the rest of Nolan’s films have. It was mercifully free of the kind of misanthropic nastiness that made Memento and The Prestige so unpleasant, the acting and editing was much better than Batman Begins and it wasn’t nearly as sloppy in theme or filmmaking as The Dark Knight. So I guess he’s improving.

As for the end, I don’t think the film really makes sense whether it’s all a dream or not. That’s OK for an action/heist movie. I don’t think the film works emotionally, with it all being about Leo’s guilt. Maybe that’s because of Shutter Island, which as everyone has said is pretty much about the same thing and which I think does it better in just about every way. But it might also be because the guilt he feels rests on all these piles of technomumbojumbo about dream technology that doesn’t make any real sense. Your wife killing herself because you convinced her her world was not real and that death was the only way to escape it is not a particularly relatable dilemma. At least not for me, your mileage may vary.

PTU – Another extraordinary Johnnie To film, perhaps the one I’ve seen that is most definitive of his visual style. This story set over the course of one night as a cop (Lam Suet) tries to find his gun while covering up the fact that he lost it and his friends in the Police Tactical Unit (led by Simon Yam) do what they can to help him (and occasionally cross the line into outright brutality) while also trying to solve a murder is fairly straightforward, at least considering the narrative strangeness the later Milky Way films explore. The look is one of the better attempts at a color analogue to film noir I’ve ever seen, with brilliant white lights highlighting pitch-black frames. To’s not the only one to use that style, nor is this the only time he does it, but I don’t recall seeing the trope utilized as relentlessly as it is here. It’s nothing less than stunning. The #7 film of 2003.

Return of the One-Armed Swordsman – Jimmy Wang Yu returns as the titular amputee in director Chang Cheh’s followup to his masterful 1967 film. Leaving behind much of the dramatic intensity of the first film (when the hero lost his arm and had to struggle to relearn his martial arts skills), this time there’s a flimsy motivation for heaps of bloody violence. Bad guys want to prove they’re the best so they start killing everyone else. TOAS doesn’t want to fight anymore, but when his wife is kidnapped he turns into a one-armed killing machine. Good times. The #12 film of 1969.

Assault on Precinct 13 – About as perfect as action movies get, John Carpenter’s classic is a little bit Rio Bravo and a whole lot of Night of the Living Dead with a fair amount of Zulu thrown in. A small group is trapped in an about-to-close police station as an unending army of gang members tries to kill them all. Spare and precise, Carpenter slowly builds character and location through the first half which completely pays off in the second, where the lack of effects or budget are unnoticeable through the unrelenting suspense. Even Carpenter’s score is amazing: it sounds like the Platonic version of every 1980s electronic score. I shudder to think what the remake is like. The #3 film of 1976.

Tarzan, the Ape Man – In retrospect, it was obvious, but I’d never really noticed just how kinky the Tarzan stories are. But then, this is really the first one I’ve sat down and watched from beginning to end in a very long time. Good Victorian girl Jane goes to visit her pops in Africa, gets lost and rescued/kidnapped by a brutish swimmer (Johnny Weissmuller, a very handsome man) who takes her to his treetop lair, introduces her to his monkey family and makes her yodel. This film version ups the ante by making Maureen O’Sullivan’s Jane more of a flirty flapper to begin with, so her sexual transformation moves her even further away from the Puritan ideal. The action sequences here are really good, with both actual animals and guys in animal suits (my favorite: a wounded Tarzan is attacked by and barely defeats a lion, only to be attacked moments later by. . . another lion!) Would I be crazy to call it Tabu: A Story of the South Seas meets King Kong? The #7 film of 1932.

Movie Roundup: SFIFF Edition Part Two

Here’s the rest of what we saw at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Wild Grass – The most divisive film of the festival for us, as I loved every minute of it and the wife renewed her hatred of all things French (though to be fair, she did not hate this as much as last Vancouver’s showing of Tsai Ming-liang’s Face, which may have been divorce-inspiring if I wasn’t so otherwise awesome). Anyway, this is the latest from director Alain Resnais, whose only other films I’ve seen are his first three features (Hiroshima, mon amour, Last Year at Marienbad and Muriel), the last of which was made almost 50 years ago. The plot’s about an old guy (André Dussollier) who finds a stolen purse and becomes infatuated with its redheaded owner (Sabine Azéma) after returning it to her, despite his lovely young wife (Anne Consigny) and the suspicions of a local cop (Mathieu Amalric). Emmanuelle Devos has a small part as well, proving, along with the fact that the film was shot by Eric Gautier, that there are really only about a dozen people working in the French film industry right now. The purse owner is at first freaked out by her new stalker, but they eventually go to a movie and then ride in an airplane together. The whole thing plays like a demented version of Amelie, with Dussolier as the deranged do-gooder who tries to make everyone else see the world through Gautier’s candy colors, whether they want to or not. The ending seems puzzling, but I don’t think it was meant to be. Resnais apparently explained it in Film Comment, but I liked my explanation(s) better. The #4 film of 2009.

Woman on Fire Looks for Water – Our requisite Asian Minimalist (or however you want to label it) film of the festival was this coming of age film out of Malaysia, written and directed by Woo Ming Jin. The son of a fisherman is rejected by one girl, gets a job catching shellfish for the father of another girl (who likes him) while his father, convinced he’s about to die, tries to woo his old girlfriend. It’s got everything you want in this kind of film: a relaxed pace, some pretty images (I recall some strangeness with focus in the beginning, but mostly the visual style is familiar) a little bit of humor and just enough weirdness to keep you on your toes. Plus, it had the second best title of the festival. Catching a movie like this in the early afternoon at a strange theatre in a strange town is one of my favorite film festival experiences. The #28 film of 2009.

My Queen Karo – I was pleasantly surprised to find out that this film about growing up in a Dutch commune in the 70s starred Déborah François. Aside from her obvious attractions, this also made two festivals in a row in which we got to see Ms. François living in an abandoned warehouse (last Vancouver’s Unmade Beds being the other). The film’s a semi-autobiographical coming of age thing, with the title girl growing up as her parents try to live out their radical ideas of free love, social protest and not paying the rent. Dad’s mostly a jerk, using his ideas as an excuse to cheat on mom (François) and rationalize her into staying around anyway. It’s a solid movie with good performances and a cool sense of place (the many languages spoken in the commune in particular being a nice touch, and also reflective of the multi-national makeup of the cast). The #34 film of 2009.

You Think You’re the Prettiest, but You Are the Sluttiest – The best title of the festival for sure belongs to this Chilean film, the graduate thesis for director Che Sandoval. In the great tradition of one-night-in-the-life-of-a-teenager films like Dazed and Confused or American Graffiti or Can’t Hardly Wait, this one follows Javier as he tries to hook up with Valentina, convinced that his best friend Nicolas, who’s already sleeping with Javier’s ex-girlfriend Francisca, will get to her first. Javier’s a fully-realized teenager: arrogant and incompetent and insecure and cruel all at once. The film seems inspired by Jim Jarmusch, both in its mellow pace, chapter-segmented structure and indie grittiness. Easily the funniest film we saw at the festival. The #14 film of 2008.

Final rankings for SFIFF 2010:

1. Wild Grass
2. Vengeance
3. You Think You’re the Prettiest, but You are the Sluttiest
4. Senso
5. I Am Love
6. Bodyguards & Assassins
7. Woman on Fire Looks for Water
8. My Queen Karo
9. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (which would move up if I counted the score, but really not that much)

Movie Roundup: SFIFF Edition Part One

Catching up with what we saw at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival:

Vengeance – The official Johnnie To-related film of the festival was directed by the man himself. It’s possibly the most explicit homage to Jean-Pierre Melville’s gangster films yet to come out of Milky Way Studios. The main character is a old French guy (played by “the French Elvis”, Johnny Hallyday) seeking revenge for the brutal assassination of his daughter, grandchildren and son-in-law, who had fallen afoul of Macao triads. He hires the old To crew (Anthony Wong, Lam Suet and Gordon Lam, who play similar roles in Exiled and The Mission, which constitute a kind of trilogy with this film) to help carry out his revenge. The mind-blowing twist (de rigueur in recent Milky Way films like Written By and Mad Detective) is that Hallyday suffers from a Memento-like inability to form new memories. So he wants revenge, but he can’t remember why! Unfortunately, unlike in those other Milky Way films, the conceit never really develops beyond the pithy metaphor stage (vengeance is ultimately meaningless etc). The film’s quality, instead, rests on the character relationships and the performances of the actors, all of which are exceptional. And of course, To’s direction, which is less flashy than at times in his past, more in keeping with Sparrow, his last film as a director, but still shiny and sleek. The #12 film of 2009.

I Am Love – Tilda Swinton stars as a rich housewife who’s surprised to learn she’s not all that happy with her life in this melodrama from Italian director Luca Guadagnino. It’s big and lush and beautiful and skirts the fine line between deliriously wonderful and over-the-top silliness that all the best melodramas have to navigate. Swinton is as awesome as she always is and the score is entirely made up of bits of John Adams works(!) The #19 film of 2009.

Bodyguards & Assassins – Another historical epic from China, in the manner of John Woo’s Red Cliff, set in the early 20th Century as Sun Yat-sen arrives in Hong Kong to plan the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and has to be protected from the titular assassins by the titular bodyguards. It’s classical filmmaking in the Seven Samurai mode, as the first half lays the groundwork for an impressive, extended action sequence that accounts for most of the second half of the film. It stars the great Donnie Yen and Leon Lai and Simon Yam and the other Tony Leung. The #22 film of 2009.

Senso – One of SFIFF’s archival presentations was this restoration of Luchino Visconti’s melodrama set in the mid-19th Century during Venice’s war against Austria. Alida Valli (from The Third Man) plays a Venetian countess who has an affair with Austrian soldier Farley Granger (Rope, They Lived By Night) that has disastrous consequences for both herself and her country. It’s all quite glorious and the restoration looked pretty great, especially on the giant screen at the Castro Theatre. The #13 film of 1954.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – Stephin Merritt (the genius behind The Magnetic Fields and several other musical groups) composed and performed a new score to the silent version of HG WellsJules Verne’s sci-fi classic. The movie itself, made in 1916 by Stuart Paton, is not without interest. It boasts of its innovative underwater filming techniques, the veracity of which claim I’m not capable of confirming (though it looked to me like they just filmed an aquarium). The plot follows the crazy Captain Nemo, who’s invented a submarine and rescues some people from a shipwreck and takes them to a mysterious island. Adventure ensues. It bears only a passing resemblance to the Disney film with Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre and James Mason, having more in common with Mysterious Island, a film notable for Ray Harryhausen’s effects creating such terrifying animals as a giant chicken. (Note: there are no giant chickens in the silent film version). Anyway, the draw was the score, performed live by Merritt and some of his pals (including organist David Hegarty and Lemony Snicket). It wasn’t your typical silent film score, with the musicians occasionally adding dialogue to the action (some of which is very funny, but never really in a derisive MST3K kind of way), and including a pop song or two. The #2 film of 1916.