Breaking News review

January 29, 2006

Screened at Cannes in 2004, Breaking News is opening in a limited number of theaters prior to its release on DVD. On the surface a gripping, twisty cop thriller, the film also tackles how the media influences the behavior of both police and criminals. More important, it is another in a long line of expertly made Johnnie To films. While it may not be the director’s best work, it has some knockout sequences.

Chief among them is the opening, a seven-minute shot that starts with a panorama of the Hong Kong skyline, drops to street level, ascends up and into an apartment, and then floats out over a city block to document a botched police stake-out and its violent aftermath. Captured on TV, the bloodbath threatens to send the police department’s popularity with the public plummeting. Inspector Rebecca Fong (Kelly Chen) comes up with the idea to take control of the media by feeding it the police version of the subsequent investigation.

Detective Cheung (Nicky Cheung), a streetwise, old-school cop, pursues the crooks his way, skirting the law and ignoring Fong’s orders to drop the case. But when he corners them in an apartment complex, Fong takes control, ordering the evacuation of the building. The evacuation flushes out two other crooks who complicate Fong’s efforts. That’s when Yuen (Richie Jen), the chief crook, forces his way into an apartment, taking cab driver Yip (Lam Suet) and his two young children hostage.

Bookended by extraordinary action sequences, Breaking News has its share of lulls during the hostage negotiations. But To knows how to get the best out of his actors, especially the reliable Lam Suet, a fixture in his films. Also notable is You Yong, who plays a cornered hit man with grace and humor. Cheung, better known in Hong Kong for his comedies, is striking as a hardbitten cop who responds to every calamity with, “I’m going to nail the bastard.”

To’s satirical look at the media surrounding the hostage crisis sometimes feels a bit obvious, but otherwise Breaking News is an admirably professional and efficient piece of work that ranks far above recent Hollywood thrillers. The restless camerawork, taut editing, and brilliant split-screen montages provide the tension and technical expertise that have become hallmarks of To’s directing. After The Longest Nite, The Mission, Fulltime Killer, PTU, and last year’s Election, he is amassing one of the best resumes in Hong Kong film. It’s a shame no distributor here has taken a chance on the director’s equally impressive romantic comedies like My Left Eye Sees Ghosts or Turn Left, Turn Right.

Cast and credits

Cast: Richie Jen, Kelly Chen, Nick Cheung, Cheung Siu Fai, Hui Siu Hung, Lam Suet, You Yong, Ding Hai Feng, Li Hai Tao, Simon Yam, Maggie Shiu.
Credits: Directed by Johnnie To. Written by Chan Hing Kai, Yip Tin Shing, Milkyway Creative Team. Produced by Johnnie To, Cao Biao. Executive producers: John Chong, Yang Bu Ting. Associate executive producer: Jiang Tao. Director of photography: Cheung Siu Keung. Production designer: Bruce Yu. Costume designer: Steven Tsang. Edited by David Richardson. Music by Chung Chi Wing, Ben Cheung. Stunt coordinator: Yuen Bun. A Media Asia Films and China Film Group presentation of a Milkyway Image (HK) Ltd. production. In Cantonese and Mandarin with English subtitles.


La Petite Jerusalem review

January 27, 2006

Low-key but affecting, La Petite Jerusalem examines an Orthodox Jewish family trying to find its place in modern society. Centering on two sisters, one observant, one more skeptical, the script takes an approach that sometimes seems too schematic and simplistic. Two factors keep the film on track: Karin Albou’s sensitive direction, and an ingratiating performance by Fanny Valette.

Valette plays Laura, a philosophy student who is modeling her life on Immanuel Kant. Rejecting her religious heritage is difficult enough, but Laura still lives with her sister Mathilde (Elsa Zylberstein), a devout believer who adheres to Orthodox law. The sisters share a cramped apartment along with Mathilde’s husband Ariel (Bruno Todeschini) and three children. Add a grandmother (Sonia Tahar) who still believes in her native Tunisian folk spells, and it’s easy to understand Laura’s frustrations.

Preoccupied with her own concerns, Laura doesn’t realize that Mathilde’s marriage is in trouble. Mathilde surprisingly defends her sister when she wants to date Djamel (Hedi Tillette de Clermont Tonnerre), an Arab who works with her cleaning an elementary school. But when the local synagogue is firebombed, and Ariel is beaten in an anti-Semitic attack, Laura wonders if she can continue seeing Djamel.

Making her feature directing debut, Albou, who also wrote the screenplay, sympathizes with her characters while still seeing their shortcomings. Mathilde and Ariel start out as stock figures, but grow into complex adults struggling with earthly issues. Even the superstitious grandmother, at first just comic relief, gets the chance to explain herself. The director works well with actors, eliciting performances that feel unforced and authentic. Albou’s restraint gives the film a documentary realism, but prevents it from becoming a truly engaging story. The deliberate pace and meticulous camerawork make it too easy to step back from the action, especially during the script’s weaker stretches. Albou goes into such detail about Mathilde’s and Ariel’s sexual problems that the film threatens to turn into a religious marital aid lecture.

The best reason to watch La Petite Jerusalem is Fanny Valette, who is utterly convincing as a girl struggling between intellect and passion. A bona fide beauty, she brings a commitment and gravity to scenes that don’t always deserve them.

Cast and credits:
Cast: Fanny Valette, Elsa Zylberstein, Bruno Todeschini, Hedi Tillette de Clermont Tonnerre, Sonia Tahar, Michael Cohen, Aurore Clément, François Marthouret, Saida Bekkouche, Salah Teskouk.
Credits: Written and directed by Karin Albou. Produced by Laurent Lavolé, Isabelle Pragier. Director of photography: Laurent Brunet. Production designer: Nicolas de Boisuillé. Edited by Christiane Lack. Music by Cyril Morin. Costume designer: Tania Shebabo Cohen. A Gloria Films presentation of a Gloria Films and Film Par Film production, in association with Canal +, Ile-de-France Region Media, and CNC. In French, Arabic, and Hebrew with English subtitles.

Film in Catalunya, 1906-2006

January 24, 2006

Despite its illustrious history, its Gaudi architecture, and its equally imposing geography, Barcelona will always be second to Madrid, and second in line for the attention of the Spanish. For centuries the city has been the center of the semi-independent region of Catalonia, or Catalunya. Film in Catalunya 1906-2006, a series running from January 27 to February 14 at the Walter Reade Theatre, showcases over two dozen features and shorts from the area.

While the Spanish film industry is centered in Madrid, for over a century Barcelona has staked its own claim to cinema. Starting with the trick films of Segundo de Chomón in 1902, the city produced several of Spain’s most significant silents. The series includes some early shorts and 1922’s Don Juan Tenorio, an opulent but dramatically stiff version of José Zorilla’s drama.

But is there a Catalan style of filmmaking? The Secret Life of Words, which is receiving its New York premiere on opening night, stars Sarah Polley, Tim Robbins, Sverre Anker Ousdal, and Julie Christie. Directed by Isabel Coixet, who made My Life Without Me with Polley, and set on a North Sea oil rig, the film’s only connection to Catalunya is that Coixet lives in Barcelona.

Other films make a better case for a Catalan school. The defining moment for the culture in the twentieth century was the Spanish Civil War. After the Republic fell to Franco’s forces, the Catalan language was outlawed, although by 1947 a Catalan cinema had re-emerged. The series includes five short documentaries filmed in Barcelona during the fighting, all from anti-Franco factions doomed to defeat.

Subsequent Catalan films share an understandable preoccupation with the war and its aftermath, and even today unsettling reverberations emerge in unexpected moments. The years of repression during Franco’s regime have their effect as well. Many of the films tend to focus on defiant outsiders who resist the seductions of mainstream Spain. In these movies, Catalans forego Madrid to rough it in harsh mountains and rugged valleys, or to fight among themselves in the ancient streets of Barcelona.

Bizarre can’t begin to describe Life in the Shadows (Vida en sombras, 1948), a sort of combined history of Barcelona and cinema as told by Ed Wood. Directed by Lorenzo Llobet Gracia, it follows the preternaturally thin Carlos Duran, whose childhood obsession with photography leads him to become a newsreel photographer, film critic, and director of short and eventually feature films. Duran is a bona fide geek who would rather discuss microphones and Agfacolor with his friend Luis (soon to be his lead actor) than date or even eat. Taken on the film’s terms, Duran’s inevitable success, and Gracia’s sunnily optimistic view of how movies are financed, written and shot, have a certain naive charm. But seen against the backdrop of Popular Front skirmishes that claim Duran’s wife, this Neverland version of cinema can seem absurdly disconnected. Watching Duran adjust the position of corpses while photographing street fighting raises questions director Gracia had no intention of answering. Actor Fernando Fernán Gómez’s slight resemblance to Laurence Olivier becomes a major plot factor when Duran finds himself creatively blocked in an apartment across the street from a theater showing Rebecca. It’s just the spur he needs to decide to make a feature of his own life, conveniently with the same sets Gracia used earlier in the film.

The series includes one film from the 1950s, Post Box 1001 (Apartado de Correos 1001), but it wasn’t until the 1960s that Barcelona filmmakers gained serious momentum. Included here are pivotal works like Fata Morgana (1965-67) and Dante Is Not Simply Harsh (Dante no es únicamente severo, 1967), self-indulgent experimental pieces that borrow the stylistic tics but little of the intellectual depth of the French New Wave.

Franco’s death in 1975 set Catalan filmmakers free. Director Ventura Pons explored this new liberty in his documentary Ocaña, an Intermittent Portrait (Ocaña, retrat intermitent, 1978). He is also represented by Anita Takes a Chance (Anita no perd el tren, 2001), a bland romantic comedy that proves, perhaps inadvertently, that filmgoers in Catalunya have the same appetite for escapism that everyone else does. In fact, it’s gratifying to realize that Catalan cinema has its full share of horror films, comedies, and romances, minus only Hollywood’s obsession with special effects.

Take, for example, Tapas (2005), one of Spain’s big hits last summer. Using a large cast and a rambling script made up of three interlocking stories, co-directors José Corbacho and Juan Cruz tackle older-woman/younger-man sex, the assisted suicide of an elderly rascal with lung cancer, and racial discrimination against a Chinese chef and amateur martial artist. The film’s stridently buoyant style is redeemed somewhat by dedicated acting, but nothing can rescue the script’s lazy moralizing.

Narrated by a young child, The Cherry Tree (L’arbre de les cireres, 1998) takes a quiet, deliberate look at an isolated farming valley. Apart from striking landscapes, lovingly captured in stately pans that punctuate the scenes, life here is much like life anywhere else. Marti, the local doctor, is leaving his long-time lover Roser; Andreu, his young replacement, is running away from an unspecified problem in the city. While they adjust to their new lives, a farmer pursues Roser, a teen falls for a carny at the local fair, and an ailing grandmother waits for her daughter to return from the circus. Death brings the characters together to ruminate over the valley’s pull on them. What distinguishes director Marc Recha’s vision is his ability to portray genuine characters without judging them. On the other hand, The Cherry Tree too often has nothing to say, but instead lingers lovingly over spring showers, fog-encased mountain peaks, brightly colored cottages leaning over crooked alleys, and half-forgotten songs crooned in dark taverns.

Los Tarantos (1963) may be the echt Barcelona film, a contemporary Romeo and Juliet with a half-dozen flamenco interludes. A proud, defiant Carmen Amaya stars as the widowed mother of Rafael Tarantos, whose star-crossed love for Juana Zaronga will lead to tragedy. Shot in the streets of Barcelona and in the hilltop shanties overlooking the town, the film has echoes of everything from West Side Story to La Strada. What it doesn’t have is much of a plot, apart from the requisite clinches and swordfights (done here with switchblades). The dances, choreographed by Amaya, unfold with a striking energy and immediacy, even though they’re often shot in close-up so we can’t see the dancers’ feet. The hard-edged Amaya is a force of nature, her hands in constant motion, her staccato taps silencing onlookers. This was her last film, and it’s important not just for the chance to see her perform, but also as a record of how she approached flamenco. She choreographs her dancers so that they are all undulating hips, their hands held aloft and quivering like insect antennae. The dances are battles, even when they are meant to seduce, and the dancers perform for themselves, indifferent to the audience around them.

Films from Fort Lee, New Jersey

January 12, 2006

Just across the George Washington Bridge lies Fort Lee, a borough of some 32,000 whose origins date back to pre-Revolutionary times. On January 18th at the Museum of Modern Art, film historian and author Richard Koszarski will explain how Fort Lee was, for a brief moment, the center of the American movie industry.

Now largely a bedroom community for Manhattan-bound commuters, at the turn of the twentieth century it was still a sleepy rural hamlet–and a popular destination for daytime excursions. It was also the location of choice for New York’s burgeoning film industry. The same ferries that carried tourists to amusement parks and country inns also brought actors and filmmakers in search of “authentic” outdoor locations. So many movies were shot there that by 1910 reviewers were complaining about “Jersey scenery.”

Just about every significant figure in early film ended up in Fort Lee at one time or another. Edison’s crews shot there, using the Palisades for Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest (1907), notable as one of the first starring roles for D.W. Griffith and as the source of a clip used repeatedly on Late Night with David Letterman. Two years later, Griffith, now a director for the Biograph company, brought Mary Pickford there for The Lonely Villa, a thriller about thieves threatening women in a remote home.

It’s one of six films shot in Fort Lee that Koszarski will be screening. Others include Her Awakening, one of seventy films Griffith directed in 1911. It stars Mabel Normand, a teenager who would go on to costar with Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle in several brilliant short comedies before becoming enveloped in a drug-and-murder scandal in the 1920s. By Man’s Law (1913) is one of the first films directed by W. Christy Cabanne, a former Griffith assistant who worked with the industry’s top stars in the 1920s. Shakespearean actor and stage director William V. Ranous directed Hiawatha (1909); he alternated serious adaptations like Richard III and King Lear with lighter fare like Bargain Fiend. The film is more notable as the first production by Carl Laemmle, later the founder of Universal Pictures. A House Divided (1913) was directed by Alice Guy-Blaché, at that time already a veteran of fifteen years in films. She was the first significant woman director, made some of the earliest fiction films, and was one of the first women to run a film company, Solax, which she founded with her husband Herbert. Robin Hood (1912), directed by Etienne Arnaud, was produced by the American arm of Eclair. The French-based camera company built a state-of-the-art studio in Fort Lee in 1911. Mr. Koszarski will be showing the only known copy of the film, which was recently acquired by the Fort Lee Film Commission.

Koszarski’s book Fort Lee, the Film Town (Indiana University Press) offers first-person accounts as well as a detailed history of the time. Ferries would drop the film crews off at Edgewater at the base of the Palisades cliffs. Horse-drawn wagons took them up to Main Street, at that time an unpaved road with a single trolley track. Cella’s Hotel and Rambo’s Hotel offered informal dressing rooms and lunches served in the open on long picnic tables. Rambo’s also doubled as a saloon in many Western films. In her 1925 memoir When the Movies Were Young, Linda Arvidson (D.W. Griffith’s ex-wife) was already nostalgic for a lost era. “Were we ever going anywhere but Ft. Lee and Edgewater and Shadyside?” she asked. “I do believe that first summer I was made love to on every rock and boulder for twenty miles up and down the Hudson.”

The films weren’t subtle. Actors were still struggling to adapt from broad, theatrical gestures to the subtleties of reacting in close-ups. Scriptwriters ransacked everything from songs to newspapers to the classics for material, turning to endless intertitles to make sense of their stories. Directors were still addressing basic problems like how to get people into and out of scenes. In The Lonely Villa you can see Griffith learning how to crosscut between scenes to develop tension. As Mr. Koszarski points out, “Getting outside enabled him to manipulate the possibilities of space and time far more dramatically than when working in the studio.”

Primitive though they may seem, these films are still delightful to see, if only for the unencumbered vistas, the heavy wool clothes, the wagons, the horses, and the people of a bygone age. As the camera pans across a bucolic landscape in The Lonely Villa, it’s impossible not to think about what’s been lost.

Stars continued to come to Fort Lee: Harold Lloyd, Fatty Arbuckle, the Barrymores, the Gish sisters, and Pearl White, who filmed The Perils of Pauline in and around the borough. Samuel Goldwyn, Lewis Selznick (David O.’s father), William Fox, and Louis B. Mayer all either owned or rented studios there. But by 1920 the movies were gone, drawn off to the better weather and cheaper prices of Los Angeles. Films were still made in New York, mostly in studios in Astoria. But the center of focus had shifted inexorably to the West Coast. No longer could the Passaic River stand in for a wild Rockies cataract, or the fields of Coytesville for a prairie.

Top Ten Repertory Films of 2005

January 6, 2006

Top Ten lists are always skewed because no critic ever actually sees every film released in a given year. I admit that I don’t like horror exploitation films, so I didn’t see Saw II. Maybe it was great, but my list won’t be able to account for it.

Repertory Top Ten’s are even more skewed because to be fair you have to have seen each film within twelve months. So you can’t put in ringers like Citizen Kane. On the other hand, if you’ve seen a lot of old movies, your Top Ten will be filled with obscure films that in reality may not be as good as Citizen Kane. It’s like putting in The Wizard of Oz when you were supposed to have seen it years ago already.

That said, here are the older films I most enjoyed seeing last year–even if I had seen them before:

His Wooden Wedding–Charley Chase short with one of the best handwritten warnings in movies: “Beware! The woman you are about to marry has a wooden leg. A Friend.”
Just One Look–Sweet, unpretentious Hong Kong coming-of-age story starring the Twins.
The King of Comedy–Stephen Chow comedy made before Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle.
The Last Picture Show–If only for Cloris Leachman
A Letter to Three Wives–In my opinion better than Mankiewicz’s All About Eve.
The More the Merrier–Doesn’t hold up entirely, but the make-out scene is still incredible.
Nine Lives/We Die Alone–WWII Norwegian survival saga made in the 1950s.
Remember the Night–Heartbreaking Christmas tale written by Preston Sturges.
Ride the Pink Horse–Tough, sharp noir about a gang war in the Southwest.
Two for the Road–Swoony Henry Mancini music, superb Frederic Raphael script.