This past weekend I got together with my friend Tim for the second in what is going to be an ongoing series of weekends for us to get together and spend as much time as we can stay awake watching movies.
This time, each of us programmed a day of screenings (though that plan went a little bit awry early on, as we burned through a few of my choices on Friday night, forcing me to rejig the next day quite substantially). For my day I didn't initially have a theme in mind, but what it ended up becoming was a series of films that helped make me the kind of movie fan I am (yes, there were teen movies and exploitation classics).
Here are the films we watched over the weekend, Tim's picks (most of which are in the next post) will be Italicised. Please note, grades here are mine.
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
Dir: Mamoru Hosoda
This isn't my favourite of Hosoda's films, but I picked it because Tim isn't a huge anime fan, and it's a very accessible film that provides a great intro to one of the most interesting directors, not just in anime, but in world cinema right now. Like most of Hosoda's films, it weds a big sci-fi concept to a small, very human, very relateable, story. The animation is beautiful, from the gorgeously painted backgrounds to the often subtle and nuanced character animation. This allows Hosoda to draw a lot of emotion from the film's quietest moments; Makoto on the back of Chiaki's bike, or standing alone as he turns to leave. The slow shift of the film's tone, from comic and carefree to something much more melancholic, works well and is something Hosoda would refine in Summer Wars and his masterpiece, Wolf Children, but I stand by this pick as a great intro to one of the most consistently interesting filmmakers around.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
Dir: Timur Bekmambetov
Even as a fan of silly exploitation films, and a big fan - as all right thinking people are - of Mary Elizabeth Winstead (who plays Mary Todd), I had never had any interest in seeing Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and I'm disappointed to say that my instincts were right. The knowingly silly title suggests a tongue in cheek tone that the film largely fails to deliver on. For all its big dumb bits of action (a vampire flinging a horse at Lincoln, for example) the film is surprisingly little fun. Benjamin Walker, as Lincoln and Dominic Cooper as his mentor both play things totally straight, but without a script that is sufficiently funny to play off against that choice. Perhaps it would work better for audiences who know more detail about Lincoln, as I understand there are many nods to his actual speeches, but they fell flat for me, coming at the film with little more than basic historical context. Timur Bekmambetov injects little energy into the film, and the ropey CGI keeps the action scenes from being especially involving. Disappointingly, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter isn't even bad enough to be fun by accident. Instead it sits there, surprisingly inert, marooned in the two star wasteland of the utterly forgettable.
Dir: Prachya Pinkaew
In some senses, Chocolate is two movies. One is a bad gangster movie, with an outrageously hammy bad guy and some pretty dreadful writing and acting surrounding him. Happily, the other may be the best martial arts film of the past ten years. Director Prachya Pinkaew clearly knows what he has in Yanin Vismitananda, in English she's often billed as Jeeja Yanin, seemingly positioning her as a female Tony Jaa, but Yanin is much more interesting; she has all the skill of the Ong Bak star, but also charisma and at least some acting talent, both qualities that Jaa notably lacks. The writing of Yanin's character; an autistic girl who learns martial arts by watching, is simplistic, but she brings at least some level of realism to her performance. However, this film is ultimately all about the action, and on that level it is near peerless. The variety of settings, styles and moves is stunning (though Yanin does have certain signature manoeuvres) and every single fight is packed with jaw dropping moments. The editing is also masterful, giving the fights flow and pace, while always keeping the geography of the sequences clear. Like Jackie Chan and other martial arts directors of the classic era, Pinkaew sometimes uses slow motion or shows a stunt a second time, but if anything he does it too little, there are many moves you'll want to rewind, once you have picked your jaw up off the floor. Chocolate has its flaws, but on its own terms, within its genre, it is little short of a masterpiece.
Dir: Jackie Chan
When I became aware that Tim had only ever seen Jackie Chan through his US made movies, it became clear that this had to be rectified as soon as possible. But where to begin? Should I start with The Young Master, his first great film as a director, or perhaps I should begin with Police Story, the film that is closest (but also infinitely superior) to his American work. Maybe I should kick off with Drunken Master 2, which may be his last truly great film. I settled on Project A for a few reasons. First it shows all of Jackie's colours; his comedy, his stunt work, his martial arts and his directorial work, all at or near the height of their estimable powers. It also provides showcases for two other major figures: Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao. It has some of the best stunt work of Jackie's career (the clock tower fall), alongside some inspired sequences that pay loving homage to silent comedy (the bike chase; hugely funny and brilliantly choreographed, shot and edited). I didn't pick this, however, as an example of Jackie's very best work, and Project A does have its issues; it leans hard on one's tolerance of slapstick, and the plot is both thin and poorly paced (main villain Dick Wei first appears a full 64 minutes in). I'm hoping that Tim found enough here to want to dig a bit further into what I think is a hugely rewarding catalogue of films.
The Sure Thing
Dir: Rob Reiner
The 80's, as I'm discovering more and more, were quite the boom time for teen movies. A lot of people made their careers based on these films and of them, few exhibited better taste than John Cusack. He was in acknowledged classics like Say Anything and Stand By Me and underrated classics like Better Off Dead and this movie, Rob Reiner's stopgap between This Is Spinal Tap and The Princess Bride. The Sure Thing is cut from old cloth; in form it's basically It Happened One Night with teenagers. That's a mixed blessing for any film, the structure is solid, but if you're invoking memories of a film that good you had best have the script and the cast to back it up. The Sure Thing does. The side characters are colourful (it's especially worth mentioning Tim Robbins as "Gary Cooper, but not the Gary Cooper that's dead"), but this is Cusack and Zuniga's film all the way.
Chemistry is the key to any romantic comedy, and here it works perfectly. Cusack and Daphne Zuniga spark off each other beautifully, she initially annoyed by the boorish aspects of his character, he clearly attracted but just as often frustrated by her often uptight nature. The comedy comes from the dialogue and the characters, but often what sells it is the delivery. Cusack is fantastic here, putting a creative spin on many of his lines, often walking right up to the line of overplaying, but never quite crossing it. The end of the story is obvious from the off, but the actors make it play, and this is where Zuniga is especially effective; she lets Alison evolve without making her a completely different character and she's never a pushover. In another movie Gib and Alison would get together much faster, but here the screenplay and performances allow this central relationship to gradually, credibly, thaw as time goes on, creating a central couple you both believe in and root for.
The Dreamlife of Angels
Dir: Erick Zonca
The Dreamlife of Angels is an important film for me, one of the first to really pique my interest in foreign film, in a way it's one of the films that marks my growing up as a film fan. I hadn't seen it for a few years, and it had slipped a little in my mind last time I watched it. Still, I wanted to introduce Tim to it, if only for the fantastic central performances by Elodie Bouchez and Natacha Regnier, who shared the Best Actress prize at Cannes. For my money, the film's first half is its best passage. At this stage it's unconcerned with plot, instead just allowing us to spend time with these two young women, Isa (Bouchez) and Marie (Regnier) who have fallen into sharing a flat together. As the film runs on, plots begin to develop. Isa's growing attachment to the comatose girl whose flat she and Marie are living in and looking after is affecting, but Marie's relationship with a club promoter (Gregoire Colin) who - surprise - turns out to be an asshole is more by the numbers. Things might work better if director Zonca and his collaborator Virginie Wagon didn't let Marie drift out of focus in the last half hour, but as it is the ending doesn't feel earned.
Whatever the film's faults though, they are papered over by the remarkably nuanced performances of Bouchez and, perhaps especially, Regnier, who plays a depressed character with real understanding, understanding that Marie herself doesn't seem to have. It's a crying shame that Zonca hasn't directed more. Following Le Petit Soldat the year after Dreamlife, it took him 9 years to make another film and all he's done since Julia is a French TV movie. We need him back.
Dir: Konstantin Yershov/Georgi Kropachyov
Viy is definitely the most uneven of the films I elected to show Tim. I enjoy its increasingly otherworldly feel, but the pacing and the tone are both variable at best. What I've always liked about this film though, and about cinema as a whole, is the window it gives us into other cultures and this is perhaps especially true of something like Viy, which has a folk horror feel to it; the air of a story told round campfires or before bedtime to scare kids.
The middle part of the film is frustrating, after setting the pieces with a creepy sequence of seminarian Khoma being tormented by a witch and then beating her almost to death, refraining from a lethal blow only when she turns into a beautiful young woman before his eyes, it takes a long time in reaching the village where the film's third act will take place. I do love that third act though. It vacillates weirdly between comedy and horror, as Khoma is forced by the villagers to pray over the now dead young woman that he beat, but there is a sense of him being trapped, at least for these three nights, in a space of increasingly surreal horror.
This is something that starts early on, thanks in part to the terrible visual effects which, almost certainly by accident, give a feeling of the witch truly separating Khoma from the real world. In the scenes inside the church we see this again as, increasingly, the world the witch inhabits encroaches on the church, threatening to overwhelm Khoma, despite the protective circle he chalks on the floor each night. The final night of prayer brings everything to a head, as hell itself seems to rise up into the church and all manner of beasts, all beautifully designed, menace Khoma. Viy is clunky and dated and it doesn't always knit together satisfyingly, but it has startlingly good moments and is never less than weirdly engaging.
Dir: Lucio Fulci
The point of this weekend, to my mind, wasn't to show films I think of as the greatest of their kind, but the more I see The Beyond, the worthier it seems of a very high placing on that list. Lucio Fulci, like many of the directors whose work ended up on the video nasties list, has been unfairly underestimated as a filmmaker for a long time and the recent blu ray editions of his work have finally started to show him for the great craftsman he was capable of being. The Beyond is, of those I've seen, easily Fulci's best looking film and the one that uses its look to most effectively conjure atmosphere. I get the sense that as soon as Joe the plumber makes hole in the wall of the hotel owned by Liza (Catriona MacColl), the gate of hell that it sits on is opened a crack and, as the film runs on, more and more of that hell spills out, turning Liza's world into a surreal nightmare space. Fulci shows us this with sequences of increasing violence and a setting that is ever more shrouded in mist, but sometimes it's his simplest devices that are most striking.
After Joe is killed there is a brilliant cut, to a mile long bridge with Emily, a beautiful young blind woman, standing in the middle of the empty expanse of road, it immediately suggests something is off, while keeping the film in the real world. All of Emily's scenes have an otherworldly feel, as if they are sucking you, Liza and the film further into the open gate of hell. The script isn't always brilliant, but Fulci's imagery knits the film together well enough that it doesn't matter that much and the cast all do good work with what they have here, especially stars Catriona MacColl and David Warbeck.
However, aside from Fulci, the true star of this film is make up effects wizard Gianetto DiRossi, whose zombies and splattery effects are as inventive and brilliant looking as ever. Yes, the spider scene has some awful puppets, but that is more than cancelled out by the terrifyingly visceral dog attack and THE best exploding head in cinema. Just look at it. With its growing and overwhelming atmosphere and truly nightmarish and memorable ending, The Beyond easily stands as one of the great zombie films. I still think it's the ideal intro for someone who is yet to discover what a great director Lucio Fulci was at his best.
Flesh + Blood
Dir: Paul Verhoeven
From a couple of films that spend a good part of their running time making the world slip between real and surreal, I went to something that feels so down and dirty that you can almost smell it. That wasn't why I picked this though, Tim and I are both massive fans of Jennifer Jason Leigh and I had written about this film for him at Verite, but he had somehow never seen it. That needed rectifying. Beyond the fact of how much visceral fun it (largely) is I admire Flesh and Blood for much the same reason I have always admired it and have always admired most of Paul Verhoeven's films; while dealing gleefully in the extremes of exploitation cinema, it still throws some thoughtful - if broad - content at you. Though the film's current title suits it perfectly, I still think the original title, God's Own Butchers, fits even better, folding the film's commentary on the easily exploitable nature of faith into the titlle, while retaining the implied brutality.
As a Jennifer Jason Leigh fan this is a mixed bag. Her accent, which initially sounds like it's trying to be British, but also has some scenes where it slips into something vaguely Eastern European, is dreadful, but her physical performance is riveting. Leigh's character is captured by Hauer and his vicious band of mercenaries, but she is immediately calculating, forging a connection with Hauer even during a rape scene, in order to spare herself further pain. This calculation is going on in everything she does thereafter; it's in expressions, in the way she holds herself, everything. The rest of the cast is packed with great character actors who are all having a ball. Aside from Hauer - who is brilliant in his last role for Verhoeven - the most notable are Susan Tyrell and Ronald Lacey as an especially corrupt priest.
I love the film's desgin, the photography by Jan DeBont, the sense of place and period he and Verhoeven give the film. Flesh + Blood may not be one of Verhoeven's several truly great films, but it comes damn close to being.