Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Big Dysfunctional 2009 Movie Roundup

My efforts to compile a year-end list were a failure. I decided to look over some numbers. Of the 10 biggest pictures this year, I would only consider seeing 3: Up, Avater, Potter 6 1/2. Of those 3, only one was a must for me (Up). And I still missed all of them.

Even more oddly, through one problem or another, missed most of the movies I really looked forward to this year: Let the Right One In, District 9, Inglorious Basterds, The End of the Line, Drag Me to Hell, Food Inc., Moon, The Brothers Bloom... Bad luck or coordination really sabotaged my movie-going this year. I was in a movie theater less than 20 times for all of 2009. But there are still many things to say, so let's sort out what we do have, ok?

Best New Release (that I actually saw) Coraline. Neil Gaiman's brilliant writing is paired with excellent effects work for a thoroughly-enjoyable fairy tale full of laughter and tension. [this happened before with Mirrormask, but Coraline was better] See my review.

Best Out-of-the-Blue Release Cooking History. It's been ages since I've seen a picture with an actual thesis. This movie features interviews with cooks from various European armies (e.g., Russia, Bosnia, Hungary, France). Among the topics: questions of pride in helping the war effort, guilt over Old World colonialism, moral blindspots, and racism/nationalism. Filmed with more than a bit of humor and style, it was very thought-provoking. Also, the big theater at the Museum of Natural History looks like a place to watch opera. I was lucky to have seen this.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

"The Lives of Others": A German peeping tom who isn't perverse.

"The Lives of Others," released in 2006, stole the best foreign film award from "Pan's Labyrinth." Actually, "stole" is wrong - it was "given" the award over "PL," because the Academy isn't nearly as hip as they try to seem.

This Summer, Ben Kingsley will listen to you screwing. "TLOO" is an excellent film. It's acted perfectly, featuring compelling characters, moments, and dialogue; it's beautifully shot, and has a real dearth of flaws. Nothing in this great human drama is diminished because it's in German, that unprettiest of languages. It just wasn't so amazing or so new that it beat Guillermo Del Toro's contribution to "perfect cinema;" nor was "TLoO" a more thoughtful film. I digress.

"The Lives of Others" is about the final spell in the Cold War, and it takes place in the hyper-absurd town of East Germany. An exemplary member of the Stasi is assigned to spy on an artistic couple - only because a superior wants the wife. Having bugged the place, he listens to the struggles, thoughts, and emotions of two people in love. Before long, this meticulous government stooge is captivated by what filters through his headset.

This fine picture is well worth watching. Many films center on one emotion, in relationships and life, as if one feeling predominates a whole experience. Yet here, there is truly effective humor - subtitles or not - even though laughter is hardly the flick's defining sentiment. A serious relationship, and the cascade of feelings involved, is handled deftly. Impressively, it approaches several serious topics without being ham-fisted, shrill, or excessively judgmental.

My favorite aspect is the apparent(?) lead: Wiesler, the Stasi spook. He's sort of a German Ben Kingsley, and he approaches this role with a commitment to being contained. This character, then, neatly matches the themes and style of "TLOO." Like the DDR, he's listening where he shouldn't - but he has compassion.

Monday, December 7, 2009

"The Killer" - John Woo at his height

Oh, John Woo... Western audiences just don't get it. Sure, "Broken Arrow" and "Face/Off" have their fans (myself among them), but most never heard of "Once a Thief," "Hard Boiled," or "A Better Tomorrow." Like Jackie Chan and Jet Li after him, the West didn't know what to do with JW. Hollywood only knew his huge rep, and his strong box office results. Thus, the US got "Hard Target," "Paycheck," "Windtalkers," and "MI:2:the annoying nonsense."

We're talking about an auteur on par with anybody you can name - even if Woo is just an action director. He was reduced to some pricey movies marketed as "Cruise's/Cage's/Affleck's next hit," or (sigh) "Jean Claude's Van Damme's next hit." None of these financial/critical flops were hailed as "John Woo's next film." Watch this, and you'll know who the real star was.

In the end, the Hollywood big-wigs had no more sense than auto-exec fools who just kept manufacturing SUVs. Those dummies fired factory workers when an over-exposed product couldn't keep over-performing with consumers. Likewise, Hollywood gets good people to work on bad projects, then lays the blame on the wrong factors...

So let us look at "The Killer," and a foreign master at the peak of his powers. John Woo was a man operating in the UK's Hong Kong, in the versatile and competitive HK film market. This unique field allowed many artists to flourish and focus on some of the cinematic basics that can largely die a quiet death within the American film industry.