Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (2007) ✭✭✭ 1/2

In the past decade, Wayne Wang has become a successful big-time Hollywood director and deservedly so. But here he takes a break from the formulaic, mainstream star vehicles of recent history and returns to his roots with the type of picture he does best; a gentle, quiet story of Asian-American culture shock. This family drama of almost entry-level simplicity features Henry O as Mr. Shi, a former communist party functionary, now reduced to plodding pensioner, who makes the journey from China to Spokane, Washington to visit his beautiful and mysterious daughter Yilan (Faye Yu), who some years ago fled Beijing for a new life and a new husband in America.

The husband is long gone, and now Yilan, intensely focused on her work, lives a single life that is far from swingin’. Despite his daughter’s claims to the contrary, the traditionally-minded Shi finds it impossible to believe that an unmarried young woman can live a happy life. He spends much time early in the film furtively rifling through Yilan’s possessions searching for clues as to her true nature, and he feels entirely justified in this intrusion.

After all, in Shi’s mind, as the father he has an undeniable right to know every aspect of her life, regardless of the fact that she is pushing 40. This cultural and generational clash lies at the heart of the film, and it is quite interesting to watch the subtle, yet poignant emotional tug-of war between Shi and Yilan, as seemingly every day he finds a new way to assault her personal boundaries.

Ultimately, Shi’s insistence forces a confrontation that shows us how deception is deeply ingrained in this family’s history. While this synopsis makes the film sound melodramatic, Wang’s special talent for creating believable family dynamics gives the film a low key, naturalistic edge and allows us to focus on the internals of this deeply human story

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Friday, June 13, 2014

Extérieur, nuit (1980)****

One of the great things about Dish Network is the access to international television, particularly their package of French programming. Nestled amid TV5’s comedies and newsmagazines are some real cinematic gems. Yeah, you’ll sit through a few stinkers in the process of unearthing them, but the obscure finds make the effort worthwhile. One such film is Extérieur, nuit, a murky existentialist drama about three aimless, drifting lives in the unromantic Paris of 1980.

Written and directed by Jacques Bral, a low profile filmmaker with an impressive resume – he wrote and produced Street of No Return, Sam Fuller’s last feature in 1989 - Extérieur, nuit combines the thematics of Jules et Jim with the atmospherics of Taxi Driver. A successful studio musician named Leo (Gerard Lanvin) forsakes his comfortable career to return to the rough, smoky jazz clubs of la rive gauche, where gigs and paychecks are uncertain at best. Leo shows up, saxophone and luggage in tow, at the bohemian doorstep of Bony (the impossibly young and dashing Andre Dussollier), an old friend from the hippie days, who now spends most of his time staring into space in a forlorn effort to become a famous novelist.

For a while, the two pals engage in what 30ish bachelors do best - trading sarcastic comments while drinking to oblivion in Paris’ wealth of neighborhood bars. One cold, damp night, Leo staggers into a cab driven by a mysterious woman of glistening liquid eyes and smoldering sensuality (Christine Boisson), who has discovered inventive ways of making chauffeuring profitable. The seductive Cora lives much as an over-age street urchin and her free spirited contours bewitch Leo into tender feelings he neither wants nor understands. But eventually, his passions for Cora are shared by the bemused Bony, and the stage is set for a thorough testing of the concepts of free love and open relationships.

Shot largely at night, the film is a celebration – albeit a brooding, at times painful one – of the possibilities of young adulthood in a time of aggressive sexuality and changing ideas of romance. Cora and Leo enter into a tortured form of courtship, as each party alternately asserts notions of love and independence; confusing terms that had little meaning in a sophisticated world that no longer valued monogomy. When Leo raises the thought of marriage as a way out of their shared misery, both he and Cora bristle at the idea of suburbs and children, and a bright light glares on the preposterousness of their love.

The acting in Extérieur, nuit is consistently wonderful, featuring a cast that has gone on to long and successful careers in the industry. Lanvin, who has become ruggedly handsome in his middle years and now largely plays cops and gangsters, comes off here as a sort of cuddly Robert DeNiro; a young man rife with angst and alienation but ultimately warm and empathetic. Christine Boisson’s notorious first screen appearance was as an oversexed teenager masturbating to a photo of Paul Newman in the moderately kinky classic Emmanuelle, but here she’s all business, honing a sharp edge of sexual and emotional danger that allows the narrative to cut through the lost meanderings of the male protagonists. And there’s the great Andre Dussollier, as our eyes, ears and heart, who shows an early mastery of the subtle physical timing that made him an international star.

Extérieur, nuit has yet to be released in North America on DVD, but that will likely change as the film has undergone a re-discovery in recent years. In 2009, it was prominently featured at the Lyon Film Festival and in 2010 it was released for a theatrical run throughout France. And director Bral is back in the saddle again, currently filming a new drama called Le Noir (Te) Vous Va Si Bien in Paris.

Despite its dark and bittersweet tonality, Extérieur, nuit almost seems like innocent nostalgia today. Hidden within its coarse folds is a world of thoughtful pauses and reflective self-evaluation; a world where people didn’t spend every spare moment fiddling with cell phones and telling Facebook they’d suffered hang nail. It was a world where idle navel gazing over a glass of scotch, neat, was not only tolerated, but encouraged. And following one’s heart - no matter how wrong-headed or dreadful the result - was infinitely more important than following Twitter.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Quickies for June 2014

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010) ✭✭

I saw this a few weeks ago and either I have dementia or it was really blah. Either way, I don’t remember a thing about it. I hope it was the latter. So a man goes to the doctor and the doctor says I have bad news. You have AIDS and Alzheimer's. And the man says says Thank God I don’t have AIDS.

Sport de filles (2011) ✭✭✭1/2

I love Bruno Ganz; such an underrated actor. He and Marina Hands sort of make this work. Sport de filles is the story of behind the scenes tension at a riding school in rural France, where rustic yokels clash with the snooty dressage set. The final act of this equine version of Rocky is set at the Frankfurt Horse Show, which looks like great fun.

Mud (2012) ✭✭✭✭

Jeff Nichols just keeps on quietly making very good movies. He is one of the best American directors working today, and gets absolutely no credit for it. Also, I can now stand Matthew McConaughey. Truly alarming.

The Commitments (1991) ✭✭✭✭1/2

Sir Alan Parker's joyous comedy about a fledgling soul band in Dublin has the right mix of humor and poignant realism. If you’ve ever flailed away with a crappy guitar in the garage, you’ll fully relate.