31 October 2008

CRAPPY HALLOWEEN

How much easier life would be if one could argue in good faith that the Saw movies were being produced according to some sort of template; that except for the names these were all the same damn thing over and over again, like the Friday the 13th films. Ah, but excepting for the fact that they're all basically dreadful, the films actually vary wildly in plot and relative quality.

Thus can I say that Saw V is a sort of outlier in the franchise, what a Saw movie might look like if it weren't being made by a Saw filmmaker. And lo and behold, Saw V represents the first time in four movies that Darren Lynn Bousman isn't on hand to direct, handing over the reigns to David Hackl, the series' long-time production designer, of all things. I mean, cinematographers and editors going director, that's old hat. Producers? Usually regrettable, but it happens. But production designer-turned-director? That's a new one to me. For the record, Hackl (man, "hack" is right there in his fucking name) isn't a total wreck at the job, giving us a Saw a bit more... I hesitate to use this word, but stately, than the norm. By which I mean that it's a bit slower and quieter and relative to the other four, it's maybe a bit more interested in creating a gloomy mood than just jump-cutting from scare to scare. The result is a film square in the middle of the series, quality-wise: though the new film has some unabashedly dumb moments, its plot lacks the pathetic contortions that we saw in Saw IV, and of course nothing can approach the sheer hatefulness of Saw III.

The film picks up more or less where the last two (which took place at the same time, Saw IV revealed in a particularly idiotic plot twist) left off, although the pre-credits scene takes place in some never-never time that takes place much earlier, eventually we find out even earlier than Saw. And the first scene immediately post-credits takes place sometime around the finales of the last two films, but I wouldn't try to figure out the exact moment when.

Long story short, everything from the first four has been mostly wrapped up (the little girl left to die at the end of III has been rescued, off-camera), with all the police dead but Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), revealed in the last film's climax to be the new assistant killer, and FBI Agent Strahm (Scott Patterson), who only survives thanks to a particularly moronic stunt that gives us a very early indication of the approximate intelligence level that the film will have to offer: with his head trapped in a glass box filling with water, he jabs a pen into his own throat to give himself an emergency tracheotomy, so he can breath after his head is completely submerged. If that's not some kind of prizewinner or at least finalist for Dumbest Movie Moment in 2008, then I don't know what.

From that point on, the film rumbles on through its own variation on the usual motions: Strahm figures there's a man on the inside and as his investigation rather quickly points towards Hoffman, we get to see flashbacks (Whose? God knows) to the earlier days of Hoffman and John "Jigsaw" Kramer (Tobin Bell), the madman with the great ability for making super-elaborate death traps with morality-testing off switches. Hoffman, meanwhile, is busy covering his tracks and watching the latest test set up for our bloodthirsty edification: five strangers who are, in the end, connected by a shady real estate deal (the film wouldn't function at all differently if they hadn't been connected at all, incidentally), tossed into a series of rooms with nail bombs set to go off if they can't figure out how to open the lock. Notably, Jigsaw's trademarked videotape all but says right at the very start, "you'll need to work together, even though you are all venal, greedy bastards who've never worked together with anyone in your lives", and so of course the monstrously stupid victims - probably the stupidest in the series, which says far too much - go for whatever solution to their immediately puzzle will end up with one person dead, and when they realise at the end that they were really supposed to use teamwork, it's hard to say if the audience is supposed to be amazed and shocked or not.

At any rate, it leaves us with plenty of gooey, gory death scenes to satiate the fanboys, although notably there's only one trap that could possibly be described as "torture", and I think this is a significant part of the reason that Saw V doesn't feel so heavy and joyless as its predecessors. That, and Hackl's new direction for the film's look (it was shot, as ever, by the overtalented David A. Armstrong), which isn't quite so filthy as it is steely and gray. I'd almost say that Saw V is meant to look like a film noir, although if that was the case, then it failed. But the point being, it's not nasty and appalling to look at, which makes it at least a bit less unpleasant a filmgoing experience.

The biggest problem with the film, both as a Saw entry and a movie generally, is how much of the film is spent in the time of Mark Hoffman, more I think than any of the previous films followed Jigsaw, and given that Mandylor is a bad actor who cannot command our attention for more than a couple seconds at a time, this means that a full third of the film is spent in the company of a complete waste of a character. For those few, sad viewers who are actually here to see the dismemberment and the series' patently absurd mythology, that means they're saddled with a wholly unbelievable main character, and for the rest of us, dragged along for whatever reason, that means a really boring story intercut with really dreary death porn.

At any rate, the thing winds up in a twist so bland and unforced that I can't imagine even the least-attentive viewer didn't see it coming for at least a half-hour. That's the last reason that Saw V is at least marginally better than some of its fellows: it's straightforward. And even if most of the plot requires a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the other films' content, there's some small fun to be had in the flashbacks, which play like a greatest-hits retelling of how the famous bits in the other films came to be and give the film a valedictory feel. My lord, wouldn't it be nice if the Saw films were over? But back to my point, which is that the film doesn't actually require much attention or thought, which is a nice change, given how IV especially required a great deal of thought and failed entirely to reward it.

Let's be clear though: this is all "good" in the relative sense that this is still a Saw film.

3/10

30 October 2008

CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL '08: SITA SINGS THE BLUES (PALEY, USA)

Sita Sings the Blues, the first feature-length movie animated and directed by Nina Paley, sometime cartoonist, graphic artist and animator, is not without its flaws, but what it lacks in absolute perfection it makes up for - and then some - in ambition and passion. First conceived in the wake of her divorce, the film is a retelling of part of the Indiana epic Ramayana, in which Lord Rama rescues his beloved and tremendously faithful wife Sita from a demon king, only to doubt her fidelity once he's brought her back. Paley's not-dissimilar experience (her husband dragged her from San Francisco to India, where he was on a year-long business trip, only to initiate divorce proceedings while she was briefly in New York on comic-related business) led her to reconsider the Ramayana from the perspective of an honest woman cast out for no apparent reason, and that in turn led to the creation of a movie that not only adapts the epic, but also splices in animated vignettes from Paley's real-life crisis.

The film consists of four narrative threads, each animated in a different style. The story of Paley (voicing herself) and her husband Dave (Sanjiv Jhaveri, who provides a great many other foives as well) is animated in something close to the Squigglevision technique that was so popular around the turn of the decade, with character designs recalling Paley's comic work. The Ramayana material is framed by three modern-day Indian narrators, animated as traditional shadow puppets, attempting to recall the details of the epic from memory. The narrative of the epic is "animated" only in the crudest sense: characters in static poses based on traditional Indian painting techniques are scooted across flat backgrounds, the only movement in their bodies coming at the jaw, when they're speaking. And the last thread, by far the most memorable and interesting, comes when the narrative reaches a pause, and Sita, done in bright, round Flash-style animation (Wikipedia calls it "vector graphic animation"), launches into a musical number explaining how she feels about the situation - but not just any musical number. She sings in the voice of long-forgotten jazz singer Annette Hanshaw, and if Sita Sings the Blues serves no other function, dragging some of Hanshaw's recordings out of the dust of time would be more than enough justification for its existence.

Those four threads tend to come after each other in a very set pattern, which has a terribly unfortunate side-effect of leaving the film feeling uncannily like a series of short films that have been combined into a feature for marketing purposes, like those old Looney Tunes anthology pictures. So it's not very surprising to learn that, as Paley completed each segment, she would debut it as, essentially, a stand-alone short. And by all means, those shorts are all pretty great, but they simply don't cohere into a whole. Besides each module, or short, or whatever we want to call them, is essentially identical to every other, and the film becomes repetitive quickly, so that by the end it's no longer exciting to hear what long-lost jazz classic Sita will be singing to next, and more "Oh, hell, another Annette Hanshaw song?" You could set your watch to it.

As a narrative, the breezy tone and unabashedly modern sensibility keep the film entertaining throughout, although its Cliffs Notes summation of one of the longest works of fiction of the ancient world is necessarily rushed. But I kept finding myself wondering when Paley intended to get to the point, and I'm not certain that she ever did. Frankly, I'm not even certain whether to consider Sita Sings the Blues a feminist or post-feminist statement, if indeed it's meant to be any kind of statement at all; on the one hand, Sita is clearly being reclaimed from a patriarchal framework, but on the other, there's no sane way to defend Hanshaw's recordings as any kind of feminist art whatever. It's possible that the whole theme is nothing more than it seems at first glance: Paley was sad and pissed at her ex, in a tradition of sad and pissed women stretching back into the mists of legend. I know this much to a mortal certainty: whatever Paley was trying to say with the film, she could have said it just as easily in 25 minutes as 82

But for all that (and I don't consider the film's constant repetition to be a small flaw, but very nearly one that damns the whole project), Sita Sings the Blues keeps itself up with a tremendously engaging sense of humor and some of the most interesting-looking animation to come out anywhere this year. Not all of the styles are equally appealing, but for the vector graphic Hanshaw music videos alone, this would be among the most visually distinctive movies of the year. Though the film is not without its grinding, aimless side, at least Paley understands this one key to cinema: no movie was ever worth a damn without making a strong visual statement.

7/10

CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL '08: THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE WEIRD (KIM, SOUTH KOREA)

Without question, the operative word here is "weird". Director Kim Ji-Woon's latest film is merely one more in the suddenly-ubiquitous subgenre of Asian Westerns, but it's also a gangster picture, a biker movie, an action film, and at times just a good old-fashioned Surrealist epic. Titled The Good, the Bad and the Weird, all three of those adjectives could describe different aspects of the film, although I don't think that's the order I'd put them in.

The plot... my God, is it really possible to recap the plot? To be honest, I'm not completely certain that I even know what happened. On one level, it's the same story that was seen in its namesake, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: there's a treasure out there, and the Bad (Lee Byung-Hun) and the Weird (Song Kang-Ho) both want to get their hands on it, while the Good (Jung Woo-Sung) just really wants to get his hands on the the Bad and the Weird. It all takes place in a mash-up of the American West and Manchuria in the period immediately preceding World War II.

It is literally inconceivable to me that someone could walk out of the theater thinking, "I am pleased with the way that twisty story resolved itself." Liking the film - or disliking it, for that matter, and this is a movie that begs to be disliked - is not a matter of the reed-thin narrative, but of the spectacle that the narrative enables, and this is by and large quite spectacular spectacle. From the opening shots, it's quite obvious that we're in good hands with Kim and company: a blue, blue sky, and a yellow desert, with a hawk swooping in so close to the camera that it nearly takes out the lens, before swooping back down to the train where we'll see the treasure map for the first time.

Let me just get this off my chest: this is a tremendously pretty movie. With two credited cinematographers (Lee Mo-Gae and Oh Seung-Chul), Kim has crafted one of the best-looking films of 2008, sometimes because of how conventionally lovely it is - you can't make a Western without plenty of big ol' vistas - and sometimes because of how unabashedly strange it is - such as the bright green interior lighting in that train. This is one of those movies where most of the individual frames look so good that you'd consider mounting them on your wall as fine art.

The film attached to that drop-dead gorgeous cinematography is, I think, best thought of as a deconstruction of the Western by way of an exaggerated parody of Western tropes. There's the mysterious bureaucrat on the train, there's a shoot-out in a town, there's a three-way stand-off at the climax, and so on ad infinitum, but all of these things are presented in a wildly heightened manner. That shoot-out, for example, is something like 12 minutes long, taking place inside, outside, and on top of nearly every structure on the town set, with actors jumping from place to place like this was a wuxia epic. It's a brilliant setpiece that as it goes on becomes more and more dissociated from what's "happening" - by the end, it's all about bodies in flight and copious amounts of stage blood.

I have seen none of Kim's previous films (he's fairly well-regarded internationally, though not a superstar of the Korean cinema like Kim Ki-Duk or Park Chan-Wook), but it's my understanding that, although never a "sedate" director, he's also never been this self-indulgent in creating a nearly plotless exercise in style and action. God bless Kim Ji-Woon and his self-indulgence, says I, if this is the result. I couldn't help but feel that this was the film I wanted Sukiyaki Western Django to turn into, a generic parody/homage so intense that the basic vocabulary of cinema started to shut down at its most frantic moments.

The flipside of all this, of course, is that The Good, the Bad and the Weird is a tremendously alienating movie - anyone who cares more than a little about a good story would be driven positively mad by the film, and despite my enthusiasm, even I can tell that the hyper-kinetic style begins to drag as the film moves on (two hours is an unforgivably long time for a film like this). It's flawed, without question. But it also has more originality and invention than any given half-dozen films, and even if it's tiring to love and easy to hate, I can't help but get tremendously excited by a movie with such a wild collection of imagery.

8/10

29 October 2008

"SAVE THE LIFE OF MY CHILD" CRIED THE DESPERATE MOTHER

After directing three of the finest American films of the decade and one extraordinarily close near-miss, Clint Eastwood was probably due for a stumble. And that's really all that I think Changeling is, a stumble, and not even a bad one: there's quite a lot to love about Eastwood's treatment of the grim true story of Christine Collins, a woman whose son went missing in 1928 in Los Angeles. But there's also quite a lot of minor problems and not-so-minor problems that keep popping up and demanding attention, and the effect is like listening to a great violinist scraping the bow across the strings: for the most part it's quite beautiful, but the scratches are what stand out.

Opening with the old "spinning globe" Universal logo from the '30s (a lazy shorthand for "this is a movie indebted to vintage filmmaking styles" that has long been driven into the ground, but I'll allow it), Eastwood and screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski fashion a tale that's equal parts melodrama, police procedural, serial killer thriller, courtroom drama and "bad cop" expose, and if you find yourself thinking that's quite a few different genres for one 2 hour and 20 minute film to handle, you've noticed the most obvious problem with Changeling: it's overstuffed with plot. At first, it purrs along very nicely, following single mother Collins (Angelina Jolie) as she returns home from work one Saturday to find that her son Walter (Gattlin Griffith) has vanished. The LAPD is initially worse than useless, but one day five months later, Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) announces that they've found the boy in DeKalb, Illinois. The only problem is that when he shows up, he's played by a new actor (Devon Conti) for the fairly good reason that he's not actually Walter Collins. Jones and the chief of police (Colm Feore) are insultingly dismissive of Christine's protestations, but once the local activist Reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich) gets involved, the LAPD starts to get very nervous of this woman who threatens to reveal the horribly corrupt incompetence underlying the force, and Jones manages to have her committed to the psycho ward.

There's not much that can be said against the story up to this point, bringing us somewhere near the midway point of the film, and this is where things start to get screwy: another cop, Lester Ybarra (Michael Kelly) stumbles across a serial killer in his prosecution of a bog-standard deportation case, and in the ensuing investigation, it turns out that Gordon Northcott (Jason Butler Harner) of Wineville, CA, very likely killed Walter; at the very least, he had the boy in his clutches for a time. But I'm getting a bit ahead of the plot, first there's the investigation, and that is why there's a 20-minute passage stuck right in the middle of the film where we hop between Christine in the loony bin, Ybarra making his inquiries, Rev. Briegleb making his inquiries, and Northcott realising that the game is up, and he need to flee back to Canada. This multitude of strands is handled with shocking ineptitude, both by the director and the writer, and the film never really recovers the narrative thread from then on, launching into a pair of courtroom stories that are cut together rather clumsily, and from there to a series of no less than three false endings.

Like I said, that's the obvious problem, but to my mind not an insurmountable one. Eastwood has a demonstrated ability to redeem occasionally clumsy screenplays (hello, Flags of Our Fathers), and there's nothing that a merciless trim job could have done to fix Changeling's script (though I don't think any editing in the world could have saved the movie - the Northcott material, all deadwood, is too heavily worked into the second half of the film to just be snipped out). Far more damning are all the little moments that just don't work very well, a far cry from the man who directed the shit out of Mystic River just five years ago (I still regard that film as containing very few directorial flaws, perhaps even none). Take, for instance, the moment when Ybarra listens to young Sanford Clark's (Eddie Alderson) story about Northcott. At one point, the camera pans from his face down his arm to his cigarette, which has become a pillar of ash: the detective is so horrified by the story that he forgot to smoke. That image is a really nice bit of visual storytelling, but the pan down is a bit too heavy-handed. And seconds later, when the ash falls and disintegrates in slow-motion? Borderline awful. Certainly moments like these do not outweigh the moments of directorial brilliance, but it's his flimsiest directing since Blood Work, at least. And Eastwood's sins extend beyond direction: his genial but forgettable score (he's gone 2-for-4 with film scores now, by my count - Flags was no great shakes either) commits the unforgivable error of evoking, with great success, the wrong era: those smooth brass sections call to mind the films of a solid 20 years after this film's setting.

Add in a few continuity errors that don't really derail the plot but call needless attention to themselves (Briegleb mentions the neighbors watching Collins's neighbors watching her get taken away from her house in a squad car; no, she actually walked to the station, and there were plenty of other ways to get that info to the reverend), and a few lines of dialogue that ring with anachronisms - like "serial killer", for instance - and one starts to think that Changeling is just plain sloppy in both conception and execution.

All those bad things being entirely true, what of the good things? For there are good things, and for starters, there's Eastwood's cinematographer for most of the '00s, Tom Stern. It's become a bit of a joke to note that their collaborations are getting increasingly monochromatic (enough so that some people actually believed Letters from Iwo Jima to be a black-and-white film), but that doesn't change the fact that the two men are good compliments to each other - Stern's harsh lighting and washed-out pallette ties in neatly with Eastwood's formally classic minimalism. Changeling is relatively more colorful than their last few films, but it still spends a great deal of time in full noir regalia, even in places where chiaroscuro lighting oughtn't work, like outside on a sunny day (if there was one thing that fully justified the entire movie to me, it would be the way that Stern and Eastwood keep Jolie's eyes perpetually shadowed under the brim of her très-1920s hat). This is at heart a very nasty story being told, and it is shot in a particularly harsh way, easily Stern's most contrast-heavy film since Million Dollar Baby.

Then, there's the cast. Almost uniformly, everyone gives a better performance than the role they were given: every character is one-dimensional except for Christine, who has two dimensions, and nearly every performance adds a full dimension. Jolie is particularly excellent in what by rights should have been a tearful series of "WHERE IS MY BOY?" Oscar-ready clips, but she only really has two, and one of them works much better than it did in the trailer, largely because she is screaming at a nine-year-old. Other than that, the whole performance is about holding back, proving to those vicious asshole men that just because she's a woman, that doesn't make her fragile, no matter how much she actually wishes she could be. It's not Jolie's best work, but as in her best work she manages to clamp down the degree to which she is "international superstar Angelina Jolie", no matter how hard her lips, and the bright period lipstick they're sporting, try to betray her.

Her performance is the centerpiece of a film that's much to schizophrenic to add up to anything in particular, but knows where the beating heart of the story lies: we must sympathise completely with Christine Collins for Changeling to work. Eastwood knows this; he gives Jolie many loving close-ups just to make sure that we know it too. It's not quite melodramatic enough (or at all) to properly recall the women's pictures from the 1930s that are at least theoretically its models, the film is at least a success as a study of a feral mother, whatever its other shortcomings.

7/10

CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL '08: TERRIBLY HAPPY (GENZ, DENMARK)

The winner of the Crystal Globe for best in fest at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic, Terribly Happy plays a lot like many confusing detective stories that have come before it, but thanks to an unusual setting, it manages to showcase enough of its own personality that I can't honestly claim that it's a mere retread of worn-out film noir tropes. At its best, it suggests a Danish version of Twin Peaks (the early episodes, when it's all about setting up the characters, not the later episodes, when there's a POV weasel-cam), though it spends a bit more time at its worst, particularly in the achingly slow finale that devolves into a routine series of coincidences. I'm not certain that Henrik Ruben Genz was absolutely deserving of the Chicago Film Festival's Silver Hugo for Best Director, on account of his "great storytelling full of surprises, overturning all expectations of genre", but there's no denying that when everything clicks, this is an awfully interesting crime picture.

Ostensibly based on a true story (though given how it ends, I can hardly see how this would be the case), Terribly Happy centers on Robert Hansen (Jakob Cedergren), a disgraced cop who is sent to a tiny town surrounded by bogs in the south of the country, as a restorative sabbatical/punishment to redress something that happened while he was in Copenhagen; whatever it was, apparently it was bad enough to end Hansen's marriage and leave him with no legal recourse to see his daughter. So he's not particularly happy about his lot in life, and the peculiar idiosyncrasies of the town don't really put his mind at ease: the locals are entirely unwilling to trust outsiders, and have their own code of conduct that would apparently render a robust police presence moot. A shoplifting minor is dealt with by giving him a good whack on the head (to Hansen's horror), and most serious disagreements are resolved by the parties involved without anyone else so much as commenting on the problems; leaving Hansen with nothing to do but sit around his office and drink soda at the bar every night.

Things start to become strange (naturally) when Hansen meets Ingerlise (Lena Maria Christensen), another outsider, trapped in an abusive marriage to the town bully Jørgen (Kim Bodnia). Everyone knows what's happening, and everyone knows that when the couple's little girl takes her doll stroller out for a walk at night (as seems to happen every night), it means that her daddy is beating the crap out of her mommy, but nobody seems anxious to stop it, not even Ingerlise herself, who refuses to file charges against her husband no matter how much Hansen pleads. Nevertheless, she comes by the police station almost every day to hint around that if Hansen wants to help, maybe he'd like to take care of matters in a manner not entirely prescribed by law. Meanwhile, the cop grows increasingly infatuated with the battered woman, despite the screams from the audience that he really doesn't want to go there. When he does, the inevitable shit goes down, although "inevitable for this town" and "inevitable for normal people" don't turn out to be the same thing.

There's really nothing you can do to make this narrative any more original and exciting than it sounds; and it suffers quite a bit from having an unsympathetic protagonist who absolutely ought to know better than to get himself caught in the local intrigues so much as does, especially given the cryptic warnings he's given about how his predecessor, along with everyone else who's threatened the delicate balance of the local system, has disappeared without a trace. But the local color is exceptionally colorful in this town, and in the first 45 minutes or so, Genz does a really top-notch job of showcasing all of the various people and plot threads involved in a way that makes them seem both unhinged and creepy, but also somehow appealing. The dour Danish backdrop matches the story perfectly; sometimes when the world is grey and clammy, you don't need black-and-white to create a noir universe.

But atmosphere only gets you so far, and the film starts to chafe under its screenplay. The cop-out ending is a bit of a groaner, but it's got nothing on all the portentous leering and paranoia that creep in around the 1-hour mark. The world stops being atmospheric and becomes a cartoon, and it's awfully hard to continue caring about Hansen in any way - that kind of toxic stupidity doesn't deserve our sympathy, and without that the film begins to flounder in search of a hero whose fate is of more than sporting interest to the audience. There's enough great imagery and weirdly entertaining sequences to make the film worth a peek, but ultimately, Terribly Happy is vaguely unsatisfying.

6/10

CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL '08: TOKYO! (GONDRY / CARAX / BONG, FRANCE/ JAPAN / GERMANY / SOUTH KOREA)

Tokyo! is another one of those new versions of old-fashioned anthology films that exists for no reason other than to show of a handful of short films connected by only the loosest commonality: in this case, three segments about Tokyo, although the precise definition of "about" is different for each director involved.

First up is Michel Gondry, with "Interior Design". Of all three shorts, probably the one that best fulfills the titular of exploring what the city of Tokyo is like, the story here concerns a young woman and her filmmaker boyfriend who have come to the big city to find work and success, only to learn that even the simple act of finding a clean apartment is nearly impossible. Their brief stay with one of her friends in a tiny studio turns into an uncomfortably indefinite stretch, made even more awkward when the friend's boyfriend returns.

For 20 minutes, this is the best work Gondry has done since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, an amazingly mature study of a whole bunch of little crises can test a relationship much more than one giant thing, and the way he contrasts the central couple - the girl especially - with the vast sprawl of Tokyo gives the film a surprisingly un-Gondry sense of desperation. But then, in the end, it almost seems like he realised, "shit, this isn't quirky!" and so goes galloping for the shores of Magical Realism with a metaphorically laden climax that is much more irritating that enlightening.

Next up Leos Carax (a French filmmaker who hasn't made anything in nine years, but whose work is best described as "hard" and "not beloved") directs "Merde", starring Denis Lavant as a sewer-dwelling crazy with a twist red beard named Monsieur Merde, or "Mister Shit" to us Yanks. Like some silent supervillain, he terrorises the city of Tokyo from his underground lair and inspires many panicked newspaper headlines and calls for protection, even though no-one has anything but a fleeting notion of what he looks like.

Eventually he comes to light, and is put on trial for his crimes, with a French scholar (Jean-François Balmer) on-hand to help translate his strange pseudo-language. This in turn means that we get a lot of endless scenes of a Japanese question translated into French translated into Merde's tongue, with his answer translated back into French and then into Japanese. The whole film could have shaved literally seven or eight minutes off its running time without this charming language trickery, but as it is, the second half of the film grinds to a painful halt after a fairly intriguing and amusing opening. That's to say nothing of the content of the trial half of the film, in which Merde rails against politics and religion in what's best described as an incoherent manner. "Shit" is just about the right word to hold onto as the film drags to a close, the worst kind of French pretentiousness.

The finale: Bong Joon-Ho (best known in the US for The Host) with "Shaking Tokyo". Neither as good as the best parts of the others nor as bad as their lows, Bong's film is about a recluse whose only contact with the world is the pizza delivery girl whom he slowly falls in love with, and what happens when an earthquake strikes, forcing the hermit to finally act. It's stylistically pleasing, with many beautifully-composed shots, but by this point in the program formal beauty isn't enough to keep one's attention from wandering, and the fact that the story is so conventional hurts the film. Even so, I might be inclined to give it the only passing grade of the three; it's the only one that didn't do something to actively piss me off.

This is one of the weaker omnibus films to come out in this strange new wave of the things; poorly structured (although none of the three is strong enough to go last, I'd have personally mirrored the order) and with a lower hit-to-miss ratio than the best of the form, like Paris, je t'aime. It might be worth it for Bong's film, but there's a lot of dross to get through before you get there, and the whole experience is a little too joyless to justify the brief flashes of imagination scattered through the hour-and-a-half.

5/10

CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL '08: KATYŃ (WAJDA, POLAND)

In the spring of 1940, when Poland was ground zero in the tug-of-war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union to gain complete control of Eastern Europe, a group of some 12,000 Polish prisoners-of-war were executed and buried in mass graves in the Katyń Forest in Smolensk Oblast. The graves were discovered by the Nazis in 1943, leading to the dissolution of the alliance between the Soviets and the exiled Polish government, and an agreement by the Western Allies to help the Soviet Union to cover-up the massacre, in the interest of fighting the Germans. After the war, when Poland was swallowed up whole behind the Iron Curtain, the official story was that the executions had been perpetrated by the Nazis, and any Pole who dared suggest otherwise was disappeared by Stalin's goons. For many years, even speaking the word "Katyń" was informally prohibited in the former Poland.

Among those killed in Katyń was a cavalry officer named Jakub Wajda, whose 14-year-old son Andrzej would grow up to become one of the most significant filmmakers in Polish history, with several films in official competition at both the Berlinale and Cannes festivals (including a Palme d'Or in 1981), and a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 2000. In 2007, he released a film memorialising the massacre and those who lost their life there, based on Andrzej Mularczyk's book Post Mortem; that film (an nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at last year's Oscars) was simply titled Katyń.

It's the kind of extraordinarily serious motion picture made with such deeply impassioned sincerity that it makes you feel sick at heart to suggest that maybe there's something wrong with it; and yet I cannot force myself to regard it as a success. It makes me feel like an absolute dick to say that, I assure you: the man lost his dad at Katyń, for Christ's sake, who am I to tell him that his movie isn't any good? (Because I'm positive that Andrzej Wajda lies awake at night wondering what random American film bloggers think about his work).

The problem with Katyń is a very simple one: like so many deeply personal films it is entirely bereft of subtlety, and comes across as haranguing. It's ironic (and almost certainly unintentional) that a film so profoundly anti-Soviet should bear such a strong resemblance to the unbearable Soviet war propaganda films of the 1950s, but that's exactly where my mind kept going over and over for the entirety of the film's two hours: deeply noble patriots filmed constantly with such reverence that they might as well have halos stand trembling with tear-filled eyes as the terrible enemies of the people storm across the screen with all the ee-vil swagger of Victorian stage villains. It's unabashed melodrama through and through, enough to make a silent film quiet and restrained by comparison.

Compare this to something like Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List, another film whose desire to be seen as an important historical work of profound humanity leaps of the screen with such abandon that it might as well have been titled Hi, I'm Steven, and This Is My Noble Prestige Drama. Critics of that film have a point when the speak of the simple-minded populism and cardboard heroes and villains, but they ignore the central character of Oskar Schindler himself, whose transformation from cynical war profiteer to good man is the basis of the entire screenplay. Katyń doesn't have an Oskar Schindler; the closest thing it has to a grey character is a Russian officer who hides his Polish friend Anna (Maja Ostaszewska, the closest the film comes to a single protagonist) from his colleagues charged with rounding up the survivors of the missing POWs.

It might be easier to forgive the lack of realistically-developed characters, if this weren't a symptom of the disease afflicting the whole movie: in its headlong rush to declare its own importance, it forgets to be whatsoever engaging. Though a decently-crafted film (shot by the reliable Pawel Edelman, one of the world's foremost creator of beautiful and sad images that skew just a bit to the manipulative side), it is resolutely airless and leaden. Its 118 minutes feel half-again that long, and at the end I was keenly aware that I should be very sad, although it was hard for me to say that I really was.

The clearest sign that Wajda and his writers are anxious to make sure we feel exactly the right emotions is an element of the film's structure: beginning with the round-up of POWs in 1939, the film proceeds chronologically past the massacre and into the years after the war, and how the mothers and wives and daughters and sisters of the slain pick up their lives and go on. It's a curious thing that we never see the actual Katyń Forest Massacre itself, given that in the time leading up to that moment we've spent much of the film with Anna's husband Andrzej (Artur Żmijewski), and there would have been ample story justification; the reason becomes clear at the film's end. For the only time, Wajda skips chronology to show us the massacre only when Anna is given her dead husband's diary to read, so that the last sequence in the film follows Andrzej's final moments of life. It's a visceral and brilliantly brutal sequence - absolutely the best part of the film - but stuck in at the end like that, I can only assume that the filmmakers are all but telling us: don't leave this theater feeling remotely pleasant. Here's violent death. The end. It's appalling manipulative, but since all of Katyń has been that way, I don't mean to complain loudly about it.

The one saving grace is that Wajda has stated in numerous places that Katyń is a film to give catharsis to the Polish people, and he doesn't really give a damn what anyone else thinks. It wouldn't be the first time that a film is meant solely for the residents of its director's homeland (I've always wondered how well Altman films play outside of America, for example), and as long as I know that I'm not supposed to feel the full gamut of emotions, I guess I can be satisfied that all I really felt was resentment at having been played by an obviously-talented filmmaker whose only goal was that I be impressed by the crushing weight of history.

4/10

28 October 2008

CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL '08: COUNTRY WEDDING (ÓSKARSDÓTTIR, ICELAND)

Valdís Óskarsdóttir's Country Wedding has a remarkably avant-garde central concept that makes for a great nugget of trivia, and as it turns out, only a modestly entertaining finished project: at the start of shooting her film, she rehearsed the characters and their history and their relationships, had each of the cast members think of one Big Secret for the character, and then shot the whole movie without a script or indeed a story beyond the bare narrative framework that this was about a group of people on a bus trying to find the church where a wedding was supposed to take place, except that nobody - not even the groom who set this up - knows where they're going. The specifics of each scene were totally improvised, and the actors could choose for themselves whether or not to share their secret with anybody else over the course of the seven-day shoot.

You know who gets a whole lot out of this kind of exercise? The actors involved. Other than that, it's really just a crapshoot, because thanks to the magic of film editing (magic that Óskarsdóttir knows well: this is her directorial debut after a career spent editing movies, most notably Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), the audience could never tell that this was improv - we're just concerned with whether or not the characters and story work in the specific 100-minute framework that we're given to witness them. Sure, knowing that backstory helps to explain some of the stranger moments in the film, like near the end when one character keeps repeating himself until somebody reacts, but it doesn't actually make the film any better or worse.

At least it's a fairly successful comedy, in that quintessentially Scandinavian mold where it's funny how miserable everyone is. Country Wedding is somewhere between a farce and a comedy of errors born from the actions of a great many people who are lying to everyone else about something or other, or at least withholding the truth. Going through the whole cast would take the rest of this review, but in a nutshell, there's a bus that's mostly empty except for the bride, Inga (Nanna Kristin Magnúsdóttir), and her party - including her mom's boyfriend and her bridesmaid's senile grandmother. And there's a bus that's mostly empty ("Why did we get two buses?" asks a perplexed father-of-the-bride at one point) except for the groom, Barði (Bjön Hlynur Haraldsson), and his party, including his long-lost closeted gay uncle and a last-minte replacement best man that the bride can't stand, seeing how he shaved her fiancé's head the night before the wedding and all.

The film is content to entertain without providing much deep insight into the human condition, unless you consider the notion that when in doubt, people will behave in greedy self-preservation to be a penetrating insight. But as light comedies go, it's misanthropic enough to have some bite, and the characters are generally unique enough in one's memory (largely because they are precisely-defined stereotypes) that the film sticks around longer than it seems like something so essentially disposable ought to. You can't argue with what's funny, basically, and while I'm sure Country Wedding isn't everyone's cup of tea, I for one found it consistently amusing enough (if never laugh-out-loud worthy) to recommend it as one of the better comedies I've seen this year, in our modern age of terrible cinematic comedies.

Stylistically, the film isn't obviously limited by its improvised nature (most of the scenes were shot on four separate cameras), but it is clearly influenced by the Dogme 95 movement, where Óskarsdóttir has spent much of her editorial career. That means a lot of handheld camerawork, minimal lighting and a healthy number of somewhat awkward angles dictated more by where the camera operator could stand than by what makes for a compelling visual. I've never pretended that I'm a particular fan of the Dogme style, but like anything else it can be used for good or for evil, and for the most part the looseness in the visuals of Country Wedding matches the shaggy farce. One of the things that handheld tends to be very good at is making it feel like the camera is an active participant in the mise en scène, so that in an ensemble piece like this we can almost feel like we're one more member of the wedding party, silently watching all these people around us go to people. It's the same exact effect that was achieved in that other recent handheld wedding movie, Rachel Getting Married, or in just about every home movie filmed at a wedding in history. Maybe it's a bit trite, but it fits Óskarsdóttir's film rather nicely, and makes for a movie that's pleasantly down-to-earth and simple in its desire to entertain.

7/10

CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL '08: OF TIME AND THE CITY (TERENCE DAVIES, UNITED KINGDOM)

On paper, Of Time and the City looks to be a bad way to begin one's exploration of the films of Terence Davies, a notoriously anti-prolific Brit who has now directed a grand total of five feature films and a trilogy of shorts in a career which began in 1976. But I didn't know anything about it on paper; I saw Davies's name in the festival guide, and thought "hell, I have to see one of his films sometime", and didn't even bother to read the blurb.

Lucky for me. If I had done my homework, and been scared off, I would have missed one of the most beautiful pseudo-documentaries that I've ever seen, the kind of film good enough to make you stand up and declare that if this is one of the director's "minor" films, his masterpieces must be just about the best movies in history.

The city in the title is Liverpool, where Davies was born and grew up. Using a combination of newly-shot footage of the city in 2007 and '08, along with a great deal more found footage stretching back to before his birth in 1945, combined with quotations from poetry and marvelously poetic narration written and delivered by the director himself, along with a wide-ranging soundtrack containing everything from '40s pop music to Baroque organ music, Of Time and the City creates something that isn't really a historical documentary of the city's development in the decades since WWII ended, but more of a cinematic essay on the same topic, largely based on how Liverpool's development has effected Davies in all his stages from guileless child to angry old man. The closest thing I can think of is the film's mirror-image, Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg; in both cases, the film is only allegedly a "documentary" when it's really an extended meditation on what the director feels about his hometown, though where Davies's film starts off with an extremely realistic vision of Liverpool built upon reel after reel of historical imagery, Maddin's is a flight straight into the director's characteristic lunacy.

Of Time and the City flies about from subject to subject with an abandon that would render it impotent as rhetoric, were it not for the seeming fact that everything within the film is related by how one topic reminds Davies of another, and so what we're being exposed to is something like a record of the director's internal monologue. The degree to which a viewer is able to get anything from the film but intense annoyance is certainly based on how quickly she can align her viewpoint to match Davies's precisely; not necessarily agreeing with everything the man says, but agreeing that for 72 minutes, we are prepared to let his perspectives replace our own. I found that the movie's early melding of words, music and images were hypnotic enough that it was easy to become lost in the flow, enough so that when Davies says something patently absurd, like declaiming the Beatles as one of the worst blights to ever strike the face of music, it's honestly quite easy to agree with him, and with his contention that the one good point of rock and roll was that it drove him to classical music at a formative age, though unfortunately when he was still young enough to be taken in by Mahler's unchecked Romanticism.

That kind of musing, from the bitter to the sublime to the embarrassed, is the tone that the film adopts throughout; for the most part his arguments seem conservative, in that "damn kids, ruining everything that used to be halfway decent!" sense, although he also spends a great deal of time reminiscing about how crappy things were in his childhood. So really, he's just an angry person, though the kind of angry person who isn't quite as cynical as he'd like to appear.

Most of the film is concerned with his rage at what was apparently a strict Catholic upbringing; Of Time and the City opens with a modern-day shot of Liverpool's primary cathedral, beautiful and grandiose if also a bit worn out, and as the film progresses that cathedral will be paired with a great many hideous structures and rundown slums, making it clear that the filmmaker regards the cathedral is something obscene and out-of-place. His anger at the Church is unbending, as he proudly declares himself a born-again pagan and blames his family's religion for much of the joyless suffering he's known throughout his life: in one scene that I think was more revealing than Davies meant for it to be, he comes right up close to blaming the Church for his lifetime of shame about his homosexuality, born in his childhood knowledge that carnal desire was a sin, and that kind of desire... best not to even talk about how filthy that was.

I can safely disagree with that assessment "on paper" that I mentioned at the top: this is quite possibly the perfect film to be introduced to the work of Terence Davies, because after watching it, one has the clearest possible picture of who this man is. Not just because of the words he says, but because of the poetry he quotes and the music he chooses to accompany the images, and even which images he thinks best elucidate the topic he's discussing at that moment. Hardly a documentary about Liverpool - which however good, would have been pedestrian - this is instead a passionate experiment in revealing how that city grew up in the 20th Century and how a little boy grew up in that city, and how the two paths became inextricably linked. I cannot think of another film, documentary or fiction, that pursues with such single-minded success the question of how place affects the mind of a person living in that place. It is, simply put, one of the most compelling and unique character studies that I have ever been privileged to watch.

10/10

27 October 2008

SAME OLD SONG AND DANCE

Three of the last four weekends have seen a G-rated Disney film with essentially no value to an audience over 12 years old leading the box-office: first Beverly Hills Chihuahua, and now High School Musical 3: Senior Year, although at least this sequel to the two blockbuster Disney Channel Original Movies didn't LIE about itself the way that the Chihuahua marketing campaign did. Then it hits me, that the company could have fixed both of these films just by swapping the concepts: that way, Beverly Hills Chihuahua could have delivered on its promise of hideous CGI animals singing showtunes, while High School Musical 3 would have featured Zak Efron being chased across Mexico by a talking doberman.

Or something like that. Anything to show off the fact that yes, this is a High School Musical on the big screen, made with a real movie budget, and watching Efron getting mauled by dogs is merely one of the many exciting things that HSM3 might have given to the world. After all, any TV-to-movie property usually makes a big deal out of using the lax censorship of the silver screen to go places too rough for television, and obviously Vanessa Hudgens doesn't have any prudish hang-ups about amateur porn, theoretically leaving things open for a sex-and-drugs-fueled romp about rape and bloody gang violence danced out to terrible pop music. And barring that as something which was clearly never going to fucking happen, at least the deeply stereotypical gay kid (he's a choreographer who wears lots of pink and designer hats) could have come out of the closet, instead of pairing off with one of the only available single girls, although then I remembered that this was Disney, and that a male character saying "I like boys" was even less likely than my "musical I Spit on Your Grave for tweens" idea.

Instead of any of that, here's what we get: High School Musical and High School Musical 2 again, with a slightly larger number of locations and more background dancers. Storywise, it's still all about Troy Bolton (Efron), the basketball god of Albuquerque's East High, finding himself torn between sport and his love of the singin' and the dancin', supported by his tremendously impersonal girlfriend Gabriella Montez (Hudgens), and sort of also by his teammates and his father (Bart Johnson), who obviously looks to Gabriella as some kind of totem keeping his boy from Teh Gay. Meanwhile, the rich Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale) schemes like a silent movie villain to separate Troy and Gabriella so that she can sing the big showstopping number with Troy and get all the fame and glory, though in this episode she no longers enlists the help of her brother Ryan (Lucas Grabeel), the aforementioned cartoon homosexual, who for once starts out on the side of the good guys - probably the biggest single change in the general story outline between this film and its two predecessors, and if it seems like "the second-tier villain isn't a villain anymore" is an awfully small thing to be the biggest difference, you begin to appreciate the flaws with HSM3.

Oh, the other big difference is that a few new characters are introduced, so that when they form the backbone of High School Musical 4, nobody will be too confused. The worst of these is a twerp with a man-crush on Troy, named Jimmie Zara (Matt Prokop), whose name sounds kind of like a mafia movie character, you know, Jimmie "Little Tuna" Zara, although his given nickname in the film is "Rocketblast" or some damned thing.

I do not blame Disney for this wearying attack of noncreativity, which isn't Bad any more than it's Good, for it is a business venture after all, and they can rightly assume that their target audience won't care. Which is my cue to reprint something from my Beverly Hills Chihuahua review (hey, if they can copy themselves, I can copy myself, and it's a rant about the same studio, after all): "the world would be a lot healthier overall if the creators of children's entertainment didn't hold their audience in such contempt, and actually put some effort into making kids' movies and TV shows that were actually smart. The Wizard of Oz and Disney's own Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio, just to grab a handful of titles, are actively good movies, tremendously pleasing examples of the best of the studio system in the waning days of the pre-war Golden Age. Something terrible has happened in the last seven decades."

But if you're reading this, I expect you're older than twelve (at least I hope you are, since I've said "fucking" in this review - twice now), and wondering, "what is there for me?" Nothing more than in the first two films, and presumably any adult who goes to HSM3 is taking their kids, and already saw the first two, so they know what they're getting into. If you're pervy, there's still the dubious pleasure of the not-entirely-gorgeous young cast - and for the first time, they were all legal when the film was shot, so you're not even an ephebephile this time!

The soundtrack is still made up of that awful overproduced pop music that nobody in the whole world can sing "well" - if Maria Callas herself came back from the dead to record "Right Here, Right Now", she'd probably sound almost exactly like Vanessa Hudgens - and Kenny Ortega returns to direct and provide his capable choreography, which suffers from being essentially identical every single time (see also: HSM & HSM2, Newsies, and Xanadu), though at least this time around he gets to use bigger ensembles and so there's a bit more scale to the bigger numbers. At one point, he also inserts an obvious reference to Fosse's Chicago choreography (it's even called out in the screenplay), raising the question: if someone's old enough to recognise a Fosse move, are they not then old enough to watch better films than High School Musical 3?

But why complain? Kids are only kids for a little bit, and if you have kids or are friendly with a kid who wants to see HSM3, why not indulge them - says the man who neither has nor likes children. It's just two hours, they're happy, and when you get home and they're asleep, you can Google naked photos of Vanessa Hudgens. Not that I'm endorsing such deviant behavior, and if I did such a thing myself, it was strictly in my professional capacity as a film blogger.

4/10

TSPDT #86: MY DARLING CLEMENTINE

On the afternoon of October 26, 1881, in Tombstone, AZ, Marshal Virgil Earp, his brothers Wyatt and Morgan, and their friend John "Doc" Holliday engaged in a gunfight at the O.K. Corral with Ike and Billy Clanton, Frank and Tom McLaury, and Billy Claiborne, an event that quickly became one of the most legendary true events of the American West. Though the reasons for this battle are convoluted and drenched in local politics, the showdown was mythologised as a face-off between the New West, with law and order and civilisation, and the Old West, full of rustlers and cowboys and frontier survivalists.

65 years later, director John Ford and screenwriters Samuel G. Engel and Winston Miller produced a dramatisation of the fight and the events leading up to it called My Darling Clementine; neither the first nor last filmed version of the gunfight, it's probably the best-known and most well-loved. It's also, arguably, the most important, if only for the key role it played in the director's development. The first movie that the World War II veteran helmed after the cessation of hostilities, it was also his return to the Western genre, which he had left behind after Stagecoach in 1939, itself the only Western he directed during the 1930s, despite his reputation in the silent era as a genre whiz. My Darling Clementine was the film that sealed Ford's doom for the rest of his career, launching the series of masterpieces in the late '40s and 1950s that forever after defined him as the greatest director of Westerns in history.

Ironic, then, that Clementine would be one of the films that the director came closest to disowning, stopped only by the fact that people didn't do things like that back in the days before auteur theory. By 1946, Ford was undeniably a master of American cinema - he'd already won three of his unmatched four Oscars, and had been deified by that unhinged Wunderkind, Orson Welles - which makes it strange that he should have been forced to put up such a fight with the studio execs, but that's just what happened when Fox's Darryl Zanuck took the film away after poor test audience reports, handing reshoots over to Lloyd Bacon, hardly a slouch but clearly not a filmmaker like John Ford. This event poisoned Ford's relationship with the studio that had been responsible for many of his biggest successes (including The Iron Horse, the silent epic that made his career), and by the decade's end, the director was working almost exclusively with independent producer Merian C. Cooper, the iconoclast with whom Ford founded Argosy Pictures in 1940. In 1994, a preview copy of My Darling Clementine was found that included some 35 minutes of footage missing or altered in the released version, including a different ending. Though no-one knows with certainty if this cut represents Ford's unadulterated vision (he'd been dead 20 years when it was discovered), it is by common consent the better of the two films.*

I have called My Darling Clementine the film from which all of Ford's later Westerns sprung; that said, it's a film somewhat unlike any other Western he ever made. Mind you, a lot of the elements are in place: the Monument Valley locations (the second time he shot there, after Stagecoach); a few actors that he worked with on multiple occasions, though only one was properly a member of the celebrated John Ford Stock Company; and the instantly-recognisable "look" of a Ford film, with its heavy use of foreground objects, framing elements, and the deliberate use of low-vs-high angle shots (of course, most of Ford's visual style was set in stone by the end of the silent era). But in its narrative and characterisations, Clementine is strange kind of transition from Ford's early dabbling in the genre, which could be best described as "manly men and pretty ladies, lowdown varmints and killer Injuns", to his later deconstructions of Western tropes, famously culminating in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which essentially stated in so many terms that the very notion of an entertainment genre set in the American West is fundamentally corrupt. We could refer to these later films, arguably beginning with 1948's Fort Apache but obviously in place by 1956's The Searchers, as Ford's "anti-mythology": layer by layer, he exploded the lies of the Western both in film and in print, from the idea that the U.S. Cavalry was composed only of the bravest and most noble of men, to the stereotype that all Native Americans were savages, ultimately taking aim at the very core notion of the Western, showing that one lone man with a gun isn't the guy you want leading the way to civilisation.

Based on one of the most durable stories in frontier history - Ford's only retelling of a particular historical event in Western clothes - Clementine is on the one hand, a myth as much as any of the immature Westerns before or after. If anything, the film errs on the side of too much myth, and this where things start to get interesting. There are details in the film's narrative that are flatly without truth, such as the deaths of James and Morgan Earp years ahead of time - James's tombstone even establishes the events of the film taking place in 1882, months too late - the absence of Claiborne and the McLaurys, which Clantons were actually present and killed at the O.K. Corral. The entire narrative arc of the film, in which Wyatt Earp is marshal for about two weeks, instead of Virgil's year or more in the position, is ridiculously compressed to make a complicated series of events a clear-cut case of one family getting revenge on another for cattle rustling. Most viewers probably wouldn't know these things one way or the other, but at there's at least one major death that almost everybody (certainly in the '40s, when Westerns were far more popular than they are today) would know didn't really happen. I half-wonder if Ford and the writers' wanton disregard for anything like "fact" through the whole of the film's running time is part of some conscious or subconscious wish to dare us into calling them on it; if we're supposed to notice how clearly Clementine flies against the facts, and thus have our suspicions raised that hey, maybe these Western pictures are full of lies!

At the same time, the characters in the movie have much more in common with the "frontier assholes" of Ford's later films than the white-hat heroes of so many matinee Westerns. Victor Mature's Doc Holliday is a bit of a bully, who treats his former lover Clementine (Cathy Downs) like a spent snotrag after she travels halfway across the continent to be with him, all because he's sleeping with a short-tempered Mexican girl with the remarkably unfortunate name of Chihuahua (Linda Darnell). Henry Fonda's Wyatt Earp is never driven by any sort of sense for justice, but only a desire for bloody revenge for his kid brother and cattle, in addition to being a bit of a preening dandy (late in the film, he spents what must be 20 seconds making certain that his hair has been cut and parted just exactly right). It's common to state that Fonda made a living out of playing walking saints, but here and in Fort Apache, Ford makes him out to be something of a dick. And given Walter Brennan's reputation as the cantankerous but charming old man, casting him as the sociopathic leader of the Clantons can't help but do strange things to our reception of the film's villain. It might have the plot of a myth, but it's a myth strangely populated with grey characters.

There's clearly a lot more one could talk about, but once you've discussed the meaning of impeccably-composed frames in one Ford picture, you've discussed the meaning of impeccably-composed frames in them all. Which is actually a complete goddamn lie, and My Darling Clementine has a much more mature use of shadows than any of his preceding Westerns, just for starters. But you have to cut yourself off somewhere, and I'll leave off with this: Clementine is an excellent film from one of the greatest filmmakers in history during one of his most fertile periods. Go see it, and if you already have, see it again. You can never have too much Ford.

26 October 2008

CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL '08: 24 CITY (JIA, HONG KONG/CHINA)

A slightly embarrassing confession: despite his reputation as one of the pre-eminent Chinese filmmakers of the current century, I've had some difficulty in the past "getting" the work of Jia Zhang-Ke, at least those films I've seen. To my eyes, his big breakthrough, 2000's Platform, is an exceptionally over-praised work of no particular merit, while Unknown Pleasures and The World justified much more of the breathless praise that greeted them in this country, though both felt a little "overdetermined" to me, assembled perfectly but with a chilly reserve that kept them from meaning a whole lot outside "I'm Jia Zhang-Ke, and I have a tremendously disciplined control over where to set my camera". Still Life was a huge stride towards making a film that wasn't just a formally flawless intellectual puzzle, but it's with his new 24 City that Jia has finally made a film that I'm perfectly happy to call one of the year's best. I'd better avoid making too many blanket statements without having seen all of the director's films - in particular, his well-regarded 2006 documentary Dong - but as far as I'm concerned, 24 City is his first masterpiece.

Like Still Life, a narrative film masquerading as a documentary, and more of an essay on the status of life in a modernising China than either, 24 City is structured as a series of interviews with the current and former employees of Factory 420 in Chengdu, a former aeronautics factory being shut down and relocated to make room for a glitzy new residential community called 24 City. These interviews are intercut with what we might call Chengdu b-roll: panoramas of the city, or footage of the interviewees going on about their life for a little bit.

It becomes clear sooner or later than Jia's not being entirely forthcoming with us, and while many of the interviews are the actual men and women of Factory 420, some of them are actors playing roles. The filmmaker tips his hand in an arch moment in which famed Chinese actress Joan Chen plays a retiring worker nicknamed "Little Flower", a name given to her because back in the early '80s, everybody thought she looked like Joan Chen in Little Flower. That's a bold move for the film to make, and for plenty of people the winking games Jia plays with reality are proof enough that 24 City isn't up to his best work.

I'd argue that on the contrary, Jia is well aware that by pulling the rug from underneath us, he's making it very hard to completely engage with his story about Factory 420, and I think that in a Brechtian way that's exactly what he wants. Thanks to its documentary structure, 24 City seems like it's supposed to be the story of a specific place from its secret birth to its death, but in bragging about how parts of it are real and parts are made up, and he's not telling us which, Jia invalidates that movie. In its place, 24 City the semi-fictional construct is a story about China since Mao, attempting in less than two hours to cover a remarkably wide swath of modern Chinese society, and coming up with a film that's often startlingly free in its criticism of the country's current government. I have no idea whatsoever if Jia in his personal life is a Marxist or Maoist or free-market libertarian, but 24 City is essentially an argument that the modernisation of China has been accompanied by the abandonment of everything Marxist or Leninist about the original revolution in favor of a destructive capitalist/Maoist hybrid that's not really like any coherent political or economic school that has ever been described on Earth.

The interviews, representing a suspiciously comprehensive cross-section of demographics, all tend to revolve around the idea that the way things were was generally an improvement over the way things are; sometimes it's an old-timer saying that outright or implying it, and sometimes it's just the vapid way that the younger generation seems oblivious to anything but their own needs (the air-headed young lady that ends the film - I'm fairly certain she must be an actress - seems a bit oblivious that there is this thing called "history" at all). But it's within what I've called the "b-roll" that 24 City really pokes at this idea, sometimes in tremendously subtle ways. The scene that sums up the whole movie for me comes when a group of older workers end their day with a group sing-along to "The International": but the tinkly synthesised version of that anthem that they're singing with is so thin as to be a parody of left-wing fervor. So it goes with all of the film: whatever China is, it's not remotely what the revolutionaries in the 1940s said it was going to be.

Whether Jia staged this part or that of the film ultimately doesn't matter, given that either way he's using Factory 420 as a metaphor for a neo-capitalist China that's devouring its own history. What use does a metaphor have for accurate reportage, anyway? The film that results may tell less of a human-sized story than any of Jia's previous work, and this may be a disappointment to those who felt that the human element of his films was a bigger draw than I ever have, but I'll happily take the large-scale sociology of 24 City any day. Divide it from its culturally specific trappings, and what we've got left is a film arguing as persuasively as I've ever seen it argued that "progress" is what happens when people start to forget what history looked like. A cautionary, even reactionary theme, but it's good to be reminded from time to time what happens to people who forget about history.

10/10

EVERYBODY WAS KUNG-FU BITING

Oh, how I'm going to hell for that post title.

The final vampire picture produced by Hammer Film Productions saw the studio going out with neither a bang nor a whimper, but a comic SPROING!!! noise. At least that is the sound it makes in my head, because wow is The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires ever a weird little movie. Not just weird in the "final vampire picture produced by the legendarily hidebound Hammer Films" sense. This film could have come out at any point in cinema history and ended up just as strange and inexplicable as it did.

Here's what I expect the logic looked like: the folks at Hammer knew that if they didn't do something immediate and drastic to win back audiences, their studio was essentially in its final stages of life. So they looked around at the state of world cinema circa 1973, and noticed that hey, those chop-socky action pictures from Asia seem to be doing pretty well with the people who used to like our gothic horror movies. Why don't we...? And thus was born one of the strangest cinematic hybrids of which I am personally aware, in which the supremely British Hammer filmmakers brought their mechanically refined Dracula franchise over to Hong Kong, where they introduced it to Shaw Brothers, and that company's (at the time) over-the-top cartoon violence and high-energy martial artistry (hint for the uninitiated: if you enjoyed any moment of Kill Bill, Vol. 1, you owe a debt of gratitude to Shaw Brothers). The finished product was unapologetically strange, but that strangeness gave it a kind of maniacal energy that resulted in a film too ludicrous to hate. The fact that 7 Golden Vampires is such a tripped-out hack job is no small part of what makes it the first honestly entertaining Hammer Dracula picture in many years.

Coming along for the ride was Peter Cushing, making his last film with the company that made him a star; but for the first time, Dracula was not to be played by Christopher Lee. I do not know if the offer was advanced, and the actor was dumbfounded to find a script so idiotic that even he couldn't touch it, or if (I think this is more likely), that his absence was an intentional cost-saving measure, given that Dracula has just about the smallest amount of screentime he ever received in this film, and for half of that time he's disguised himself in the body of a Chinese man. Either way, this notable absence, plus the film's decidedly ambiguous continuity, leaves 7 Golden Vampires feeling more like a spin-off than a sequel, with nothing but Cushing and the name of the bloodsucker tying it to anything that Hammer had ever even dreamt about before.

The film opens in 1804, as a mysterious Chinese man named Kah (Chan Shen) treks through the Transylvanian mountains on his way to Castle Dracula. Along the way, he meets a rural peasant who eyes him nervously, and we're treated to a pair of those wildly inappropriate crash zooms that Hong Kong action pictures in the '70s boasted. Just to make it clear, I guess, that even though Roy Ward Baker was on hand to direct, this wasn't going to be no standard British horror picture. When Kah gets to the castle, decked out in almost fluorescent greens and reds, he awakes Dracula himself, and the first shot of the count is far enough away that you might honestly mistake it for Lee... but then there's a cut to a close-up, and that thought is crushed under the bootheels of John Forbes-Robertson, an actor caked in stage makeup and given to a reedy tone of voice that doesn't suggest Chris Lee as much as, I don't know, Michael Palin's imitation of a woman's imitation of Chris Lee. Dracula and Kah have a conversation that's really very hard to follow, because Dracula's face is bathed in bright aquamarine light the whole time, but apparently Kah is there to beg the count's help in raising the 7 legendary Golden Vampires of China, whose cult has fallen into ruin these past few years. Dracula haughtily points out that he does not do favors, he issues commands, but apparently he's sufficiently concerned about a vampire-free China that he somehow transmutes himself into Kah's body. Then it's off to the Orient-

-and 1904, in Chung King (Man, that was abrupt - that cut was like a Chung King express. Or am I still in trouble for the pun in the title?), where the local university is failing to enjoy a lecture about vampire mythology being given by one Professor Van Helsing (if you don't know who plays him by now, go back and re-read the last eight reviews in this series). Van Helsing gets very excited in retelling a legend about a Chinese farmer who once interrupted a secret ceremony in which seven decrepit old men, practically walking corpses, in gold masks, prepared to drink the blood drained from seven beautiful girls, overseen by a high priest who looks an awful lot like Kah. The farmer was able to grab the golden bat medallion from one of the seven, who started leaking steam before collapsing into dust, and the farmer was smart enough to put that medallion on a shrine to Buddha, while he was being chased by an army of zombies that Kah raised by banging on a gong. The Chinese university authorities, a rigidly rationalist lot, don't much appreciate a foreigner coming in and telling them about their grisly myths, and how they're all true, everyone, and they walk out on Van Helsing. Of course, we know better, so when a few expository scenes later, a young man named Hsi Ching (David Chiang) creeps into Van Helsing's home to tell the professor that not only is the myth true, Ching's own grandfather was that farmer, and the remaining six vampires still hold his ancestral village in a grip of terror and bloodshed. It doesn't take much work to convince Van Helsing to go a-hunting, and he brings along the characters we met in those expositional scenes I mentioned: Ching's six brothers, his sister Mai Kwei (Shih Szu), a lovely and very wealthy Swedish adventuress named Vanessa Buran (Julia Ege), and Van Helsing's callow son, Leyland (Robin Stewart). It's better than "Lorrimer", I suppose.

The rest of the movie has one and only one concern: shuttle our rag-tag group of heroes from place to place where they meet either vampires or bandits, and the Hsi siblings make quick work out of whomever by means of their magical silver weapons. Or in Ching's case, fists. That are not silver, but can still kill a vampire when they go through its chest. I'm not as much an expert on 1970s Hong Kong cinema as I ought to be, but my sense is that most of the fight sequences in The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires are poor by the standards of the day, though not abysmally so. At any rate, there's rarely a moment when the fighting doesn't look absolutely fake. Was that one of the appeals of '70s martial arts films? I don't recall. The best thing about the fight sequences is that Cushing actually gets to join in a little bit: nothing absurd, like that time Christopher Lee's head has composited onto a video game sprite in Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith, only little things like smacking zombies in the face with burning tree branches, and in one scene, rolling through a motherfucking campfire, and you can obviously see Cushing's face throughout the shot, so there's no chance that it's a stunt double. Anyway, this all happens while Leyland bobs back and forth uselessly (he never once gets a scene where he can prove that he's got the Van Helsing fighting spirit, I'm surprised to say), making Cushing's Van Helsing look even more badass.

This is all silly beyond words, but it's the kind of silly that's also incredible fun and awesome, especially if you are or once were or ever wanted to be a twelve-year-old boy. I cannot possibly defend 7 Golden Vampires as regards is script, which is both sloppy - if Dracula has been in Kah's body for 100 years, leading the Golden Vampires, then who is Van Helsing talking about when he mentions that one time he killed a Transylvanian arch-vampire? - and arbitrary - everything preceding the half-way point is mostly watching characters team up for no reason other than the film has chosen them to be our protagonists, while afterwards it's just one extended fight after another - nor can I defend Baker's direction, which constantly errs on the side of weird shutter tricks and no tension (incidentally, he oversaw the only two Hammer Dracula films in which vampires have any sort of relationship to bats - Scars of Dracula was the other). And the acting ranges from the heroic failures of Chiang and Shih to overcome the fact that their command of English isn't enough to help navigate Don Houghton's clunky lines, to Ege's inability to convincingly sell the accent she was born with. Frankly, 7 Golden Vampires is kind of awful like that.

But dammit, I enjoyed myself, and I really enjoyed that Cushing was enjoying himself as well: especially in little tiny moments like when we catch him - or is it Van Helsing? - smiling a bit as he watches the Hsi family do their bloody thing on a gang of bandits, as Vanessa practically passes out next to him. The good doctor becomes something of a twelve-year-old boy himself in that instant, and that's really the whole tenor of his entire performance: well, that was a fun run of monster pictures, wasn't it? Watch me throw things at this guy in a skull mask! It's matinee trash, indensibly so, but it left me feeling reasonably satisfied, and if it took throwing away the last vestiges of sanity and propriety for a Hammer vampire film to make up for the disappointment the last few films left me with, well then, hooray for shallow trash.

Reviews in this series
Dracula (Fisher, 1958)
The Brides of Dracula (Fisher, 1960)
Dracula: Prince of Darkness (Fisher, 1966)
Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (Francis, 1968)
Taste the Blood of Dracula (Sasdy, 1970)
Scars of Dracula (Baker, 1970)
Dracula A.D. 1972 (Gibson, 1972)
The Satanic Rites of Dracula (Gibson, 1974)
The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (Baker, 1974)

25 October 2008

THE END TIMES

Oh yes; Hammer Film Productions was dead, it was just a matter of everybody finally agreeing to stop humping the corpse (after 1974, a grand total of two films were released by the company: To the Devil a Daughter in 1976, and a remake of The Lady Vanishes in 1979). I can think of no other possible explanation for the raw desperation in which the disappointing response to Dracula A.D. 1972 was followed by the decision to go ahead and do exactly the same thing a second time: giving the reigns once again to director Alan Gibson and writer Don Houghton, to set another film in the modern day and to make it a direct sequel to their misbegotten previous effort.

With a portentous title like The Satanic Rites of Dracula, you could be forgiven for assuming that the eighth film in the series - the seventh and final entry to star Christopher Lee - would be the culmination of the theme being drawn out through Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, Taste the Blood of Dracula, and Dracula A.D. 1972, by which the vampire lord was transformed from a biological curse, in Dr. Van Helsing's original view, to an embodiment of Satan himself. And that's almost the film that was made. For one thing, it involves Dracula's plot to instigate Armageddon. But that's not the half of it, because in this entry, not only is he an avatar of demonic power, he's also revealed to be the next-best thing to a James Bond supervillain. Hell, given that Christopher Lee's turn as a legitimate James Bond villain in The Man with the Golden Gun was just months away (as the Bond series surely enjoyed a longer post-production schedule than Hammer could afford, it's even plausible that Lee's work in the Bond film preceded his last turn as Dracula), and that the evil plot his Francisco Scaramanga concocted in that movie was easily less ambitious and destructive than Dracula's in Satanic Rites, we could just go ahead and say that Dracula has turned into a more-than-Bondian supervillain!

(Taking the Lee connection even further, Dracula has basically turned into Fu Manchu, but as I've never seen any of his several performances in that role - shameful, I know - I don't feel right pursuing that line of thought).

One thing is certain, with this film Lee's incredibly persistent complaints that the Hammer films were increasingly bald-faced in their lack of respect towards anything like the characters Bram Stoker created are proven entirely true. Well, the good news for Lee was that after this time, he never had to play a vampire ever again. From here, it was on to the honeysuckle fields of Howling II: ...Your Sister Is a Werewolf, Police Academy: Mission to Moscow and Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones. Never look back, Chris!

I tease Christopher Lee, but about this at least, he was completely right: The Satanic Rites of Dracula is an awful film. The acting amongst the supporting cast is probably a notch above A.D. 1972, but outside of that there's not really a single dimension of the film that doesn't leave it the worst of the series: the direction, the cinematography, the set design, the script... oh, dear lord, the script...

About two years after the last film ended with Dracula's ashes buried in the abandoned churchyard at St. Bartholomew's, the London police have been running an investigation into Pelham House, a paranormal exploration group that has been tied to the disappearance of busty young women of late. As the film opens, an undercover agent has just managed to escape from Pelham with his life, though his sanity is certainly in question: he can only burble about watching a young woman get baptised with the blood of a slain rooster (or "cockrel", as the film insists in its quaint British way), while suggesting that his secret spy film has the identities of the men involved. This bit of info ultimately makes its way to Inspector Murray (Michael Coles), who is reminded of a certain case involving witchcraft and blood sacrifice from a couple of years ago, where he worked with Professor Lorrimer (*snort*) Van Helsing (of course, Peter Cushing) to stop the return of the world's greatest vampire. And indeed, Coles was the first actor besides Lee or Cushing to appear in two Dracula films as the same character, unless we're going to count Michael Ripper's many turns as one suspicious innkeeper or another. By the time that Van Helsing actually shows up to render his considered opinion on the matter, Murray and his team have found that the secret spy film proves that four of the men involved in the satanic rites of Pelham are significant leaders of business and government: General Sir Arthur Freebourne (Lockwood West), military leader, Lord Carridine (Patrick Barr), the owner of the most land in England "besides the Church and the Crown", Dr. John Porter (Richard Mathews), whose particular claim to fame I have forgotten, and Professor Julian Keeley (Freddie Jones), a Nobel-winning scientist. When Van Helsing hears these names, he recognises Keeley as a friend and colleague, although for no real reason at all, he doesn't tell the cops, who find out during the same scene anyway. This never results in any kind of suspicion falling on Van Helsing. Basically, it was written to provide about 30 seconds of padding.

Van Helsing's meeting with Keeley ends badly - Van Helsing shot, Keeley hung in a faked suicide - but only after the occultist learns that Keeley has just perfect an extremely virulent new form of bubonic plague. That's the first step towards tying a whole lot of things together: the cops have found out that Pelham is operated by the Denham Corporation, a giant business concern founded not even two years ago by the mysterious D.D. Denham, who has never been seen or photographed. Couple that with the location of the Denham headquarters - right over the former site of St. Bartholomew's - and the quartet of chained-up vampire brides that Jessica Van Helsing (now played by Joanna Lumley, who actually had a career afterward - she was Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous) discovered in the basement of Pelham, and Van Helsing starts to be pretty damn sure of who this D.D. Denham really is.

When Van Helsing makes his way to the top floor of the Denham building to confront Dracula, he learns just how terrifying the count's plans are: first, he will make Jessica his queen (especially necessary since the cops killed his other brides by turning on the sprinkler system; I remain uncertain if that's brilliant or terrible screenwriting), then he will loose his plague on the world, killing every human, and eventually starving himself to death. When Van Helsing points out that flaw in the plan, Dracula doesn't even seem terribly upset; it could be, as the doctor suggests, that he just wants to finally be at rest.

He'll get his chance pretty soon: Murray saves Van Helsing and his daughter, and in the fire that just kind of happens, the vampire and the vampire hunter escape into the night, where Dracula gets to suffer the worst death of his career. Earlier in the film, Van Helsing noted that hawthorne bushes - the plant that provided Christ's crown of thorns - were harmful to vampires. It just so happens that there's a big ol' hawthorne bush right outside the Denham building, and Van Helsing captures the count in this bush by means of a tremendously clever trick: he stands behind it and yells, "I'm over here!" Clearly, Dracula really is suicidal; that, or he's quite possibly the stupidest villain in the history of the cinema. Anyway, as he writes in pain, Van Helsing grabs a picket from the nearest fence and drives it into the vampire's heart. Thus ends the centuries-long reign of the Prince of Darkness.

I totally wasn't kidding - this is an espionage thriller that just happens to have a vampire as its main villain. There's the plot to use some high-falutin' superweapon developed by a secret cabal of geniuses to take over the world (and I'd be a lot more impressed with the whole "vampire bringing the plague" notion if some German hadn't already thought it up); the villain's legitimate business facade that takes the heroes too much time to crack, given that they already suspect it from the get-go (and the only way this could have been easier for Van Helsing was to have a hand-painted sign reading "DRAKYULA IS HEER" on the front door of the Denham building); his exotic handmaiden, in this case satanic ritual specialist Chin Yang (Barbara Yu Lang); garish henchmen (men in puffy sheepskin coats on motorbikes); and even a goddamnable "Let me explain my fiendish plot, Mr. Bond, since you are soon going to die" scene. I guess that's an original direction to take a tremendously played-out franchise, but I think I'd have been happier with no eighth Dracula film at all, rather than this particular eighth Dracula film.

Certainly, there's almost nothing else about the film to give it even a whisper of vitality or interest. It's terribly shot - easily the ugliest film in the series and the ugliest Hammer film I've ever seen (which isn't honestly all that much), except for the bold reds in the opening satanic ritual sequence. It suffers from remarkably poor direction - the moment that springs to mind is a lovely little two-step, in which Van Helsing says something or other and punctuates it by gesturing towards the camera dramatically with a piece of paper, and Gibson helpfully underscores the moment by zooming in on Van Helsing's face; then we cut to a side view of the man holding a paper out dramatically. The zoom in particular was where I heaved the biggest "oh, it was the '70s" sigh that I heaved all film, although it was hardly the only such moment.

And the acting! ...well, like I said, the supporting cast is better than in the last film. But Lee no longer put even the remotest effort to hide his contempt for the part. It almost suits Dracula's world-weariness, but there's no hiding bad acting. The only person who really comes out well, surprise, is Peter Cushing, who once again betrays no hint that the words he is saying are anything less than Shakespearean, even when he's giving a two minute spiel about the history of the occult including the bon mot, "witches are real, but 90% of them are charlatans". Among other essentially meaningless dialogue. He commits everything he has, so that Lorrimer Van Helsing never twitches or looks askance or steps forward without it being exactly the thing that is right for the character to do at the moment. It's films like this that make me feel impossibly sorry for actors like Peter Cushing.

Frankly, I'd like to put this one behind me. It wasn't a very happy experience to watch, any more than it was happy to make (and by God, I've hardly ever seen a movie that was more obviously an unhappy experience for the cast and crew). There was one more death rattle in the franchise released later that year, and though it's still pretty bad and almost obscenely goofy, at least it's not so contemptibly stupid as The Satanic Rites of Dracula.

Reviews in this series
Dracula (Fisher, 1958)
The Brides of Dracula (Fisher, 1960)
Dracula: Prince of Darkness (Fisher, 1966)
Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (Francis, 1968)
Taste the Blood of Dracula (Sasdy, 1970)
Scars of Dracula (Baker, 1970)
Dracula A.D. 1972 (Gibson, 1972)
The Satanic Rites of Dracula (Gibson, 1974)
The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (Baker, 1974)