Sunday, September 25, 2011

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

Hark Tsui's "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame" unfortunately amounts to nothing more than just another martial arts film. It has its flourishes, its beautiful setpieces, but not enough of them to keep it afloat, what with the pointlessly convoluted plot and underdeveloped characters. Though I've never seen any of his other films, I know that Tsui's some sort of Hong Kong legend. That seemingly earns him the right to a free pass from some. What can I say though? I wasn't really that entertained, and if a film like this fails on that level, then it doesn't have a lot going for it.

Set in the 600's, the film follows Detective Dee (Andy Lau), previously imprisoned for treason and now appointed Commissioner, as he tries to figure out why exactly a bunch of people are bursting into flames. The deceased have all been involved somehow in the building of a giant Buddha statue, which is supposed to be complete in time for Empress Wu's (Carina Lau) coronation. Though he works his way through the puzzle as well as anyone would, the case is so damn complex that he needs some help along the way: in the form of the essentially albino Pei Donglai (Chao Deng) and the Empress' confidant, Shagguan Jing'er (Bingbing Li).

What action there is, and there's not a lot of it, is mediocre. Better fight scenes are not hard to come by. The only spectacular scene in the film is an extended one set in a cavern called Phantom Bazaar, where the trio of sleuths heads to find the wizened Wang Lu, also called Dr. Donkey Wang (Richard Ng/Teddy Robin). The fighting is inventive and crazy. Only here, and in the image of the inside of the giant Buddha, did I feel any real justification for having taken the time to watch this film. C

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975

Goran Olsson's extremely uneven "The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975" is a depressingly systematic and repetitive documentary that serves as a vehicle for valuable, recently found clips shot by Swedes during the eponymous time and regarding the eponymous movement. The group of people surveyed, from famous pioneers (Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis) to anonymous protesters and ex-addicts to the head of TV Guide, not to mention a sprinkling of modern voiceovers that include Talib Kwali and Questlove, is brilliantly diverse. But the strength from these interviews is diluted by the film's intense lack of focus and hammering, formulaic structure.

Olsson, along with Hanna Lejongvist, won an editing award at Sundance for finding a moderately coherent rhythm within tons of footage and marrying dozens of formats. To me, that's more just honoring the work than celebrating a real achievement. I don't think Olsson has much directorial control, as he often wanders and makes it seem as if the archives are thin. He has a motif of displaying the year in large print on the screen and noting every time a speaker changes, to keep things down. I can't say that these things made the film a more digestible experience, however, and, though one may argue that I'm being too pedantic about a potentially edifying work such as tis, I feel as though this film falls below the standards set by the top movies in the nonfiction cinema canon.

But there are strong stretches here, such as when Talib Kweli talks about the power of Stokely Carmichael, when Louis Farrakhan speaks avidly about the philosophy of the Nation of Islam, or when Angela Davis (caught in a bold, iconic close-up) expresses her frustration about the popular notion of violence. These are worth seeing. The rest is a mix of stylization and sharp preachiness, tolerable but hardly outstanding. I wish this project was in better hands. B-

Friday, September 16, 2011


"Drive" is a bearable but nonetheless disappointing effort from one of the most overrated filmmakers out there: Nicolas Winding Refn, who's made downright lamentable works in the past, including "Bronson" and "Valhalla Rising." Faith in this guy is ridiculously assured. He again and again takes potentially interesting ideas and runs them into the ground, and yet he continues to get validation, now even in the form of a Best Director prize from Cannes for his latest.

Due to all the magic-sounding hype, I was expecting something that would make my jaw drop. I wanted to see something distinct. I wanted to be awed. And I thought that finally, finally, with the right actors and the right story, Refn could pull something like that off. But when the supposedly esteemed first scene rolled by looking and sounding like something straight out of Need For Speed, I knew that things weren't going to run smoothly. In fact, this letdown cast a shadow over the rest of the film for me, and so I was never able to really appreciate anything other than the solid production design and the supporting work of Carey Mulligan and Kaden Leos as a mother and son.

Ryan Gosling alternates between smiling diffidently and growling aggressive warnings as the Driver (a.k.a. the Kid), whose life basically revolves around cars. He's a mechanic, a stuntman, and a getaway man, and even when he's not working, he's driving through LA. Though he affects a bravado, complete with toothpick and scorpion jacket, we see him as a barren soul, sleep-deprived, anonymous, using the drive as an out-of-body experience. We as the audience pick this up, but Refn could've done better by playing up these elements a little more (which is not entirely achieved by showing Gosling driving in close-ups over and over again, which he does).

The Driver runs into Irene (Mulligan) in his apartment building, and, as they find themselves meeting often, the two grow drawn to each other, even though she has a kid (Leos) and a husband, known as Standard (Oscar Isaac), who is on his way out of prison. This section is more human than anything I've seen by Refn up to this point. But it is not to last, as the Driver gets himself inextricably involved in jobs and deals set up by Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and his pizzeria-owner partner Nino (Ron Perlman).

And, at a certain point, with the brief use of a character, Blanche (Christina Hendricks), the film crosses a line. On the other side, it breaks with respectability and descends into increasingly cartoonish violence. By the time Brooks stabs a guy in the eye with a fork and then jams a knife into his throat, the initial shock of the savagery has worn off, and what we're left with is sad excess. This is ultimately what has been undermining Refn's works, and it will continue to do so unless the man can get a hold of himself. With "Drive," he's out of touch, though a bit less so than before. C

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Telluride 2011, Day 4: Footnote

Telluride 38 is over, and although it was somewhat exhausting, I am sad to see it go. On the final day at the festival, I tried to get into Asghar Farhadi’s much-loved and Berlin-winning “A Separation,” but, for the first time, I was shut out due to a massive turnout at a small venue. Thus, wanting to see at least one more film while I was in Colorado, I made my way over to see Joseph Cedar’s “Footnote.” I had wanted to watch it, due to a recommendation or two and its Best Screenplay prize at Cannes, but I didn’t have the highest expectations. I had read some negative coverage earlier in the year and figured that it might be below average.

Instead, powered by Cedar’s rightfully awarded script (in Hebrew), “Footnote” is sharp and haunting, a propulsive film that ruminates on the cost of a great legacy. It centers on the awarding of the Israel Prize, given for excellence in research of the Talmud, as the thorough Eliezer Scholnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba) realizes his career dream by winning it. The problem is, his much more well-known son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) was actually supposed to have been given the honors. The announcement has already been made in the paper, though, so Uriel feels as if Eliezer would be devastated if he found out that he had lost and that Uriel (whom he resents) was the real recipient. But the judges, especially the chief (Micah Lewensohn), who has ties to Eliezer’s past, feel as if the prize would be trivialized if given to someone who wasn’t voted the winner. Thus, a shattering choice is created that will birth horrible consequences no matter the way taken.

It doesn’t help that Eliezer is an insufferable narcissist who has a reputation for covering all the bases but no major works to show it. His winning the award seems as times to make no sense even to him, but it would boost opinions of his career and thus he really wants it. Uriel consciously made sure never to nominate himself for the prize any of the many years that Eliezer has been trying to win it, but he receives a nod by one of the judges and finds himself in a decidedly unenviable position: both wanting prestige and happiness for his father. Meanwhile, his own son isn’t satisfying Uriel’s grand plans for his future and another strain comes as a result.

The film is exceptionally written, full of strong scenes, the most prominent one coming when Uriel is informed of the situation by the judges in an extremely small room. The characters always sound like real people and what they say is all the more piercing for it. Ashkenazi’s terrific performance as Uriel definitely helps the film as well, as he nails the part’s mix of conviction and uncertainty. The film’s use of close-ups also adds a layer of anxiety to the already tense mood.

I think “Footnote” is a couple steps below a masterpiece due to its suitably traditional but enervating and too forceful score (Cedar lacks the confidence in other places that he displays in his writing) and at times not living up to the clarity and thematic prowess of its centerpiece discussion. I also can see some (possible) echoes of the work of Zadie Smith in the film’s structure and the characters’ traits. But these flaws can be forgotten once you get pondering Cedar’s perceptiveness. B+

That's it for me. It was a great festival, and I hope to return next year.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Telluride 2011, Day 3: Target; Shame; We Need to Talk About Kevin

Telluride '11 was still vibrant today, but the atmosphere could be felt slowly diminishing. I was hoping for the festival to continue to deliver indispensable cinema, and, in one case, it did. But my expectations for two of the three films I saw today weren't met, and I can now reflect that, while it has been quite a strong festival (as everyone has been saying), the programming hasn't been unimpeachable. (It is better than last year's NYFF, though, it must be said.)

I was surprised (but very happy) to see Alexander Zeldovich's "Target" among the official selection of Telluride this year. It seemed like a pretty gutsy move, a welcome push of the usual limits of the lineup, and, as a result, a lot of intrigue was created. I don't think that many people have liked the film that much, however, and it's easy to see why. The film takes a potentially gripping idea into pretty disturbing territory, leading to scenes that are embarrassing, disgusting, and deeply unnerving.

Since the film is about people who go to a radiated place to seek a solution to their problems (more specifically, to stop themselves from physically getting older), I was expecting something near Andrei Tarkovsky's provocative, humanist "Stalker." Zeldovich's movie plays as if Tarkovsky's work were transported into the future and remade by David Cronenberg and Richard Kelly. Instead of a more sensitive examination of this concept, Zeldovich has his characters go overboard with sexuality and violence. I know, as a fellow moviegoer informed me, this is a possible and not often used way of illustrating what could go wrong. My interest got detached somewhere along the way, as affairs take place and the plot devolves into moments of insanity. Though the film has some interesting flourishes in portraying a slightly dystopian future (immigrants are hunted as game and the freeways are full of trailers and nothing else) and a fun character who is talented at talking really fast, I often found what I was watching ridiculous. I know I've misunderstood this movie (a post-film discussion showed me how I went wrong). But to me it was tiresome and troubling in ways I couldn't quite get over. I'm not too keen on having a second viewing, though I doubt I'll ever get one, seeing as though distributors wouldn't have a fun time trying to get people to give it a go. C

Speaking of distributors, I saw representatives from various companies at the day's next film, which, judging from the packed house, seemed to be the most anticipated film of many people (it was mine). It'll be an easier sell than "Target," for sure. But there may still be some logistical issues getting it into a theater without passing on an MPAA rating. This was Steve McQueen's emotionally frank, graphically sexual "Shame." Though I don't think it quite tops his previous movie "Hunger," and though towards the beginning it's a little oblique, it's good enough to establish McQueen as one of the best directors of his generation.

This is especially because he is able to get such good work out of two actors that don't get used to their full potential in other hands. Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan are unquestionably better here than they've ever been before. It's also because he always finds art in the places in which he sets his films (using his extraordinary DP Sean Bobbit). Whereas "Hunger" was all filthy prison cells and urine-stained halls, "Shame" is full of the sleek windows and mirrors of offices and apartments. Brandon (Fassbender) sees himself divided as if by panes from the rest of humanity. He copulates and masturbates often, but always connects only on a physical level, unable to have a serious relationship and doomed forever to a shady private existence.

One day, coming home, he finds his sister Sissy (Mulligan, who alternates effectively between piercing and irritating) unexpectedly bathing in his apartment, although she insists she's called many times. Though she's a captivating singer (as one scene rather uncomfortably shows us), she has nowhere to stay. He reluctantly allows her to crash, though conflict is always around the corner. She comes to discover his erotic tendencies, and it only piles on the shame that Brandon has already been feeling. Also overwhelming him is his attempt at a serious relationship with a woman from work named Marianne (Nicole Beharie), the only time that we can see that he's ever been nervous around a sexual partner. The chemistry between Fassbender and Beharie is remarkable, especially considering the fact that McQueen often chooses to not cut away from their interactions and thus forces them to carry on their bantering with feeling for minutes at a time. The brilliant screenplay by McQueen and Abi Morgan fuels these conversations as well as the confrontations between Brandon and Sissy, giving the actors excellent material, making Brandon not the only character struggling with morality (take a look at his boss), and bringing the film to a perfectly chosen close.

I wish the film, McQueen, and Fassbender (best performance of the year, possibly) the best of luck at Venice when it comes to awards. "Shame" marshals great insight and discomfort, portraying a man who is unable to satisfy himself in any way, continuing to try certain methods, though, even as he pushes farther away from society and digs himself deeper and deeper into a hole, not seeing that guilt won't solve everything. A-

I caught a tribute to Tilda Swinton today, as well, my second of the fest (after the George Clooney one yesterday). Affixed to the end of it was Lynne Ramsay's "We Need to Talk About Kevin." Honestly, I don't understand exactly why this film was made. Adapted by Ramsay and Rory Kinnear from a book by Lionel Shriver, it shows a despicable character doing and saying horrible things, and provides really no explanation for this. It left me feeling very, very sad, especially since it has tapioca pacing and since it never for more than about 30 seconds alleviates its grueling tone. It eventually becomes just a string of bad events, so exasperatingly predictable you have to wonder why Ramsay didn't take a different path.

Swinton supplies a good acting job that goes sadly underutilized as Eva, the mother of the titular character (Ezra Miller), who takes a bow and arrow to school and attacks many students. We don't find this out until towards the end, as the film is scrambled (an approach taken in a similar way by its predecessor, Gus Van Sant's "Elephant"; Ramsay uses a visceral variation that ends up as one of the film's minor high points, even if she stumbles with it later on), dipping back from Eva's depressed present to moments that ended up defining her life. Kevin's motives are supposedly examined, though it just seems that he's pissed off that he exists and takes every opportunity to get back at his mother for bringing him into the world. I say this because he cried profusely as a baby and seemed to have been already resistant to Eva's child-rearing techniques. He does take a liking to his father, Franklin (John C. Reilly), but ultimately it appears to have been only to find another way to emotionally abuse his mother. It's painful to sit through this film, even if it has a couple of merits. I think Ramsay needed to have a talk herself about whether this movie was necessary to make. D+

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Telluride 2011, Day 2: The Kid With a Bike; Into the Abyss; The Artist

Saturday, the first full day of the 38th edition, was packed with a number of highlights, as well as the first disappointing film of the festival (though I did actually like certain aspects of it). I started the day off with one of the most important and most anticipated features of the year, "The Kid With a Bike" by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, which tied for second place at Cannes. I'm a fan of the brothers' previous works, especially "The Son." Yet, though some had called it glorious, I was worried by the critiques (such as this one) that the duo had made a bland picture.

Having now seen it, I can say that the film is very interesting and involving, with a plot that's exquisitely put together. It starts in medius res, as we see young Cyril (Thomas Doret) calling his father's apartment for what appears to be the umpteenth time. Left in a foster home, he clings to the hope that his father will pick him back up; yet, as it becomes clear, this appears to be an unlikely possibility. Cyril, though, with his mix of naivete and street smarts, tries again and again to get his father back, breaking out of whatever confinement he finds himself currently in, going back to every place he ever visited with his dad and trying to work out where he's gone to.

Once, being pursued by counselors of the foster home, he attaches himself to a random woman, who turns out to be Samantha (Cecile de France). Though she's propelled into Cyril's life in odd circumstances, she begins to take an interest in his happiness and well-being, letting him live with her on the weekends, getting back the bike he believes was stolen from his father (who actually sold it), and helping him in his search.

Who he ultimately finds his father to be is a man who is having a hard time keeping himself afloat and who wants nothing to do with him. Jeremie Renier, who played the criminally neglectful father who sold his baby in "The Child," is perfectly cast, as you can see a sort of shared history between this character and the other one. This connection makes Cyril's revelation all the more heartbreaking, and, in turn, his search for another father figure (a position he tries putting a disturbingly friendly gang leader) ever the more compelling. Doret, debuting in the lead role, makes the film even more emotionally encompassing, with his constantly shifting and palpable feelings of anger and optimism. Though at times it admittedly does feel a little like it seems to be heading nowhere, and though it doesn't get to the heights that the Dardennes have at some points, "The Kid With a Bike" nonetheless balances watchability and reflection possibly better than anything else so far at Telluride. B+

Coming off of somewhat underwhelming documentaries and features, Werner Herzog's "Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life" is the best film he's made in some time. Examining a case that sent one of the defendants to his death and another to live out most of the rest of his life in prison (hence the title), Herzog develops a study of both the motives for crime and revenge (via capital punishment, which he vehemently opposes).

The film makes it clear early on that the two men, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, are guilty for the killings with which they've been charged. A couple of people in the film, including the attackers themselves, seem to think they are innocent in some way or another, but the evidence is overwhelming. So instead, Herzog, after showing us (with police footage and interviews with members of the force) exactly what transpired, probes into the environment of the perpetrators and victims.

We come to see Conroe, Texas as a town that passes criminal activity from father to son and from brother to brother. Almost every man interviewed in the film has gone to jail at least once. We come to see how a crime with baffling motives (the three people were murdered over a car) has horrific, staggering effects. And we come to see how one could feel that capital punishment would provide strong catharsis as well as a hypocritical continuation of violence. The film at 106 minutes feels uncomfortably long, but it's very valuable how Herzog takes his time and allows us to see all sides. I was humbled and jarred. A-

The initial run of strong cinema ended, though, when I caught Michel Hazanavicius' appealing but annoyingly derivative "The Artist," done up in black and white and with almost no spoken dialogue. Despite two terrific performances by Cannes Best Actor Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo and some strong montages and ideas, the film wore thin far before it supposed to by having the plot go on autopilot in the final half. Dujardin plays George Valentin, a top performer in silent films, famous for performing with his dog, who can better the mood of a group of people just by flashing his exceptionally charming smile. At the peak of his fame, he bumps into Peppy Miller (Bejo), who gets a small slice of attention by giving him a kiss caught on the cover of Variety. She goes on to audition as a dancer at Kinograph Films, where George works, and would have been fired by the Kinograph's money-hungry studio head Zimmer (John Goodman) were it not for George's intervention.

But soon enough, George loses his power when Zimmer decides to make the switch from silent films to talkies, and Peppy quickly reaches the renown with which George once was blessed. He tries to save silent films by making one of his own on his own money (earning the nickname "The Artist" as a result) but no one is really interested anymore and thus his total decline seems unable to be prevented. Hazanavicius' banal depiction of George's self-destruction through booze made me check out about 3/4 of the way into the film, and thus the end, which is clearly intended to be the most "delightful" thing you ever saw (or so everyone says it is), was at least partially lost on me. With the acting ability available here, and the handful of good scenes, it's a pity that the script lets everyone down. C+

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Telluride 2011, Day 1: The Turin Horse; Pina

Though many (including myself) arrived a day early to the 38th Telluride Film Festival, it didn't really get started until today. The first films were projected, the middle of the town was converted into an enclosed dining area, and the jovial atmosphere of the day before was infused with a shot of festival adrenaline. Today is the only day where breathing room is alloted; Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, it'll be full speed ahead.

It appeared when I was first looking over the details of the festival that programming would begin after the celebrated Opening Night Feed, which would mean further possible scheduling conflicts when it came to planning what I would see. Luckily, this was not the case, and I was able to catch Bela Tarr's "The Turin Horse", one of the films to which I was most looking forward, before events really got under way. I'd never seen one of Tarr's films all the way through, but what I caught from "Satantango" and "Werckmeister Harmonies," plus Tarr's great reputation, plus the fact that Tarr is supposedly never going to make another film, was more than enough to convince me that this was going to be something.

Seeing any black and white picture on the big screen is a captivating experience, but especially when the film is one that takes an emotional toll on the viewer. I remember vividly viewing Michael Haneke's punishing "The White Ribbon" and feeling as though all color had been drained from the world. Yet, however exhausting and affecting that movie was, its overall impact ultimately doesn't hold a flickering lantern to Tarr's suffocatingly evocative work.

Over the course of 146 minutes, Tarr brings us palpably into the world of Ohlsdorfer (Janos Derzsi, a Tarr regular) and his daughter (Erika Bok). They own the titular horse, who, as the subject of abuse at one point, deeply affected Fredrich Nietzsche (enough to spur him to never speak again). We watch as the two struggle with sustenance during an extremely harsh gale. Life for them has no pleasures anymore; it's now just a series of chores, each one shown by Tarr many times. Even eating potatoes and drinking alcohol are things done simply to keep going.

The film, from one of the earliest shots (of which there are apparently 30), establishes a parallel between the humans and their animal counterpart, from their windblown appearances to their fruitless labors. It also pits many different philosophies against each other about the storm at the center of the story, from the literalism preached by the narrator and Ohlsdorfer, to the Christianity evident in the daughter's reading of a bible, to the atheistic, eternal-cycle belief of a third character named Bernhard (Mihaly Kormos). Tarr gives his views the most screen time, and I'm pretty sure I know from outside knowledge that this is the philosophy with which Tarr seems to sympathize most. However, Ohlsdorfer's waving off of this talk makes me think that Tarr might be trying to voice his contempt of theorizing about and trying to find a point in what's happening in his film. Still, I think the film does purvey a stark message (although many will think otherwise), and I feel like this is the movie that I wanted out of Bresson's "Au Hasard Balthazar." Also, unlike "Balthazar," the film displays a very admirable dedication to its tone, and I find that an attribute essential to its success.

Also big is Tarr's use of nuance in sound design. According to the producers, much of the short script was devoted to how the wind in the background would sound. One can see why. It plays on the soundtrack throughout the film, alongside a orchestral snippet that Tarr employs in a way that reminds me of William Basinski's "Disintegration Loops." Since these sounds are such a given, they act as a sort of canvas, giving the noises of the characters and their actions a far more striking impact than usual. We learn a lot about the characters from how they manifest themselves in these moments.

One always knows the cinematography in a Tarr film will be special. The opening shots are quite attractive (especially the first one, where Fred Kelemen's camera pulls back and makes the scene look as if it is animated), but later on Tarr has us empathize with the characters by almost totally de-romanticizing and dulling the photography. This makes the film borderline unendurable (some people left early, some checked out audibly from their seats, and everyone exited as soon as the film ended), and I almost wanted to turn away from the screen as it drew towards its close. However, there is so, so much here. "The Turin Horse" is probably going to be one of the most thoughtful and empathetic movies to be shown in the next couple of years. I felt my patience tested, but it was worth it. If you couldn't deal with "The Tree of Life," though, this one's definitely not for you. A-

I came out of "The Turin Horse" spilling my theories out to all who would listen, assuming (as one of the festival directors said might happen) that the next film I would see would be meaningless in comparison. Not so. I found Wim Wenders' "Pina" as riveting as he said he found Pina Bausch's performances. It uses 3D in lovely ways, fully absorbing you in the startling set pieces that Bausch put together (before she died). It's hard to believe that someone could come up with dances so outlandish yet so resonant and enjoyable.

The film draws from four main performances and sprinkles in asides of individual or duo dances. Some of them are viewed as if you are watching over the heads of an audience; others are set in places where only a camera could take you. The aforementioned artifice of the play-within-movie often creates a few annoying anachronisms: for example, how can actors just change into other actors? This, along with including pointless interviews with dancers talking about what it was like to being around Pina, is the film's biggest mistake. I wish Wenders had elected to just show the dancing and allowed us (through them) to draw our own conclusions about the person behind them. Alas, the film is prevented from the heights it's perfectly capable of reaching, though it's definitely worth seeing for the mind-blowing and satisfying acts on display (don't let them get spoiled for you). B+

I will be seeing more in the next couple days. Stay tuned.