Wednesday, May 28, 2008

"The Forbidden Kingdom" & "Kill Bill Vol.1"

Yes, the pairing of Martial Arts powerhouses Jet Li and Jackie Chan is extremely gimmicky. And yet, as a kung fu movie fan, I have to admit that seeing the pair fight each other on screen was exhilarating and fulfilled a dream I did not realize I had. The Forbidden Kingdom features Chan as a drunken immortal, an homage to his earlier Drunken Master films, and Li as a fighting monk, a nod to his roots in the famous Once Upon a Time in China series (he even gets to exercise his substantial and underused comedic acting chops as he doubles as the character of the Monkey King). After enduring so many mediocre Li and Chan films in the past few years (Shanghai Knights, Cradle to the Grave... to name two) it is a relief to see director Rob Minkoff letting his two stars do what they do best. In essence, The Forbidden Kingdom sees the return of two great masters of the kung fu genre to their roots. The following video from the (my new favorite film site) really sums it up:

However, as happy as I was to see this return to form, the film will probably bore anyone who does not still live with their parents. If Praying Mantice style vs. Tiger style does not intrigue you/ make you smile gleefully, go see Iron Man (which by the way is 15 dollars well spent [$10 for the movie $5 for the slushy]); for The Forbidden Kingdom is truly a film made for fans. Not only are the characters nods to themselves and the roles that made them, but the entire story is about a fan who saves the day for his heroes.

The film centers around Micheal Angarano, who plays a nerdy Boston Kung Fu fan who gets improbably transported into the world that he worships. The boy becomes man/kung fu master plot is predictable, but nevertheless warms your heart; for a fan is necessarily the little guy, the worshipper or groupie. And to see the little guy become what he has always dreamt of being is a plot that never gets old.

It is this idea of the fan as hero which led me to pair the film with Kill Bill Vol. 1. Quentin Tarantino is (despite what you may think of him), the film fan (cult film fan would perhaps be a better description) made good. And no film of his better shows off his fan-ness than Kill Bill Volume 1. In the first 30 seconds of the film alone you are treated to a Klingon Proverb and an homage to the Godard Film Band of Outsiders (blech!). Tarantino is the film junkie actually allowed behind the camera (for better or worse in some cases but I'll save that discussion for another time.) The casting of Gordon Lui (of 36 chambers fame) in the film is no coincidence. Wouldn't we all, if given the opportunity to work with our idols, take the chance? Tarantino is a man, similar to Angarano's character in The Forbidden Kingdom, who is allowed to play in the land he has worshiped. In this case the world of film. Viewed through this lens, Kill Bill Vol 1. does not dissapoint, there is black and white, split screen, anime, saturated color (subtitles even!!). There are few style stones left unturned.

That is not to say the film is a stylistic mess. Tarantino successfully pays homage without losing the film's individual identity, embodied by revenge minded Uma Thurman. Somehow all the quirky parts taken from other films blend together to become more than the sum of their parts. They become Tarantino style. Fan boy enters hero's world and becomes his own man. Lets hear it for the little guy!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Quick Note from the New York Polish Film Festival

Work in the "real" world is keeping me away from the theaters this week so look out for a return to double-featuring next week. Just to tie you over (you millions of readers.. hi Dad...hi Mom...) here is a quick dispatch from last week's Polish Film Fest:

Aria Diva (Dir Agnieszka Smoczyska) 2007: Smoczyska is a student at the Andrzej Wajda school of filmaking and her short film is proof that she has learned well. Shorts are incredibly hard to do and often feel forced and studenty (or like sped up melodramatic low budget features), but Aria Diva starring the truly divaesque Katarzyna Figura as a famous Opera singer who has a fling with her housewife neighbor, does not need any excuses. I look forward to seeing Smoczyska's first feature.

Summer Love
(dir Piotr Uklański) 2007: If you ever see this film and understand it, shoot me an email. The first "Polish Western" features Polish actors speaking in english (say "Lets cut him off at the pass" in a Polish accent.) Add to that a sex scene in which the couple spell out the word "sex" with their bodies on the floor Busby Berkeley Style and a scene where a man lights a pile of gunpowder on his head and you have Summer Love. I have the sneaking suspicion that the film is brilliant, but I really couldn't say why (I can't even explain the plot to you). But any film that features Val Kilmer as a corpse who gets tomatoes squished into his eyes must be brilliant.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Dispatches from the Tribeca Film Festival - "Theater of War" & "Children of Men"

In times of war, how much responsibility does a director have to incorporate the world around him into the world that he creates in his art? This is one of the central questions that emerges from John Walter's documentary "Theater of War." The doc itself follows a production of Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage" that was put on by the Public theater starring Meryl Streep. Interspersed between shots of rehearsal are interviews with Streep, playwright Tony Kushner (who adapted the play for the production) and Brecht's daughter, as well as segments on the life of Brecht himself (the film is a good study in why directors [esp documentary filmmakers] should not edit their own work as some of the interspersions detract from the film as a whole [I must keep it in!!! Its my favorite!!!]. That being said, Public Theater Artistic director Oskar Eutis riding his bicycle cigar in hand is a moment that should be interspersed into all films.)

The play was put on in 2006 and the film is just coming out this year, so both had to come to terms with creating art on war in a time of war. Walter's does not shirk this responsibility, showing the anti-war protests that happened during the plays rehearsal as well as drawing parallels between the Iraq War climate and the WWII climate that produced the original "Mother Courage." These parallels are not heavy handed (Speaking of which, Michael Moore was at the screening). Walter's antiwar slant comes out of Brecht's work (Mother Courage loses everything to the war) and the Public theater's production rather than out of his own ideology. It is refreshing to see a documentary that does not sidestep the fact that we are currently at war but also does not barge into the topic and preach to the audience. Nicole Kidman said famously after September 11th that art is important but Walters goes deeper and explores how art is necessarily changed by war (Streep, in one segment, discusses how being in the play is her way of dealing with her frustration about the war).

Alphonso Cuarón "Children of Men" (2006) is another film that is closely tied to the current climate (note that it was released the year "Mother Courage" was performed). Cuarón wrote this film based on the novel of the same name by P.D. James and I think it is safe to assume that his interpretation of James' dystopia was affected by the way he sees the current state of the world (see video later in post).

That is not to say that the film, divorced from its historical context could not stand on its own, but in our current climate, graphic images of bombs going off in coffee shops, overcrowded refuge camps and rampant distrust and imprisonment of immigrants hit particularly close to home. In fact, as great a film as I think "Children of Men" is, I do not think I can ever see it again. I have never been as shook up by a movie. It is not a film for the faint of heart. Of course, it takes place in a fictional time, in a world where children are no longer born. But once you accept that one difference: no children, the world of the film seems a little to real. There are moments when blood spatters the camera lens, our eye into the world. It is as if Cuarón is saying "YOU ARE HERE." If ever a movie could give you PTSD, this is the one. Though I do wonder about how much my own reaction is based on the times. Would a 1950's viewer or a viewer 50 years from now be as affected? If a director is responsible for understanding and the war around them and its affect on their art, how much are we, the viewer, responsible for being conscious of how the war affects our viewing?

I normally just add video to give you a taste of the film, but the video above, which focuses on the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki discusses how he strove to make the war seem "real" using lighting, style and editing.

Other Films in Brief:

"Fighter" (Natasha Arthy) 2007 : The Turkish "Bend it like Beckham". Predictable but fun. Very well filmed fight scenes, a treat for Kung Fu Fans. Congrats to Omar, a stuntman from the film who sat behind me at the screening.

"Everywhere at Once" (Holly Fisher & Peter Lindbergh) 2008 : If you like French impressionist film, see this movie. If you have a history of falling asleep in movies, skip it. That being said, Lindbergh's photographs are beautiful and everything remotely involving Milla Jovovich is awesome. Seriously, who need Maya Deren or experimental film when you have this:

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Dispatches from the Tribeca Film Festival: "Lost. Indulgence" & "Il Deserto Rosso"

Zhang Yibai's "Lost. Indulgence" and Michelangelo Antonioni's "Il Deserto Rosso" (the Red desert) is not an obvious pairing. I was very tempted to pair "Lost. Indulgence" with the recent Jia Zhang Ke film "Still Life" (which was one of my top five movies of last year). Both "Still Life" and "Lost Indulgence" are films made in China seemingly with the blessing of the Chinese Government. But unlike the slew of recent Chinese government sponsored films that star the entire Peoples Liberation Army in period garb fighting in slow motion to unify and glorify China, these films are quiet and often devastating looks at the lives of ordinary Chinese people.

I find it surprising that both these films seem to have made it easily through the notorious Chinese censors. Through these two films we see a China that allows women to be placed into servitude to pay off debts, veterinarian clinics in which workers pay for each death of an animal and the staggering bulldozing pace of change in China.

"Lost. Indulgence" takes place in an factory town, and follows the lives of a family after the father, a taxi driver, drives his cab into the Yangtse river. The mystery surrounding his death and the role that a prostitute, who was riding in the car and who is taken in by the family, had in his death, drive the drama of the entire film. Like in "Still Life" and indeed in real life, do not expect any of the mystery to clear or for characters to rise above their situations. If there is any lesson to be gleaned from these two excellent Chinese films it is that life goes on. Still life is right.

So why then choose another film entirely to pair with "Lost. Indulgence?" Why "Il Deserto Rosso?" Antonioni's "Il Deserto Rosso" is a film about the industrial landscape and its effect on those who reside in it. Antonioni waited to make his first color film and "Il Dessert Rosso is the fruit of that patience. Every color is meticulously chosen: Sulphur yellows pour out of factories, banisters are bright blue. In Antonioni's film the landscape is very much a character, if anything it is the villain, poisoning the landscape and the mind of Monica Vitti (the film would make a great pairing with Todd Haynes' "Safe" in which the environment is the omnipresent villain).

In "Lost. Indulgence" the industrial complex is less of character and more of a stifling backdrop. It is this world that all the characters live in and yet seek to leave. The industrial city allows them to survive (the mother works in the factory and met the father there) but the son seeks a simpler, more idyllic, life. So while the landscape is not overtly a villain it is something to escape from nonetheless. Both films seek to come to terms with changing landscapes. Both films examine the effect of the industrialization of a landscape on ordinary people and their attempts to fit themselves into these quickly changing worlds. The son in "Lost. Indulgence" creates a miniature plaster reproduction of the entire city. He stares at it, trying to take in the entirety of his world and landscape. This vignette mirrors the audience's experience of watching the film: as much as these two films are studies of characters, they are also studies of worlds.

Other films in brief:

Idiots and Angels
: George Plympton. I am not really sure that Plympton's work is able to carry a feature length format. Then again it was late, I was tired. I much preferred his short "Guard Dog."

Guest of Cindy Sherman
: Paul H-O & Tom Donahue. This is a film made by and about the ex boyfriend of artist Cindy Sherman who found himself completely overshadowed by her and decided to make a film about it. The sad thing was, after the film was over, I wanted to go out and see more Cindy Sherman, and still could not come up with any reason why I should care about her ex-boyfriend.