Tuesday, November 04, 2014

New Home

Nope, I'm not dead (not yet), but in case you haven't found it, my new blog home is camera-roll.com. Head over over for all of the posts from this blog, as well as all my recent commentaries.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Short Takes: "Kill Zone," "The Caine Mutiny"

Kill Zone posterKill Zone (2005, Dir. Wilson Yip)

Welcome to the New Wave of Hong Kong police thrillers -- technically polished, solidly acted, visceral and brainy. So why does it feel like something's missing? Kill Zone offers a few clues to answer that one.

But first, the good stuff: Simon Yam is as reliable as ever as Chung, a guilt-ridden cop who adopts the daughter of a gangster who was killed before he could give evidence against crime kingpin Wang Po (Sammo Hung, decked out in a goatee and silk suits). Aiding Yam is a triumvirate of police buddies (Kai Chi Liu, Danny Summer, Ken Chang) who aren't above twisting the law to nail Wang, while Wang relies on a grinning assassin with a predilection for long knives (Jacky Wu). The wild card is Chan's imminent successor Inspector Ma (Donnie Yen), who has a reputation for hotheaded behavior and an unflinching moral code that doesn't take too kindly to Chan's efforts to frame Wang. Add in an over-the-top complication (Chan is suffering from a brain tumor that may kill him at any moment), and you have the recipe for hard-boiled mayhem, Hongkie style.

Donnie Yen & Sammo Hung in Kill Zone
Kill Zone holds your attention from moment to moment, and of course the marquee martial arts stars (Yen, Wu and Hung) get to have their big throwdown at film's end, with even a nice karmic zinger thrown in. But does it all hold together? Not quite. Caught between the frazzled realism of the Infernal Affairs movies and the postmodern moves of a Johnnie To flick, director Wilson Yip can't quite commit in either direction. Everything with Yam and his cop buddies (all of whom are sketched out in deft if obvious strokes) sticks doggedly to the policier template, while Yen has little to do except glower between the scant action scenes. When the fights do come, the old-school kung-fu seems distinctly at odds with the story's downbeat grit. It's all filmed in slick style, and Yen's face-off with Wu in an alley is a pulse-quickener, but Kill Zone is neither flashy enough to appeal to the reptilian brain stem, nor deeply felt enough to register as a tragic drama.

The Caine Mutiny poster
The Caine Mutiny (1954, Dir. Edward Dmytryk)

It's easy to forget that many of the classic Hollywood stars were most interesting when they went against type. Take Jimmy Stewart, who brilliantly inverted his everyman persona in his westerns with Anthony Mann and Hitchcock's films. Cary Grant often went from the height of urbanity to the depths of slapstick within the same film. And then there's Humphrey Bogart, who was never all that easy to pin down to begin with: always the hard-bitten cynic, his characters forever seemed an inch away from giving into darker impulses (we remember his bared teeth in The Maltese Falcon, his alcohol-fueled rage against Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca). One could say that The Caine Mutiny is the third of the "Bogart loses it" trilogy, and while it's not on the level of the other two (Treasure of the Sierra Madre and In a Lonely Place), it's a reminder of how good an actor he could be.

Based on the novel by Navy vet Herman Wouk, the novel is essentially a World War II remake of Mutiny on the Bounty -- that is, if you can picture the HMS Bounty as a garbage scow. Assigned to the minesweeper Caine to whip the crew into shape, Bogart's Commander Queeg quickly reveals himself to be a paranoid taskmaster on the verge of cracking up, as minor snafus (a sailor's shirt not tucked in) escalate into the accidental severing of a mine cable, an unordered retreat from a battle zone, rants about stolen strawberries, and finally faulty decisions during a typhoon that risks the lives on everyone on board. Wouk cannily splits his tale between two points of view: most of the action is seen through the eyes of Willie Keith (Robert Keith), a fresh-faced ensign from Princeton with illusions of naval grandeur, a girlfriend sick of waiting for him to pop the question, and a serious mother complex, while the latter stages of the film belongs to the "real author of the Caine Mutiny," Lieutenant Tom Keefer (Fred MacMurray), the ship's resident cynic and a frustrated writer who isn't afraid to throw the Freudian book at Queeg behind the man's back but is too yellow-bellied to go on the record about his boss's failings. (One wonders if Wouk divided his own persona between these two polar opposites.) Caught in the middle is the ship's super-competent, addled exec, Steve Maryk (Van Johnson in fine form), who bears the brunt of naval law when he decides to relieve Queeg.

Humphrey Bogart in The Caine Mutiny
The Caine Mutiny skirts the fine line between ambivalence and simplicity -- no doubt due to the ever-watchful eye of the Navy during production, the story is soft-pedaled a bit so that the sea services don't come off too badly (the film sets forth the quaint notion that a cowardly captain is an impossibility), and Keith's on-and-off-again romance with his girl (May Wynn) takes up far too much of the film's time. Still, there are surprising shades of gray (the Caine's lackadaisical crew aren't necessarily blameless in the affair), and director Edward Dmytryk does a fine job of pacing the narrative. He's aided by a stellar group of players, including scene-stealing Jose Ferrer in his final-act appearance as Maryk's legal counsel, Lee Marvin, and E.G. Marshall, among others (Francis is the weak link in the cast, but he is convincing enough as a by-the-book mama's boy). MacMurray in particular stands out: just glib and canny enough to foment trouble, like his Walter Neff from Double Indemnity, he nonetheless has a rueful side, all too aware of his cowardice: "I'm too smart to be brave," he quips.

Humphrey Bogart in The Caine Mutiny
As you would expect though, the film ultimately belongs to Bogart, teetering between naturalism and theatricality. Sure his habit of rolling steel balls in his hand is now near-laughable shorthand for "crazy," but every moment he is on screen he is the very definition of unpredictability, ready to erupt, implode, cajole, or plead; he supplies the film's buzz. While The Caine Mutiny may seem a bit stolid by today's filmmaking standards, one need only compare it to Tony Scott's Crimson Tide, wherein Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman take turns mutinying against each other to service another nuclear doomsday action scenario, to appreciate the former's devotion to character, and the outrage and sympathy it inspires for its tormented captain.

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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Gentleman Abroad: "The American"

The American (2010, Dir. Anton Corbijn)

I'm not very good with machines.
-- George Clooney, The American

The American promises to be an escape from the machinations of the typical summertime action blockbuster -- sure it has Hollywood's most dependable leading man of the moment in George Clooney, and sure it has enough weaponry to satisfy the most discerning of arms fetishists, but its tone and intent harken back to paranoid thrillers of the '70s, in which danger hangs around like a pungent mist, indefinable and therefore that much more chilling. Take for example the first five minutes of the film, which are literally as chilling as you can get: a sudden ambush on a frozen Swedish lake that culminates with Clooney putting a bullet in the head of the innocent woman he slept with the night before. No all-American hero here. Or is there? (Hold that thought.)

Martin Booth's novel A Very Private Gentleman, upon which the screenplay is based, is a sleight-of-hand piece in which nothing and everything happens: we circle around the titular character as he hides out in a remote Italian mountain village, but despite his wry observations on the world and his courtly interactions with the locals, we ultimately learn very little about him except that he is an expert maker of assassination weapons and has good reason to be wary of everyone. Private and deadpan to the end, Booth's gentleman skirts around anything that resembles human connection, and the book's conclusion is like a mordant sigh, as our anti-hero escapes scott-free once again to continue his empty existence.

Anton Corbijn's film version takes a different tack -- as written by Rowan Joffe and essayed by Clooney, the American (whose name may be Jack or Edward or neither) is a bundle of raw nerves on the run from unknown assailants, a fine-tuned instrument on the verge of popping a spring. Although a quick-and-dirty chase is tossed into the middle of the story to ensure the audience is still awake, the filmmakers are more interested in the existential dread that shadows Clooney's character wherever he goes, and as the camera rests its gaze on him, we read suspicion, paranoia, and weariness on his hooded countenance. And who can blame him? Corbijn places us by Clooney's side as he isolates his star in the center of the frame, the world around him a suspicious blur from which all manner of peril might emerge.

Still, this is Italy after all, the land of people and passions, and despite himself, the American is drawn into the lives of those around him: bemused interactions with the local priest who is out to save his soul (Paolo Bonicetti), faintly teasing repartee with his latest (and perhaps last) client Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), and most importantly, a half-guarded, half-passionate affair with a local prostitute named Clara (the aptly named Violante Placido). Juxtaposed against these detours into humanity is his latest job: the construction of a portable sniper's rifle for Mathilde. The scenes in which Clooney whittles, fiddles, deconstructs and reconstructs the rifle with a craftsman's ease are among the film's best. Despite his protests to the contrary (see the quote up top), the American is more than adept with machines -- he's quite the slick piece of machinery himself. (In a puckish bit of humor, renowned photographer Corbijn has Clooney pose as a photojournalist, rather than as the butterfly collector in Booth's novel).

If you think the above suggests a simmering psychological study, you would be half-correct. In a welcome change from the excesses of most modern thrillers, Corbijn keeps things cool and elicits solid performances from his actors, his sinewy camerawork resisting the temptation to show off (save for a couple of gaudily lit nighttime shots that look like outtakes from U2's latest album art). In the end, though, the story is too slight to convince as a character study, and overdone symbolism (tattoed and real butterflies make constant appearances) and clunky dialogue take hold, with the affable Bonicelli saddled with lines that belong in a late-period Goddard film: "You are American. You think you can escape history. You live only for the present." Clooney's dogged (and hangdog) performance is credible, and it's a pleasing thrill when the American begins to suspect that he may be constructing the instrument of his own doom, but Corbijn sidesteps the existential implications -- and thus the thrust of Booth's novel -- in the latter half of the movie to focus on the doomed love between Clooney and Placido. Ah yes, the romantic fatalism of noir, what could be more American?

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Friday, July 23, 2010

Ghost in a Shell: "Inception"

Inception (2010, Dir. Christopher Nolan)

Eames: You mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.
Pulls out a grenade launcher]

Of today's big-budget filmmakers, Christopher Nolan has always been the most prosaic, in both the positive and negative senses of the word. Watching a Nolan film can stir a strange melange of reactions -- one appreciates the brainy themes he touches upon even as he plays within the confines of genre (superhero flicks with his Batman films, ostensible mystery-thrillers like Memento and Insomnia), the sly literary flourishes, the way his narratives can coil back on themselves, our sense of reality called into question with a simple sleight of hand. And yet he's probably one of the squarest directors out there, still a relative neophyte when it comes to mastering cinematic language. Take for example the ferryboat climax of The Dark Knight, wherein the Joker sets the table for an awful moral dilemma with hundreds of innocent and not-so-innocent lives at stake, and instead of a white-knuckle sequence, we get something staged and shot in the clunkiest manner possible -- it's like watching a balloon tied to a lead weight.

So we now arrive at Inception, a project supposedly a decade in the making, and whatever the concept might have been in its early days (one wonders what kind of film it would have been had it been made around the time of Memento, minus the big-budget trappings), its current form is something the Hollywood execs must have slobbered over: It's got cool dream CGI effects, and plenty of big action scenes! And oh yeah, it's got some philosophical stuff sprinkled in there for the geeks. Nolan's movies have always centered around mentally unbalanced (or at least untrustworthy) protagonists, and this one is no exception. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), thief-for-hire, is an expert at dream infiltration and the stealing of ideas, but when a raid on the mind of oily businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe) goes astray, Cobb is presented with an unusual request: dive into the mind of Saito's competitor Fischer (Cillian Murphy) and implant an idea which will lead to Fischer breaking up the industrial empire he is poised to inherit from his dying father. What the break-in entails is a convoluted dream universe involving multiple levels and the need for an expert team of infiltrators: Cobb's right-hand man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the "forger" Eames (Tom Hardy), the "architect" Ariadne (Ellen Page), and the "chemist" (Dileep Rao). The wild card in this setup is Cobb's own subconscious mind, which is plagued by memories of his children he left behind ("Projections," he scoffs, none too convincingly) and his dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), who pop up, wraith-like, at the most inopportune moments.

Yes, the central mystery circles back, as it does in Memento, to a dead wife, and DiCaprio and Cotillard strike some very real sparks in the scant moments they share together, but Inception is too busy racing through reams of exposition and meticulously edited dream plots to linger over their melancholy for long. To his credit, Nolan keeps the whole shabang moving at a decent clip, doubly impressive given that the rules of this particular dream game must be explained down to the granular level (DiCaprio holds everything together, tossing out cockeyed concepts with a pro's ease). Compared to the lugubrious mood that often weighs down his Batman films, this affair has a lighter feel to it, despite Hans Zimmer's affecting but sometimes ponderous soundtrack and the big-budget bloat. Inception is at its best in its first half as we're exposed to some dazzling sights: Paris folding in on itself like a puzzle box getting packed away, Escher-like staircases and perspectives, and in probably the film's eeriest passage, a figurative elevator ride down into the depths of Cobb's subconscious. These teases suggest that when we finally enter Fischer's mind, we'll be treated to some wondrous, surreal passages.

Or... not really, because Inception is at once Nolan's most ambitious and most prosaic movie yet. In its settings (everywhere from Mobassa to Tokyo to a dream ice fortress in Canada) and its attempt to create whole universes of dream life from whole cloth, it's epic all right, but when we finally enter the subject's brain, we find a dusty collection of tropes borrowed from other genre entertainments. We get a little Grand Theft Auto with machine guns blazing and cars swerving into each other, a mountain assault that plays out like an unholy marriage of On Her Majesty's Secret Service and Ghost Recon, and a few musings on reality vs. dream borrowed from The Matrix, Dark City and other virtual reality potboilers. "You can create anything you want," Cobb says enticingly to Ariadne early on, but Nolan is too much of a control freak, too preoccupied with setting up plot movement like chess pieces on a big board, to let his imagination soar in the dream sequences and come up with something big, apart from coming up with bigger guns (as the quote up top demonstrates). There's none of the tonal shifts, the non sequiturs, the sense of freedom and chaos that often infect a dream, and even Cobb and his team of infiltrators seem dour and earthbound, tied down by physical laws when they could be soaring in this universe, much like the characters do in Dreamscape, Satoshi Kon's Paprika or even Nightmare on Elm Street. Gordon-Levitt gets to engage in a neat hallway battle in zero gravity that would have impressed Fred Astaire, and the amusing sight of several sleeping bodies tied together and floating down the hall holds the promise of more whimsical, deranged heights -- it's a pity the story never aims for them.

But it would be a mistake to completely dismiss Inception as another mindless blockbuster flick -- even if Nolan doesn't have the visionary nuttiness of a Philip K. Dick or David Lynch, there's an aggressive intelligence in how he builds each dream layer (which all operate on different planes of time and reality) like a house of cards, and then unleashes a barrage of cross-cutting and parallel climaxes as it all gets shot to hell. Much like The Dark Knight, the fun comes from watching how pieces of action in different locales are all linked together. It may not stir the soul, and it may not stand up to repeat viewings -- indeed, even after one viewing, there's plenty of holes one can poke in the basic laws of dreaming that the film sets up -- but it certainly gets the mind racing.

Amidst the bustling plot, all the actors acquit themselves well, even if they don't have characters to inhabit -- it's fitting that we really only know them for the function they play, much like avatars in a video game (Tom Hardy as the brawling, wisecracking Eames comes off best). In the end, though, Inception is really about Cobb and his redemption... or is it? Without revealing the final image of the film, suffice it to say that Nolan leaves us with the possibility, however slight, that we may not be out of the world of dreams at movie's end. I'm sure there will be entire tomes devoted to picking every frame of the movie apart and positing which levels occur in the "real world," and already I've read an explanation that suggests that Cobb might still be in Mobassa... but isn't this beside the point? In effect, Inception is one big shell game, but for once, we get the sense that Nolan is aware this it's all a game and not some Big Statement about existence and life as we know it, and he's simply having fun flipping his shells around. Whether you enjoy it or not depends on your taste for street magicians.

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Sunday, May 02, 2010

San Francisco International Film Festival: Capsules

Cargo (2009, Dir. Ivan Engler & Ralph Etter)
Purportedly Switzerland's first science fiction filmand made on a shoestring budget, Cargo is certainly an impressive technical effort (some of of the outer space effects are bit too CGI-flat, but most of the others have a lovely simplicity). The story itself begins as a haunted, hushed study of a lonely space traveler (the appealing Anna Katharina Schwabroh) as she signs on for a tour of duty as doctor on a grungy interstellar freighter, but naturally not all is as it seems. It leads to plot developments that are about equal parts Alien, The Matrix and Solaris, a bit too derivative and undercooked to truly stand on its own, but the acting is uniformly fine and the film doesn't overstay its welcome.

Cold Weather (2010, Dir. Aaron Katz)
My first exposure to the "mumblecore" genre. Comedy-cum-mystery centers on the unambitious Doug (Cris Lankenau, a brainier Jessie Eisenberg), who has forsaken getting a degree in forensic science in Chicago to crash with his acerbic sister (Trieste Kelly Dunn) in Portland and work in a local ice factory. When an old flame shows up and then vanishes, it's up to Doug to play Sherlock (he's a big Conan Doyle fan) and figure out what's happening. Touching on noir conventions (a man called "the cowboy," pornography rings, misappropriated cash), the film has an agreeable shambling pace and some nice deadpan zingers in the dialogue, plus some striking photography of the Pacific Northwest courtesy of Andrew Reed. The mystery plot comes to an underwhelming finish just as it starts cooking, but the final scene of conciliation over a cassette mix tape sticks in the memory.

Father of My Children (2009, Dir. Mia Hansen-Love)
Up-and-coming director Mia Hansen-Love apparently based this film on a famous French producer who committed suicide (sorry, spoiler there). The film splits into two, with the first half following increasingly harried and despairing producer Gregoire (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), and the second his grieving family, including his wife (Chiara Caselli) and eldest daughter Clemence (Alice de
). As you might expect, things head to a que serra serra conclusion, minus the Hollywood tearjerker histrionics. Maybe it's too tasteful -- apart from Clemence's side story of bitterness and acceptance (perhaps not surprisingly since the character is the closest to director Hansen-Love in age), everything plays out on an even (flatlined?) keel. Still, the children are adorable and the digs at the French film industry (including a Lars von Trier-type) are just snarky enough to maintain one's interest.

Last Train Home (2009, Dir. Lixin Fan)
"You want to film the real me? This is the real me!" It's a line out of a reality TV show, but the reality depicted in this documentary cuts deep, as we witness the travails of a Chinese family named the Zhangs over a period of three years. The parents spend virtually the entire time on the other side of the country working for pennies in a garment factory to support their dream of putting their kids through college. Every Chinese New Year they make the near-impossible train ride home to visit their children and remind them that they must do better than them when they grow up. (Having survived the Guangzhou train crush myself, the footage of crowds seemingly bunched for miles around the station, waiting for a slim chance to return home, brought back vivid memories for me.) It all goes painfully awry for the Zhangs when Qin decides she wants to forsake school, become a migrant worker herself, and take the "new way" to success and fortune. Qin's climactic outburst (the quote above) and director Lixin Fan's unsparing eye throughout is riveting.

Littlerock (2010, Dir. Mike Ott)
An absorbing film from a fresh filmmaker, and one of my favorites from the festival. The setup is simple: brother and sister Rintaro and Atsuko (Rintaro Sawamoto, Atsuko Okatsuka) are road-tripping through central California when their car breaks down in the titular town. Rintaro senses the dead-end nature of the place and is raring to keep going, but Atsuko falls in with her surroundings and gets mixed up in an almost-love-affair with the dorky artist-wannabe Cory (Cory Zacharia, who basically steals the show). Not a whole lot happens in the movie, but director Ott gets plenty of mileage out of his characters' shifting perceptions and emotions, easily sidestepping cliche (for example, Cory runs afoul of the local loan shark, but the side-plot doesn't resolve the way you think it might). Throughout one gets the sense of dislocation and lack of connection, but also possibilities for fleeting moments of companionship if not necessarily understanding. A final phone call conducted in Japanese and English puts a nice bittersweet capper on the affair.

Senso (1954, Dir. Luchino Visconti)
Reprint of the classic Visconiti film. Melodramatic? Sure. Gaudy? You bet. Shocking in its emotional realism? Yes. Alida Valli practically trembles with pent-up emotions as an Italian countess who gets involved with an officer from the occupying Austrian army (Farley Granger) in the 1860s, their frothy affair growing ever more forlorn and coarse as it follows the fortunes of the war. Backed by swelling music by Bruckner and Verdi, and set in sumptuous opera houses and sprawling rustic farmlands, the lovers' story reaches grandiose proportions of loss and betrayal before it is all but swallowed up by the grim realities of the ongoing conflict, the concluding shot of an execution as hauntingly matter-of-fact and final as a blade coming down. They truly don't make 'em like these any more.

Splice (2010, Dir. Vincenzo Natali)
Almost venturing all the way into Grand Guignol David Cronenberg territory, this horror-thriller about genetic manipulation is more intelligent than most in the genre, and features a striking performance by Delphine Chaneac as the artificially created being who blossoms before its makers' (Sarah Polley and Adrien Brody) eyes, with unexpected results. For a while the steely build-up of the narrative keeps us engrossed, with just enough humor thrown in to leaven the tension, but by the final reel and a seduction scene that will either leave you shaking your head or laughing in disbelief, the tone veers off wildly, culminating in a less-than-thrilling finale and a denouement about the depersonalization of corporate life that is well taken, but not necessarily fresh.

Transcending Lynch (2010, Dir. Marcos Andrade)
Pseudo-documentary of David Lynch's book tour through Brazil is really an infomercial for transcendental meditation (Lynch's pet religion). This doesn't necessarily sabotage the project, but director Marcos Andrade's ham-fisted direction does. Want to see interminable footage of fawning Lynch fans waiting to get his autograph? (Hey, I don't blame them, I'd be pretty stoked too -- I blame Andrade's editor.) How about Lynch's musings on "catching the big fish" when it comes to artistic inspiration -- the same shtick he's used in interviews for decades now? How about a near-creepy passage in which Lynch addresses hundreds of kids in transcendental school and tells them they're the hope for the future? Scientology, eat your heart out.

Vengeance (2009, Dir. Johnnie To)
You have to hand it to Johnnie To -- he's been doing variations on the old-school Hong Kong thriller for years, and he still finds ways to keep things interesting. This time out it's a plot strand borrowed from Memento (a man out for revenge is losing his memory), tossed in with the cool men-on-a-mission vibe from The Mission. Former French heartthrob Johnny Hallyday projects dry-as-leather authority as the man out to avenge his daughter before a bullet in his brain renders him a complete amnesiac, and as usual, Anthony Wong is a showstopper as the leader of the hit squad that Hallyday recruits to help him. Throw in some nifty setpieces (a roving shootout through downtown Macau, a battle royale in a delapidated junkyard) and absurdist bits of humor (an ex-moll who is now very pregnant dolls herself up to seduce one of the baddies), and you have another worthy entry in the To catalogue, even if it lacks the revelatory staying power of Running on Karma or Fulltime Killer.

Wild Grass (2009, Dir. Alain Renais)
Alain Renais' latest is a frothy concoction. What plot there is concerns a dentist with shocking red hair who also happens to be an amateur aviatrix (Sabine Azema), and the lonely, addled man who finds her wallet (Andre Dussolier). What should be a simple thank-you call turns into an off-kilter tale of obsession and obligation that flirts with the possibility of becoming a thriller (the man has some criminal activity in his background which is never elaborated upon), a romantic comedy (including missed connections, befuddled cops and face-downs between a wife and a mistress), or an existential drama (no surprise given that Renais helmed Last Year at Marienbad), all voice-overed by an all-seeing narrator who may also happen to be the scruffy mechanic at the local airfield. By the time someone's pants zipper gets stuck, leading to a crazy accident and a concluding scene that is seemingly out of nowhere, you may throw up your hands and give up, or you can take the movie's title as a clue and appreciate the random bits of beauty and strangeness that Renais throws at you, like fertile ground blooming in all directions.

Woman on Fire Looks for Water (2009, Dir. Woo Ming-jin)
As you'd expect from a film about fisherman in the sleepy village of Kuala Selangor in Malaysia , this film has a slow (some would say funereal) pace. It's all about love or lack thereof as fisherman Ah-Fei (Ernest Chong) pursues the hard-to-get Lily (Foo Fei-ling), while his father Ah-Kau (Chung Kok-keong) gets involved once again with the love of his life, who has moved on to marry a richer man. The delicacy of these stories is juxtaposed with the realities of the characters' environment, where working at a shellfish factory may mean the difference between gaining the woman of your dream's hand or never having enough money to skate by. There are some nice comic touches (Ah-Kau's rival for his ex-love's attentions refuses to believe he's even worthy of being a rival, and Ah-Fei gets sandbagged into a possible arranged relationship with the daughter of a local fish factory magnate), and some oblique storytelling as well (the fate of Ah-Kau is implied but never completely spelled out). Woman on Fire isn't for everyone's taste, but it'll satisfy those in the mood for a languorous, delicate piece.

Yellow Sheep River (2009, Dir. Liu Soung)
A political documentary this ain't, but this steady, engrossing, nearly wordless look at the life of farmers in distant, impoverished Gansu province is an intimate portrait of the rural life in China. We follow various families as they go through their rituals -- harvesting, transporting their crops, visiting relatives, going to school, or just hanging out -- and these rituals generate their own hypnotic power. Some of the soundtrack gets a bit heavy-handed on the Western-style strings, but the folk songs (courtesy of blind musician Chen Kai-yo) are stirring, and the cinematography is attentive to the details of a grain harvest, or the unabashed joy on the faces of kids as they run down the hill to school. More than just a mood piece, it's a tribute to a way of life that just may continue to persevere through economic and political changes.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Bond Voyage: "Quantum of Solace"

Quantum of Solace (2008, Dir. Marc Forster)

M: Bond, we need you back.

Bond: I never left.

A car chase. Fractured bursts of machine guns. Head-on collisions barely averted. A beautiful purring gray Aston Martin reduced to a battered hulk with a missing driver-side door. Another daring escape from death, another deadpan quip from our hero, roll opening credits...

Quantum of Solace begins as many James Bond films do, but in its frenzied four minutes of prologue summarized above, one gets the sense that things are a little different. For one, the puckish humor that has characterized just about every other Bond setpiece in the past is absent. Even the sight of that driver-side door getting ripped from its hinges is a throwaway -- Bond (Daniel Craig) is too busy avoiding perforation to raise a laconic eyebrow at the sight. The entire sequence is an assault of fast cuts, images condensed to near-blurs, the "you are there" aesthetic codified by Paul Greengrass in his Bourne films (no surprise that the second-unit director is Dan Bradley, who filled the same role in the latter two Bourne movies). And when it comes time for Bond's payoff quip, the moment is caught in an unexpected freeze-frame, any potential chuckles caught in our throats as we regard the frozen countenance of our hero, awaiting a twinkle in his eye that never arrives.

So it is with the rest of the movie. Make no mistake, Quantum of Solace has a sense of humor, but it's the kind best suited for the gallows -- witness the scene where Bond severs an assailant's femoral artery and watches with a twinge of impatience as the man expires. Or another bit where Bond incapacitates another baddie in a bathroom, and imprisons him inside by tearing off the door handle and tossing it away as thoughtlessly as throwing away a chewing gum wrapper.

Of course we've seen this type of behavior before -- it was the raison d'etre behind Casino Royale, which reinvigorated the Bond mythos by presenting its hero as a bull in a china shop, happier busting heads and bruising his knuckles than choosing the best dinner jacket to wear or ordering a particular kind of Vodka martini. The thrill of Royale lay in the frission between this cunning thug and the man we all know he becomes: suave, confident, world-weary, the feral intensity of an animal lingering behind his eyes. More than any Bond since Sean Connery, Craig embodies these traits, and his performance in Royale still stands as a bracing reinterpretation of the character; when he announces himself as "Bond, James Bond" at movie's end decked out in a three-piece suit and machine gun, past Bond and present Bond are merged into something altogether new.

Quantum of Solace doesn't backtrack from that progression, but it doesn't necessarily advance it either. For the first time, the story is a direct continuation from the previous film: having apprehended the slimy Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), the money man behind Bond's previous nemesis Le Chiffre, Bond and M (Judi Dench) look forward to some good old-fashioned torture to wring out the skinny on the organization White works for. In a twist that wouldn't be out of place in paranoid 70's conspiracy thrillers like 3 Days of the Condor, it is revealed that the organization (aka Quantum) has implanted moles inside governments all around the world, and when Bond, still smarting from the betrayal and suicide of his love Vesper from Royale, investigates on his own, indiscriminately killing off a few miscreants in the process, he finds himself distrusted by his own people, who in turn may be misled by Quantum's allies...

The promising setup is an interesting riff on Bond author Ian Fleming's vision of the world as a collection of cowboys and Indians, where even the cowboys must act like Indians from time to time. What to do when the cowboys actually are Indians? While Fleming's Bond always had staunch belief in Queen and country even in his most cynical moments, Craig's everyman Bond can only survive by operating outside the system, trusting only his own abilities, all too knowing about the misdeeds that governments do as he sneers at his CIA colleague Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) over the US "carving up" banana republics for its own benefit. It all snaps into focus about halfway through the picture when Bond infiltrates a secret meeting of Quantum members held under cover of a gaudy performance of Tosca alongside an Austrian lake. In a pungent commentary on nefariousness being the domain of the upper class, the bad guys are respectable yuppies in black ties, while Bond steals his own tux and revels in his own impropriety when he announces his presence to Quantum: "You people should really find a better place to meet!" Bull in a china shop, indeed.

The opera sequence, punctuated by a wordless pursuit and shootout underscored by Puccini, is the film's clear highlight and one of the best passages in any of the latter-day Bond films. There are other pleasures to be had in Quantum, as well: director Marc Forster does a better job than most Bond directors at mise en scene as 007 jets from Haiti to Austria, Italy and Bolivia, and there is rugged intelligence in his visual design -- this is certainly one of the handsomest Bond movies to date. One must be more attentive to the plot than usual as Bond follows a paper-thin trail of clues that leads to prime villain Dominic Greene (Mathieu Almaric), but in contrast to the ransom-the-world megalomania of past Bond villains, Greene's scheme is refreshingly low-key yet insidious: suffice to say, Bolivia's innocent civilians will suffer in the process.

Low-key might be the best word to describe this film, despite some of its more outrageous elements. Clearly uncomfortable at the prospect of falling into formula cliches that have marred so many of the other Bonds, Forster is intent on coating Quantum in a tasteful real-world patina. Instead of a superhuman henchman, we get the ineffectual Elvis (Anabole Taubmann), who is notable primarily for his toupee. Instead of a larger-than-life adversary, we get Dominic Greene, a shady businessman more at home brokering evil pacts in a hideous flower-print shirt than a sinister suit (Almaric is creepy but underused). Instead of imperious M doing what needs to be done come hell or high water, we get a flummoxed M browbeaten by the Minister of Defense, who may be under the direct sway of Quantum. Instead of briefings in mammoth conference rooms concerning the fate of the world, we get documentary-style montages of local Bolivians suffering from water shortages. Not since The Man with the Golden Gun has a Bond film had such a sour outlook on the world and its characters; at least in Golden Gun we had some slapstick (albeit bad) and the magisterial presence of Christopher Lee to break up the solemnity.

Casino Royale also played around with patented Bond formulas, but it was propelled by character nuances that the latest film lacks (character development in a Bond flick, fancy that!). Try as he might, Forster cannot camouflage the fact that the form and content of Quantum is business as usual. Structurally, Quantum even mirrors Casino in its development: a bang-up footchase to kick things off, the middle third of the film given over to plot intrigue before it all culminates in a blow-'em-up-finale inside a confined space (in Casino, a collapsing palazzo in Venice; in Quantum, a heavily guarded hotel in the Bolivian desert conveniently outfitted with very flammable gas tanks). The devil with these films has always been in the details, and as the action scenes in Quantum grow more protracted and unintelligible (a boat chase that lacks even a basic sense of geography, an airplane dogfight sabotaged by dodgy free-fall effects) one senses the plot curdling when it should be gaining momentum. Just when it's poised to go big, the film goes depressingly small, as if afraid to do anything, you know, flamboyant.

Lacking the novelty of Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace would have stood up to its predecessor if it deepened and fleshed out Bond and his world -- it's a pity Forster seems more preoccupied with hurtling on to the next major plot point than letting the characters breathe. Olga Kurylenko (as a half-Russian, half-Bolivian(!) agent with her own revenge agenda) and Gemma Atherton (as a smartypants British agent) float in and out of the action, and Bond's old allies Leiter and Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini, wry as always) show up for brief spells, but Craig is very much a man alone in this one, his Bond taciturn and distant, with no one to bounce off. There's little left to focus on except for the fact that Bond gets just as bloody, bruised and sweaty as he got in the previous film -- already we're reaching the point of diminishing returns on that one.

The film's frustrations become apparent by the final conflagration -- for all of Forster's insistence on grit and realism, he and the scriptwriters still can't some up with anything beyond standard-issue explosions and hand-to-hand combat. And yet miraculously, the snowy denouement of Quantum, wherein Bond settles his accounts with Vesper's ghost, is everything the rest of the film isn't: delicate, measured, succinct in its depiction of Bond as hard-bitten but ultimately loyal civil servant (as the dialogue atop this review attests). At odds with the rest of the film, it leaves a sliver of hope that this new iteration of Bond will indeed fulfill its promise and approach the grandeur of what the later Fleming books became; it would be a pity to see that potential squandered on future films as wan as this one.

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Sunday, June 01, 2008

In Beijing: Part 3

Xu Wu (l) and Rong Rong (r) behind the Bell Tower, at the Drum & Bell Bar.