Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Week in Review - 6/12/09

  • Vengeance (Johnnie To, Hong Kong/France, 2009)
  • Proshchanie/The Parting/Farewell (to Matiora) (Elem Klimov, Soviet Union, 1983)
  • Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze, USA, 2009)
I basically just stumbled on this film by chance when I couldn't find anything worth seeing and starting browsing through yourMovies. I was a bit gobsmacked to find that a new Johnnie To film was screening and that I'd heard nothing about it. Hoyts Melbourne Central regularly screens Asian films, which seem to cater to the large Asian student market, and it was here that I recently saw the Korean film, Haeundae.

We had a To season at Melbourne Cinémathèque last year and I really enjoyed the style of Exiled. Vengeance shares a lot in common with that film - it's a Hong Kong crime action thriller. To does for this genre what Sergio Leone did for the Western, and his clever use of music at key moments (ie, showdowns) conjures up a sense of the spaghetti Western.

I was surprised to find the film opening with French actress Sylvie Testud, and it is Johnny Hallyday who is the main protagonist as her father who arrives from France to wreak vengeance on those who killed the members of his family. Now Johnny Hallyday is not really actor, even though he did OK with Patrice Leconte's L'homme du train (The Man on the Train). But, like that film, it doesn't really matter. He just has to look cool, spout a few lines and let the director take control of the story and the action.

This is, after all, a Hong Kong action flick - not something you take too seriously. There's the usual bunch of crims, who we get attached to. The smart guy, the fat guy and another guy. There's the double crossing and the twists and the impossible escapes. There's a reasonable amount of blood but it never looks real. The humour is just right and all in all it's good entertainment in a genre that generally we don't see enough of. So, if you can, take the opportunity to see this film by a very credible but under-valued film-maker.

The Parting
Asya's Happiness didn't turn up on time at Melbourne Cinémathèque, so this film was selected to replace it at short notice. Hopefully we'll screen Asya's Happiness next week. I didn't know one from the other, but was pretty excited to learn that we were going to see a film by the great Elem Klimov, the director of what is perhaps the most powerful film I've ever seen, and certainly my favourite war film - Come and See - which was made after The Parting.

The Parting was written by Klimov's wife, Larissa Shepitko (The Ascent), and was also to be directed by her. Tragically, she died in a car accident on the first day of shooting and Klimov later took up the project as a tribute to his wife.

I was amazed at how much Klimov's style had developed in the short time between making The Parting and Come and See. I don't think one would appreciate the earlier film quite so much if they hadn't seen the later one. In short, Klimov perfected in Come and See, techniques that he was clearly attempting in The Parting. The most obvious similarity was a forest scene where the camera stalks an elderly member of the village Matiora, whose days are numbered. The village, on an island is to be deserted and flooded to make way for a hydro-electric project.

There's two more weeks of the 60s Soviet Cinema screening before the year's end, and I'd like to catch as many of these as I can. Next week, the first film is not yet confirmed (apparently the print of Heat is not up to scratch), which will be followed by Tarkovsky's The Steamroller and the Violin, followed by Shepitko's Wings.

Where the Wild Things Are
Spike Jonze has always had a wild imagination, having directed such notable films as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. This latest effort doesn't have the benefit of Charlie Kaufman's writing that those films did, but it doesn't really matter as Jonze (with Dave Eggers as co-writer have found their own voice.

Where the Wild Things Are
is an inventive translation of Maurice Sendak's famous book, which I and all my children have grown up on. The book is mostly visual with very little dialogue; Jonze has done similarly, but fleshed out the story with more of Max and his family, and more adventures with The Wild Things. The story has been altered, particularly Max's home life and the nature of his arrival and return from the land of The Wild Things. While I was looking forward to seeing how Jonze depicted Max's leaving home, I wasn't disappointed by the re-interpretation. It all flowed consistent with the source material's sensibilities.

The most fascinating aspect for me is the re-creation of The Wild Things using Jim Henson's Creature Factory. These animatronics/giant puppets are just amazing, a kind of cross between some of Henson's Muppets and the Banana Splits characters (from the 1970s), but on a grand scale. Their detailed reproduction is unmistakably authentic and their facial details, including eye and mouth movements are truly impressive. There's a real charm to this kind of old-fashioned special effects that leaves CGI for dead. I mean, we know these are just puppets, but the physicality, the reality of their existence is very endearing. We know that this action is not taking place in front of a green screen, it's mostly all real.

The variety of scenery (mostly filmed in Victoria) is splendid, adding wonderfully to the visuals. I loved the music, much of which was children singing, giving a sense of playground laughter and frolicking. As a film, Where the Wild Things Are has a real air of originality, a freshness and playfulness that should appeal widely to both children and adults in equal measure.


Jurguens said...

I'm so glad that I've read this post. I'll definitely try to see the Johnnie To movie. Some are better than others, but he is a very prolific director with a great body of work. He's never disappointed me.


Paul Martin said...

FWIW, Jurguens, I didn't like it as much as Exiled, but if you have any appreciation for Johnnie To, then it's worth seeing as part of his body of work.

Trent Vittorio said...

The problem with To is he so inconsistent, I suppose a result of his releasing a film ever two minutes.

PTU is a wonderful Melville style suspense flick, and the Election films, when taken together, are fully fleshed out epics, with interesting political overtones.

On the other hand, To produces lazy work like Breaking News, easily the worst film I've watched this year, and Exiled to me was nothing but a bunch of "cool" scenes tied together by a very loose plot.

Vengeance appeared to fall into the later category from what I had heard, but you've convinced me it might be in the former, so hopefully will catch it some time.

Paul Martin said...

Trent, I can't disagree with your comments about Exiled, a film I imagine Tarantino would love. I think you'll find Vengeance more flawed than Exiled, but I just take it for what it is - a bit of fun.

David O'Connell said...

I really liked Where the Wild Things Are too Paul even if the middle sags a bit. Agreed about the music, there was a seamless merging of the talents of Karen O and the great Carter Burwell.

It's always a relief to see a much anticipated film, which has gone through such a troubled post-production, emerge as a quality film, though pretty damn rare I suppose. Most of them are messes by the time they hit cinemas - if they do at all.

The ending is pretty moving and quite understated actually. Agree with you too about the amazing design of the Wild Things. It's incredible how much emotional range they covered in terms of facial expression. I hope they weren't CGI-assisted in some way which would detract from them a bit! I don't think so though.

Paul Martin said...

David, I believe that there is some CGI in the facial expressions, but it is seamless and I couldn't detect it.