After a few Hollywood bombs, Chinese director John Woo returns to his homeland to make an epic. Elsewhere, Broken Embraces disappoints, while Planet 51 is definitely not out of this world.
Sadly, I can’t advise you on whether or not you should see New Moon or The Blind Side – although my hunch is that you’ve probably made up your mind about those two movies already. So instead, let me steer you toward a few under-the-radar indie releases – and also allow me to rant a bit about Planet 51.
Red Cliff (Magnolia Pictures)
At first, you fear that you know how the story will play out – not the one on the screen, but the one about the man making it. Chinese director John Woo makes some spectacularly giddy action films (like The Killer), gets co-opted by Hollywood, makes one really great film (Face/Off), but largely struggles to acclimate. Then he returns home and sires a lavish, serious, thoughtful period piece that’s both a creative rebirth and a demonstration of the artist within the action filmmaker. Thankfully, Red Cliff isn’t that. It’s lavish and a creative rebirth, to be sure, but Woo isn’t trying to make a “mature” epic – if anything, Red Cliff is as giddy and borderline-ridiculous as his best films were from 20 years ago.
Woo’s original Red Cliff was a two-film, five-hour epic, but he’s trimmed it down to a manageable 148 minutes for its U.S. release. I haven’t seen the original, but I gather that what was cut out is character development concerning the principal participants of the war the film documents, which was a third-century battle between rival Chinese warlords. Even in this truncated version, though, we get enough of the characters’ personalities to have a respectable amount of rooting interest in the proceedings.
What Woo has been sure to leave in are the battle scenes, which are large-scale spectacles that are unlike anything we’ve seen in this country since Master and Commander or Braveheart. And what’s missing, I’m happy to say, is any sense of grand self-importance. Read Chinese history and you’ll get a sense of this battle’s significance, but for Woo it’s just an excuse for sword fights, arrows flying in every direction, huge warships, and glorious slow-motion shots of men doing heroic things.
Scholars will no doubt pick this movie apart, but Red Cliff isn’t about historical accuracy: It’s about the good guys being outnumbered and coming up with ingenious plans to defeat their seemingly invincible foes. Characters and dialogue are as deep as a thimble, but Woo’s gift to the world isn’t nuance – it’s overkill. And after years of wandering through the Hollywood desert looking for something that fit his distinct skill set, he’s seized upon an old-fashioned war epic that he honors while style instilling it with his own personality. Loopy and dopey but oddly stirring, Red Cliff reminded me what it was like to discover his Hong Kong films years ago. He doesn’t make films, he makes movies – and Red Cliff is one pretty darn good movie.
La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet (Zipporah Films)
Documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet offers no narration or onscreen text to help us identify the participants of the titular ballet company that’s the subject of this film. Like Robert Altman, Wiseman isn’t worried about “losing” his audience by not setting everything up in a tidy manner at the outset – he knows that we’re adults and we’ll piece together the details as we watch.
La Danse spends a few months with the French dance company as they rehearse several ballets, and Wiseman is largely concerned with showing how this cloistered community operates. We see the choreographers, the dancers, the artistic director, the cafeteria workers, the seamstresses, the office employees and the cleaning crew. But we mostly see the choreographers and dancers as they rehearse – often in long, unbroken shots – and then we later see the finished productions. But just as he eschews other contemporary documentary niceties, Wiseman doesn’t want to construct a typical “let’s put on a show” narrative out of his footage – this isn’t Every Little Step. Instead, we get a sense that the reality of a ballet company is one of constant work – sometimes there’s a finished product, but even then it only leads to more rehearsals and more work. La Danse isn’t about celebrating some grand-finale triumph but, rather, the day-in-day-out struggle to create something transcendent.
Because Wiseman stays out of the way, La Danse is meant to be immersive and open-ended, and the film achieves both missions. Watching it, I was reminded why reality television once seemed appealing – people on the screen go about their lives and we get to observe it all from a distance. At its best, that’s what La Danse provides in an unfiltered form: a study of artists in their natural habitat. But Wiseman’s refusal to draw any conclusions does have limitations. The excellence of the dancing, both in rehearsals and on stage, is indisputable, but La Danse could almost be accused of providing too much excellence – after a while, the mastery can dip into monotony. And even though Wiseman shows moments of the behind-the-scenes business decisions that go into keeping a company financially afloat, the film’s general lack of tension, especially considering its 158-minute running time, can make La Danse elegant but not deeply compelling. Put another way, I did flash back to Altman’s The Company, which blended fiction with exquisite dancing to create a profound statement on creativity, sacrifice and the artistic community. By comparison, La Danse is sweeping and elegant but a little frictionless, completely enjoyable but rarely revelatory.
Broken Embraces (Sony Pictures Classics)
It’s not that Pedro Almodovar can’t do noir. Of his recent films, Bad Education is my favorite, and that little cookie full of arsenic was filled with atmosphere and anxiety. But Broken Embraces, his latest, ends up a little too movie-about-the-movies for my taste. It’s an easy film to like, but to love it you have to have spent your entire life learning everything about the world from other films.
Broken Embraces tells the story, mostly in flashback, about the sad existence of Mateo Blanco (Lluis Homar), a blind writer who changed his name to Harry Caine because … well, we’ll find out the particulars as our movie unfolds. Suffice it to say that it has something to do with the making of a film and the casting of a beautiful aspiring actress named Lena (Penelope Cruz). There’s also a nerdy, creepy kid and a rich old man who wants Lena for himself. And a car accident.
Almodovar’s films always have an erratic quality for me – one minute they’re serious, one minute they’re campy – but when he’s in complete control, that fluidity just gives them the stuff of real life. But when the balance is a bit off – and it is with Broken Embraces – then you’re trapped in the realm of pastiche, of ideas cobbled together from other sources. Of course, this is still Almodovar that we’re talking about, so the pastiche is pretty arresting, but his story’s flaws keep getting in the way. The central love story has a luscious sensuality to it but never feels all that real, and the flashback structure doesn’t have much of a payoff. Plus, this is one of those films that almost needs a set of footnotes running across the bottom of the screen so that you can keep up with all the cinematic referencing going on. Still, no one else photographs Cruz so beautifully – but note that when Almodovar makes her gorgeous, he doesn’t make her an empty vessel at the same time. If anything, she’s more fun to watch than the movie around her is – that’s not the first time that’s happened in a noir, but those tend not to be the ones we remember.
Planet 51 (TriStar Pictures)
As we reach the end of the year, what becomes clear is that 2009’s crop of animated films have given us a lot to savor. Monsters vs. Aliens, Ponyo, Up, A Christmas Carol, Coraline – each has its supporters, and each demonstrates a certain furthering of the art form, even if each has its own set of problems. In comparison, Planet 51 feels even more inadequate. If anything, it’s an advertisement against kids’ movies – maybe even having children altogether. This is the sort of film best utilized as a way to keep little brats occupied while the grownups make dinner, do some shopping or just savor a few moments to themselves. Sure, Planet 51 is harmless and unobjectionable. But at a time when so many other animated films are actively pushing, this one just bottom-feeds.
It’s naïve to think otherwise, but Planet 51 could have been a clever, even subversive little movie. A planet of green aliens living an existence comparable to America’s staid 1950s is invaded by Chuck Baker (voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), a lone American astronaut who thought he was landing on an uninhabited world. This misunderstanding leads to the aliens wanting to capture the scary outsider, while Chuck is annoyed that they don’t understand that he’s the normal guy and that they’re the weirdoes. But any attempts at satirizing American foreign policy (or, hell, even tweaking the nose of xenophobes) go by the wayside – this is yet another movie aimed at young people that’s all about hyperactive pop-culture referencing. In fact, about the only cultural reference you won’t find in Planet 51 is the sort of thing that’s on the front page of the newspaper.
If it seems like I’m being terribly harsh to a simple kids’ film, consider that even on its own modest terms it fails. Johnson has to be one of the most appealing up-and-coming mainstream comic actors out there, but he’s yet to find a great vehicle. Planet 51 won’t break that pattern since it can’t help him utilize his likeably faux-egotistical persona – honestly, if you walk into the movie before the opening credits, you may not even know it’s him. Then again, that’s the case across the board – Jessica Biel, John Cleese, Justin Long and Gary Oldman are all pretty anonymous in this movie. And as for the jokes, here’s a brief rundown: E.T. reference, 2001 reference, Alien reference, unintentional Wall-E reference. There are people that will find all of this cute and sweet and enjoyable enough. Fine. But Planet 51 reminded me of that other world of movies that are out there that kind of depress me because of their utter blandness. A lot of hard-working people spend a lot of time and money making stuff like this. And, sadly, this is the best they can come up with.
Consumables is a regular overview of popular culture.