Movie Roundup: End of the End of the Year Edition

The King’s Speech – It’s just all so exactly what you think it’s going to be.  Colin Firth plays George VI in the years before his father died and his brother abdicated to marry a divorced American up to his big speech exhorting his country to war against Hitler.  Geoffrey Rush is his quirky speech therapist.  Helena Bonham Carter is his loving and supportive wife.  All the performances are fine, the sets and costumes are pretty, the score is liberally sprinkled with Beethoven, the jokes are tasteful and witty and vulgar in an appropriately proper manner and any of the more questionable facets of our heroes’ lives are wiped away in a swirl of pseudotherapy and good feelings.  It’s a movie for moms and Oscar voters.  The #30 film of 2010.

The Kids Are All Right – This, on the other hand, is even worse than you expect it to be, the kind of film that makes you understand why “they” hate “us” so much.  Every note of this story about a lesbian couple and their teenaged children is false.  Every character a cliche and every line of dialogue sounds like it was written by someone who has never had a conversation with someone who doesn’t shop at Whole Foods (or have their domestics shop there).  The worst thing is that I think the film is actually probably a pretty accurate portrait of the kinds of people the folks who created this nonsense hang around with.  I’d like to be able to read the film as satire, but it’s so deadly serious about itself that even that cheap way out isn’t possible.  I don’t know which scene I hated more: the one where the son (his name is Laser, seriously) finally realizes his best friend is a jerk because he says “Look! a dog!  Let’s pee on its head!” as if this is a common activity among juvenile delinquents.  Dogs of Los Angeles, beware!  Or the dinner party scene where Annette Benning (a great actress inexplicably getting serious awards buzz for this, maybe because she has an awful haircut) sings Joni Mitchell.  Because, of course she likes Joni Mitchell (she a lesbian!) and because no one who has ever heard Joni Mitchell would ever attempt to sing a Joni Mitchell song like Joni Mitchell.  Hers is not a voice other, non-professional singer humans try to imitate.  Of course she sounds awful, but see that’s what makes it so real.  Gag.  The #44 film of 2010.

Everyone Else – This is a much better film, though plagued with a lot of the same problems.  Director Maren Ade sets the pace and visual style of real life, and her characters’ actions are somewhat plausible, but in a film that is essentially a two-handed character study, it’s essential that those characters be believable, and I don’t wholly believe these two.  The first third of the film is pretty great, as Chris and Gitti vacation and have good and bad times together (seems he can’t get a real job because he’s either too meek or too lazy, but the two share a sense of humor and genuinely like each other).  However, when they meet an obnoxious couple and Chris starts to act like the chesseball jerk of a husband because he thinks that’s what Gitti means when she exhorts him to be a productive member of society, the film lost me.  The film sets up a limited, either/or idea of male behavior (loser/douchebag) that isn’t the least bit insightful.  It just stacks the deck in the way a writer more interested in concepts than characters does.  The #47 film of 2009.

Micmacs – The latest from Jean-Pierre Jeunet stars Dany Boon as a video store clerk who gets accidentally shot in the head.  He survives, but loses his home and his job and walks the streets until he joins a gang of homeless freaks who collect trash and make cool stuff out of it.  He and the gang launch a complicated war against the two competing arms manufacturers in town (they made the bullet that shot Boon and the landmine that killed his father) that starts as a series of pranks and escalates (an arms race, naturally).  As is usually with Jeunet, the film is a visual treat, with lots of golden light and earth tones and whimsical people and machines.  Unlike his best films, however, the subject matter is a poor fit with his style.  The seriousness of the international armaments black market, the horrors of unexploded ordinance, assassinations and kidnappings and explosions and dead children don’t make sense in a world where the main love interest is a contortionist who spends much of her time hiding in refrigerators.  The balance between real world and fairy tale is something Jeunet’s earlier films (Amelie, A Very Long Engagement, City of Lost Children) get pretty much right, but the incongruity in this one is just too jarring.  The #39 film of 2009.

The Green Hornet – Feels like a movie that took 15 years to get made, and went through the hands of at least as many people before it finally did.  The resulting sensibility mashup between writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and director Michel Gondry isn’t particularly unpleasant, it’s just relentlessly mediocre.  Rogen plays the son of a fabulously wealthy newspaper editor(!) who, after his father dies, joins with his dad’s mechanic Kato to form a crime fighting duo.  They draw the attention of the town’s supervillain (Christoph Waltz) and various explosions and high speed chases ensue.  Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou plays Kato, and while he’s funny enough, he’s no match for Rogen and his fight sequences aren’t exactly to the level you expect in a role played on TV by Bruce Lee.  On the few occasions when Rogen and Chou’s timing syncs up, the film can be pretty funny, and Gondry uses 3D well enough in the fight sequences, which contain a potentially neat idea that doesn’t really go anywhere as Kato is able to move as if everyone around him is in slow-motion.  It’s basically a 3D version of some of the fights in The Matrix, but dumbed down a bit: we get Kato’s opponents’ weapons helpfully highlighted for us, otherwise we’d lose them in the cluttered, darkened 3D visual field, I guess.

Movie Roundup: Christmas with the Shaw Brothers Edition

The Shadow Whip – Cheng Pei-pei (Come Drink With Me, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) stars as the adopted daughter of the world’s foremost expert in bullwhip kung fu.  When the people who killed her parents and framed him for theft track them down, it’s up to her and a handsome traveler to defeat the bad guys and right wrongs and such.  Directed by Lo Wei, whose Brothers Five, made the previous year and also starring Cheng, I found so impressive a few months ago.  There are a few of the signature overhead group choreography shots that were so striking in that film here, but mostly the film is done in by the cheapness of the stunts (including the most obvious wire I’ve ever seen in a kung fu film) and the inherent impossibility of creating good fight choreography when the protagonist’s weapon is a whip.  It just looks dumb.  And speaking of looking dumb, poor Cheng Pei-pei is dressed like Santa Claus through the whole thing.  The #18 film of 1971.

The Deadly Breaking Sword – An unusual film in that none of the characters are particularly sympathetic, or even likable, but nonetheless has some good fight scenes and big stars Ti Lung and Alexander Fu Sheng.  Ti plays the owner of the titular weapon, a sword which he breaks off a bit of inside every person he defeats in combat.  He walks the earth proving what a badass he is and killing people who challenge him.  The other hero, Fu, is a reprobate gambler and monkey style expert.  The plot involves various people searching for the Killer Doctor, for various reasons (revenge, pride, debt collection, etc).  Director Sun Chung creates a complex web of character interrelationships in a much more sophisticated plot than another kung fu mystery, Chang Cheh’s The Five Deadly Venoms.  But that film had, eventually, a spectacular climactic fight sequence and a number of charismatic performances.  This one has merely good fights and good performers playing unlikeable, and mostly uninteresting, characters.  The #17 film of 1979.

Shaolin Intruders – Vastly superior is this film by Tang Chia.  Someone is killing the heads of the top kung fu clans, and all signs point to the Shaolin Temple.  Three heroes investigate (after being accused themselves of the crimes) and must fight their way (non-fatally) through the temple before they are allowed to ask any questions.  It’s a flimsy plot premise, but stronger than something like Heroes of the East (though that film is a lot of fun) and the fight sequences are very good.  Tang was a choreographer early in his career with Lau Kar-leung, and the similarities show.  It’s hard to pick the best sequence, as all of the Temple fights are well done, but the showdown with the Temple abbot on a room full of benches (prefiguring one of my all-time favorite fight sequences: the battle on the crowd in Jet Li’s The Legend of Fong Sai-yuk) would probably take it if I had to pick one.  The #6 film of 1983.

Shaolin Handlock – Maybe it’s the influence of Bruce Lee, or just the modern day setting, but this David Chiang film feels weirdly out of place.  Or rather, David Chiang feels weirdly out of place in this modern day film.  He’s the son of the inventor of the titular kung fu style who is investigating his father’s murder.  It actually doesn’t take much investigation (just burst in on a bad guy in the middle of a tryst with a naked prostitute and ask), he spends most of his time playing a Raymond Chandler-esque game of posing as the villain’s new bodyguard and poisoning him against his right-hand man (think Miller’s Crossing).  There is a clever twist to that formula near the end, albeit one that strains all credulity.  There are some good fight sequences, but they’re pretty rare, though the final showdown is pretty good.  The #13 film of 1978.

Brave Archer and His Mate – This is the fourth film in the Brave Archer series, and I haven’t seen any of the first three.  Perhaps that explains the rapid-fire exposition of the first third of the film, where characters get killed, solve murders, double-cross each other and kill even more people with remarkable alacrity.  Eventually, things mellow out and we travel 15 or so years into the future.  The Archer and his Mate raise some kids, one of whom is the son of a bad guy that got killed in the beginning.  When they start to teach their brood kung fu, the adopted kid (Alexander Fu Sheng) gets picked on, turns a little evil and falls under the influence of crazy bad guy Ouyang Feng (played by Wang Li).  This bad guy is actually the Leslie Cheung character from Ashes of Time, as this was based on the same Louis Cha novels as Wong Kar-wai’s film (there are absolutely no other similarities between the films).  Anyway, the Ouyang Feng plot gets quickly resolved and the last third of the film takes place in a totally different environment, as the Archer and Fu Sheng help some monks fight off some horny bad guys who want to hook up with a dead girl.  Or something.  This is the only part of the film with any real fight sequences, and director Chang Cheh utilizes several of his Venoms to good effect.  On the whole, the movie’s a mess, and I doubt it would be better after seeing the first three films, since it’s mostly the story of a whole new generation of characters.  The #24 film of 1982.

Holy Flame of the Martial World – One of those kung fu movies where people fly around and shoot fire out of their hands and stuff, though it doesn’t have the inspired lunacy of the Chinese Odyssey films or the manic chaotic energy of Kung Fu Cult Master.  A husband and wife team has a map to the Holy Flame, a kind of badass sword, and a group of martial arts clan leaders murder them for it.  Their daughter is raised by one of the bad guys, their son by a good guy (whose signature technique is a laugh that creates a hurricane).  When they grow up, the guy quests to find the sword, rescues the daughter of a snake salesman from a human sacrificing zombie clan (she gets some powers of her own when a snake bites her finger, allowing her to shoot lasers from said finger) and makes friends with the disciple of one of the bad guys.  Eventually, there’s a showdown between bad guys and good guys, with tons of cheesy special effects and nonsense dialogue.  It’s a fun film.  The #17 film of 1983.

Journey of the Doomed – A weird kind of exploitation melodrama with a little kung fu thrown in.  A young girl raised in a brothel (but still a virgin) is discovered to be the illegitimate daughter of the heir to the throne  Both the heir and his brother send people after her, leading to the extended and explicit slaughter of every girl in the brothel (and there are a lot of them).  This, and an opening sequence of a john torturing another girl, seem to exist merely for the opportunity to revel in violence against naked women.  Then the film turns into a weird domestic romance, where the girl and the guy who eventually saves her from her assassins settle down in a cabin in the woods (complete with a happy country life montage).  That goes wrong when the girl becomes jealous of the mute girl who also lives in the woods and isn’t nearly as pretty and runs away.  It all ends in a spectacular, bloody fire.  Strange, and mostly unpleasant.  The #34 film of 1985.

Movies of the Year: 2010 (Part Two)

Over at the home of Metro Classics, we’ve got a couple of Best of 2010 lists for films that played this year in the Seattle area.  But here at The End, the list of 2010 films will only include films that were first released in 2010, regardless of whether or not they were distributed widely through the malls of America.  It is, as always, incomplete, and will be updated as necessary on The Big List.

1. Certified Copy
2. Oki’s Movie
3. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
4. Carlos
5. Exit Through the Gift Shop
6. Day and Night
7. Black Swan
8. True Grit
9. 607
10. The Social Network

11. Thomas Mao
12. Hahaha
13. I Wish I Knew
14. Shutter Island
15. 127 Hours
16. Greenberg
17. Toy Story 3
18. The Sleeping Beauty
19. Get Out of the Car
20. The Drunkard

21. Poetry
22. Strange Powers
23. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
24. Gallants
25. Centurion
26. The Strange Case of Angelica
27. Made in Dagenham
28. Winter’s Bone
29. The Ghost Writer
30. The King’s Speech

31. Merry-Go-Round
32. My Film and My Story
33. Crossing the Mountain
34. Sweetgrass
35. The Fourth Portrait
36. Casino Jack and the United States of Money
37. Inhalation
38. Inception
39. The Indian Boundary Line
40. Predators

41. Icarus Under the Sun
42. Rumination
43. Hot Tub Time Machine
44. The Kids Are All Right
45. The Tiger Factory
46. Green Zone
47. The Last Airbender