Monday, May 30, 2011

Little girl lost... little movie bonkers.

(Image: Focus Features and
Brit director Joe Wright is best known for his Oscar-nominated movie of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (2005) and his Oscar-nominated movie of Ian McEwan's Atonement (2007).  But in what feels like a conscious move to avoid being pinned down as a maker of high-minded, awards-bait literary adaptations, he's turned out a truly weird B-movie action-thriller titled Hanna, a modestly-budgeted US-UK-German co-production which I saw on a whim the other night and enjoyed quite a bit.  It's the sort of derivative, smartass genre piece that makes a lot of intelligent people roll their eyes, and I couldn't really blame anyone for not liking it.  But I found its exuberance and willful eccentricity irresistible, with a big help from an engaging central performance.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The other China

A Time to Live, A Time to Die
(Image: Central Motion Pictures Corporation and Lincoln Center)
"Taiwan Stories" might be the most unimaginative title ever for a film series (how about "Straits from the Heart"?  - I kid, I kid!).  But I was still excited about the Film Society of Lincoln Center's long-promised showcase of "classic and contemporary" selections from a cinema that's been pretty neglected in the West (it didn't help that the Taiwanese industry was brought to its knees by imported Hong Kong blockbusters in the early '90s, just as Western appreciation of Chinese-language film was really catching on).  Partly because the planet's oldest civilization spent the 20th century undergoing change at an ears-pinned-back, nose-squashed, eyelids-flapping rate, Chinese-language film is, for me, one of the most fascinating, so any chance to fill gaps a little is cherished.  Below, pontifications upon two of the movies I saw (comments on two older '60s classics to come later in the week).

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Tiptoe through your subconscious fears with me: On the uncanniness of Tiny Tim

It's a little surprising that it's taken this long for it to happen, but a horror filmmaker has finally harnessed the demonic power of Tiny Tim.  Yes, I recently saw Insidious, the sorta-haunted-house sleeper hit from the makers of Saw (which I've managed to avoid to date), director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell.  On the whole, it's far from a great movie, but scary flicks have a way of slipping past one's critical faculties - I still walked out with the rubbery-legged, butterfly-bellied feeling that comes after a prolonged period of adrenaline and tension.  And I slept with a light on.  Shut up.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

"I'd like to see Paris before I die. Philadelphia will do."

The Devil's own: Mae West and W.C. Fields in My Little Chickadee
(Image: Universal Pictures and Hudson Square Bid

I have long intended to make a better acquaintance of the right honorable Mr. William Claude Dukenfield, better known as W.C. Fields.  As a kid, I repeatedly watched a cheap VHS tape of three of his shorts; ever since, I've tried to shoehorn into conversation whenever possible a line from The Golf Specialist, "Bringing a pie to a golf course!  It's like bringing... something or other... somewhere... or other."  (This is not easy to do, I would point out.)  And of course I couldn't help being exposed to the Fields clips and quotes that litter 20th century popular culture.  All of which was more than enough to let me know that he was my kind of guy, at least as a comic persona on the screen and not as someone I actually had to put up with in real life.

Film Forum's recent Fields series confirmed this - although none of the three movies I squeezed in were terrific in their own right, whenever he ambled onto the screen, he zapped them to life like a comedy defibrillator.  He was one of those personalities who was scarcely containable by the constricted structure of his industry - he comes across like an emissary from another world, stopping in to let us know that there are stranger things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in the Production Code Administration's philosophy, while at the same time he's always relatable as a human being.  

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Mad Pigs and Chinamen

(Image: dGenerate Films)

If you had access to many hours of footage shot on the streets of any major city, you could cull from it quite an assortment of weirdos, scuzzbags and bizarre or disturbing incidents.  I doubt, however, that my own lovely berg of NYC would, in any given year, be likely to yield the image of dozens of escaped pigs galloping and strolling around on a highway and disrupting traffic.

That's just one of the many indelible scenes in Huang Weikai's Disorder (2009).  This astonishing experimental documentary/collage piece is the only one of the features I managed to see in the Museum of the Moving Image's recent, all-too-brief series "Tales from the New Chinese Cinema," focused on the wave of independent filmmakers emerging in the People's Republic.  Huang's 58-minute work is distilled from something like 1,000 hours of journalistic and amateur video footage shot in Guangzhou, the southern city that's one of the ground zeros for China's volcanic economic and social upheaval.

If that sounds dry and academic, be assured that the screening was accompanied by almost as much audience gasping as you'd expect in a decent horror movie, and more than a few bone-dry chuckles as well.  Disorder is the unruly, chained-in-the-attic relative of classic "city symphony" collage films like The Man with a Movie Camera or Berlin: Symphony of a Great City.  In her introduction, film scholar and series co-curator Cheng Sim-lim said that the original Chinese title translates roughly as The Present is the Future of the Past, which she interpreted as referring to the way in which the strange or even unthinkable becomes "the new normal" in a rapidly changing world.  No doubt even Chinese viewers would feel like much of the movie comes from another planet, and not one you'd necessarily want to visit (funny enough, I've been considering a side-trip to Guangzhou when I visit Hong Kong this coming fall).

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Mad Dogs and Chinamen

Chow Yun-fat and hosts (Image: Emperor Motion Pictures and Kong-Cast)

I always feel guilty about not attending much of the Tribeca Film Festival, and I always vow that next year it will be different - but there's so much stuff!  I just get overwhelmed and kind of give up, seeing only one or two movies.  The must-see this year that cut through my option-induced paralysis was Let the Bullets Fly, which recently broke the record for China's highest-grossing domestic film ever, and, more to the point, was reputed to be very good and, perhaps even more to the point, marks the now-sadly-rare occasion of a major vehicle for Hong Kong supernova Chow Yun-fat, still quite possibly the coolest man alive.