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Movie Reviews: 6/5/2023 to 6/11/2023

Movies reviewed this week: Society, Death Race 2000, Happy Together, Dogtooth, Royal Warriors, Werckmeister Harmonies, and Sparrow.

6/6/2023: Society (1989): ***

That last act is amazing but does not entirely redeem the meandering first hour.

6/9/2023: Death Race 2000 (1975): ***

That’s grindhouse! I’m not giving anyone credit for prophecy; this was on the heels of the Nixon era so dystopian America wasn’t all that much of a stretch. It’s still pretty darkly satisfying to watch the President blame everything on the French, as one does. The car scenes are OK — did they just speed up the film for those? — and the closing line makes it pretty clear that violence is fundamental.

Boofest 2023: connected to Papillon by resistance to injustice.

6/10/2023: Happy Together (1997): ****1/2

Tony Leung’s not even remotely a reliable narrator; he narrates Leslie Cheung’s romantic shortcomings over black and white footage, as if to deny the passion which is perfectly clear in color. They aren’t going to be happy people, not with all their flaws.

Christopher Doyle captures the angular chaos of the relationship with blurred, frustrated shots full of movement and uncertainty. At times the retreat away from color feels like we’re seeking refuge in an era of black and white film, in a far away land of exotic tangos. But that, again, is the myth. Reality is slaughterhouses. The hours are good.

You bring your faults with you into exile. One man is a control freak who keeps the other’s passport hostage for no clear reason. The other is fey and fickle and thoughtless, and incapable of just asking for the love he wants. Chang Chen drives the point home with his grounded, casual self-reliance and uncomplicated friendship.

Back in Asia, at the very end, Tony Leung is still casually stealing whatever he needs in order to feel connected.

6/10/2023: Dogtooth (2009): ****

It’s about fascism. Control over language, depersonalization of the individual, sacrifice for the good of the family unit, demonization of the other — it’s all there. What is a cat if not the external intruding?

I can’t say I enjoyed watching this but it’s immensely powerful.

6/10/2023: Royal Warriors (1986): ***1/2

It’s maybe just a tad too disjointed to be truly great, plus it doesn’t quite live up to the innovation and precision of Yes, Madam, but holy crap those action sequences. Let’s just say that they bury the competition. And unsurprisingly, Hiroyuki Sanada is every bit as good a partner as Rothrock.

I know Michelle Yeoh isn’t playing the same character, except insofar as she obviously is. Nonetheless, this is clearly the second movie in the series because by the end of this one she’s a stone cold killer who could not possibly be as bubbly as she was in Yes, Madam. Easy call.

6/11/2023: Werckmeister Harmonies (2000): *****

With the weight of this movie pressing down on me, I find it easy to accept that we live amid a misguided understanding of harmonies, and that hope is an alien creature that we stare at without understanding. I don’t accept these things for long — I’m an optimist at heart — but what an impact.

Yes, 39 shots. Each one is almost a complete movie. At first they alternate, inside and outside, always with Lars Rudolph as János at the center. Around a third of the way in, though, the pattern breaks down just as the civitas of the town is fragmenting. Eventually we lose track of János as well.

Many of the shots stick with me. One terrified me: the men marching down the street for an eternity. I expected Tarr’s camera to be static and heavy, but it never was, even here. While the men march, he dips and focuses and pulls back, showing us both the individual hatred and the deep sea of collective rage.

When we find János again he’s huddled in a corner, unable to understand or process what he’s seen. He couldn’t stand in the way, either. It’s a bleak movie; Tarr thinks we’re all complicit.

I contemplate the overlapping patterns of control when I think about complicity. Auntie Tünde, played by Hanna Schygulla, is complicit. The army is complicit. But so is the never-seen Prince who stirs up the initial unrest. It’s not as simple as a metaphor for fascism or communism; there’s always an excuse to riot and that riot, in turn, is always an excuse to crack down. What’s missing is the genuine revolution and I’m not sure Tarr believes that’s possible.

What a monumental act of creativity. What acting! I talked about the beauty and power of the images, because everyone does, because you have to. I’ve got to linger on the performances as well. Schygulla in particular is as quietly powerful as ever, still one of the best European actresses of her generation. Rudolph… that first scene, where he’s helping his drunk friends act out a total eclipse from beginning to triumphant end? That’s an act of hope, and he has to spend the rest of the movie losing his hope as his world goes to shit. He’s great. Everyone’s great. Everything’s doomed.

6/11/2023: Sparrow (2008): ****

For a while I was fiddling around with a theory about the nature of observation but I think no, Johnnie To just enjoyed the idea of framing Kelly Lin through a still camera lens, so he did it. It really is a trifle of a movie, but it’s a perfectly executed trifle that’s one of the prettiest visions of Hong Kong I’ve ever seen. So many umbrellas!

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