Category Archives: movies

21st Century Place

Veleur 08/07/20

Paris is a nineteenth-century city, New York a twentieth-century city, Hong Kong a twenty-first-century city.

Picture the movie models of future cities imagined since Fritz Lang’s Metropolis: they are canyons fringed by towers, blocks, and spires. In Bladerunner, the massive industrial places are dank complexes, forever dark and brooding, hemmed in by man-made cliffs. In The Fifth Element, the city is buzzed by traffic, the ground choked in smog and detritus where no one lives. These are three-dimensional places, where people live up as well as out. Likewise the gleaming and clean places of Minority Report and I, Robot.

Paris is street level. From the Pompidou you can see for kilometres, and it’s only five stories high. New York has its famous skyscrapers, but beyond the few buildings, all the action is on the street. These cities spread.

Hong Kong and newer Asian metropolises like Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou climb, embracing the idea of the future city with fervour. The Chinese cities don’t need to: there is plenty of space, but they do.

Flat land gives way to erupted blocks. High density older dwellings like the hutongs give way for neutron dense housing blocks, fitting a small North American town’s worth of people into a footprint the size of a small mall’s parking lot. Massive overpasses fly through the buildings nestled right next to them.

Look up in the new city; it lives over your head.

I am not sure how I feel about all of this. I loved Paris. Human scale (though the Louvre is on a grand scale). Liveable. Central Hong Kong is a place to visit, a wonder of bustle and money, but I was glad to live on Cheung Chau, on a corner only remotely tethered to the financial fjords of Hong Kong. Manhattan was a compromise. Guangzhou encompasses all three centuries, reaches back past the 19th and forward in the 21st. It is a place in transition, which is why it so entrances and frustrates me.


Self-Inflicted Stupidity

As I wrote before, I like stupid action movies. But they must be cohesive, not just as cinema (which takes out Michael Bay) but as a physical and ethical place. This is where Wanted disappoints.

It starts out very well, setting the rules of a superhuman universe, and then introducing our main character, another narrator from Fight Club, whose Tyler Durden super-ego is a leading super assassin. His father was a member of a band of elite killers, an ancient clan of assassins. The targets for this merry band are written in the weft and weave of the fabrics from a magical loom, The Weaver of Fate. In ASCII, like magical punch cards. Like I said, stupid, and unfortunately the movie tries to reach Matrix heights of mumbo-jumbo by having a black leader, Morgan Freeman, speak in a sonorous voice, reciting the history and meaning of the fraternity.

Neglecting the fact that this loom wasn’t smart enough to pick out the names of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or any number of psychopathic dictators, this merry band of highly-tuned killers has kept balance in the world by following its code, killing only those who deserve it. Without that code they are merely hired mercenaries.

So blah blah blah happens.

The director keeps the comic-book style coming, not quite maintaining the heights of the opening sequence, but giving us gravity defying car chases as our meek Clark Kent becomes the assassin who bends bullets. He becomes a hunter who quickly believes that he is following a law far beyond human law—he has become an instrument of fate.

So blah blah blah happens.

Now, I’m fine with all of this, though it is stupider than the Transporter films. What gets me is near the end of the second act where our hero meets his nemesis, a rogue agent who supposedly killed his father in the kick-ass opening. Of course, the agent is his father and it was all a deceit (see, his name is Cross, and his son is another, so that’s a double-cross. Ha!).

The problem, though, is that it all happens on a train stuffed with people. Innocent people, whose names, I doubt, are part of some fantasy rug. They all die as the train is sacrificed for the spectacle. Naturally, of course, the train suddenly seems empty of bodies as it hurtles down, or maybe we are to suppose they all got out.

The problem is that the movie is inconsistent with its morality. It seeks to establish an honourable law (killing the one to protect the many, that lovely, logical, Star Trek code which Kirk just can’t abide) to justify murder, but then calmly forgets it all as the movie slaughters thousands in order to have a cinematic moment.

Like many, it seeks to have its cake and eat it, too. The Matrix films have this problem, as well. Morpheus and the rest want to free humanity, but in their quest to do so any cops or other authorities, and gloriously dispatched. And as we were plainly told, if you die in the Matrix, you really die. Sure, the cops and security guards were working for The Man (I always think of Robert Altman when I see him, which is somehow fitting), but they were actually trying to protect people. It’s not that their killing may not be justified in the Machiavellian sense; it’s that no one gives any thought to it. “Hey, we are killing a lot of people here? Is what we are doing right?”

We get far more discussion over these things on Battlestar Galactica (Apollo and the destruction of the ship, the whole season on the planet with the suicide bombers and all) and, thankfully, The Dark Knight (which I can’t get away from these days it seems).

Stupid movies should never try to be smart. They only end up shooting themselves.

Talky Talkies

The last two books I read were murder mysteries: Death of a Red Heroine, by Qui Xiaolong, set in Shanghai (and GZ!) during the reformist 1990’s; and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon, set in the fictional Jewish state of Sitka, set to revert back to Alaska a la Hong Kong in 1997. Chabon’s book shows the difference between someone who understands and appreciates language and someone who merely writes.

Aside from the fact that Qui (and his editor) lets one of my bugaboos into the book (misuse of ‘comprise’), the language is flaccid, and devoted to the plot. It serves the action and just moves things along. It’s like much popular writing, which is why it’s easy to read: it doesn’t really involve complex ideas or metaphors that demand you pause and consider them. It’s all stock except for the setting, which provides most of the intrigue, and near the end even the mystery tapers off. It’s not a bad book, but I wouldn’t read it again and I am hard pressed to recall even one standout sentence.

Chabon’s writing thrums. Sentences levitate off of the page and circle about your brain. You pause as you think about some of the images, but not too long because you must keep reading. And though the writing certainly rockets the plot forward, the language exists for your pleasure. You read to find out what happened, and just to read some more of the delicious sentences. Chabon doesn’t go to the far end, either, letting the plot and story go to hell for the sake of a perfect sentence. He stays well within the hardboiled genre, with the taut structures and descriptions—though not parsing it down to the piano wire terseness of recent James Ellroy, who seems to have dispensed with whole sentences in The Cold Six Thousand. I can’t recall any exactly right now, but I know that I was stunned probably once per page by Chabon’s writing, and I would pick it up again right away if I didn’t have something else to get to.

The difference is similar to that between The Dark Knight (still fresh in my mind) and, say, any Tarantino film. This is not to say the Dark Knight is badly written, for it isn’t, but there isn’t a line of dialogue that isn’t explicative—not in the Steven Spielberg, talking-head-gives-the-plot mode, but still purposeful and obvious. It’s a hardboiled detective story (Batman is certainly a hard man walking down a hard road in the Chandler sense), but you wouldn’t read the Dark Knight script the way you could read The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep . Tarantino’s dialogue also moves things along—rather nicely in some spots—but it exists on its own, too, which makes it much more like stage drama, even in something like Deathproof. It’s that literariness (for want of a better word) that distinguishes much of film from stage.

On Saturday I watched The History Boys, which is pretty much a filmed play. Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar, which I love, is as well (okay, so it’s a filmed opera, but whenever I can talk about just how fabulous it is, I will) but uses its locations cinematically, whereas Hytner’s The History Boys doesn’t. That’s where a lot of literarily languaged films and TV shows fail: they have the words but they lack the show. But when they succeed, you get things like Tarantino’s movies—come on, they all stand out from crowd from the first syllable; David Mamet’s movies, though American Buffalo screens like a play, which isn’t due to it’s limited location since Fincher’s Panic Room is definitely a movie, but something in the way that the camera and people relate to the space; and great shows like Deadwood, in which foul words tumble like golden dice in a crystal glass; and, just thinking of it now, Serenity.

I love good dialogue, and though a movie certainly doesn’t need any of it—just see Sunrise or The General—words crackling and spitting up rather than being dying embers just add to the joy. Batman’s dialogue smouldered along. It would have been amazing to see such a great cast delivering lines that sparked up the screen.

The Darkest Knight

I came to Hong Kong to see the Dark Knight.

Yes, it’s really good, probably the best comic book movie made, and yes, Ledger is really good as The Joker, but amidst it all the man who is getting least praise is the man who deserves the most–Christopher Nolan. He co-wrote it and he directed it, and it is he who should be lauded.

Nolan has easily also made the darkest, bleakest superhero movie yet, one which actually does plum the depths of the soul.  It’s not the bleakness of Se7en, but it’s close.  The movies are stunningly similar in important ways, not just because of stolid and moral Morgan Freeman.  But where Brad Pitt fails John Doe’s test,  Batman passes the Joker’s, not succumbing to the Joker’s machinations, and the people on the boats pass in sacrificing themselves, which is something Batman does as well. But rousing moments of glory they are not, buried in the dark photography which rivals Khondji’s work on Se7en, and buried in the torment which the tests have brought up.

Watch Nolan’s movies, from Memento on up. They are all about human nature and tests and what we can do. But watch them for more than that. Watch them for how he works with the actors, which is why I think he deserves a lot of the credit for Ledger’s performance.

The performances, all of them, from Carrie-Ann Moss’s in Mememto, to Robin Williams’s in Insomnia, to Hugh Jackman’s in The Prestige, are top notch, and from people not noted for their acting ability. Hell, he even tames Pacino’s Godzilla like scene munching. Nolan knows how to direct his actors and get exactly what he needs.

The peformances are nuanced and subtle and he knows where to put the camera and what lens to use. Watch Ledger walk out of the hospital. A lovely shot that pulls back to a full height mid-shot that shows his socks and shoes and all the akimbo posturing of Ledger’s Joker.  This skill to show us the actor seems to have been forgotten in the race to proclaim Ledger’s performance one for the ages. It is not. It is a great one and a great counterpart to Nicholson’s careening psychotic.

Nolan and Ledger’s Joker is more like the riddler, an enigma like John Doe. He comes in and leaves the movie as a mystery. Unexplained. A force of chaos more than a man, but a chaos of meticulous planning and execution. Of course, we are enthralled with such clever and diaobolical people. We love the criminal mastermind, particularly one which is the true rebel, beholden to no organisation. But we also like the ones who have their own code of laws, their own honour, and the Joker has none of that, just his raging misanthropy, which is why we reject him.

i don’t wish to take anything away from Ledger, who, again, showed us that he was an uncannily subtle actor, and i think even without the make-up he would have been unrecognizable. But I think the movie really worked because it all did and if the rest of the movie hadn’t been as determined as it was, Ledger’s performance would not have worked at all because it would not have had anything to work against. And that falls to Nolan.

I wish I could see it again before I leave. It deserves another watching. This time I could watch Gary Oldman a little more.  It’s hard to play good, upright, stolid and normal and he was awesome.

Watch and Learn – Meta movies

I was watching “Spartan” – David Mamet’s pretty damn good film with less swearing than usual but the the same staccato macho dialogue as usual – when I thought of State and Maine, one of my favourite films about making movies, and so, as often happens with people with a Linnaeus complex, I made up a list of five other movies about making movies which I have seen and liked.

8 1/2.

It’s mandatory. But it’s mandatory because it’s awesome. It’s a bit irksome at times, but there’s a shot of Marcello that goes from him to a pan into memory that is so unbelievably good (or so it seems in my memory) I watched it a few times at least. Marcello is a model of adult coolness—like Brando in The Wild One all grown up and all Euro sophist-i-cat in a suit, who would simply smile at the question, “What are you rebelling against?”, light another cigarette, and say “Ciao, bella” as he walked away.

The Stuntman

I remember my parents going to see this. I remember that because I still couldn’t go because I was too young—just like when they went to Apocalypse Now! Well, thank god it came out on VHS about a decade later. Peter O’Toole is great and whatever happened to Steve Railsback? He’s so good in it. There has to be a good DVD of this floating somewhere around the markets here in the Lair. Anyhow, I remember loving the games that the movie (can’t remember the director’s name at the moment, and I am not going to cheat with IMDB) plays with the “is it the movie or the movie movie?” that Fincher’s The Game (and Mamet’s House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner and Heist and…) does much later. Dig it up.

Beware the Holy Whore

Fassbender’s take on cinema which Metro Cinema showed a long time ago. Apparently he threw the cast together and put them in a slow pressure cooker to see what simmered up. Lots of gristle is what he got. Nasty and brutal, but great. Funny at times, too, but it’s a nasty humour—it is Fassbender, so what do you expect? Wonderfully shot in the hotel, with mirrors and doorways playing a major role.

Viva Erotica

Leslie Cheung is a director of softcore, Cat III films, in Hong Kong, and Shu Qi is an actress. She is in one of her first legit movies, I think, but still gets naked, which is, no doubt, one of the reasons I got this VCD a long time ago (found it in Chinatown in Edmonton). A lot of fun, and Shu Qi is quite good, as is the rest of the cast, and it’s much better than Tsai Ming Liang’s Wayward Cloud, which has one of the nastiest endings I have ever seen.

State and Maine

Not the best but my favourite on the list. The warmest Mamet film, too, I think, but still with dialogue that is unmistakeably his. It’s great to see (or hear) a talky film where the talk is the thing, not just filler to move a plot—a throwback to the lovely screwball comedies that tossed around bon mots like a superball thrown in an acquarium. Everything works perfectly and how can you go wrong with a cast with William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rebecca Pidgin, and Alec Baldwin? Even Sarah Jessica Parker is great in it. I take quotes from this frequently; “You like kids? Never saw the point of ‘em. Me, either”; “And then that happened”; “It’s ludicrous. So’s our electoral system, but we still vote.” [yes, they may not be verbatim quotes, but it’s memory, the beauty of which is it’s inaccuracy].

Addendum ad infinitum

Altman’s The Player could be on here, but I haven’t seen it since it came out, but I remember the opening shot that was great and Richard E. Grant is fabulous. Tom DiCillo’s Lost in Oblivion could make it, too, I am sure, but the same thing goes in that I haven’t seen it in yonks. What happened to DiCillo? Guess it’s time to look at the old IMDB. Maybe it can give me a clue about Railsback, too. Oh, and Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire. And I’m sure that, like all lists, several more things will suddenly pop into my head. Oh, couldn’t John Waters’s Cecil B. Demented be on here, too?

Cinema Paradiso in Florence

Cinema Teatro Odeon Marquee

It is right that in this city of monuments there is one to film. I went to the most beautiful cinema last night. I had seen it noted on my map in the city guide I have and eventually found it. I was expecting, of course, a new multiplex but what I found was a long-lost treasure: a single-screen movie palace, The Odeon. Martin Scorcese’s new doc, Shine a Light, on the Rolling Stones was playing for two nights. It was a film I had wanted to see, but I would have seen anything once I walked in to buy my ticket.

Staircases wound up on my left and right, with a nicely stocked concession to the left, with alcohol and an espresso machine replacing the popcorn. Above the box office a sign showed where the movie was in its schedule:first part, intermission, and second part, plus a bunch of things I couldn’t understand. The matinee was running as I bought a ticket for the 8:10, and I could here the show, but the sound was fantastic: not too punchy on the bass, which is a problem for new theatres. I was excited.

left staircase cinema odeon

It got better after I arrived for the show and went up to the first balcony – yes, there are two balconies. The Princess Theatre was beautiful. Statues, beautiful light fixtures, the great chandelier in the lobby which we cleaned every Christmas by hand. But it was a long narrow house. The Castro in San Francisco, where I saw all five hours of von Trier’s Kingdom Part II on my honeymoon – it’s okay, she worked at the Princess and was/is a cinephile – was immense, also with a grand chandelier, and a pipe organ. But they pale compared to the Cinema Teatro Odeon in Florence.

I almost dropped to my knees and prayed to Godard when I saw this place.

cinema odeon theatre plus dome

It’s not bigger than the Castro, but it’s done like an old opera house. It is a theatre that you see in photos of original movie palaces or in Singing in the Rain. It has sitting booths on the third balcony. It has carved figures lining the balcony’s border. It has another plaster at the back below the projection booth (running dual cinemacchinicas on an automated changeoever, if the control display in the lobby is accurate. Kudos to the projectionist who made up the film – not a splice mark). The seats are wood and comfortable, down up in incredibly tasteful gold fabric. But it has this ceiling. A faux stained glass dome that fades down with the lights.

cinema odeon back wall

From what I can gather though, it’s a modern theatre – certainly the projection and sound is. There is nothing like a big house for getting good sound. The new places, with their stadium seating to pack the most people in, wallop you with their sound – 15 000 watts I think was the figure for some of the new theatres the chain I worked for was building. A subwoofer that kicks you in the chest. Loud, but the sound is just a wall. In a big house it bathes you and lets you hear everything without beating you about the ears. I could hear individual claps in the mix last night and I thought they were coming from the audience in the theatre, not the one in the movie. The Paramount in Edmonton, which I also managed for a while, was like that, too, when it was in its heyday, when I saw Aliens. I nearly screamed when the THX logo came up the first time, those long years ago. Magic. Sound is always important in a movie – silence is it’s absence which you notice – and what better way to test it than by a modern concert film with unbelieviable sound.

Scorcese is perfect to do the Rolling Stones film. He likes their music. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of it and blues, which probably made the backstage discussion with the Stones a hell of a lot of fun (read his book on the Blues and realize that the Stones are one of the main reasons that we listen to the Blues now). He made a great concert film with The Band called The Last Waltz, which is fantastic. And he is an awesome filmmaker.

It is a film that rivals, Stop Making Sense, the Talking Heads concert film that rocked many a night at the Princess Theatre. Scorcese takes an opposite tack from Demme, using a boatload of uber-tech, including the anathema to all good concert stuff, the moving jib, whose nauseous sweep has doomed all concert footage because it’s deployed by hacks who think that it’s cool. You can see all the mechanics during the show, and it’s one of the amazing things about it: you always know you are watching a concert. And it’s a great document of the Stones, who have been the subjects of two great documentaries in the past: the Maysle’s landmark Gimme Shelter, about the tour that ended with Altamont park; and Robert Frank’s Cocksucker Blues, which I wrote about before (for those who don’t want to look it up, it’s a little scene film the Stones commissioned and own, but don’t let out and you must usually see it on a bootleg, which I did, on a bad copy from a bad copy, which is ideal for such a creation as this). But this is different.

Both the Maysles and the Frank films lack something: joy. What you get in those films is work. And, in Frank’s film, the boredom of being the Rolling Stones (the becoming of which you can see has happened in the interim between the two films). Here, in modern film stock, not grainy 16mm, – 16mm dragged over glass, through nails, and finally coated in grease – you see that joy. In several shots you see Keith close his eyes and ecstasy comes over that most wizened face and it’s beautiful. You can then see why he turned to drugs: they fill the void between those pure moments. It’s must be why blues greats turned to drink and drugs, too (or God). Our reality is harsh in the pale light off of the stage.

They are all old men. Fathers and grandfathers. They have seen much and they show it, except for the always stoic Charlie Watts who keeps it all anchored. All the skin sags, and Mick is now old man thin. Keith has his gargoyle smile. Ron has these forearms held together by veins. Charlie seems the same. But they rock. Mick bounces around and vamps for the whole show, but for a break where Keef gets to croon a few (how I wish he had sung Happy, which is one of my favourites, and which I would have cried from joy at hearing). They do shine for the whole show. Plus you get Jack White and the awesome Buddy Guy, whose voice and it’s big howling bass dwarfs Mick’s, and whose guitar playing rips through Keith’s and Ron’s in feeling and energy (well, he did influence Hendrix for a reason). Christina Aguilera is passable and she does have a great voice but she does that yelping Mariah Cary stuff a little much.

I have resisted going to a Stones concert. Partly because they are huge affairs (unless you are one of the lucky ones who gets to see them in tiny halls) and I don’t like arena rock. The Beacon Theatre helps, I am sure, restrict the Stones, and the rock staging is kept to a minimum. It’s Scorcese, his DP Robert Richardson, and the editor (as well as the great camera guys), who keep it tight and flowing. It never wavers and it never gets too big for too long. You are always up close with the band. You see fingers pressing strings into weathered fretboards. You see everybody interact like a band which has played together this long can do – unconsciously. I never found myself saying, “Geez, I wish they would cut to,,,” It made me sad I haven’t seen them live, but I doubt I would have seen the elation I got to see in the movie.

Temptations of Monks

There are things you discover about yourself not in your dreams but in movies. In 1979, I think it was a Wednesday in December, I discovered something as I watched Star Trek: The Movie: I have a thing for bald women. Persis Khambatta was unbelievably sexy with her shining globe and was perhaps the reason I still like the damn movie.

The desire lay dormant for a long time because back then high school wasn’t the place where you worked out all your fetishes. But when I saw Alien III, Sigourney and her Rene Falconetti ‘do had me squirming in my seat with desire to run my hands all over her stubbly skull. That was the moment I knew something was up. The high point of the movie fascination was in Clara Law’s Temptation of a Monk, in which gorgeous Joan Chen has her head shaved with a straight razor (my memory may be mixed in with fantasy because the photos I have seen don’t agree with my image of her topless).

Taipei, with it’s wealth of shaved pate monks strolling about was terribly distracting, especially in winter when they would wear these cute little toques that reminded me of these egg cups we had when I was kid that came with little knit hats (I just wanted to pull the hats off and kiss the heads).

This isn’t some kind of compulsion which drives me to wallpaper my rooms with photos, or endlessly Google “shaved women” (you get something different. Which reminds me of one of the greatest ‘men’s magazine’ titles ever, Shaved Snizz), or walk around with a pair of sheep shears and a few hundred dollars in my pocket looking for women willing to part with their locks, or hang around the numerous salons here with my face pressed up against the glass with my camera recording the snip snip progress inside for me to take home and watch on my flat screen TV. I don’t have a of “Best-of: mixvid sitting in a secret place on my computer. That’d be crazy. Nor have I seen GI Jane (but I must say that Demi Moore looks hot as a baldy, and a bald woman in uniform doing push-ups kinda drives me crazy), and Britney Speers shaving her head just made me cringe.

Now, I am not sure why all of this is, and I don’t really want to delve too deep. Perhaps it’s a desire for strong women, or perhaps it’s really a sublimated desire for Bruce Willis, which would explain both the Demi Moore thing and the fact that Die Hard is a favourite movie, even if that was pre-shaved-Bruce days. Harmless proclivities shouldn’t be worried over too much. If you like licking feet, good for you. Find someone who likes having a sole saliva session, have at it, and don’t worry about it too much.