Monday, April 30, 2012

The Sea Gives Up Its Dead

About halfway through The Yellow Sea (2010, directed by Hong-jin Na), I had the feeling that I was watching the best film ever made from a Richard Stark novel. True, there is no corresponding Stark novel, but the situation is one that would make a pretty kick-ass Parker yarn, at least until it turns bleak and noir-ish in the end. Up until then, it has a merciless ferocity and a willingness to paint the world red. In many ways, it's the fulfillment of the promise of director Hong-jin Na's first film, The Chaser, which had a propulsive forward momentum even if it was too clever for its own good. That film was bleak and nihilistic in calculated ways, but it was a light summer breeze compared to the sucking downdraft in The Yellow Sea. The Yellow Sea is a film that doesn't pull its punches.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The End of the Rainbow

Y'know, I wanted to like the new big screen revival of The Muppets (2011, directed by James Bobin). Check that, I wanted to love it. This is part of my masochistic relationship with The Muppets dating back to my early childhood. In the 1970s, the Muppets could seemingly do no wrong, whether it was their occasional appearances on talk shows, their interesting and seriously weird one-off specials like The Bremen Town Musicians or Emmit Otter's Jug Band Christmas, or the glory of The Muppet Show, which is one of the most creative television shows ever mounted. I haven't liked any of the movies, though. Not a one. This makes me sad, because, as I say, I want to love them. Such is my affection for the characters that I give them the benefit of the doubt with each new effort and they burn me every time. It disturbs me, too, to think that the only "Muppet" movie I actually like is Peter Jackson's scabrous parody, Meet the Feebles, and that movie, let me tell you, is kind of a travesty. So when the Muppets returned to the screen after a twelve year layoff, I was game. Maybe the long interval since the last film would yield a creative rebirth. Alas, it wasn't to be.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Windy City Melodrama

Of the 2002 version of Chicago, I once wrote that I might enjoy watching the makers of that movie devoured by dingoes. It would be more entertaining, I think, than watching the actual movie. To say that I hated it almost understates my reaction. Longtime readers of this blog might be surprised at the intensity of that hate, given that I try to be fair to the movies I see regardless of their limitations. Sometimes a movie just rubs me wrong, though, and Chicago 2002 was such a movie. The original silent version of Chicago (1927, directed by Frank Urson) showed at my local art house this week as part of their spring Pre-Code series. I liked it a bit more than the remake, in so far as I did NOT walk away from it wanting to see the filmmakers devoured by marsupial predators. Perhaps that's faint praise.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

What Tangled Webs

The Shaw Brothers were the eight hundred pound gorilla in Hong Kong filmmaking for over twenty years. That began to change when two executives from the Shaws, Raymond Chow and Leonard Ho, left the company to start their own studio. That studio, Golden Harvest, would radically change the way films were made in Hong Kong and were the first Hong Kong studio to break into the world market. Their business model was drastically different from the Shaws, who ran their studio like an old style Hollywood movie factory. Golden Harvest, by contrast, decentralized production and contracted with independent producers. Their biggest coup was hiring Bruce Lee when the actor turned down a standard contract from the Shaws. Golden Harvest turned Lee into an international superstar, and Enter the Dragon, co-produced with Warner Brothers, was a global hit, one that defined the martial arts film of the 1970s. Perhaps more importantly, though, Golden Harvest was ground zero for the Hong Kong New Wave of the 1980s. They were the home of Jackie Chan and Tsui Hark. Tsui Hark in particular remade Hong Kong filmmaking in his own image. His film, Zu Warriors of the Magic Mountain is a watershed Hong Kong movie that finds the director seemingly making up a new cinema paradigm as he goes along.

The Shaws, for their part, were slow to react. When Tsui Hark and Ching-sui Tung were sending up their rockets, the Shaws began to seem quaint. They were entrenched with the way they'd always done things and by the time they made tentative efforts to embrace the new, it was too late. Still, their efforts from the mid eighties right up until they ceased production entirely in 1985 are chock full of oddities. This is where the most batshit insane Shaw movies originate, films like Human Lanterns and Holy Flame of the Martial World, in which the Shaw methods are mashed up with the fantasias of the New Wave. Such a film is The Bastard Swordsman (1983, directed by Lu Chun-ku), which closed out our local program of kung fu from the Shaolin Film Archives. The Bastard Swordsman incorporates most of the tropes of late Shaw Brothers, but it interweaves them with special effects, lots of wire fu, and a generally absurd premise that all come to a head in a climax that ringmaster Dan Halsted promise would make your head explode.

He wasn't kidding.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Pole Position

The second night of the Shaolin Film Archive's showing this week featured Dan Halsted showing a slide show documenting how he found four tons of kung fu in Vancouver. The story he tells has a lot of fun asides, but none is more entertaining than the customs trouble Halsted encountered when trying to bring his find into the United States. Customs officials got it into their heads that he was bringing pornography into the country based on the fact that one of the prints he found was for Dirty Ho. I know, right? It totally sounds like porn. It's not. It's a pretty awesome kung fu movie starring Gordon Liu and directed by Chia-liang Liu. I kind of wish Halsted had brought Dirty Ho with him, because it would be in my top five Chia-liang Liu movies along with Tiger on the Beat, Drunken Master II, My Young Auntie, and Mad Monkey Kung Fu. Instead, he brought Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1984), his own personal favorite. I can't really argue with the choice even if it's not in my own pantheon, because Eight Diagram Pole Fighter has everything you might want from a Chia-liang Liu movie: Gordon Liu, Kara Hui, a kick-ass cameo by the director (himself a revered martial artist), and final reel that is so brain-burstingly awesome that you walk away from the movie wondering if your eyes really saw what they just saw. And if, for myself, I find the story itself a bit of a jumble, I'm willing to admit that there are extenuating circumstances.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Check and Mate

I'm not entirely sure how I would have reacted to the cache of kung fu movies that Dan Halsted found in a shuttered Chinese movie theater in Vancouver. I probably would have had a heart attack. I like to think that I'd do what Halsted is doing and tour the country showing the movies. If you haven't heard the story, it goes like this: film collector Dan Halsted of Portland, Oregon came across an immaculate bunch of kung fu trailers. His interest was peaked by quality of the print, and he decided to trace where it came from. They turned out to have a shady provenance, and that trail turned cold. Fortunately, there was evidence with the films themselves, and he followed it to a shuttered theater that was once part of the Shaw Brothers' North American theater chain. In that theater, sequestered under the stage, was a cache of four tons of kung fu movies, most in terrific shape, many the only 35 mm prints of a given movie known to exist. Four tons of 35 mm film equates to roughly 200 movies. This was like finding the Holy Grail and Shangrila at the same time. Halsted is a film programmer who runs a series of grindhouse classics in his home town, but this was too good not to share and he took it on tour. The tour came to my home town of Columbia, MO this week, where it occupied two nights of double features.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Locked and Loaded

When I saw the trailer for Lockout (2012, directed by James Mather and Stephen St. Leger) the new action film from Luc Besson's genre factory, I knew that I had to see it. Oh, it looked awful, but it looked awful in that sweet spot of awful that's unreasonably entertaining, if you get my drift. I mean, you could see the entire movie in the trailer. It's essentially Escape From New York crossed with Fortress 2 and Die Hard, in which a single badass hero succeeds where an army would fail. Escape from New York IN SPACE? "Seriously," I said to sympathetic friends, how could this be bad?" (Note: the involvement of Luc Besson did give me pause along these lines). In truth, this is a movie that I would love to have seen with a gaggle of other people. I have at least a dozen friends who would groove on this movie and if I could have gathered them up in one place to watch it on the big screen, it would have been one of the sweeter movie going experiences I've had in a while. I had to settle for one friend, and a mostly empty theater, alas, but it was still fun.

I probably shouldn't say that Lockout is awful, because really, it's not. It's a specific kind of genre film and it executes the narrow range of its genre tropes about as well as any other action movie, and I look down on that at my peril. This is not a genre sector populated by movies that aspire to more than pure entertainment, so if you get more than that, count yourself lucky, and if you don't, well, that doesn't mean that the experience is bad. Entertainment is entertainment, right? If you want a message, as Sam Goldwyn once opined, send it Western Union. Anyway, when you compare this to other like movies, it stacks up pretty well. It has good production design, a compelling central character, a more than adequate stock of one-liners, and a willingness to dive headfirst into its own absurdity. I'll own up to the fact that this is a combo I find irresistible.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Small Pond

I never know how to review movies when I've had a conversation with the director. Most of the directors I meet aren't big names. They're making movies that are a dream to them, usually living a marginal existence as they do it, and they're almost ALWAYS smart, dedicated, and film literate. I like directors. But for a few turns on the road, I would have been one of them. So if I have a conversation with a director, it tends to color how I review their work.

I mean, close friends I'm honest with because they usually ask me directly what I think of their movies, and I know that I can be honest with them. They know I know a lot about movies, and they're looking for constructive criticism and I give it. Significantly, I don't write about movies made by close friends in public, because there's no way to be objective. So I have a bit of a problem reviewing Small Pond (201l, directed by Josh Slates). Director Josh Slates isn't a close friend, but he's not exactly a stranger, either. Back in the 1990s, when I ran a boutique, cult-movie themed video store, Josh used to come into the store all the time. He was a teenager back then, and even then, he knew more about movies than just about anyone I've ever met. He moved off to go to film school, but it seems he never completely left Columbia, Missouri. This past weekend, he returned with his first feature, a movie about Columbia itself.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Feminine Wiles

The first time I saw Female (1933, directed by Michael Curtiz, William Dieterle, and William Wellman), it pissed me off mightily. What started off as a sly feminist critique of masculinity and a vindication of the abilities and appetites of women went all weak in the knees in the end and transformed into an egregiously anti-feminist film. I mean, a LOT of Pre-code movies follow this pattern, and it's hard to swallow in those films, too, but Female is a starker example than most. Not content with letting its diamond hard heroine go all soft and wishy washy, it has to put broad, regressive pronouncements about the role of women in society into the mouths of both of its leads. At the showing I attended last night, there was a vocal reaction to this turn of events, as well there should be. Watching this movie anew, though, I started to suspect it of having an ulterior motive. Michael Curtiz is the nominal director, though he only directed reshoots featuring Johnny Mack Brown as one of our heroine's conquests. I wonder if one of the other directors--probably William Wellman--isn't attempting to smuggle a wink at the audience into the last scene of the film, as if to say "Don't blame us! We know how crappy this is, too!"

I mean, I get why this sort of thing happened. Even before Joseph Breen became Hollywood's high inquisitor for the nation's bluenoses, the studios were feeling the heat from their flagrant disregard of the production code. This film was made late in the game, and surely Jack Warner could smell the blood in the water. Those limp endings? A concession to propriety. A beard, if you will. Some films were so profligate with their naughtiness that these concessions couldn't possibly paper over them. I'm on the fence as to whether Female is one of them, even though the Breen office apparently thought so. It was never re-cut for re-release.

Peace and Quiet

One of the interesting things about A Quiet Life (2010, directed by Claudio Cupellini) is how it demolishes the notion of national cinemas, in Europe at least. Mind you, Italy has been collaborating with its neighbors on the continent since the 1960s, but it's particularly noticeable in this film, given that it was shot in Germany, is SET in Germany, and features a bi-national cast speaking their own languages. There's nothing new in the number of spoken languages, either, but in the bad old days, everything was dubbed into a single language, be it English for the American audience or Italian for the locals. I any event, A Quiet Life has a bit of the feeling of Revanche in terms of its mood and it has a LOT in common with David Cronenberg's A History of Violence in terms of its plot.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Sons and Fathers

Titles are a funny thing when you translate them from other languages, particularly if you're translating them from slang. Take, for example, Scialla! (2011, directed by Francesco Bruni), the second film I saw during this past weekend's Italian-palooza at my local art house. The film festival website (and my local art house followed its lead in its advertising of the event) translates "Scialla" as "Easy!" The IMDb doesn't list this as an alternate title of the film. It, instead, translates the title as "Chill." I suspect that the latter is probably closer to its usage, at least from what I can glean from its context in the film itself. Scialla!, in any case, is a comedy about fathers and sons. It's a coming of age film for both of its central characters, who are, respectively, a no-account 15-year old boy who dreams of becoming a gangster or a drug pusher and a burned out academic who has retired from teaching to ghost-write celebrity biographies. They're both defined by a certain lack of discipline, by a certain vague anomie, by a disregard for propriety. Like father, like son, as the saying goes.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Hazardous To Your Health

I love my local art house, and weeks like this are one of the main reasons why. In addition to their ongoing programming, they've brought two traveling film festivals to my fair city this week, both of which look me and the eye and realize they've got a sucker on the hook. The first of them to screen is the Italian Film Festival USA, which is in its eighth year. This is the first year it has come to Columbia, which is the smallest city on the circuit. The premise of this festival is to provide playdates for important recent Italian cinema. This is kind of a big thing, because the window of opportunity for foreign films in the US grows smaller and smaller every year in spite of the changes in distribution and exhibition brought about by the digital age. It shouldn't be as hard as it is to see movies from Italy (or anywhere else, for that matter). But hard it is. This festival aims to address this imbalance and that's a noble purpose.

In any case, this last weekend brought four recent Italian films to a theater near me and further sweetened the pot by showing them at no charge to the audience. Mind you, I would have paid my money to see the show, but free is definitely better. Unfortunately, a lot of people think like this and I didn't get in to the first film of the series. I did see the second film, though, and the other two on the next day.

The first film I saw was 20 Cigarettes (2010, directed by Aureliano Amadei), an autobiographical film in which a young filmmaker and activist accepts a job filming a project in Iraq in 2003, right after George Bush declared "Mission Accomplished." Needless to say, things are not all skittles and beer for our hapless filmmaker. Shortly after arriving in Iraq, he the director for whom he is working travel to the Italian Military Headquarters in Nassiriya where security has become lax in the wake of the "end" of open hostilities. A truck bomb comes crashing through the gates shortly after Amadei and his escort arrive, killling most of his companions and inflicting a horrific leg wound on Amadei himself. He returns to Italy a changed man, no longer the activist who sees things in black and white, and no longer able to stomach the official lies about the Italian presence in Iraq. His relationship with his best friend, Claudia, changes, too, and together, they start a family. Unfortunately, Amadei carries his trauma with him. The film suggests that it will follow him all of his days.

Uninvited Guests

As I was making my way through the lobby of the theater after I finished watching Ti West's new movie, The Innkeepers (2011), I overheard two separate conversations about the ending of the movie. One of these conversations opined that the heroine of the movie didn't deserve what happened to her. That, in fact, she was a complete innocent. This is certainly true. The second conversation had a very specific complaint about the last shot of the movie: they thought that the movie cheated them because it foreshadowed the last shot with one of those shock-tactic ghost movies that occasionally goes viral on YouTube, and then wimped out by not giving them a payoff. For myself, I think if The Innkeepers HAD ended with a jolt of that sort, it would have been a cheap shot, but then I remember that the end of Carrie has that kind of quality to it, so who am I to judge. I'm just happy that West and his collaborators don't go there. I'm happy, too, that he understands that sometimes, you have to torment your heroine, no matter how sweet and perky she may be.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Hollywood Plays Itself

As one who shares much of the blame for casting another shadow—the shadow of Susan Alexander Kane—I rejoice in this opportunity to record something which today is all but forgotten except for those lucky enough to have seen a few of her pictures: Marion Davies was one of the most delightfully accomplished comediennes in the whole history of the screen. She would have been a star if Hearst had never happened. She was also a delightful and very considerable person.

--Orson Welles, Forward to The Times We Had: Life with William Randolph Hearst by Marion Davies

It's hard to escape Hollywood's mythmaking machine when it turns its eyes upon you. Such was the doom of Marion Davies, who is today more famous for having "inspired" Susan Alexander Kane in Citizen Kane than she is for anything else she might have done in the world. Ask anyone who dabbles in movies. This is true in the same way that Lizzie Borden gave her mother forty whacks. Everyone knows it, so it MUST be true*. This has another urban legend attached to it, too, in so far as the word in movie space is that William Randolph Hearst's fury at Citizen Kane stems from the fact that "Rosebud" was allegedly Hearst's pet name for Davies's clitoris. I don't know if that's true, but in this, as with everything else about Hollywood, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

All of which is grossly unfair to Marion Davies. Welles was right about her, if a bit belatedly. She was a remarkable woman. She didn't need Hearst. She was rich in her own right, her fortune having accrued through her own talent and hard work. She was intensely involved with her own productions. If anything, Hearst's meddling harmed her, both as an actress and as a legacy. Welles calls Davies a delightfully accomplished comedienne, and that's absolutely true. In another reality, Davies is thought of in the same breath as Harold Lloyd or Laurel and Hardy as one of the great silent comics (though perhaps not in the same breath as Keaton or Chaplin). In this reality, Hearst wanted to see her in dramatic roles. Comedy never gets any respect. Davies, it turns out, was also self-aware and self-effacing, and you can see her waging a kind of guerrilla campaign against Hearst's meddling in Show People (1928, directed by King Vidor).

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Lovely Rita

If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution. -- Emma Goldman

For a movie set in Cuba in large part during the 1950s, there's surprisingly little revolutionary fervor to be found in Chico and Rita (2010, directed by Tono Errando, Javier Mariscal, and Fernando Trueba). It's not a political movie, per se, though you can see politics seeping through the circumstances of our pair of doomed lovers. The personal is political, after all, but I'm probably reading too much into this. It's what I do. You should see me work with tea leaves. Then again, there's another revolution going on in this film, one not headed by Fidel Castro, in which the titans of jazz during the 1950s evolved the idiom beyond its dance-hall origins. THAT revolution, led by the likes of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, is very MUCH central to Chico and Rita.

A Little Temporary Safety

My local art house is running another series of Pre-code movies this month. This is the third series, so having run through the most iconic and most egregiously batshit insane of the Pre-code films like Baby Face and Red-Headed Woman in previous installments, this series delves into the more obscure films. The kick-off film this year is William Wellman's Safe In Hell (1931), which is everything you want in a Pre-code film and then some. It's salacious, sophisticated, and surprisingly downbeat. It's all kinds of awesome.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Stay Hungry

The Harry Potter books were a lot of things, but their most enduring accomplishment may have been to shine a light on the young adult book market as a fertile breeding ground for film franchises. The gold rush has already spawned the Twilight movies, as well as scattered almost franchises like Percy Jackson and the Olympians and A Series of Unfortunate Events. I don't want to suggest that I'm looking down on this category of fiction. I'm not. I loved the Potter books as an adult, and I loved Ender's Game (soon to be another franchise), and I've enjoyed books by writers like Scott Westerfeld and Philip Pullman. I mean, I see the appeal even for adult readers. These books are surprisingly sophisticated and they don't indulge in some of the more obscurantist tics of adult literary fiction. More than that, though, I understand the appeal because young adult authors have become surprisingly good at the "masking effect," something young adult fiction shares with comics. According to comics theorist, Scott McCloud, the masking effect occurs when a central character is abstracted relative to its surrounding such that the reader can imprint themselves on the character. A good example of this occurs in the Twilight books. These books receive a good deal of criticism for having a largely colorless central heroine, but that's exactly the point of Bella Swan. If you read how Stephanie Meyers describes Bella, she's completely vague to the point that she could be, literally, anyone. In contrast, Meyers describes Bella's paramours in minute, almost pornographic detail. It's the reason that devoted readers of the Twilight are so fervid. They have imprinted themselves on Bella. They are Bella. So criticisms of Twilight are seen by its fans as personal attacks on themselves.

Given the level of identification readers have with young adult books, it's easy for writers to create shifty allegories that appeal to a young adult mindset. They share this, too, with comics. Consider The X-Men: The X-Men are a protean kind of allegory given that you can assign them just about any outsider narrative you want. Do you want to see them as emblematic of the trauma of puberty? That works. Do you see a racial allegory? That works, too. The movie versions of the characters explored a queer reading, which is also totally justifiable. Young adult books do this sort of thing, too, and this brings me in a round about way to The Hunger Games (2012, directed by Gary Ross), the latest film franchise to springboard out of young adult publishing. The movie version of the first book is an ideal example of what I'm talking about. I say that these stories are surprisingly sophisticated because there's a post-modern participation with the audience. The audience, as the saying goes, completes the picture. That's totally true of The Hunger Games.

Monday, April 02, 2012

The List is Death

I'm at something of a loss when it comes to cataloging my reaction to Kill List (2011, directed by Ben Wheatley). I can't actually point to any individual element of the film and say: "that scene doesn't work, that performance is bad, that shot is clumsy". That's because it's impeccably well made. Damnably well made. And yet, I walked out of the theater feeling drained and unhappy. More, I'm sure that that's a feeling that the makers of Kill List intend to evoke, so it's hard for me to grouse about a film that actually accomplishes what it sets out to do. I mean, horror movies--good horror movies, anyway--are not in the business of reassuring the audience. Kill List takes this to heart: this is as effective a "feel bad" movie as you're likely to find.

Note, from here on out, there be spoilers.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

White Elephant Blogathon: Forbidden Lie$

"The truth, as far as it goes," -- Motto of the Galactic Girl Guides*

I didn't get very far into Forbidden Lie$ (2007, directed by Anna Broinowski), my White Elephant movie this year, before I realized that it was totally the kind of film that the True/False Film Festival likes to schedule. Sure enough, they played it in 2008 (when I somehow missed it amid all the rest of the festival). It's the kind of film that muddies the river that divides fiction from non-fiction. It's what you get when you take the nature of truth as your subject and then cast a pathological liar in the leading role. This is an epistemological morass in which "truth" is so fungible that it doesn't have any relationship to reality whatsoever.