Predictions for the 88th Annual Academy Awards

These are my picks for the winners of this year’s Academy Awards. On Sunday night, I’ll be tweeting out the winners of the 2015 Endy Awards during the Oscar ceremony. You can follow me there @theendofcinema. Here are the current 2015 Endy Award Nominees. We also had a special Oscar edition of The George Sanders Show last weekend, picking our 2015 favorites and discussing two Oscar films from 1946, best Picture nominee The Razor’s Edge and Best Song nominee Canyon Passage. My predictions are the ones in bold.
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This Week in Rankings

The biggest change here at The End since the last rankings update is the most obvious: we’ve a new home. I’ve been slowly, painfully, reformatting old posts and indices and changing links to the new .net address, but it’s going to take forever. The Rankings & Awards index at the top of the page is partially done. My year-by-year rankings are now sorted by decade, which should make them easier to use. Several of the Endy Awards posts are still a jumbled mess, but they should be all fixed before too long. The Reviews and Podcasts indices are up-to-date and formatted correctly, but most of the review links head back to the old site and that’ll likely remain the case indefinitely.

Over at Seattle Screen Scene I wrote about a week I spent watching movies at the multiplex, with reviews of the five movies I saw there. On The George Sanders Show we talked about a couple of 60s sic-fi vampire movies and films by Chantal Ackerman and Agnès Varda.

These are the movies I’ve watched and rewatched over the last couple of weeks, and where they place on my year-by-year rankings.

The Skeleton Dance (Walt Disney) – 7, 1929
The Haunted House (Walt Disney) – 16, 1929
Skeleton Frolics (Ub Iwerks) – 26, 1937
Le bonheur (Agnès Varda) – 3, 1965

Poor Little Rich Girl (Andy Warhol) – 10, 1965
Planet of the Vampires (Mario Bava) – 21, 1965
Dizzy Gillespie (Les Blank) – 22, 1965
The Face of Fu Manchu (Don Sharp) – 33, 1965
Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell (Hajime Satô) – 21, 1968

Je, tu, il, elle (Chantal Akerman) – 14, 1974
Star Wars (George Lucas) – 2, 1977
News from Home (Chantal Akerman) – 3, 1977
The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner) – 1, 1980
The Witches of Eastwick (George Miller) – 16, 1987

Beetlejuice (Tim Burton) – 16, 1988
The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien) – 1, 2015
The Martian (Ridley Scott) – 11, 2015
Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg) – 17, 2015
Crimson Peak (Guillermo del Toro) – 28, 2015

SPL 2: A Time for Consequences (Soi Cheang) – 37, 2015
Yakuza Apocalypse (Takashi Miike) – 41, 2015
Sicario (Denis Villeneuve) – 48, 2015
Steve Jobs (Danny Boyle) – 50, 2015
A Ballerina’s Tale (Nelson George) – 60, 2015

This Week in Rankings

It’s been almost two months since the last rankings update. In that time I posted my annual Top 100 Films of All-Time list and covered the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival. On The George Sanders Show we did our annual Top Tens episode, covered the release of Johnnie To’s Office on location and recorded two podcasts in Canada. At Seattle Screen Scene we had extensive coverage of the festival as well, and before that I wrote about the Jackie Chan/John Cusack film Dragon Blade, M. Night Shyamalan’s welcome return The Visit, the bittersweet Chinese film Go Away, Mr. Tumor, Joe Swanberg’s  mediocre Digging for Fire, Korean action film Memories of the Sword and two terrific American romantic comedies, Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America and Peter Bogdanovich’s She’s Funny That Way.

These are the movies I’ve watched and rewatched over the last few weeks and where they place on my year-by-year rankings. Short comments or capsule reviews for them can be found over at letterboxd.

The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming) – 8, 1939
Voyage in Italy (Roberto Rossellini) – 3, 1954
The Lion in Winter (Anthony Harvey) – 3, 1968
Trouble in Mind (Alan Rudolph) – 10, 1985
The Civil War (Ken Burns) – 9, 1990

The Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese) – 1, 1993
The Mirror (Jafar Panahi) – 7, 1997
The Soong Sisters (Mabel Cheung) – 16, 1997
The Transporter (Corey Yuen) – 33, 2002
Transporter 2 (Louis Leterrier) – 57, 2005

Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu) – 15, 2009
Weekend (Andrew Haigh) – 35, 2011
A Matter of Interpretation (Lee Kwangkuk) – 11, 2014
She’s Funny That Way (Peter Bogdanovich) – 19, 2014
Regarding Susan Sontag (Nancy D. Kates) – 77, 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kings (Ridley Scott) – 87, 2014
The Dream of Shahrazad (Francois Verster) – 98, 2014
Love is All (Kim Longinotto) – 108, 2014
The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien) – 1, 2015
The Forbidden Room (Guy Maddin) – 3, 2015

88:88 (Isiah Medina) – 6, 2015
Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke) – 9, 2015
Arabian Nights Volume 2: The Desolate One (Miguel Gomes) – 10, 2015
The Thoughts That Once We Had (Thom Andersen) – 11, 2015
Li Wen at East Lake (Luo Li) – 12, 2015

Office (Johnnie To) – 13, 2015
Kaili Blues (Bi Gan) – 14, 2015
Taxi (Jafar Panahi) – 15, 2015
Murmur of the Hearts (Sylvia Chang) – 16, 2015
Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sangsoo) – 17, 2015

Port of Call (Philip Yung) – 19, 2015
The Visit (M. Night Shyamalan) – 20, 2015
Queen of Earth (Alex Ross Perry) – 21, 2015
A Tale of Three Cities (Mabel Cheung) – 22, 2015
45 Years (Andrew Haigh) – 23, 2015

Go Away, Mr. Tumor (Han Yan) – 24, 2015
My Golden Days (Arnaud Desplechin) – 26, 2015
The Pearl Button (Patricio Guzmán) – 27, 2015
Topophilia (Peter Bo Rappmund) – 29, 2015
Arabian Nights Volume 3: The Enchanted One (Miguel Gomes) – 32, 2015

The Treasure (Corneliu Porumboiu) – 33, 2015
Greed; Ghost Light (Kim Nakyung) – 34, 2015
The Exquisite Corpus (Peter Tscherkassky) – 35, 2015
Dead Slow Ahead (Mauro Herce) – 39, 2015
Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven) – 44, 2015
Wondrous Boccaccio (The Taviani Brothers) – 45, 2015

Paradise (Sina Ataeian Dena) – 49, 2015
Digging for Fire (Joe Swanberg) – 50, 2015
Magicarena (Andrea Prandstraller & Niccolò Bruna) – 51, 2015
Memories of the Sword (Park Heung-shik) – 52, 2015
What Happened in Past Dragon Year (Sun Xun) – 53, 2015
It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong (Emily Ting) – 57, 2015

Alice in Earnestland (Ahn Gooc-jin) – 58, 2015
Dragon Blade (Daniel Lee) – 59, 2015
Tandem (King Palisoc) – 61, 2015
The Transporter Refueled (Camille Delamarre) – 62, 2015
Argentina (Carlos Saura) – 63, 2015

VIFF 2015: The Last Five Days

Part of my coverage of the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival


I’ve been home from Vancouver for almost a week now, still suffering from the cold I catch there every year (something unhealthy about not eating properly, drinking copious amounts of caffeine and sharing breathing space with hundreds of other people ten hours a day for a week). Since my report on a few films from the First Four Days of the festival, we covered a number of movies on a second episode of The George Sanders Show, namely Right Now Wrong Then, The Assassin, Taxi, A Matter of Interpretation, Landfill Harmonic, The Dream of Shahrazad and Arabian Nights. Of the 29 features and 4 shorts I saw during my nine days in Vancouver, there are a few more standouts I want to mention.

Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart is one of the more polarizing films of the year. It marks a radical shift in Jia’s formal technique, abandoning the long-shot/long-take aesthetic that has made him one of the preeminent examples of 21st Century Asian Minimalism. Instead, working with his longtime cinematographer, the artist Yu Lik-wai, Jia films in a conventional mainstream style: the camera moves, he edits within a scene and we get close-ups of the actors. This is in keeping with the broad melodrama of the story’s construction. A schematic story of a love triangle told in three different time periods, Mountains is the most baldly emotional movie Jia has yet made. His first use of close-ups reveals what we long-suspected but that the old long shots tended to obscure, namely that Zhao Tao is one of the great actors of her generation. Her performance here is nothing less than phenomenal. In the first story, set in 1999, she’s the pivot point of a love triangle with two men, one a poor coal miner, the other an aspiring capitalist. She ultimately chooses the rich man, which leads to the shattering heartbreaks of the second chapter, set in 2014, a story itself split in two halves, first about the miner (and his wife), then about Zhao and her now-estranged son, who is sent home to attend his grandfather’s funeral. The third story, set in 2025, follows the son, now emigrated to Australia where he has forgotten his Chinese past, the language, and even his mother. He connects with another Chinese immigrant, his much older teacher (played by Sylvia Chang), and the Oedipal nature of their relationship is no less subtle than the boy’s name (he was aspirationally christened “Dollar” by his ludicrous father).

This third section has come under fire (usually under the vaguely racist rubric of “Jia can’t direct in English”) for its obvious schematicism and the artificiality of Dong Zijian’s performance as Dollar. I suspect this is largely a category error, that we’re used to Jia making withdrawn, somewhat obscure films like Platform and Still Life, films whose equally schematic melodrama is hidden behind long takes and a lack of emotionally direct dialogue. The issues Jia is addresses are not new, no one has more obsessively followed the dislocations and disruptions of the Chinese family in the wake of the imperatives of modern capitalism than he has over the past 20 years. But as with his previous film, A Touch of Sin, a series of violent short stories loosely related to the Chinese action film tradition (though not really wuxia in particular), he’s now addressing those issues in a more conventionally generic mode. The mix of reality and surreality has long been a part of Jia’s work, from the flash animation and theme park environment of The World to the alien craft and bridge light romanticism of Still Life, resting uneasily alongside documentary footage of China’s changing landscapes (see also his actual documentaries 24 City and I Wish I Knew, which audaciously mix actorly performances into their real life accounts), it’s only now that the surrealism has overtaken an entire narrative. And there is no filmic form more surreal than the classical melodrama. And, if you’re paying attention to the world today and where it’s headed, it only seems logical that the absurd is the only true way to capture it. This is Jia’s lunatic masterpiece.

Sylvia Chang is terrific, as usual in Mountains May Depart, even better than she is in Johnnie To’s Office, which she co-adapted from her own play. But that’s not all she’s had for us in 2015, she also directed Murmur of the Hearts, like Mountains a family melodrama taking place across multiple time periods. It stars Isabella Leong, making a long-awaited return to the screen after several years in retirement following her marriage in 2008 (don’t miss her in Pang Ho-Cheung’s Isabella from 2006). She plays a young woman dating an aspiring boxer. The boxer has vision problems, and Isabella, an artist, is haunted by memories of her parents, who split up when she was a child, which also separated her from her brother. We also meet the brother, now a tour guide on the small island off the coast of Taiwan where they grew up. Chang deftly weaves together the characters’ present lives and memories of their parents with a splash of magic realism in the form of a mermaid and a quite fashionable ghost/bartender. It’s a more conventional art house movie than Mountains, in that it’s the kind of Taiwanese film that seems rather inexplicable for the first 40 minutes or so and, as everything becomes clear and all the various connections are resolved, becomes deeply moving as the story comes together with a satisfying click. It isn’t as meta-cinematic as the other Chang-directed films I’ve seen (the very good Tempting Heart and 20 30 40), but it’s warm and sweet and quite lovely, a nice flipside to the acidic Office.


Yet another Chinese film blurring the boundaries between past and present is Kaili Blues, from first-time director Bi Gan.  A middle aged man, a doctor, helps watch over his nephew while his brother, the boy’s father, gambles and gets himself in trouble. When he learns that his brother may have sold the boy in another town, he heads out to bring him home. But what he finds there is an inexplicable kind of temporal loop, chronicled in a breath-taking 40+ minute single-shot, as the man, his driver, the driver’s girlfriend, a local band, and various other characters wander around a river spanning village.  The doctor’s past, and that of his fellow doctor, now an elderly woman, seemingly come to life in the village, along with his nephew’s future. There’s no apparent rationale for the loop, it’s simply a world where the past, present and future exist together, an endless cycle repeating itself, or the infinite possibilities of an unknowable universe. It was the most satisfyingly confounding film of the festival and an audacious debut, one that in past years would have earned its director a Dragons & Tigers award.

Moving away from China but sticking with the experimental, I lastly want to mention a trio of films. Portuguese director Lois Patiño’s Night Without Distance is a semi-narrative short about smugglers waiting in the Galician borderland while cops lie in wait for them. Patiño films the whole thing in negative, but not black and white, rather mind-blowingly colored. Purples and yellows dominate the inverted landscape, with gorgeous drops of rain bursting from a stream, while the people stand still, haunting the otherworldly spaces. It’s a documentary vision of our Earth as filmed from the land of ghosts. I’ve never seen anything like it. Paired with it was Topophilia, by director Peter Bo Rappmund. Painstakingly assembled out of thousands of still images covering the length of the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline, it’s a fascinating rumination of the effect of technology on environment, and the way the two seem to meld together. With an eerily assaultive soundtrack largely built out of the sounds of the pipeline itself, the impact of the machinery on the natural world is undeniable, and yet, the natural world goes on all around it, taking no notice. Mauro Herce’s Dead Slow Ahead is another film about machinery, chronicling the life of a massive transport ship as it traverses the Mediterranean. Here gives us the kind of otherworldly closeups familiar from Leviathan, while putting more emphasis on the ways the ship technology dwarfs the humans that work within it. A long final section echoes with recordings of the workers as they call home, leaving messages, talking to distant wives, mothers, children, living ghosts in the machine.

VIFF 2015 Preview Part Three: The Mirror and Weekend

Every year before heading over to the festival, I try to familiarize myself with some of the directors whose films are playing there that I haven’t yet seen. Last year I watched films by Pedro Costa, Lisandro Alonso, Imtiaz Ali and Heiward Mak, all of which I liked a lot and all of whom had films at VIFF I ended up enjoying a great deal. This year I haven’t been able to see as much as I would have liked. There was the discussion of Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective on The George Sanders Show I linked to a couple of days ago, but other than that there’s just these two movies, Jafar Panahi’s The Mirror and Andrew Haigh’s Weekend.

Panahi is mostly famous these days for continuing to smuggle films out of Iran despite having been officially banned from doing so in 2010. His This is Not a Film won wide-spread acclaim the following year, and his Closed Curtain was a film I was hoping to see at VIFF 2013 but for scheduling reasons didn’t make it. (I have hard luck with Iranian films in general at the festival, a number of interesting ones have played there over the years, but other than the two Abbas Kiarostami films Certified Copy and Like Someone in Love, I haven’t managed to get to a single one.) His new film is called Taxi (well, it’s called been retitled Jafar Panahi’s Taxi for North American release, apparently so people don’t confuse it with the 2004 Jimmy Fallon-Queen Latifah movie). My experience with Iranian cinema in general is woefully inadequate, I only caught up with Asghar Farhadi and A Separation earlier this year, for example, so rather than simply go with Panahi’s recent work, I decided to watch one of his earliest films, the 1997 feature The Mirror, which won the Locarno Film Festival that year.

It’s an idea for a film so simple in its provocation that I’d be surprised if it’d never been done before. There’s something elemental about it, like an idea that’s always been there in cinema but never quite been expressed so well or so effectively before (John Cage’s 4’33” came to mind). A young girl, six or seven years old, has to make her way home from school after her mom fails to pick her up on time. She doesn’t quite know the way, and maneuvers in and out of buses, cabs and crosswalks with the mostly ineffectual help of strangers. Along the way we see a cross-section of the city in its particular time and place (Teheran in the mid-90s), a kind of neo-realist city-symphony. But then, after 40 minutes, the girl looks at the camera and decides she doesn’t want to be in the movie anymore and storms off. The film stock abruptly shifts and we see Panahi and his crew debating what to do next, a pseudo-documentary of a film production in a panicked moment. They let her go, while leaving her microphone on and follow her home, surreptitiously filming the girl’s journey now in reverse as she in “real” life must accomplish the same tasks her character did in fiction.

It’s a nifty gimmick and anchored beautifully by the performance of Mina Mohammad Khani as the girl. But that’s just a MacGuffin for the film’s true interest, which is the portrait of Teheran in all its cacophony and chaos. A dozen little stories spin around the girl (the young couple separated by the enforced gender divide on the public bus; the man who just wants his poor relations to dress nicely at his daughter’s wedding) but mostly in the first half, the constructed narrative section. The people in the second half are more incoherent, their plotlines less clear, their characters not so cleanly delineated with cinematic shorthand. Some characters recur, including an old woman that throws a monkey wrench into even that distinction. We heard her talking in the narrative section, complaining about the lack of respect she gets from her children. When the girl meets her again in the second, she explains that she wasn’t acting in the earlier scenes, they just paid her to show up and she made up her lines out of her own life. Fiction, reality: it’s all the same. The important thing is to invest in traffic lights and make your kids memorize their home addresses.

From an inauspicious beginning as an assistant editor on Gladiator, British director Andrew Haigh burst on the scene with his 2011 romantic drama Weekend, about a brief but intense relationship between two men in Nottingham. Played by Tom Cullen and Chris New, the two bond over long naturalistic conversations about life, family, friends, sexual histories and the difficulties of being gay in a predominantly straight world. It’s firmly in the tradition of the romantic drama, with shades of Brief Encounter, Before Sunrise, Waterloo Bridge, Morocco and Lost in Translation (among others), a talky film about two people trying to figure out their place in the world and if that place has room for anyone else. As such it’s expertly done, but Haigh brings to it something special with a unique contrast of styles. The interiors, the dialogue and party scenes, are shot intimately, with a fuzzy off-handedness that is the signal for realism in contemporary cinema. We skip forward in time catching only glimpses of much longer conversations, many of which are mumbled or lost in a cacophony background (this is entirely realistic: I loved how in the party and bar scenes I couldn’t understand any of what anyone was saying, just like I can’t in such real-life situations).

This isn’t in itself remarkable, but what separates those scenes is. All the exterior shots are carefully framed, with long straight lines forming sharp corners and diagonals. These usually (but not always) function as pillow shots, popularized by Yasujiro Ozu as the institial spaces for contemplation between scenes of plot. As in Ozu, Haigh’s are precisely framed, but where in Ozu’s films they are brightly scored with jaunty music that often belies the serious dramatics at work in his characters lives, in Weekend the shots are oppressive and constricting, a constructed world of boundaries imposing public limits on the expression of the relationship possibilities that thrive behind apartment tower windows. My favorite are the three shots with the setup pictured above. In each shot, Cullen watches New walk away from his apartment. In each shot New is wearing a different colored jacket (yellow, black, red: the three colors are unified in the outfit New wears in his final scene). Each time, New hesitates a bit as he walks away, his motion, and Cullen’s shadow, depicting the emotional course of their relationship in minute gestures. If the film depicted of just these three shots, that would be enough to make it something special. Like with The Mirror, Weekend is at its heart a fairly simple cinematic and thematic idea, but one that is likewise all the more powerful for the purity of its expression. Haigh’s new film 45 Years won wide acclaim at the just-concluded Toronto Film Festival, I can’t wait to see it at VIFF.

VIFF 2015 Preview Part Two: A Big List of VIFF Movies

I went to my first Vancouver International Film Festival in 2008 and have attended every year since but one (2011, when a kid was born two weeks before the festival started). As I look forward to this year’s edition, I thought it might be nice to take a look back at some of my favorite films from previous festivals. Here are my Top 50 VIFF Movies, which given the current exchange rate, yields 66 titles.

1. Oki’s Movie (Hong Sangsoo, 2010)
2. Sita Sings the Blues (Nina Paley, 2008)
3. Oxhide II (Liu Jiayin, 2009)
4. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)
5. Sparrow (Johnnie To, 2008)
6. La última película (Raya Martin & Mark Peranson, 2013)
7. The Midnight After (Fruit Chan, 2014)
8. The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh, 2013)
9. Hill of Freedom (Hong Sangsoo, 2014)
10. Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami, 2012)
11. Night Across the Street (Raúl Ruiz, 2012)
12. Jauja (Lisandro Alonso, 2014)
13. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)
14. Wolf Children (Mamoru Hosada, 2012)
15. National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman, 2014)
16. Horse Money (Pedro Costa, 2014)
17. A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, 2013)
18. Romance Joe (Lee Kwangkuk, 2012)
19. Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-liang, 2013)
20. Carlos (Olivier Assayas, 2010)
21. In Another Country (Hong Sangsoo, 2011)
22. Tabu (Miguel Gomes, 2012)
23. Mekong Hotel (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2012)
24. Thomas Mao (Zhu Wen, 2010)
25. Written By (Wai Ka-fai, 2009)
26. Our Sunhi (Hong Sangsoo, 2012)
27. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (Ben Rivers & Ben Russell, 2013)
28. The Last Time I Saw Macao (João Pedro Rodrigues & João Rui Guerra da Mata, 2012)
29. When Night Falls (Ying Liang, 2012)
30. Hahaha (Hong Sangsoo, 2010)
31. 607 (Liu Jiayin, 2010)
32. Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl (Manoel de Oliveira, 2009)
33. Yumen (JP Sniadecki, Xu Ruotao & Xiang Huang, 2013)
34. Adieu au langage (Jean-Luc Godard. 2014)
35. La Sapienza (Eugène Green, 2014)
36. Memories Look at Me (Song Fang, 2012)
37. Three Sisters (Wang Bing, 2012)
38. Bluebeard (Catherine Breillat, 2009)
39. Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh, 2008)
40. Hard to Say (Lee Kwangkuk, 2011)
41. Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 2014)
42. Walker (Tsai Ming-liang, 2012)
43. Four Ways to Die in My Hometown (Chai Chunya, 2012)
44. Heaven Knows What (Josh & Benny Safdie, 2014)
45. Ballet 422 (Jody Lee Lipes, 2014)
46. People’s Park (JP Sniadecki & Libbie Cohn, 2012)
47. Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme, 2008)
48. Highway (Imtiaz Ali, 2014)
49. Like You Know it All (Hong Sangsoo, 2009)
50. The Great Passage (Yûya Ishii, 2013)
51. The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, 2008)
52. Something in the Air (Olivier Assayas, 2012)
53. Emperor Visits the Hell (Luo Li, 2012)
54. I Wish I Knew (Jia Zhangke, 2010)
55. The Golden Era (Ann Hui, 2014)
56. Mahjong (João Rui Guerra da Mata, 2013)
57. Neighboring Sounds (Kleber Mendonça Filho, 2012)
58. Thursday Till Sunday (Dominga Sotomayor, 2012)
59. Uncertain Relationships Society (Heiward Mak, 2014)
60. The Sleeping Beauty (Catherine Breillat, 2010)
61. Trap Street (Vivian Qu, 2013)
62. Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008)
63. Gallants (Clement Cheng & Derek Kwok, 2010)
64. Rembrandt’s J’Accuse (Peter Greenaway, 2008)
65. Welcome to New York (Abel Ferrara, 2014)
66. East Meets West (Jeffrey Lau, 2011)

VIFF 2015 Preview Part One: Office, Police Adjective, The Soong Sisters and A Matter of Interpretation

Leading up to the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival, I’m hoping to catch up with and review some films from directors who have films featured at this years festival, directors who are reasonably new to me. This is the first installment.

Office (Johnnie To, 2015) and Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2009)

The George Sanders Show Episode #69

Johnnie To’s latest film is, unfortunately, not playing at this year’s festival, continuing a worrying trend from 2014 wherein the To film (Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2) only played at the Toronto Film Festival before receiving a very limited North American theatrical release targeted solely at the diasporic film market. Office is written and produced by Sylvia Chang, who also stars. It’s an adaptation of her play Design for Living and marks a reunion of the actress with To, who directed her and Chow Yun-fat in the 1989 film All About Ah-Long, a family melodrama (also based on a screenplay by Chang, co-written with Chow) and one of the biggest hits of To’s career. In addition to being an accomplished actress, writer and pop singer, Chang has also directed a number of excellent films, the latest being Murmur of the Hearts, which will be playing at this year’s VIFF.
Also at VIFF this year is Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Treasure. A leading member of the New Romanian Cinema that has found international prominence over the last decade or so, we of The George Sanders Show had yet to see any of his work. So for this week’s episode, we took a look at his 2009 black comedy Police, Adjective. We also discuss Office, the films of Johnnie To and discuss several of the less well-known films we’re looking forward to seeing at this year’s festival.

The Soong Sisters (Mabel Cheung, 1997)

Mabel Cheung’s A Tale of Three Cities, based on the life of Jackie Chan’s parents and starring the intriguing pair of Lau Ching-wan and Tang Wei, is playing at this year’s festival. The only other one of Cheung’s films I’ve seen was 1987’s An Autumn’s Tale, with Chow Yun-Fat, so I decided to take a look at her 1997 historical epic about three sisters. 
The oldest (Michelle Yeoh) marries one of the richest men in China, a direct descendant of Confucius. The second (Maggie Cheung) marries Sun Yat-sen while he’s in the midst of overthrowing the Qing Dynasty and establishing his Republic. The youngest (Vivian Wu) marries Chiang Kai-shek while he’s in the midst of turning Sun’s Republic into a military dictatorship more concerned with killing Communists than fighting the Japanese that happen to be invading the country. Director Mabel Cheung introduces it as a fairy tale, three princesses getting the things they want (money, prestige and power, respectively) at the expense of the family bond. The second marriage estranges Maggie from her father (played by Jiang Wen), the third estranges Vivian and Maggie, and all the while Michelle tries to hold the family together, more for the control over the nation that their unity gives them as for any feeling of familial piety. The allegories are obvious (a nation split apart, first with Western influence (the girls are sent away to America as children) then with internal disputes (finally the three settle in three different Chinas: Hong Kong, Taiwan and the PRC itself). The film has the gorgeous sweep and cliched dramatics of Zhang Yimou’s films from the same period, but with a harder edge, a radical sting lying just under the surface. The women are vibrant, dynamic and highly intelligent. Their men are buffoonish, pompous, and ineffectual. The men are limited, the women capable of anything.

A Matter of Interpretation (Lee Kwangkuk, 2014)

One of our favorite films from this year’s Seattle International Film Festival was the latest from Korean director Lee Kwangkuk. The follow-up to Romance Joe, which I saw and loved at the 2012 VIFF, and which remains one of the great undistributed-in-the-US films of recent years, Lee’s films are somewhat reminiscent if his mentor Hong Sangsoo, but with important and interesting differences. I’m looking forward to watching A Matter of Interpretation again at VIFF, as I was only able to watch a mediocre screener at SIFF. Like the previous film, it’s a romantic comedy lost amid a swirl of narrative experimentation. Rather than the nested flashbacks and films within films (or rather, ideas for films within films) of his first film, Lee here layers his story as a series of dreams (as in his 2013 short Hard to Say, which also played at VIFF), related by the various characters to each other as they attempt to puzzle them out. A grumpy actress, her lost ex-boyfriend, a friendly detective and his damaged sister form the web of enchanted melancholy, with the help of a little soju. Mike reviewed it for us in more detail at Seattle Screen Scene.

VIFF 2015: Introduction and Proposed Schedule

Part of my coverage of the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival.

It is time once again for the Vancouver International Film Festival. This will be my seventh year making the trip, every year since 2008 with the exception of 2011. Here at The End, I’ll be reviewing as many movies as I can for as long as I can, probably in the same digest format I used last year. In a somewhat exciting development this year, the entire cast of The George Sanders Show will be attending the festival, and we plan on doing some on-the-spot recording while we’re there as well (we also have a preview episode planned for the weekend before the festival begins). We’ll have coverage of the festival over at Seattle Screen Scene as well, even though Vancouver is obviously not Seattle (except in In the Line of Duty 4 and Paycheck, of course), because it’s a reasonably short train ride and VIFF is better than SIFF.

Once again there’s a great selection at VIFF, with several films from international festival circuit along with more obscure titles from the Dragons & Tigers series highlighting Asian cinema, the largest such program outside of Asia. Again the loss of the Dragons & Tigers Award is sadly felt, and last year’s consolation award for New Directors is missing as well. It looks like the festival is simply repositioning itself as a forum for local film and television production, with an emphasis on the VIFF Industry sidebar conference, and away from the kind of festival that would seek out and fly-in directors from around the world, like former award-winners Hong Sangsoo, Jia Zhangke, Liu Jiayin, Kore-eda Hirokazu, and so on.

Because I’m only able to be there for 10 of the festival’s 16 days, there are a handful of anticipated titles I won’t be able to see. These include: Arabian Nights, In the Shadow of Women, Son of Saul, Francofonia, Our Little Sister, Aferim! and Cemetery of Splendor, as well as The Royal Road, which I saw at SIFF earlier this year and was hoping to see again. Fortunately I should be able to catch up with most of these at a later date, but missing out on the Miguel Gomes and Apichatpong Weerasethakul films in Vancouver is especially heart-breaking.

In addition to the podcast coming up in a couple of weeks, I’ll be doing some pre-festival viewing again, trying to catch up on previous works by directors I’m hoping to see this year. Those titles are to-be-determined, but I’m certain Sylvia Chang will be involved.

This is a rough draft of the schedule I’m looking to follow at the 2015 festival. Showings that conflict with each other are listed without a space in-between, with the film I’m leaning toward attending listed first. There are a lot more conflicted time slots this year than in years past, which is either because there are fewer films I’m really excited about or more films I’m somewhat excited about, or both.

Friday, September 25:

Paradise (Sina Ataeian Dena)

Li Wen at East Lake (Luo Li)
The Thoughts that Once We Had (Thom Andersen)

The Pearl Button (Patricio Guzmán)
A Tale of Three Cities (Mabel Cheung)
The Visit (An Alien Encounter) (Michael Madsen)


Saturday, September 26:

A Matter of Interpretation (Lee Kwangkuk)

The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers (Ben Rivers)
The Thoughts that Once We Had (Thom Andersen)

Alice in Earnestland (Ahn Goocjin)
The Club (Pablo Larraín)


Sunday, September 27:

Dead Slow Ahead (Mauro Herce)

A Tale of Three Cities (Mabel Cheung)
Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead (Douglas Tirola)
Entertainment (Rick Alverson)

Beeba Boys (Deepa Mehta)

The Forbidden Room (Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson)


Monday, September 28:

Port of Call (Philip Yung)

It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong (Emily Ting)

Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sangsoo)

Erbarme dich – Matthäus Passion Stories (Ramón Gieling)

Gonin Saga (Ishii Takashi)


Tuesday, September 29:

Love is All/Exquisite Corpus (Kim Longinotto/Peter Tscherkassky)

From Scotland with Love (Virginia Heath)

Topophilia (Peter Bo Rappmund)
Dead Slow Ahead (Mauro Herce)

Tharlo (Pema Tseden)
31st October (Shivaji Lotan Patil)


Wednesday, September 30:

The Visit (An Alien Encounter) (Michael Madsen)
Lost and Beautiful (Pietro Marcello)

Mr. Zhang Believes (Qiu Jiongjiong)

Kaili Blues (Bi Gan)

The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien)

Three Stories of Love (Hashiguchi Ryosuke)
The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos)


Thursday, October 1:

Wondrous Boccaccio (Paolo & Vittorio Taviani)

Taxi (Jafar Panahi)
Argentina (Carlos Saura)

Magicarena (Andrea Prandstraller & Niccolò Bruna)

The Dream of Shahrazad (François Verster)
Paulina (Santiago Mitre)
Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra)
Disorder (Alice Wincour)


Friday, October 2:

Murmur of the Hearts (Sylvia Chang)
Three Stories of Love (Hashiguchi Ryosuke)
Dheepan (Jaques Audiard)

Monty Python: The Meaning of Live (Roger Graef & James Rogan)

My Golden Days (Arnaud Desplechin)
Louder than Bombs (Joachim Trier)

High-Rise (Ben Wheatley)
London Road (Rufus Norris)
100 Yen Love (Take Masaharu)

AAAAAAAAH! (Steve Oram)


Saturday, October 3:

45 Years (Andrew Haigh)

Into the Forest (Patricia Rozema)
Taxi (Jafar Panahi)

The Treasure (Corneliu Porumboiu)


Sunday, October 4:

The Summer of Sangailé (Alanté Kavaïté)
Chevalier (Athina Rachel Tsangari)

Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke)

This Week in Rankings

Since the last update we actually managed to put out a couple episode of They Shot Pictures. One on Preston Sturges and another on John Woo. I had reviews of Woo’s Princess Chang Ping at Seattle Screen Scene and Jackie Chan’s Project A films here at The End. We’ve also had episodes of The George Sanders Show on The Look of Silence and The Sound of Music and Man of Aran and Neo Tokyo.

These are the movies I’ve watched and rewatched over the last few weeks and where they place on my year-by-year rankings. Short comments or capsule reviews for them can be found over at letterboxd.

Man of Aran (Robert Flaherty) – 3, 1934
The Sound of Music (Robert Wise) – 31, 1965
The Young Dragons (John Woo) – 17, 1974
The Dragon Tamers (John Woo) – 22, 1975
Princess Chang Ping (John Woo) – 16, 1976

Last Hurrah for Chivalry (John Woo) – 12, 1979
Laughing Times (John Woo) – 32, 1980
Neo Tokyo (Rintaro, Yoshiaki Kawajiri & Katsuhiro Ōtomo) – 16, 1987
The Killer (John Woo) – 1, 1989
Just Heroes (John Woo & Wu Ma) – 49, 1989

Bullet in the Head (John Woo) – 4, 1990
Hard-Boiled (John Woo) – 3, 1992
Hard Target (John Woo) – 46, 1993
Sense and Sensibility (Ang Lee) – 19, 1995
Broken Arrow (John Woo) – 30, 1996
Face/Off (John Woo) – 30, 1997

Windtalkers (John Woo) – 14, 2002
Paycheck (John Woo) – 27, 2003
Red Cliff (John Woo) – 6, 2008
Oki’s Movie (Hong Sangsoo) – 1, 2010
Reign of Assassins (Su Chao-pin) – 48, 2010

The Crossing Part One (John Woo) – 11, 2014
The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer) – 33, 2014
Shaun the Sheep Movie (Mark Burton & Richard Starzak) – 16, 2015
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (Christopher McQuarrie) – 20, 2015
Ant-Man (Peyton Reed) – 23, 2015

Running Out of Karma: Jackie Chan’s Project A and Project A 2

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To, Hong Kong and Chinese-language cinema. Here is an index.

Project A (Jackie Chan, 1983)

Comparing Project A to Sammo Hung’s Wheels on Meals, released the next year in 1984, shows some stark differences between Sammo and Jackie Chan as directors. Both films are swashbuckling adventures with ridiculously athletic fights and stunts, slapstick comedy and a real obsession with beating the hell out of Jackie Chan. Both star Chan, Sammo and Yuen Biao. Sammo’s film though tells a real story, about immigrants in Barcelona (granted, a Barcelona where everyone speaks Cantonese) that find themselves caught up in what we slowly realize is a fairy tale: three musketeers rescuing a princess from a castle. It isn’t as socially conscious as Hung’s Pedicab Driver (a great film which is now available to stream on Warner Archive Instant), but that little bit of grounding makes the escalating fantasy even more effective. It’s packed with purely visual humor (the split screen gag in the opening moments, Sammo’s variety of hats and Yuen’s entire wardrobe) and moments of sublime absurdity (Wu Ma’s “guy who thinks he’s a clock”). Wheels on Meals is a true ensemble film, with Yuen and Chan sharing the lead and Sammo in support, like he is in almost all of his films from this period.

Project A, however, is a Jackie Chan-starring vehicle all the way. There are long stretches of the film where the other two Little Fortunes are entirely absent (Yuen has a large role as a rival cop in the first half of the film, then mostly disappears, Sammo pops in and out for some scoundrelly awesomeness). Chan is the prime mover of the plot and the true hero of a very thin story about Hong Kong’s Coast Guard fighting a gang of pirates at some very unspecific time in the past. The humor is even more broad and less inventive, wild overacting (even by Hong Kong standards) and literal pie-in-the-face jokes (well, spaghetti-in-the-face). The plot barely makes sense, little more than an excuse for fights, sketchy gags and chase sequences (and of course a contextually nonsensical but nonetheless kind of stirring patriotic dressing-down Chan gives his British superior). The actions scenes are, of course, amazing: the coordination of the fights with Chan and Sammo (side by side, for the moment) is unbelievably fast and intricate, and these are some of Chan’s most famous and inventive chases, especially the central bicycle chase, with Chan’s exasperation toward the useless female lead (another unfortunate Chan trope) and culminating in a Harold Lloyd homage. But even the finale becomes overcrowded with extras and effects. The climax of Wheels on Meals gives each hero a highlighted fight, we see the differences in their personalities reflected in their fighting styles: Sammo’s silliness, Yuen’s gracefulness and speed, Chan’s masochism. In Project A, the climax is a series of mistaken identity gags (which are, to be fair, pretty funny) followed by an all-too-brief mass fight punctuated by the repeated use of hand grenades (some brilliant falling stunts by Sammo here). The three unite to gang up on the villain Dick Wei (terrific here, wish he had a bigger part), but even in this fight, it’s technology that wins as much as anything else.

Project A 2 (Jackie Chan, 1987)

The sequel is even more Chan-focused, as the other Little Fortunes are absent (they were off in the jungle making Eastern Condors) and Jackie is joined by a trio of women played by Maggie Cheung, Carina Lau and Rosamund Kwan, in an apparent nod to Tsui Hark’s Peking Opera Blues and its trio of Brigitte Lin, Sally Yeh and Cherie Chung. The film picks up right at the end of the first one, with surviving members of the pirate gang vowing revenge on Chan. They end up poor and desperate in Hong Kong where they join the various factions trying to kill our hero. These include a corrupt cop with a penchant for inflating his reputation with fake arrests and a gambling den magnate/gang leader. The women are part of Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionary group, and they try to get Chan to join up as well. As always, Chan refuses to take a political stand, rather than supporting one government or another he sticks to a personal ideology of honesty and righteousness. He’s against corruption, aids the sick and helpless and protects the innocent. There’s nothing wrong with any of those things, of course, but one can’t help notice that this political vagueness also makes his films palatable for the widest possible audience, whereas more committed films like Tsui’s, in which the female revolutionaries are the heroes and prime movers of the plot, make an unmistakeable political argument threatening to the powers that be.

Chan’s political vagueness aside, I think this is actually even better than the first film. It expands and perfects his desire to pay homage to old Hollywood classics, with an extended sequence in Cheung’s apartment that recalls A Night at the Opera (as well as a similar, but smaller-scale, sequence in Tsui’s Shanghai Blues) and the finale ups the Harold Lloyd sequence from the first film by recreating Buster Keaton’s most famous stunt (from Steamboat Bill, Jr.) The best sequence though is an extended chase with Chan and his rival cop handcuffed together and attacked by the ax-throwing pirate gang that starts in a restaurant and extends across the streets of the city. This is the pinnacle of Chan’s slapstick kung fu style, avoiding the brutal masochism of Police Story (made between these two films in 1985), in which the light-hearted comic hero Jackie gradually comes undone at the abuse of his body perpetrated by the villains and his own choreographic imagination. The conclusion of that film is violent and cruel, as the hero resorts to a pure expression of murderous rage against his (captured and defenseless) enemy, part of a series of Hong Kong films in the 80s that seem to justify police vigilantism and brutality, also a popular trope in American cop films of the same era. As Chan’s career went on, the cartoon of the Project A films became his default persona while the Police Story darkness, a natural outgrowth of the masochism of his early films, dissipated. But aside from a spark here and there, the films were rarely so good, becoming increasingly content to rest on audacity rather than ingenuity for his stunt sequences and awkward mugging for his comedy. And as his physical skills have declined with age, the hollowness of his work has become ever more apparent. Unlike Tsui Hark, or Lau Kar-leung, he’s been unable to extend his directorial career into old age with any kind of success. He never really had anything to say anyway.