Thursday, June 9, 2011

SIFF — 7 films: Detective Dee, Young Goethe, Lovecraft, John Cleese, and more

The title links go to SIFF pages with trailers and info.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame
International trailer at YouTube
China, 2010

Here's China's entry in the epic-spectacle, CGI-heavy, Pirates of the Caribbean/Lord of the Rings franchise sweepstakes, and as such it's a high-flying, sword-flashing entertaining fantasy. It's fun in an old-fashioned adventure serial mode, both dazzling and cheesy in ways that jolt my brain's Oh Boy Yeah gland.

The seventh-century Tang Dynasty is portrayed as a fantastical steampunk alt-history, a place of lustrous palaces, sky-scraping statuary, mighty anachronistic fleets in the harbor, an oracular talking deer, and a mysterious force that spontaneously combusts human beings in grisly CGI detail. (There are probably flying, fire-breathing dragons one kingdom over, but George R.R. Martin got there first.)

It's here where the legendary Detective Dee (Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau) is called out of exile by the hard-as-iron Empress Wu (Carina Lau) to solve the spectral problem threatening her power and her life. The thing is, it was Empress Wu who chucked this kung fu-capable Sherlock Holmes into a distant prison in the first place for leading a rebellion against her. So, yeah, their relationship is rocky.

The martial arts scenes (ample leaping, twirling, bashing, whip-lashing, and gravity-negating wire-fu) were choreographed by Sammo Hung, whom I miss from the days of Jackie Chan in his prime. Hung also supervised the art direction, which adds an even showier layer of gosh-wow on display throughout the film. And it was gratifying to see Tony Leung back as the bad guy.

This one was a candy treat; a bit draggy now and then ("let's get the story moving again, please"), but it looks gorgeous, the cast is a pleasure to see in action, and the clear sense that it's the beginning of a commercial franchise (a prequel is in the works) detracts from the fun only as much as you think it should. Recommended, absolutely.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, by the way, is only the latest iteration of a long-standing series of stories about Tang Dynasty crime-solver Judge Dee (Wikipedia), a character inspired by the historical figure Di Renjie (c. 630–c. 700), magistrate and statesman of the Tang court. In 1974, an American ABC-TV pilot, Judge Dee, starred Khigh Dhiegh (Wo Fat on Hawaii Five-O and brainwasher Dr. Yen Lo in 1962's The Manchurian Candidate) as the roving judge in seventh century China, deciding right and wrong and solving crimes. It didn't get beyond the pilot stage, alas.

Young Goethe In Love
Germany, 2010

It's like eating cotton candy in the shower.

I enjoyed Young Goethe In Love while I was in the act of watching it. It's pretty, it's amusing, and it hits some pleasant romantic notes (sometimes with a meat pounder, but still). Its cast is attractive (alt title: The Sorrows of Young Matthew McConaughey), more than capable, and all-around appealing.

However, afterward the whole experience dissolved from my mind, leaving no impression, the movie being such insubstantial airy sugar churned out of a machine.

Its English title is market-driven to remind us favorably of Shakespeare in Love*, and YGIL is so unabashed in its attempts to ape its Oscar-winning forerunner that the whole enterprise feels like a cynical, second-rate knock-off. That feeling isn't helped by the film's rabbit-out-of-a-hat climax, which drenches us in abrupt plot goo that aims for a feel-good closer but instead clangs a transparently manipulative "Oh, puh-leeze <eyeroll>" note.

It's good but forgettable, and the more you know about the authentic Johann Wolfgang von Goethe the more you'll feel tempted to throw something heavy at the screen.

* On the other hand, its original exclamation-pointy German title, Goethe!, unsettlingly evokes a musical from the '60s or Marge Simpson's "Oh, Streetcar!"

The Whisperer in Darkness
US, 2011
Official website
Making-of blog

I'm a sucker for a Lovecraft adaptation, despite my experience with the poor ones outnumbering the good ones by a scary, one might say squamous, margin. Knowing that The Whisperer in Darkness came from Sean Branney and Andrew Lehman, the filmmakers behind one of the good ones, 2005's The Call of Cthulhu, made adding its midnight-movie world premiere to my schedule a no-brainer. (If you see what I did there, you win the brass Mi-Go.) While The Call of Cthulhu told its story in the ingenious guise of a silent film from the 1920s, Whisperer was shot and written as a 1930s Universal-style noir-horror film, another hook that reeled me right in.

(Full disclosure: I nodded off a time or two during the screening, though that may have been me inadequately caffeined up beforehand for a midnighter.)

A faithful (to a fault) adaptation of one of H.P.'s keystone stories, this modestly budgeted but ambitious and mostly successful exercise in fannish dedication packs in many of the groceries you want from a full-blooded Lovecraft film: sinister and profane rites, eldritch alien god-beings, a creepy New England setting, and a steadfast academic (Matt Foyer, very good) from Miskatonic U. who's doomed by not dropping his investigations when things start getting seriously weird (talking brains in jars typically being a useful tip-off).

But as usual, the script is the weakest link, and the special effects fail to convince at the climax right when we need them at their best. For an HPL film this is one of the good ones, yet it reaffirms my contention that the most effective Lovecraft movies are those that strive for quality "Lovecraftian" pastiche/homage rather than a punctilious devotion to ol' H.P.'s actual, you know, words and ragged plotting. (Book-a-Minute's "ultra-condensed" summation of HPL's collected oeuvre fits this and other Lovecraft films to a tee.)

South Africa, 2010
Official website

In my post on Submarine, I noted that "coming-of-age" is a genre as freighted with hoary conventions as Las Vegas in May. Spud proves the point by pulling out every trite, overdone convention in the box as if we've never seen them before. Indeed, if it were not so competently executed, it would come perilously close to being the Date Movie or Superhero Movie of the Disaffected Male Teen Coming-of-Age form.

Good thing it's well done then. Yes, this umpteenth iteration of that form is over-familiar and almost aggressively ordinary, but it's solid and good-looking aaaaaaaand it features John bloody Cleese (!) back again as the English boys boarding school teacher from Monty Python's Meaning of Life crossed with Robin Williams from Dead Poets Society. So there's that.

Set in 1990 South Africa, with Nelson Mandela's release and the slow dismantling of the apartheid system very much part of the background, Spud just rises above its old-shoe trappings through a fine performance from Troye Sivan as 13-year-old "Spud" (nicknamed by his mates for his pre-pubescent male under-enhancement), a sturdy script, and proficient production values across the board.

Spud is based on a best-selling South African novel of the same name, which practically guaranteed that it would be precision engineered for mainstream commercial appeal. The film plays it so straight and safe that it has its own postal code in the Comfort Zone. While director Donovan Marsh didn't freshen up those old shoes, he did manage to get some extra mileage out of them.

Prediction: Neither good enough nor bad enough to make an impression, Spud won't stir a single ripple in the cinema pond, and this will be last we hear about it.

Germany, 2010

Here's a good-looking but cripplingly underdeveloped and, even at only 52 minutes, wearisome eco-disaster parable.

In the near-future, a high-tech "clean" power plant goes catastrophically unstable as it draws mysterious "anima" life force energy from the earth. After an amnesiac teenager, Lys (Hanna Schwamborn), is found in the reactor core, her connection to the reactor and its anima force, a connection that dates back to the day of her birth, takes on alarming properties of creation and destruction.

The film's over-familiar cautionary message — essentially, don't mess with Mother Nature — remains a worthy one, but Lys struggles to express it compellingly, using its characters not as people but as movable type on a message board. Like the reactor at its center, Lys generates not raw power so much as a sparkly New Agey woo that throws fuzzy soft filters in front of any potentially thoughtful ideas. Basic storytelling elements such as narrative cohesion, suspense, and character development are short-shrifted, subordinated to the parable. A framing device — the scientist behind the project, held at gunpoint in a post-apocalyptic Berlin, tells the tale in a flashback confessional — feels tacked on to make up for those shortcomings, but falls way short.

I'd be more impressed by Lys if someone told me that it's a film-school senior-year student project. Lys is the feature debut of 31-year-old Krystof Zlatnik, who studied at Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg, so that might not be far off the mark. He has a good eye behind the camera, but his sense of narrative — plotting, character, structure — is clubbed to death by his desire for meaning-laden metaphor, and you can't effectively create the latter without mastering the former. (Readers following my SIFF reviews have heard me gripe about this before.)

At 52 minutes Lys is an awkward length (was it timed for TV broadcast slots?), and this is a rare film that I think would benefit from an additional 30 minutes of exposition and story, provided that a less mediocre, more fully fleshed-out screenplay came with the deal.

Lys came preceded by the thematically compatible Roman's Ark, a 24-minute Australian short tracking a survivor of a nuclear holocaust. Roman is a botanist who every five years emerges from his underground bunker and stasis chamber to check on the return of Earth's viability. During one of his ventures into the barren wastes, he rescues a woman. However, the stasis chamber isn't built for two. What he then chooses to do — and to sacrifice — sets up a final reveal that pleased me quite satisfactorily.

Although spanning over a 1,000 years of story time, this spare, wordless film held itself together better than Lys, again proving the value of shorts that fine-tune to multiple decimal places their focus and conciseness.

The Importance of Being Earnest
Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company, L.A. Theatre Works, and BY Experience
Roundabout Theatre's page

As a theater jock from way back, I'm twelve kinds of thrilled by the National Theatre Live series, which broadcasts live (in this case, digitally recorded) theater productions in high-def to cinemas. One of my most romantic evenings ever with Elizabeth involved a twilight stroll along London's Queen's Walk between two productions at the National Theatre, and I regret that we can't replicate that evening once a month or so. So the NT Live series has all kinds of pleasing resonances for me.

Under the aegis of NT Live, this production from New York's Roundabout Theatre, shown as a "special presentation" at SIFF Cinema, saved us a trip to Manhattan while still serving up one of the best Broadway shows I've seen. Earnest opened in January and is currently a Tony Award nominee for Best Revival of a Play, Best Performance by a Lead Actor (wonderful Brian Bedford, who also directed, as Lady Bracknell), and Best Costume Design.

Oscar Wilde's Earnest is an an easy play to enjoy, but a notoriously difficult one to put on well; that is, it takes a smart cast, plus a director fully tuned in to the play's tone and beats, to find its delicate fulcrum points without leaning into the humor until the whole thing topples over into the sort of "Look at us being all OscarWildey, wink-wink" burlesque that makes Wilde cry in Author Heaven. So one of the superb qualities here is the way director Bedford and his cast, not least of which being Bedford himself as the play's center of gravity, found the precise pitch of Wilde's witty, bon mot-festooned classic. This production sparkles, and Wilde's sharp satire of upper-class social twittery is allowed to speak clearly in meticulously funny but not vaudevillian ways. What Bedford can communicate through facial expressions alone deserves its own Tony.

David Hyde Pierce introduced the show, and during the intermission we got a dressing-room interview with Bedford and a discussion on the play between the actor Alfred Molina and a Wilde scholar.

For the rest of the day I went around speaking with pristine enunciation and clipped, round tones.

On the spot iPhone art by Elizabeth.

Music: Susannah McCorkle, "Do You Miss New York?" (Yes.)
Near at hand: Kai with Duck