MIA

For those hardy souls who might check this blog regularly, this is to let you know that I will be Away From It All until at least August 18th. When I get back I hope to delve into Max Ophüls’ Caught (1949), amongst other things. Ciao for now.

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Lucy (2014)

Poster for Lucy

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (2010) is still Luc Besson’s best movie since The Fifth Element (1997). Under the Skin is still the best Scarlett Johansson science fiction movie out of three I’ve seen this year. Nonetheless, Lucy is perfectly enjoyable for what it is, which is a slightly more high concept and bigger budget instance of the EuropaCorp formula action movie.

The story is about a young woman named Lucy (ScarJo) who is forced to become a mule for an experimental new drug. When her body is infused with the drug, she gains superhuman powers. The drama is driven by the transcendant changes she undergoes in this process, and to a lesser extent by the menace of an Asian drug lord (Choi Min-sik) who is trying to regain the supply of the new drug he has sent off in four different mules. The story of what Lucy becomes is more interesting than this largely rote drug lord story. To help us understand the pseudo-scientific transformation we are witnessing we also have Professor Morgan Freeman on hand to dump exposition on the nature of evolution and human consciousness.

As science fiction I can’t give this very high marks, and I’m not even talking about the lack of scientific rigor, which is not in itself fatal to science fiction. It’s just that the transformation of a human into a superhuman is not an easy story to pull off, and I don’t think Lucy does a particularly good job of it. As a source of cool computer graphics, it’s pretty good, but as with much else about the film (and others by EuropaCorp) even that feels like stuff that’s been borrowed from elsewhere.

Not that there’s anything wrong with making new films from borrowed parts. The only scene that really grated on me was the utterly gratuitous and uninspired car chase, although I also felt that the drug lord story was not fully baked and not well integrated. Might have been more interesting of Choi Min-sik had also taken a dose of the drug and given Lucy someone with equal power to contend — or collaborate — with.

As is often the case with EuropaCorp films (see, for example, Colombiana), one of the most interesting things about Lucy was the international cast that’s obviously intended to attract a global audience. So we get Choi Min-sik as a Korean drug lord in Taiwan for the Asian audience, and we get Julian Rhind-Tutt as his British henchman. We get French, German, and Italian drug mules along with the American ScarJo. Most fascinating of all, although a completely extraneous character, is Amr Waked, who is an Egyptian actor playing a French cop. He’s the one who gets a kiss from ScarJo, too.

I’m not doing much to sell this one, am I? I thought it was fun to watch, but not much to think about. As for the infamous reliance on the “we only use 10% of our brains” factoid, clearly what the film is trying to say is that since 90% of the brain is used to regulate the body’s autonomic systems, then using that 90% for thinking means you lose your body. Am I right? It’s actually kind of Buddhist that way: free your mind, and become one with everything.

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Boyhood (2014)

Poster for Boyhood

I’m not sure how much I have to say about this movie other than that I can easily see it winning the Oscar for best film. Most people have probably already heard about the filming process, in which director Richard Linklater assembled the cast every year to shoot a few scenes for twelve years in a row.  Thus we watch all the characters age, and in particular we watch the protagonist, Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, age from 6 to 18. What else could such a movie be other than a coming-of-age story? We watch Mason grow from a dependent child to a young adult who is starting to find his own way in the world.

Along the way we get bits of drama, much of it hinging around Mason’s mother’s bad luck with husbands. Although Mason is the central character, his mother (Patricia Arquette) and father (Ethan Hawke) are also fascinating characters in themselves, with Arquette playing the single mother who struggles to establish a career for herself and Hawke playing the flaky ex who gradually gets his act together with a second wife. Considering the lower middle class social strata of these white characters, their lives seemed very familiar to me. Likewise Mason’s rites of passage as a boy who’s slightly out of step with his peers.

I haven’t read any interviews with Linklater of Coltrane yet, so I’m not sure how much of the film was improvised and how much was planned. I was impressed with the quality of Coltrane’s self-expression, which sounded just like the stuff teenagers say. The final line, too, is just note perfect as a joke on what it’s like to be high on hallucinogens and yet still a beautiful benediction on the passage of time that we’ve just witnessed. It’s really uncanny how it feels like both a dumb, stoned thing to say and also a perfect summation of the story.

In a lot of ways this feels like slices of life taken from different moments in time. The only overarching story/drama is Coltrane’s coming of age, and yet it doesn’t feel like a story about that so much as a documentary embodiment of the process. One of the brilliant things that Linklater does is to make the transitions between years without telling us in any over way that time has passed. Usually you can quickly tell that a change has occurred because Mason’s hair style has changed, but sometimes it’s not immediately obvious. This really brings home the continuity of the actors playing these characters, as opposed to the standard method of using different actors to play different ages of a character. We witness the physical changes in these people over time, and it’s an amazing, deeply moving special effect.

Why Boyhood, and not Childhood? We also see Mason’s older sister, Samantha (played by Linklater’s daughter Lorelei), growing up, but the focus is definitely on Mason. Still, the emphasis on his boyhood rather than childhood is interesting. There are a number of scenes focused on male rites of initiation, although there’s also a hilarious scene where the father pleads with an embarrassed teenaged Samantha to use contraception when she starts having sex. I’m actually not sure what to make of the gendered title. It nags at me a bit.

Well, whether it was scripted out or improvised, this is an impressive evocation of growing up. It really captures a strand of the American experience in a way I’ve never seen before. Film is necessarily about time, and Boyhood brings that home with a sweet vengeance. 2014 is turning into an extraordinary year for movies.

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Image of the Night

Screencap from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari

The announcement earlier this year that a new digital restoration of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) was being made from the original negative was exciting news. Now the restoration has been released on a German Blu-ray, and the screencaps (via DVDBeaver) have got me drooling. Can’t wait to see this, and I hope I get the chance to see it in a theater.

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A Summer’s Tale (Conte d’été, 1996)

Poster for A Summer's Tale

Up till now I’d only seen three of Eric Rohmer’s less typical films: Perceval (1978), which was an adaptation of Chretien de Troyes’ medieval romance; Triple Agent (2004), which was a spy story of sorts; and The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007), which was another adaptation of an old — in this case Renaissance era — literary romance. A Summer’s Tale, which has finally received its first theatrical release in the US nearly 20 years after it was made, is apparently a more typical Rohmer film. It is a contemporary romantic comedy in which people try to talk through their romantic dilemmas and troubles with each other. It’s part of a four movie series called “Tales of Four Seasons” that Rohmer made in the ’90s.

The basic set-up is that Gaspard, who has just gotten his master’s degree, is taking a summer vacation on the coast of Brittany before he starts his job. He meets a woman named Margot who has just completed a PhD in ethnography and is working in her aunt’s restaurant while waiting for her boyfriend to return from abroad. Through conversations with Margot, we learn that Gaspard was expecting his girlfriend Lena to show up after a trip to Spain with her sister. When Lena hasn’t arrived after a week, Margo encourages Gaspard to go out with another girl named Solene. Eventually Gaspard finds himself having to make a choice between these three women, but he isn’t sure which one he wants.

For the most part the film is comprised of conversations between Gaspard and the three women, with a few scenes in which Gaspard is alone or there’s an outing with other people. Rohmer has a reputation for making talky movies, and that’s certainly true of this one. The conversations are generally interesting, but I did feel that at times the staging of the action included a lot of moving around for no reason other than to break up the static feeling of people just talking to each other. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that I wasn’t picking up on how the seemingly random movements of characters were actually communicating a state of mind or relationship between the characters on screen.

The characters are well drawn. I’ve seen at least one criticism of the movie that the three female characters are all underdrawn compared to Gaspard. Gaspard is obviously the focus of the film, but I thought it actually did a pretty good job of creating distinct characters for all three women. Margot in particular seemed nearly as well wrought as Gaspard, as we get a strong sense of her interests and opinions toward a variety of things. She’s also the one that Gaspard is most honest with, even though he isn’t completely honest even with her. Rohmer is at pains to show us that none of the characters is particularly honest, in fact, and all are manipulating each other and hiding from their own real motives on some level or another. That’s the richest source of the comedy, as we watch these young people trying to fool themselves with their brave talk and confused behavior.

In the end I had a similar reaction to this film as I did to the novel by Iain Banks that I recently read, The Crow Road. I just don’t seem to have much appetite right now for stories about the romantic turmoil of twenty-somethings, and while I found Rohmer’s more focused story of more interest, I still ended up feeling pretty disengaged from the whole thing. Maybe that’s also partly a response to the unsentimental view of the characters, and I might like this better the second time around. As I say, I did find the conversations generally interesting.

One thing that I really liked about the film, which I also really liked about Astrea and Celadon, is the way it cuts away from scenes. I can’t put my finger on it yet, but Rohmer has a way of ending his scenes at moments that are poignant, funny, or otherwise expressive, but in very subtle, often deadpan, ways. He often gives us just enough to imply whole depths of emotion without hammering us over the head with it, as when we get a brief scene of Gaspard waiting for Lena at a cafe table (we know he’s waiting for her, because of a conversation in the previous scene) and a brief glance at his watch tells us that she’s late, then he gets up and leaves, telling us that he’s concluded that she’s not going to show up. Because of what we know about the uncertain status of their relationship, this little scene in which basically nothing happens speaks volumes. I also really liked the way Rohmer used title cards announcing what day it is to both give us a sense of time flowing between scenes and also to generate humor or tension based on things we’ve been told earlier are going to happen or were expected to happen by a certain date. How can a calendar date be so damned funny? Rohmer finds sly ways to make them so.

This is by no means a standard romantic comedy, and the humor is more droll and dry than laugh out loud funny. It’s a little uncomfortable in the way it pokes fun at our romantic pretensions and self-delusions. It ends on a completely ambiguous note, with a kind of smiling shrug. So it goes.

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Saturday Matinee: A Chinese Tall Story (Qing dian da sheng, 2005)

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Jeff Lau is an interesting character in the Hong Kong film industry who is perhaps best known outside of Hong Kong for his collaborations with Wong Kar Wai and Stephen Chow. His writing credits are all over the place and include serious films such as Wong’s Days of Being Wild, but the movies he directs himself tend to be comedies. I actually haven’t seen very many of his directorial efforts, but his two part Journey to the West story with Stephen Chow, A Chinese Odyssey (1995), is a masterpiece of vulgar humor and mythological pathos. His ability to shift gears between the crass and the poignant is perhaps not unusual in Hong Kong cinema, and in fact A Chinese Tall Story, which is another riff on Journey to the West, feels like an old school Hong Kong film, even if not a completely successful one. In traditional fashion it throws so many things at the screen in a desperate effort to please that some of it is bound to tickle your fancy, and the less pleasing bits are quickly in the rearview mirror.

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A Chinese Tall Story begins with the monk Tripitaka (Nicholas Tse), the Monkey King, the Pig Monk and the Sand Monk arriving at the sacred city Shache, where they expect to find the Buddhist scriptures that are the goal of their westward journey. Instead they’re attacked by demons, and Tripitaka is sent off to safety by the Monkey King before he and the other two monks are captured by the evil Tree Spirit. Tripitaka lands amongst lizard imps and is put in the custody of the supremely ugly imp Meiyan (Charlene Choi). They fall in love, and this puts Tripitaka at odds with his chaste heavenly destiny. Meiyan and Tripitaka set out to save the Monkey King and the other monks, and eventually they enlist the aid of an alien race (led by Fan Bing Bing as the Princess Xiaoshan)  that has been monitoring human progress throughout history. An epic battle against the demons ensues, but there’s still the judgment of the Heavenly Court awaiting.

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Lau claims in an interview included on the DVD that he wanted to tell this story back when he made A Chinese Odyssey but computer graphics were not yet up to the task. He says that his experience as a producer for Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle (2004), convinced him that CG had finally gotten to the point where he could achieve the vision he had for the story, but it had to be modified in various ways. Seems strange that those modifications would include switching the protagonist from the Monkey King. as in A Chinese Odyssey, to Triptaka, but it does seem true that some of the action sequences feel like the CG-inflected action of Kung Fu Hustle. A Chinese Tall Story also shares the parodic attitude with Kung Fu Hustle, making fun of Tripitaka’s holiness and of its own action fantasy cliches. The goofy verbal play, which is always difficult to follow in subtitles, seems to be straight out of the Stephen Chow playbook — which I guess was invented by Jeff Lau to begin with.

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This is not to say that A Chinese Tall Story is anywhere near as good as Kung Fu Hustle. That would be a pretty tall order, let alone a tall story. The film suffers from being overstuffed and thus a little unfocused. Some of the actors are there because they’re pop stars, and those characters are undercooked. The story elements really are formulaic, although the formulas are executed with great panache. The computer graphics are pretty good but a little chintzy looking at times. Fundamentally this is a story of the Last Temptation of Tripitaka, and it doesn’t fully pull off the pathos of that. Still and all, despite these flaws it’s a fascinating mix of all the most appealing elements of Hong Kong cinema: slapstick comedy, earnest ugly duckling romance, epic action, melodramatic self sacrifice, classical landscapes, fantastic transformations, and musical choreography.

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It looks damned good, too. Lau composes striking images for the frame, and he’s got the classic Hong Kong ability to stage his actors in bold, expressive tableaus. The color palette of the film is subtle and brilliant, often creating a sense of fantasy and otherness all by itself. What’s amazing is how Lau can meld the completely artificial, anime-style CG landscapes with classical landscape shots that could come right out of King Hu. Lau also joins the throng of directors who have paid homage to King Hu’s bamboo grove scene in A Touch of Zen, and Lau actually creates something strikingly moody using practically nothing but light. The shifting between the artificial graphics and naturalistic but stylized sets also reminds me at times of Seijun Suzuki’s beautiful swan song, Princess Raccoon (2005), although it seems unlikely that Lau saw that film before making this one. But A Chinese Tall Story has a similar sense of the characters stepping out of three-dimensional sets into two-dimensional paintings.

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The science fictional layer of the story, which is Star Wars as channeled through such immediate Star Wars rip-off films as Kinji Fukasaku’s Message from Space (1978), is the joker in the deck. It’s both unusual for a Hong Kong film, and takes the whole enterprise so far over the top that you can’t see the ground. There’s a videogame aesthetic at work that makes the whole thing feel like an animated movie at times, so it’s not really a surprise when it flat-out converts to an anime look for the action climax. How do you top that? How about with an appearance of the Buddha?

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Well, despite the bamboo forest homage, nobody’s going to confuse this with the spiritual vision at the climax of A Touch of Zen. It’s almost surprising that Lau didn’t parody that transcendant imagery. It’s a tall story all right, piling one damn thing on top of another all the way to heaven, but it brings us back to earth in the end with a sweet, loving joke that restores us to the traditional world. This is not a great film, but it’s fine, goofy entertainment. Just the thing for a matinee on a rainy Saturday.

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Maleficent (2014)

Poster for Maleficent.

I’m pretty sure I saw Sleeping Beauty (1959) at least once, but it was so long ago I remember nothing about it. So I’m sure I missed some of the nuances in this revisionist version of that story, in which we discover that the evil fairy Maleficent who curses the Princess Aurora had her reasons. I confess that I wasn’t expecting much from this one, and I think it worked better for the low expectations. There is at least one bit of revisionism (the nature of True Love) that I thought worked very well, it strikes some nice grace notes on the friendship between women, and although its visual design is derivative of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth (as are just about all big budget fantasies these days) it does have a nice look as well. Director Robert Stromberg has a background as a production designer, and it shows.

That said, one of the biggest weaknesses of Maleficent for me was the twee nature of Fairyland. I suppose they were trying to make the film comfortable for at least older children, but the candy colored fairies were a real turn off to this middle aged child. Fairies should be dangerous, as Maleficent herself is. There are other dangerous, even deadly fairies in the movie, but they are balanced (and to my mind undermined) by the twee ones. But this has always been Disney’s besetting sin, so nothing new there, I guess.

The cuteness and bland innocence bleeds into the character of Princess Aurora as well, making her a less than compelling figure in the drama. Fortunately the movie is not about her, it’s about Maleficent, and Maleficent is allowed to be dark and conflicted. Angelina Jolie’s voluptuous face is perfect for the role and is practically a special effect in itself, especially as modified by the prosthetic cheekbones. She’s frequently shot from below to heighten the bony angularity of the face that sweeps up into the whorling horns that top her head. Maleficent looks every bit the fey fairy queen, and although she isn’t omnipotent, she is the most powerful figure in the story, leading her fairy troops into battle against the invading human armies. The dramatic focus is fixed on her decisions about how to use her extraordinary magical power. She is a spurned and violated woman. Is she still capable of love?

Well, it is a Disney movie after all, so I guess you know the answer to that. Still, it’s good to see a fantasy action film with a powerful woman at the center, in which Prince Charming is a bit of an afterthought and the key thing is the relationship between Maleficent and Aurora. It’s undermined by the tweeness, but I liked it better than, for example, last year’s bloated and overbearing Oz movie. Still, it doesn’t hold a candle to Mirror, Mirror (2012), which is funnier, naughtier, and far more original in its visual design. Jolie is almost the whole show here; she’s good enough to make do with the banal screenplay.

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Snowpiercer (2013)

Poster for Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer seems to wear its allegiance to past film dystopias on its sleeve: the wise old man played by John Hurt is named Gilliam, which for all I know may be straight from the French graphic novel, Transperceneige, that the film is based on, but given the look and feel of the thing certainly brings to mind Terry Gilliam’s black comedy version of Orwell, Brazil (1985). It hearkens back to the dark junkyard aesthetic of Brazil and of Jeunet and Caro’s Delicatessen (1991), with which it also shares the theme of cannibalism. As an action film it also calls to mind another grungy post-apocalypse of yesteryear, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981),  with filthy teeth everywhere and a grim, tormented anti-hero (played here by Chris Evans) at the center of the storm, not to mention a train hurtling across a desolate landscape. But in Snowpiercer the train is the whole world, and director Bong Joon-ho has created from these familiar scraps a deeply-layered world of his own.

This is a carefully structured movie that is even better the second time through, because Bong has built things in such a way as to expose deeper layers once you’ve been through the story once. Structurally there’s so much going on it’s difficult to unpack it. The train works as a metaphor for a lot of different things, and not just a metaphor but a symbol. There’s the socioeconomic symbolism in which the lower classes are in the rear of the train, the middle classes in the middle, and the Randian genius-engineer Willeford (Ed Harris) in the engine car. There’s the narrative metaphor in which the rear, middle, and head of the train represent the beginning, middle, and end of the story. There’s the film symbolism in which each car is like a frame of film, each frame necessary to create the illusion of continuous motion. There’s the videogame metaphor in which each car represents a new level in the game that has to be conquered before the players can move on to the next car/level, with the promise of final victory at the top level.

Bong’s got a lot on his mind in this complicated set-up. We learn right away that humanity tried to solve the problem of global warming by releasing carbon-capturing chemicals into the atmosphere, and that this caused the world to freeze, killing almost all life on the planet. The only surviving life is on a train endlessly circling the frozen globe. So humanity has killed the environment, and now is reduced to exploiting itself in the pocket universe of the train. The rulers of the train exploit those in the rear in a brutal, authoritarian fashion. This drives the exploited to revolution, which is just as brutal as the oppression. The action of the film is painfully, gruesomely violent, which in the end seems to be considered the nature of the human beast. Torturing, exploiting, and killing is what we do. This is not a happy, feelgood story. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, and thus it’s all about who is the top dog.

Global warming isn’t the only environmental idea explored, but the attitude toward environmentalism is ambivalent. Humans destroyed the world through technological hubris, thinking they could fix a problem by applying more of the same industrial methods that caused the problem in the first place. Furthermore, on the train the rulers, especially Wilford, are environmentally aware. They know their closed ecosystem requires a fine balance, with everything carefully controlled so that all the right elements are in the right place in the right numbers. This is how the social stratification is justified: it’s a way to balance the environment. So, as in Ken MacLeod’s novels, there’s a sense that environmentalism is a reactionary, conservative mindset. Conservation is conservative.

Indeed, politically the film comes close to nihilism. It’s a look at the heart of darkness, and there are no real heroes in it — or at least the heroes aren’t good people. People will do anything to survive (an attitude played to the comic hilt by Tilda Swinton as Wilford’s vicious and cowardly lieutenant, Mason), and the irony of it is that the will to live is ultimately a self-consuming, cannibalistic process. Global warming is only one example of how the will to survive and increase causes extinction. The film explores the alternative of altruism, in which self-sacrifice of the individual allows the group to survive, but ultimately altruism is shown to be a temporary strategy that does not create ecological balance. A deeper death instinct is at work, and if Bong finds a kind of human comedy in this fact, it’s definitely the nightmarish kind. Laughs that stab. In the end, people have behaved very badly toward each other, and there’s no escaping the hunger driving that bad behavior.

I say the film comes close to nihilism, but I do think the sense of humor prevents it from complete nihilism (as opposed to The Rover, for example). Wilford is only one of the many ways in which the story seems to comment on itself as a story, and he is nothing if not an Author figure. Wilford is a monster, but he really does seem to understand how the world works. He has a sense of wonder regarding his own creation that seems to reflect Bong’s own attitude toward the film. There is something beautiful about this crazy nightmare that no one, not even the author, is in complete control of. The very final image is one of both wonder and deadly danger. Life goes on, but not all life.

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Image of the Day

Screencap from A Chinese Tall Story

A Chinese Tall Story (Qing dian da sheng, 2005)

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Le Chef (Comme un chef, 2012)

Poster for Le Chef

This is a film that almost demands to be compared to a soufflé or a truffle. I was in the mood for something light, and this certainly fit the bill. It’s a French comedy about cooking. The funniest thing about it is that the original French title is Comme un chef, which was changed for US release to … Le Chef. Hm. I guess that’s so the American audience can still indulge themselves in the idea that they know their French.

Actually the funniest thing about it is that “traditional French cuisine” as presented is what I think of as haute cuisine. In the movie it is being supplanted by something I take to be imaginary, or at least exaggerated, called molecular gastronomy. Jean Reno plays an established celebrity chef who is being challenged by the new wave of molecular gastronomy, and Michael Youn is a devoted follower of his TV show who through happenstance gets a chance to help him with the challenge. The older chef has a neglected daughter who is studying for an advanced degree and needs parental attention, and the younger chef has a pregnant girlfriend who needs stability and commitment. The owner of the restaurant where the conflict plays out is a smug, trendy asshole. Everything works out by the numbers, with the help of a few handy, salt-of-the-earth (and multi-racial) assistant chefs.

This was moderately amusing, but I really wasn’t expecting much. Very standard, mainstream, family-friendly fare. You might not want to take your grandma to Final Cut: Ladies and Gentlemen, but on the evidence of the audience I saw this one with, she’d be more than fine with Le chef: comme un chef.

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