Of the movies in theaters and newly available on DVD this weekend, here's what I like, with links to my reviews, if any. I've filed the new Jackie Chan/Jet Li movie, The Forbidden Kingdom, below.
UPDATE: I've also filed Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed below.
Olivier Assayas's latest film, Boarding Gate, is circulating the country, just four theaters at a time. Every frame looks like an Assayas picture — the cat-like femme of Irma Vep, the modern, glassy interiors of Demonlover — but instead of a narrative constructed from the shards of a genre film, we get the genre film itself. Curious. And it's in English. Michael Koresky at Reverse Shot is right (which, by the way, is often the case): "if you give Assayas a little leeway in blurring the lines between trash and art, a good time could be had by all." Put another way: it's a lot better than La Femme Nikita, but the Luc Besson film is probably the right benchmark.
I actually dig it. First, it's another vehicle for Asia Argento, who is everywhere at the moment. San Franciscans will have a chance to see her in three more movies in the next two weeks: she has a small part in Abel Ferrara's Go Go Tales and she stars in her father Dario Argento's film, Tears of a Mother, and in Catherine Breillat's The Last Mistress, all three of which are playing in the San Francisco International Film Festival. (More about that later.)
Second, Boarding Gate has some nice resonance with the last of those three, and with Jacques Rivette's latest, The Duchess of Langeais, which is in America's theaters now. The Assayas, the Breillat, and the Rivette — each film has a good old-fashioned time observing a couple of control-freaky lovers as they seek to possess one another. Who possesses whom is the question at all times, and each filmmaker knows that the answer is often found in location, location, location. For instance: I love the way the Duchess in Rivette's film parks her carriage outside a man's house — sparking controversy — when she herself is relaxing at home. It's not where you are; it's where you seem to be.
Rob, have you, like me, never seen Happy Together?
What is it about Wong Kar-Wai's films that leave you ambivalent about whether or not you've been rewarded, Rob?
I've avoided My Blueberry Nights because absolutely every single person I know who has seen it didn't care for it much. Frako Loden made an interesting comment. Because it was rendered in English, she realized for the first time that the "allure" of his other films might have been largely due to their being spoken in Asian dialect, granting them an exoticity that evaporates in the English experiment.
I like Wong, but I always have the feeling that what he has to offer me is on the surface. It's a beautiful surface, though, which is why I keep going back.
I think he's often very good at clever vignettes. Chungking Express, which I guess he tossed off to cleanse his palette from Ashes of Time, is probably my favorite, but I like how the idea of vignettes -- in the form of hypotheticals -- seems to be a part of some of his characters' lives. Plus, it's not just his pictures that are beautiful but also the way they move, the way he strings them together like music.
But Eros would have been right up his alley, you'd think, and I disliked the whole triptych, especially (and I hate to say this) Antonioni's.
But, you know, My Blueberry Nights is much better than I expected. Most gorgeous chick flick ever? I guess I see less of a gulf between this film and his others, which is why I'm more negative on his others and more positive on this one than most folks I know. Still, it's total fluff. As usual, I don't have much to chew on.
Michael, that comment almost makes me feel shyer about voicing the reservations I've almost always had with Wong's work- of which I've seen precisely the same set Rob has, if you switch out My Blueberry Nights for 2046, which I found almost completely frustrating. I'm not hoping to score "cool cred" points for wondering aloud if there was ever much of an emperor underneath all those clothes, now that he's at a low ebb on the "hip" meter and it's safe to do so. Watching it on VHS, I could never get past the soundtrack of Chungking Express to really investigate what lay beneath- it made me relate to the Dead Milkmen song "Punk Rock Girl" in a way I never had before. But if the other films had much more cozy environments to cuddle up in, there seemed to be a distinct lack of warmth, or heat, or energy at all, in the atmosphere of most of them. The exception, for me, being In the Mood For Love, which has a truly haunting emotional purity to it. Strange how that couldn't transfer to the Hand, which is the best thing about Eros only because the other two segments are pretty much garbage.
Of course this is all only after a single viewing apiece, and several notable gaps in the filmography still wide open. At one point a few years back there was talk of a full retrospective being mounted somewhere in town, but apparently 35mm prints of some of his films are already nigh-impossible to come by.
One thing the exoticity theory doesn't take into account is the strong reception Wong's films have gotten from Hong Kong and Chinese Diasporic critics. I wonder what his homewtown crowd thinks of Blueberry Nights...
I hear you, Brian.
I don't dislike Wong at all. Not even Blueberry. I just don't place him among my favorite 25 or 50 filmmakers, and I don't think this is a new feeling.
The exoticity theory probably applies, partially, to locales. My Blueberry Nights is to New York what Amelie is to Paris. I happen to like Amelie quite a bit, but of course it's a cutesy version of Paris, not at all like the real thing. And watching Wong flatten New York, then Memphis, Las Vegas, and I can't remember where else, into the same bubblegum palette seems weird. If Norah Jones didn't say she'd traveled hundreds of miles on a bus, you wouldn't know it from watching the pictures of her stops. Beautiful, yes, in some sense, but aside from a few exterior shots late in the film, he washes the differences of the locales into one pool of primary colors and shadows.
I can see that he's done this is because he's doing it to the US, which I'm familiar with. I know Paris, too. But I've never been to Hong Kong -- neither today nor in the 1950s :-) -- so I can't know for sure that In the Mood for Love is cutesied up, but I know it doesn't look like other movies, and that Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung sure dress impeccably. So while I'm more sensitive to the locales I'm familiar with, I'm not blind to his treatment of foreign settings, at least not in the same way that I am deaf to the language.
A footnote: Wong's image of the US is also noticeably different from European directors like Antonioni and Dumont whose Zabriskie Point and Twentynine Palms, respectively, show a fascination with the dry openness of the West. Wong's a city rat, and he likes rooms and alleyways more than cityscapes.
I think there is more than just "language exoticity" between Blueberry Nights and the rest of his oeuvre. There is that probably, to certain extant, but to me, the main characteristics are a fluffy plot and paper-thin characters. We can't compare these to the stronger universe developed in his other films.
In the Mood For Love is a melo, but with a powerful love story and a rather anti-climactic denouement.
I urge you to watch 2046, Rob! It's one of my favorite of his. It's not the plot that matters but the creative atmosphere he creates.
Same for Blueberry Nights, the scenario is pointless (and it's not because Wong makes a middle-brow genre movie without higher ambition that it tarnishes the rest of his career, or his talent) but the image is wonderful. I loved it, simply for its visuals. You may call this superficial, for that one film maybe, but his other films are anything but "superifial". Even Eros. There is a profound exploration of the narrative sense and the visual language of course.
By the way, I also liked the cast in My Blueberry Nights. People are saying this and that about Jude Law or Norah Jones but I thought they were fine, given the thin characters. Plus we get to see Chan Marshall briefly (and hear the beginning of "The Greatest" three times).
There was a moment during the Natalie Portman section (she's also good, but she usually is), when I thought Wong was about to deliver a Mamet-like hoax. I was suddenly into the plot. But it wasn't to be.
Here's an interesting article on Expelled in National Review by Jim Manzi.