Monthly Archives: December 2012

TRAGEDY WITH A PUNCH-LINE/ ‘FLIGHT’ IS GREAT

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Removing the two final scenes from Flight would be an act of calculated benevolence. Such an operation would leave the film heady and dark, an intoxicating fog. As it is, there’s a sit-com-esque resilience, determined as moronic, hovering around at the precise moment you’re least in the mood to hear it. Sort of like a bartender who won’t shut up about the good weather when you’re trying to nurse heartbreak.

We’re talking about the ending here.

Flight is probably the best film Robert Zemeckis has ever made. It’s probably the best film John Gatins has ever written (Real Steel, Coach Carter.) It’s an ambitious, plodding work. Not quite a thriller. Call it a character-study coaxed into drama, or a drama sabotaged into character-study. If I’m scaring you, don’t worry: you’ll enjoy it.

It’s such an understatement to say that it’s structurally “risky” to start your movie with a stomach-churning action set-piece, and then turn to slow, diffuse drama. It’s as much a work of acrobatic, dazzling, technical skill as Denzel displays in those opening minutes. But the screenplay earns it. There’s something authentically modern, and maybe critical, about the way the film deals almost entirely and tirelessly with the minutiae and ramifications of a single incident. In this story there is only one event, and the first thing to come into question is the certainty that that event had to happen. The next thing to come into question is the soul of our hero.

I should mention that this story structure is refreshingly ancient. It’s not a man on a mission so much as a man under interrogation by his world. The layers of tragedy are constantly being peeled away, and we’re hoping to get a glimpse of the soul underneath the mess. How bad could our hero be? He’s a Hollywood hero after all. Yes, it’s a smart movie.

And Zemeckis here defines versatility, shooting often in a vacuum of personal style, generously lending it all to whatever sequence he happens to be working on (or maybe it’s Don Burgess’s photography.) There’s a shot for everything, and maybe no repeats. The miss-steps you will forgive, because there is another trick up another sleeve. And if it is Don Burgess who deserves credit for the impressively perceptive shooting, then he’s learned a thing or two since Forrest Gump. The show-stopper will no doubt face criticism as gimmicky or meat-headed, but it’s none of those things: the camera hovering over a miniature vodka bottle atop a hotel minibar, waiting with a tragic patience; it’s the most suspenseful thing I’ve seen in a movie this year.

The former moment’s silent sublimity aside, the structure actually recalls Hal Hartley’s talkiest mode. Scene after scene pits our main character in conversation with a cycling, stellar supporting cast. Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, John Goodman and Kelly Reilly are all killing it. Denzel Washington we don’t even need to get into. You should just see the movie. You have some help decoding character psychology as you go, but that doesn’t make it much less fun.

I will say that I found the terrible poster less terrible after twenty minutes watching Flight. It’s a movie about a soul at war, so we have to try to crawl past the eyes.

-Max Berwald

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‘ELENA’/ IMPRESSIONS

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Elena‘s opening shot recalls Silent Light, with its real-time exploration of daybreak. In Elena we aren’t privileged with movement though. We sit still, among the branches of a wintry tree. However, Elena‘s opening does have an element of travel. There’s a slow rack-focus going on, creeping through the branches, so that over time, as more light filters into the world, we are forced to look deeper and deeper, through the branches. A crow eventually comes into sharp focus. This traveling may or may not be analogous to the tracking forward in Silent Light.

Either way, the world wakes up before Elena does.

“Shoot this film in black and white and cast Barbara Stanwyck as Elena, and you’d have a 1940s classic.” (Ebert) Well, not exactly. The tendency towards a Cinema of Contemplation has again changed everything. Here we monitor Elena’s waking with an objective stillness that recalls neorealism, while at the same time completely uprooting it. This is not dead time, but reclaimed time.

What we can say about the neorealism connection in Elena is that the camera’s voice seems forfeited. The aesthetic might be composed but it’s not really admirable, because it’s not mobilized to any particular end except “reporting.” It’s not crazy to ask for more from a film like Elena. It’s already got the Philip Glass score in there, driving at some sort of commentary. Especially given the first shot, there seems to be some sort of longing to communicate-via-camera.

But mostly we just get the variety of wide shots that leave details intentionally obscured, so that it takes some time to figure out who’s thinking what (facially.) And all of this without stretching into the kind of durational-endurance territory necessary for solid contemplation.

Although: as the film boils on, the cinematography does begin to communicate the sterile insulation of wealth. There’s melancholy to the blue grey cleanliness, the shine of everything in Elena’s husband’s home. Especially his car: a too-clean generic thing that successfully tucks its master away from the world, where he can switch manically between classical and bluesy-rock radio.

We can also see here a pleasant commitment (increasingly common) to selecting the focus of a sequence and holding that focus. You can see the tendency, and you want it to work, but there’s no commitment in Elena to this style of commitment. The trouble is this movie is never as radical as its, I’ll admit, difficult-to-pin-down posturing. (You do get the sense the film wants to be radical, although I’m not sure how. It might be Elena’s preoccupations with class that give the game away.)

It has to be said: the commitment to charting routine, and even, more trickily, filming extraordinary events methodically, bit by bit, as if they were a part of quite ordinary routines, begins to pay dividends right away.

The gym provides a place for Elena’s husband to engage artificial problems with simple solutions: the treadmill.

Another admirable thing about Elena:its great breadth. Hiking into the film’s world, you realize how constrained much of contemporary film is in its exploration of a few conventionally interesting cinematic spaces in the lives, or adventures, of its characters. The spaces explored in Elena are ordinary, but the filmmakers handle each with equal attention, so that we see the characters move through gymnasiums and churches and hospitals and homes in scenes that usually consist of normalcy, with a single signature twist of irony, or jolting comment. It’s an effective mechanism for reaching even a jaded viewer. We learn that we don’t know what’s going on. And when things are as complex as the real and ordinary world, they can take 110 minutes (easily) to understand.

The screenplay alternates between quiet mystery and fast-paced narrative gameplay. One fun example of the latter is a father daughter scene, in which a character is colored as suffering from a chronic inability to do anything but hungrily consume. “Drugs and alcohol only on the weekends,” she says, but we learn that she lives off the support of a hardly reluctant father whom she hates. She’s always seen hungrily smoking.

Troublingly, the quest for prettiness seems to have left the low-class, no-income household, well… easy on the eyes at best, and desirably cozy at worst. Since there’s a lot of thematic resonance riding on the contrast between high-income insulated living and low-class needy living, this is actually a big problem.

The film consistently devotes its attention to the coming and going of light, with entire sequences devoted to the switching on and switching off of indoor lights, and the shutting out or letting in of natural light. Curtains and fluorescents.

The low-income family the film tentatively works to build sympathy for, is interestingly unsympathetic. The potbellied dad (Elena’s son) walks about demanding beer and playing video games with his slacker son.

Finally, the most interesting thing about Elena might just be its strangely conservative politics, framing the low-income family as a bunch of moochers, sustained only by the willing violence of the titular character. Were it not for her risk, her amorality, and her charity, they might starve in their own laziness before, the film suggests, they would seek employment. If there’s an irony to this, a more nuanced statement about the paralyzed low-income strata of contemporary Moscow— it’s lost on me. Even the film’s final showpiece arrives as a scene from another film completely.

I didn’t understand this film.

-Max Berwald

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WHY ARE YOU TALKING TO THAT HORSE?/ ‘THE LONE RANGER’ TRAILER

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Why indeed.

Everyone seems to know they’re supposed to be offended by the new Tonto, (Johnny Depp will be playing him in 2013’s The Lone Ranger) but there has been some confusion as to why. This has been further obscured (or placated) by Depp’s claim to Cherokee or Creek Indian ancestry. Let’s assume the actor is Native American.

He’s got work to do.

Tonto’s name has become symbolic of all cinematic servitude. He’s probably the best-known sidekick in media history. So reframing the character as a full-fledged human being, and exercising some agency, will be a must from one perspective.

Not incidentally, it would be hard to have more Native American street cred than the original Tonto: this guy. Jay Silverheels was born Harold Smith, and was full-blooded Mohawk.

The biggest misstep seems to be assigning this Tonto to a fictional tribe– one that looks more eccentric than ambiguous (he wears a dead bird on his head.)

Giving Tonto an actual heritage would have rooted him to history in a sobering way, but as is, he looks more like a signifier of something we, with genocidal gusto, removed from the North American landscape long ago, and then appropriated for convenient fantasy making. Hollywood!

Moving from awkward racial concerns to entertainment potential, this looks like the best we can expect from Gore Verbinski, who has finally grown tired of his increasingly irredeemable Pirates franchise (although the rest of the consuming world still seems energetic: the fourth Pirates film, the first not directed by Verbinski, grossed over a billion dollars.)

The Lone Ranger looks fun, and 100% pure pastiche. It’s a remix film, or is at least advertised as such. The interesting thing about a remix is that, the more disparate and numerous the elements (the more copying/sharing that goes on) the more original the work becomes in its own way (we already mentioned Girl Talk.)

Based on the trailer, in Lone Ranger (2013) we can expect:

1. A remake of various old-timey Lone Ranger media, including but not limited to: a radio show, a serial, a long-running TV series, a film, and numerous lunchboxes.

2. Johnny Depp spiritually reprising his role as the heavily made-up, beaded, hat-preoccupied, and memorably eccentric Captain Jack Sparrow. This character, while explicitly a white pirate, had “gone native” in a special way. This character was itself, a remix of: the historical pirate, the cartoon/cinematic buccaneer, and Keith Richards. So now, if you ask me, there are at least three obvious levels to the remix of the character alone.

3. The genre, as described by Disney: “…a thrilling adventure infused with action and humor, in which the famed masked hero is brought to life through new eyes… taking the audience on a runaway train of epic surprises and humorous friction as the two unlikely heroes must learn to work together and fight against greed and corruption.” Neither an adventure, action film epic, buddy comedy, remake, reboot, or period piece, The Lone Ranger is, of course, a little of everything, and nothing at all. Note the feeble attempt to deal with that trivial obligation: the plot. What are our heroes up against? Greed and corruption, of course! Lock and load. The forces of evil have been dropped in to fill the void. The bullets must fly at something.

4. While we’re on it: the bullet fetish.

5. The traumatic memory montage.

6. The assault on the steam engine. (See The Great Train Robbery, The General, Stagecoach (for a proxy,) Wild West, 3:10 To Yuma, A Bullet For the General, Duck, You Sucker!, The Great Locomotive Chase, Lawrence of Arabia, Wild Wild West and others.)

7. The villainous plot to control an emerging technology (see Trailer #1.)

8. The modern “period-wild-west” aesthetic, which has recently oscillated between There Will Be Blood and Jonah Hex, for two illustratively disparate examples.)

And to get right down to it:

9. Start your trailer with the subjective flashback-montage.

10. End your trailer with something large, heavy, and CGI sliding towards our heroes.

11. Feature something flying in slow-motion, from an outstretched hand to an outstretched hand— probably weapons or munitions.

12. Feature the specter of the feminine, but be careful not to hint at her being anything more than a strange and silent body.

13. Sweeping landscape/ helicopter shots.

14. Star-worshipping close-ups.

If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. And Hollywood won’t consider the remix broken until it stops being highly lucrative. For my part, I’ll probably see it. Although I do ask you: will it be better than this?

-Max Berwald

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5 ESSENTIAL BADASS HOLIDAY MOVIES

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The holidays are a time for laying the warm fuzzies on pretty thick. The carols in every Starbucks, the mall crowds: so over it! All these things and more can make it hard to get into the spirit of the season. Some people feel the need to write off this time of year altogether. Others still like what the holidays have to offer, they just want it a little less saccharine. So here are five badass movie options for when you prefer a shot of Bailey’s in your Swiss Miss.

5. Jingle All The Way

This is the only movie on this list that might be considered a family movie. Jingle All The Way stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sinbad, and Jake Lloyd, a kid better known for having a hand in ruining Anakin Skywalker. But in fact, Jingle All The Way may be the height of Lloyd’s career—he and Schwarzenegger form the perfect disappointing father/disappointed son duo. This movie is at its best when you take a step back from it. The plot can get unusually dark, or amazingly over-the-top, and there are at least four parts where you’ll say, “What the HELL!” Whether it’s Schwarzenegger hurling little people into the air, or falling thousands of feet due to a sputtering jetpack, he proves time and again to be the season’s most badass dad ever.

4. Trading Places

Eddie Murphy teams up with the wonderful Dan Aykroyd in this comedy when a pair of old rich white dudes place a bet on a homeless black man (Murphy) and a wealthy, white investor (Aykroyd) in an attempt to answer the classic question about nature vs. nurture. Murphy, playing the street smart Billy Ray Valentine, isn’t content to be anyone’s pawn, and spouts of regular bits of wisdom at any interval, saying such things like: “You know, it occurs to me that the best way you hurt rich people is by turning them into poor people.” The two learn in their unfortunate and hilarious positions, how a healthy combination of nature and nurture can help you screw over the man that’s screwing you. Trading Places is the perfect revenge film for the Occupy Wall Street crowd, or if you’re just plain sick of getting socks from your rich uncle every Christmas.

3. Lethal Weapon

If you’re looking for a perfect buddy cop action movie this season, Lethal Weapon is it. Martin Riggs, played by Mel Gibson, a suicidal cop, and maybe a tad off the deep end, shoots a smiley face into a target at the gun range before making a smug exit. Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) may be “too old for this shit,” but you’ll find love again in this classic pairing between crazy cop, and hardass cop. This movie is rife with drug busts, kidnapping, gunshots, and even torture. But like any Christmas movie, it makes sure to recall the true meaning of Christmas: a solid friendship, and not killing yourself.

2. The Hebrew Hammer

The Hebrew Hammer is about an orthodox Jewish blaxploitation hero who takes back Hannukah from Santa Claus’ evil son, played by Andy Dick. There’s plenty of politically incorrect humor, and serious ass kicking. And with names like Mohammed Ali Paula Abdul Rahim and Esther Bloomenbergensteinenthal, the film is packed with a ton of humor, including its opening where Santa steps on a kid’s dredel and then gives him the finger, or a scene when Mordechai (Adam Goldberg) talks dirty to his new girlfriend Esther (Judy Greer), with, “I wanna have lots of children by you…I wanna get a stable, good-paying job…I want to move to Long Island, somewhere fancy, but not fancy-schmancy! I want for our children to go to private schools.” Spoiler alert: she loves it, and you will too.

1. Die Hard

Watching Die Hard is like seeing an old friend, and honestly this list wouldn’t be complete without it. And how can anyone get tired of watching Bruce Willis being chased around by a bunch of long-haired German terrorists? Alan Rickman’s performance as the evil mastermind Hans Gruber is excellent as he proves himself to be both remorseless and trigger happy. The film’s characters are made so the audience reacts to them exactly as they’re supposed to so you feel an automatic solidarity with the family and friends you’re watching it with. There’s no better way to put you in the holiday spirit than with C4 and bloodshed.

Yippee-ki-yay, everybody.

– Ari Asercion

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12 YEAR-OLD SAM REVIEWS ‘A WALK TO REMEMBER’

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*from a diary found under my bed at my parents’ house.

11/2002

TODAY SUCKED!! But I saw a really, really good movie that we got at blockbuster after school. I wanted to see it at the movie theater but it was PG-13 and mom wouldn’t let me go, even though I’m practically 13. I’m in 7th grade, duh. Mom is like this about a lot of things. ANYWAY Mia and I rented it and the guy didn’t ask us if we were 13 so we must look old. Mia’s going to get her nose pierced.

But it’s called A Walk to Remember and it has Mandy Moore in it who is so pretty with brown hair instead of blonde. And a much better actress than pop star. She’s probably going to be really big now. So is Shane West, who played her boyfriend/the bad boy. So so handsome.

What I liked about it was that they seemed like normal teens who had problems (except her problems are WAY worse because she DIED) instead of rich teens in LA. It’s a bit unrealistic that two teens would get married but it was sooooo romantic because it really proved how much he loved her. Granted, he knew she was going to die, so getting married wouldn’t have too much of an effect on his future, but it was her dying wish to get married in the same church that her parents got married in. So that’s pretty noble. I also liked the part where they starred in the school musical and Mandy Moore got dolled up, because they made her pretend to be ugly the rest of the movie…which is what I DIDN’T like.

Just because you’re Christian doesn’t mean you can’t be attractive.

-Samantha Wilson (12)

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2011: GOOD OR GREAT YEAR FOR GLOBAL ART HOUSE?

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2011 was a great year for the cinema at large, but especially the art house. There’s been increasing complaint about the polarization of the cinema between the extremely commercial-commodity film and the extremely subsidized art house film (see Michel Ciment’s terrific SFIFF State of the Cinema address from 2003,) but so far, the polarity suits me fine.

For your consideration, 2011 gave to the international art house cinema:

Shame (McQueen) UK

The Skin I Live In (Almodovar) Spain

Certified Copy (Kiarostami) Iran/ Italy

Melancholia (Trier) Denmark/ US

Meek’s Cutoff (Reichardt) US

The Future (July) US

Tabloid (Morris) US

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (Ceylan) Turkey

Elena (Zvyagintsev) Russia

The Turin Horse (Tarr) Hungary

Miss Bala (Naranjo) Mexico

Hors Satan (Dumont) France

House of Pleasures (Bonello) France

The Tree Of Life (Malick) US

Long-takes, the continuing affectation of the Contemporary Cinema of Contemplation, were used to a variety of ends. Although, for most devastating, soul-rending long-takes, the award continues to go to Bela Tarr (this time for The Turin Horse,) they were also weaponized anew for some (somehow) Tarantino-esque existential banter in Ceylan’s incredible Once Upon A Time In Anatolia.

2011 also included new career highs for a number of prominent names/auteurs. Lars von Trier arguably doing his best work in years (and completely reclaiming science fiction as a genre) with the at once operatic, novel-esque and ceaselessly cinematic Melancholia.

The “thriller” got the art house treatment from Gerardo Naranjo, with his breakout political-adventure-suspense ride, Miss Bala (working overtime as a critique of body commerce and a send-up of girl-as-object psychology.) Miss Bala follows a would-be beauty-pageant entrant on a harrowing journey into the underbelly of a prominent drug cartel.

Almodovar and Kiarostami both delivered the perfect ratio of their usual preoccupations to the completely unexpected (The Skin I Live In, and Certified Copy respectively.) The latter: romance as narrative puzzle. The former: colorful saga of lust, revelation, punishment, and… art-design.

Miranda July outdid herself completely with the underrated The Future. The film merrily lampooned mumblecore self-indulgence by holding it tight, and mobilized that particular breed of hyperbolic narcissism to comment on a couple of tragic laptop-loners.

Shame was another home-run for Brit Steve McQueen: part soaringly lyrical take on hyper-modern malaise, part pitch-black character study of a handsome-urban-sex-addict.

Kelly Reichart continued to be the big-fat brain of the American indie scene. Meek’s Cutoff is a hugely effective as the most ascetic travelogue to ever be describable as “ very fun.” It’s also capable of making you very, very thirsty.

And of course, The Tree Of Life won the Palm d’Or. Terrance Malick’s long-awaited epic-of-epics offers the most expensive exploration of metaphysics in memory (although by no stretch the most interesting or the most fun.)

And that’s just the (glorious) tip of the iceberg!

With 2012 drawing to a close this month, we’ll be able to see how the years measure-up.

-Max Berwald

Others:

2011 was also the year of Drive, The Forgiveness of Blood, Contagion, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, A Dangerous Method, the ill-fated but storied Margaret, and the fucking The Color Wheel, all of which borrow (some) from the art house tradition.

And this is all on the European/North American front!

Unless I’m missing something huge, where were the Asian auteurs in 2011? I’m looking at you Lee Chang-dong, Bong Joon-Ho (Korea,) Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Tsai Ming Liang (Taiwan,) Wong Kar Wai (Hong Kong,) Shunji Iwai (Japan,) Jia Zhangke, Wang Xiaoshuai (China,) Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand) to name a few!

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THE GREAT STAR/ CHINATOWN’S (1920’S) ANTI-MOVIE PALACE

The Great Star Theatre

From Yelp:

“Great Star Theater is where i spent a time watching shaw brothers movies.
and whatever else they were showing. (action, drama, adventures, love stories, …looking back shaw movies were so inane but they were the only films around in chitown.

i saw my first kung fu movies here. wang yu’s style was the rave then. there are similiarities  to jackie chan’s kung fu. both looks more than street brawling than kung fu fighting.

the first genuine kung fu movie “The Boxer From Shantung” was shown here. soon after, golden harvest signed bruce lee to a movie contract and produced “The Big Boss”.. .

the rest is kung fu history.”

-(User) Victor G.

“Sipping melon soy and watching Hong Kong epics… priceless.”

-(User) Sketch F.

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The Great Star Theater smells like history. It’s the most you’ll ever love a theater that literally hurts to spend two hours inside. I’m referring here to the seats, their metal inner-workings not nearly mysterious enough.

But in a neighborhood so saturated with tourism and offensively knick-knacky souvenir commerce, the Great Star is also golden. It’s a blast of the authentic.

Contemporary with, and possibly predating, the Castro’s gilded monument to the cinema, the Great Star has sat precisely at the heart of Chinatown since very nearly before there was a Chinatown. You can still find, in Yelp reviews, the painful nostalgia with which locals regard this now barely running movie house. It was once an institution, serving up that old standby: kung fu.

The SF Chronicle assures us (or did in 2010) that the theater has undergone major restoration efforts—but it needs more love. Hopefully the community can rally, and we can get this theatre more densely programmed. As it stands, it sounds like screenings are on and off, augmented by some (welcome) Cantonese opera fare. (As it stands, a schedule for the theater’s events can’t be found online—not a good sign.)

Granted, it’s not the best time to be trying open theaters in San Francisco (or anywhere) as many this year have announced their closing after decades of adventurous programming (The Bridge, The Lumiere) and still others are engaged in a fierce battle to remain open (The Roxie.)

But there’s also, surely, an untapped audience still densely populating the surrounding Chinatown. It’s easy for an outsider to forget but, aside from being a tourist destination, Chinatown is still a thriving community for Chinese Americans. Who’s to say they wouldn’t be thrilled to see some Chinese Cinema on the big screen? I’m happy to join.

I had the fortune to see a film at the Great Star on a painfully beautiful rainy day in Chinatown. The folks from Art House Revival and CAAM (Center for Asian American Media) were friendly and visibly happy to be putting the space to use. The film was Stolen Life by Shaohong Li. You can stream it on Netflix, and I’m told by CAAM that a large number of DVD copies have been donated to the Chinatown branch of the SF Public Library.

About Stolen Life I can’t say much. It’s an interesting entry with context, but kind of a harrowing trudge of a film, and not in a productive way. I won’t recommend it, but it does faithfully document a long series of terrible choices with admirable empathy (as a viewer, I couldn’t match that empathy.) Li Shaohong does have Fifth Generation street cred though.

Let’s get the Great Star back up and running. It has too much potential.

-Max Berwald

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