Thursday, December 23, 2010

Movie Roundup: Festivus 2010 Edition

127 Hours - James Franco stars as one of those Gatorade-drinking thrill seekers that devote their lives to making the rest of us feel lazy who one day gets his arm pinned under a rock and has to endure the title amount of time until he manages the necessary amount of willpower, dehydration and desperation to saw his own arm off and escape.  Danny Boyle throws as much visual noise into the story as he can, making possibly his most frenetic movie since The Beach, which, perhaps coincidentally, was also about an adventurous young man being trapped by his environment.  Stuck as he is in one location, Boyle keeps the focus relentlessly on Franco, who gives what is easily his best performance, equal parts intense determination (his character is an engineer in his non-free (ahem) time), wild-eyed joie de vivre and, at the film's spiritual climax, real acceptance and understanding.  The movie's essentially a hyper-caffeinated The Diving Bell & the Butterfly.  It walks a perilous line thematically, as it's about an amazing individual achievement by one man that spiritually depends upon his coming to understand that he needs other people in his life.  It's about the paradox that while we humans are capable of doing wonderful, terrible things, we're probably better off in groups, or at least always leaving a note.

Lifeline - Director Johnnie To's breakthrough film, one that marked his leap from entertaining genre movies like The Heroic Trio to top-flight action films.  It's billed as a Hong Kong version of Backdraft, but it's much better than that movie.  Following a group of characters in and around a HK firehouse, the film alternates intense scenes of firefighters at work with various melodramatic problems in their outside lives.  With 40 minutes or so left in the film, though, those various problems get resolved (we don't care all that much about any of them anyway) and To gives us an extended, complex and very intense climax wherein the fighters have to rescue people, and their fellow firefighters, from a fire in a massive factory filled with all kinds of nasty chemicals and only two doors(!).  So basically, the film has the exact same structure as John Woo's Hard Boiled, the greatest action film of all-time.  And while this one doesn't have Chow Yun-fat or Tony Leung (though Simon Yam is pretty great in his own right) or Woo's metaphysical dualities (To is never metaphysical, at least not on purpose), it does have Ruby Wong diving into a hole in the middle of a monsoon and pulling an abandoned infant out of a collapsing mud pile.  And that's something.  The #12 film of 1997.

The Power of Kangwon Province - I think Hong Sangsoo gets better with every film he directs, so it was with some trepidation I watched this, his second feature.  Most of the familiar things I love about Hong's films are already in place: a dual structure wherein the second half varies the events and deepens the themes of the first, a sly, off-hand sense of humor that deflates his largely egotistical and self-involved characters, and a real appreciation for the joys of vacation and binge-drinking.  The first part of the film centers on a trio of girls who spend a few days in Kangwon, visiting the local sights.  One of them (Jisook) flirts with a married local cop and eventually spends the night with him.  In the second half, we meet a university professor, married and currently unemployed who goes to Kangwon on vacation with a friend.  Turns out they're there around the same time as the earlier girls, and though they don't meet in Kangwon, they are otherwise connected.  Though there are some moments of that trademark Hong humor here, it might be his most oppressively depressing film.  His later works manage to explore similarly dark territory in the relations between men and women, but they're more leavened with self-deprecating humor and moments of absurdity.  It's still a very good film, and I might even prefer it to one later Hong film (Woman is the Future of Man, which I need to see again), but lately he's operating on a much higher level.  The #14 film of 1998.

The Romance of Astrea and Celadon - Eric Rohmer's death 11 months ago was a catalyst for me to finally watch some of his films, and I've loved every one of the eight I've seen so far.  This was his last movie, set in fifth century Gaul and about a community of Druidic shepherds slowly Christianizing.  Astrea loves Celadon, but his parents don't approve of her, so she has him flirt with another girl, then gets horribly jealous when he does.  She bans him from her presence and he jumps in the river.  He survives, meets some nymphs (one of whom also falls in love with him), lives in a hut for awhile, dresses as a woman and builds a shrine, which is explained to a group of pilgrims in terms surprisingly like the Catholicism of My Night at Maud's.  You wouldn't think that the Rohmerian tradition of lengthy conversations about morality and sexuality would translate well to fifth century Gaul, but it does.  It's the lightest, prettiest Rohmer I've seen.  It floats.  The #5 film of 2007.

Disciples of the 36th Chamber - A bizarre melding of the Fong Sai Yuk story into Lau Kar-leung's 36th Chamber of Shaolin mythology, and one that doesn't entirely work.  It's weird, in that traditionally, Fong's mother (who taught him kung fu) is the daughter of one of the Five Elders of Shaolin, who survived the destruction of the Temple by the Qing.  So when young Fong, here played by Hsiao Ho, is sent to the Temple to train (and learn some humility), things get a bit confused.  And yes, I'm aware of the ridiculousness of complaining about accuracy in a genre where people can routinely leap 30 feet in the air and knock over 20 armed men with a wave of their palm, but what can I say?  I am what I am.  Anyway, Gordon Liu's San Te, the master of the 36th Chamber, does his best to teach Fong to mellow out, but fails.  And when Fong unwittingly (literally, the guy is really dumb) becomes a pawn in a Qing scheme, the Shaolin monks must come to the rescue in the expected spectacular extended fight sequence.  It's a perfectly good film, but it feels more like Lau is just going through the motions at this point.  The slapstick comedy isn't at the genius level of Stephen Chow, or even Wong Jing (part of that has to do with Hsiao Ho, who just isn't that compelling a presence) and the action isn't really anything we haven't seen before, and better, from Lau and Liu.  The #13 film of 1985.

Shaolin Mantis - A much better Lau Kar-leung film is this one starring David Chiang.  He plays a spy sent by the Manchus to infiltrate a powerful anti-Qing family, failure will result in his parents' execution.  Despite the family's misgivings, he manages to marry their daughter, under the condition that he never leave their compound.  But eventually, he and his wife try to leave, and must combat the rest of the family, in turn, in their various styles.  Chiang fails initially, goes a little crazy, and invents a new style of kung fu by imitating a praying mantis.  With his new skills, he returns to the family to exact his bloody revenge.  The setup for the film is a bit tiresome, but once the fights begin, the film takes off.  Chiang isn't as intense or virtuosic a performer as Lau's adopted brother and frequent star Gordon Liu, and he shows less of his natural charm here than in his films for Chang Cheh earlier in the decade, but he's still my second favorite Shaw Brothers star of the 70s.  The #12 film of 1978.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Movie Roundup: Ludachristmas Edition

Hamlet - This is the Royal Shakespeare Company version that aired on PBS earlier this year and sat on my tivo for six months or so.  David Tennant stars and aside from the first monologue, which I thought was a little awkward, he does a pretty good job.  It may just have taken awhile for me to get adjusted to him reciting Shakespeare, but as the part calls for a lot of the things Tennant did well on Doctor Who (quick wit, brainy humor, loud and dramatic speechifying) the role turned out to be a somewhat surprisingly good fit for him.  Patrick Stewart is the other big star, playing Claudius, and he manages to distance himself more from his Iconic Sci-Fi TV Character (though he's farther removed from his part than Tennant is from his).  The staging follows closely the RSC staging, with only a few concessions to the cinematic.  The only really interesting thing about it is a mirror motif: all the interior action takes places on a single, variously redecorated set the features a prominent mirror, shattered when Hamlet kills Polonius.  The mirror remains shattered in all the other sets for the rest of the play, serving as a nice visual turning point in the action, setting the inevitable cascade of violence finally into motion.  The #23 film of 2009.

Me and Orson Welles - Richard Linklater's sweetly fictional story of a young man who gets himself hired onto Orson Welles's production of Julius Caesar in the wild early days of the Mercury Theatre.  Zac Efron plays the kid with a wide-eyed innocence that's pretty charming, and that pretty much goes for the rest of the cast as well, especially Claire Danes as a PA who may or may not be sleeping her way to Hollywood.  Christian McKay got a lot of praise for his performance as Welles, and it is a fine example of celebrity impersonation acting.  The whole movie, much as it tries to make theatre people seem cynical and manipulative and cruel, has the effect of a warm puppy.  It's Linklater at his most huggable.  The #20 film of 2008.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle - Pretty much the opposite is this mellow crime film by Peter Yates.  Robert Mitchum plays a burned out small time crook trying to keep himself out of jail.  Will he rat out some old colleagues who are in the midst of a bank-robbing spree?  Or perhaps the young gun dealer he's been working with?  The action scenes are fantastic, Yates brings the same meticulousness in the details of professional crime he brought to Bullitt five years earlier, each heist as suspenseful and enthralling as anything in the genre.  Mitchum's sad sack crook is compelling as well, he's never seemed more pathetic, and Yates even gives him some touchingly mundane scenes with his family.  The supporting cast is solid, but a particular highlight is Robert Jordan as Mitchum's police contact.  Jordan went on to become one of my favorite character actors of the 1980s (The Secret of My Success, The Hunt for Red October).  The #7 film of 1973.

Intermezzo - A Love Story - Upon retiring, famous violinist Leslie Howard suddenly notices that his daughter's music teacher is a young and naive Ingrid Bergman, so he convinces her to run off with him in a wild burst of infidelity.  This and a conveniently non-fatal accident eventually makes him feel guilty and he goes home, leaving poor Ingrid to find some way to survive.  I think she'll make out alright.  This is a Hollywood remake of the Swedish film that first made Bergman a star.  I haven't seen that one, but I hope the male lead is more of a match for Bergman than Howard, perhaps the most inexplicable sex symbol of 1930s Hollywood.  The #26 film of 1939.

The Front Page - Or, the original version of His Girl Friday.  Adapted from the stage play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur by writers Charles Lederer and Bartlett Cormack (all four of whom went on to be terrific screenwriters throughout the 30s and 40s) and directed by Lewis Milestone, the film stars Pat O'Brien as Hildy Johnson, the reporter who wants to quit and get married but is dragged back in by the love of his job and/or his conniving boss, played by Adolphe Menjou.  It's not quite as fast or funny as His Girl Friday, and Milestone mostly keeps the film confined to the reporter's room at the jail, betraying the film's stage roots and the limitations of early sound film (at least in the hands of directors who aren't named Lubitsch or Clair or Sternberg).  But what it does have over its remake is a pre-Code bluntness, not just in the naked girls that decorate the walls, but in the political content of the crime at the heart of the film.  The Hawks film bogs down in in one of the worst scenes in screwball comedy, where Hildy interviews the man under arrest for murdering a cop and speaks vaguely of "production for use" and builds a case for the man suffering under the delusional influence of union activists.  In this film, the condemned man is an articulate and defiant communist (and the cop he killed is black!) and his girlfriend is blatantly a prostitute.  This doesn't add a whole lot to the film, but it helps increase its sense of gritty reality, whereas the Hawks film, for good and bad, but mostly good, lives in a delirious make believe world of Cary Grants and Ralph Bellamys.  The #7 film of 1931.