Monday, October 11, 2010
Well, we're back home after our best film festival experience yet. 23 features in nine days is also a new record, as was the fact that there was only one day when the wife questioned why she agrees to go to these things with me. I'm sure this is going to change several times as I get some distance from the craziness of the festival environment and all these movies to settle in a separate themselves in my brain, but here's an initial ranking of what we saw, including four of the best and most distinctive shorts.
Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields - A conventional but nonetheless engrossing documentary about, well, Stephin Merritt and his band, The Magnetic Fields. Merritt's notoriously difficult to interview, so the intimacy of this film is rather impressive. Every major member of the band is interviewed, as well as Merritt's mom herself. It's mostly a biographical portrait, charting his life from high school until the Distortion album, hitting the high points (the near universal acclaim for 69 Love Songs, for my money one of the greatest works of art of the 20th Century) and the low (the racism accusations by New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones, which proved nothing but the already established fact that Sasha Frere-Jones is a fucking moron. Though he was decent enough to basically admit as much both in print and on camera here). Most of the film though is funny anecdotes about Merritt's working life, with a special focus on his 25+ year friendship with Claudia Gonson, manager and band member. Particularly cool is Merritt dumping a pile of his old notebooks on the floor and flipping nostalgically through them. (Edited to add: The coolest thing was Merritt talking about his favorite artists, particularly ABBA, who he says created such perfectly worked out songs such that when you first hear them you feel like they've always existed, which is exactly what I've always thought about Merritt's best songs, particularly much of the 69 Love Songs). Documentaries like this aren't generally notable for their filmic qualities, and this one is no exception. But it gets about as close as one can get to an artist like Merritt, and that's accomplishment enough. Plus the score is really great.
Merry-Go-Round - The second film co-directed by Clement Cheng at this year's festival (Hong Sangsoo is the only other person with two features at the festival, though as Cheng pointed out during the Q & A, his two halves make one festival film). It's totally different in visual style from the kung fu comedy Gallants, though it is thematically quite similar. Both film's approach Hong Kong's past with reverence, and are about the younger generation learning to respect the older. In this case, its a young woman (the gorgeous Ella Koon), dying of leukemia who goes to HK to find an internet friend who's been ignoring her. This friend is the nephew of another woman from San Francisco who has recently returned to HK to prevent his sale of the family's Chinese medicine shop to developers. This older woman is obsessed with her own past: she's also bringing her grandfather's body back home to be buried in his home town, and she has a series of flashbacks to a romance she had before leaving for America sometime after the Communist takeover of the mainland. The desire to return a body to one's home is one of the key motifs in the film, and much of it takes place at a "Coffin Home" where bodies of diasporic Chinese are stored until their families come to claim them. The caretaker of the Coffin Home is played by Teddy Robin (who was so great in Gallants) and he hires the dying girl and he's got issues with the past of his own to deal with. The setup of the film is needlessly complicated, and the first half hour or so is much more disorienting than it needs to be. But once everyone settles into their places in the narrative and their various histories and interconnections begin to be revealed, the film has a powerful emotional momentum. It's about the joy and tragedy of leaving and returning. Other than the clunky beginning and an over-reliance on the indie rock score in the latter sections of the film (the use of the standard "After You've Gone", however, is excellent), it really is very good. The cinematography by first-time feature DP Jason Kwan is particularly good, much smoother and more polished than Gallants, though the budget can't have been much greater.
Sunday, October 10, 2010
Carlos - One of the most exciting and daunting films of the year is Olivier Assayas's five-plus hour epic about the life of 1970s terrorist Carlos. The film begins in 1973 when Carlos, a young Marxist with nominal experience (he did spend some time in the USSR but was expelled, later he attended a terrorist training camp) adopts his nom de guerre and becomes the director for English operations for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (which I'm pretty sure is a Life of Brian reference). The film then follows his career of largely bungled operations, many women and charts in detail the whole underground of international politics for over 20 years, until the end of the Cold War radically realigned everything and left the true believers nowhere to hide. Oscar Ramirez is fantastic in the lead role, though I kept trying to figure out who he looked like, settling on a hybrid of Val Kilmer and Johnny Depp. He brings the necessary multi-lingual charm (easily topping the excellent work of Christoph Waltz in last year's Inglourious Basterds, if only by the fact that he spends the entire film easily switiching between English, French, Spanish and German whereas Waltz only needed a few lines of Italian) and constant threat of physical violence that must have been what enabled Carlos to last for so long in such a deadly racket and Assayas uses the actor's body to chart the ups and downs of his career in an unusually explicit way (ie, he's naked almost as much as the women in the film are, and sometimes he's fat). The obvious point of comparison with Carlos will be Steven Soderbergh's Che, another massive film about a famous 20th Century revolutionary. But I can't think of a way in which Assayas doesn't better that film. Whereas Soderbergh seemed to be either indifferent to Che's politics or simply didn't understand it, Assayas goes out of his way to contextualize Carlos and his compatriots' ideology and that of the people they are fighting with and against, to the point that he is actually giving us the story of the decline of radical leftism worldwide in the wake of its 1968 high point (and how that relates to ongoing issues in the Middle East where Carlos's ilk we replaced by a different, and much scarier, form of terrorist) as much as he is telling the story of one man. Soderbergh's film shies away from anything that might make the hero look less than noble, while Assayas gives us all the warts on what was essentially a hired thug and murderer, he even makes the point that Carlos wasn't even a particularly good terrorist: he bungled his biggest job (which takes up the heart of the film, his raid on an OPEC summit in 1975 that is a perfect hour and a half suspense film in its own right), got fired from the PFLP and never managed another major task again, even his more minor hired hits usually failed to kill the main target. Soderbergh's film is self-consciouly arty, with changes of film stock, intercuts stories, a radically different visual style in Part Two from Part One (complete with an aspect ratio change). Assayas keeps the style unobtrusive and fluid, with generally long takes, constant spatial orientation and judicious uses of hand-held cameras. Anyway, it's a massive and great film, he kind of intelligent action epic that simply doesn't get made anymore (outside of John Woo's very good, but not this good Red Cliff, I can't think of any over the last several years) and it plays great theatrically: the five hours really flies by. It'll play on TV in the US, but I'd see it in a theatre if you could.
Certified Copy - Maybe I've been watching Abbas Kiarostami all wrong, because nothing in Taste of Cherry, The Wind Will Carry Us or Close-Up prepared me for how simply funny this film is. Or maybe those films are exceptions in the career of a world class romantic comedy filmmaker. Anyway, Juliette Binoche (who somehow looks better now than she did 20 years ago, which just isn't fair) plays a woman who invites a writer out for the afternoon as she liked his book (though parts annoyed her) and presumably because she likes him (William Schimell, he looks almost but not exactly like David Strathairn). His book is about how copies of art objects are just as valuable as the originals, because what gives art value is our relationship to it, what we see in it, and not anything inherit in the object itself. They argue about that for awhile, and eventually start to pretend to be married when they meet other people (the film's set in Tuscany, and Binoche acts in three languages (French, Italian and English) while Schimel speaks French and English). The arguments they have as a "married" couple achieve enough reality that the audience is invited to wonder if they really are married after all, and their earlier scenes of not knowing each other the pretense. Of course, if we accept the premise of the book, it doesn't matter: the only thing that's important is what we as the audience take from it, how we relate it to our own lives. For me, it was funny for most of the time, as the various arguments and rhetorical strategies were not entirely unfamiliar. But that comedy is leavened by more than a little heartbreak. It's a weird romance, but a pretty much perfect one. If I wanted to be really succinct, I'd say it's Before Sunset for grownups. But, really it's even better than that.
The Strange Case of Angelica - Eccentricities of a Blond-Hair Girl was one of my favorites at last year's festival, and while this year's Manoel de Oliveira film isn't as gemlike as that one, it's still pretty good. A young man who dabbles in photography is called upon to take the picture of the recently deceased Angelica, who has the unfortunate habit of smiling at him when she's supposed to be dead. Both her corpse and later her image appear to move, and when she takes a ghostlike form (taking Isaac on a flight more than a little reminiscent of Superman and Lois Lane), Isaac falls in crazy obsessive love with her. In the middle of the film, there's what appears to be an attempt to explain all of this with quantum physics and antimatter, but it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. But then again, neither do the religious explanations (Isaac keeps repeating some lines about angels before and after meeting Angelica). While Eccentricities was a perfect little anecdote about love gone wrong, this is a much more mysterious, weird and even goofy film. The best part about it is also one of the best things about Eccentricities: both films seem to exist in technology, environment and social habits in a world that isn't quite the present, nor is it the past. They're not so much outside of time, but take place across the span of the whole of the 20th Century at once.
The Tiger Factory - We saw director Woo Ming Jin's Woman on Fire Looks for Water earlier this year at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and I thought it was promising, a quirky minimalist film with some nice camerawork and a good sense of place. So I was looking forward to this, Woo's next film. I wasn't prepared, however, for it to be so totally unlike that other film, with a deadly serious verite-realist style instead of long takes and quasi-mystical goofiness. About all they have in common is the Malaysian setting and long sequences of people at work (catching, sorting and cleaning fish and shellfish in the first, inseminating pigs in this one). Lai Fooi Mun plays Ping, who wants to quit her three jobs (pig farm, restaurant and surrogate mom for her aunt's baby factory) and get herself smuggling into Japan, apparently so she can advance to the world of foreign prostitution. Her aunt keeps her poor and pregnant, steals her kid and her money and is pretty much the most evil person ever. Ping has a friend and roommate at the beginning of the film, but by the end the friend has made it to Japan and is, for some reason, no longer returning Ping's phone calls. The girl's life sucks and there's no possible way out of it. This would be more moving if Ping had any kind of personality or spark. But by the time the film has begun, her horrible life has already beaten her done to the point of near-mute passivity (when her various money-making plans go awry, she mopes and comes up with even dumber schemes). Basically, it's like Chop Shop without the charm, energy or hope. The film was paired with a short called Inhalation featuring some of the same actors in a slight variation on the same story by Edmund Yeo, the co-writer and producer of The Tiger Factory. I liked the short a lot better, both for its style (there's a cool long pan that doubles as a 38 day time jump) and its tone (Ping has a friend, and they talk like real people!). It'd go better at the end of the feature than the beginning (the way it was programmed).
Gallants - A comical kung fu film from the directing team of Clement Cheng and Derek Kwok that unites some elderly Shaw Brothers stars in a funny and moving elegy to old age and the martial arts classics of the 1970s. Skinny and clumsy real estate agent Cheung is sent to a small town to facilitate the sale of a local teahouse that happens also to be a former kung fu gym. The two owners (Dragon and Tiger) are the last surviving disciples of their coma-striken master. Bad guys (who want to buy the teahouse at a deflated price) attack, the master wakes up and everyone learns kung fu for the big local tournament. Dragon is played by Chen Kuan-tai (Crippled Avengers, Executioners from Shaolin) and Tiger by Leung Siu-lung (Legend of the Condor Heroes, Kung Fu Hustle) and both are still outstanding in the action sequences, if not the greatest actors in the world. Teddy Robin, a Hong Kong rock star in the 60s, plays their master as a mix of Yoda and Tracy Morgan, he's by far the best part of the film (and even did the music as well). The film isn't nearly as polished as the later Stephen Chow films, though it's often just as funny and shares the same anarchic spirit. The quickie vibe (if I remember the Q & A correctly, they shot the whole thing in only 18 days, which is ridiculous) only makes it more fun.