Covering cinema from the highest of the highbrow to the lowest of the low-grade.
Thursday, July 19, 2012
New on DVD/Blu-ray: HERE (2012) and THE FLOWERS OF WAR (2011)
HERE (US/Germany/The Netherlands/France/Armenia/Japan - 2012)
Documentary filmmaker and music video director Braden King makes his first scripted feature with HERE, which is equal parts travelogue, introspective road film, and GOOGLE EARTH: THE MOVIE. Filmed in 2009, HERE is very deliberately paced (probably too slow for some), but quite captivating, with some breathtaking cinematography as cartographer Will Shepard (Ben Foster) travels throughout Armenia on a contractual job marking coordinates and putting together a map for a satellite mapping company. He befriends Armenian photographer Gadarene (Lubna Azabal of INCENDIES), who's just back from an extended stay in Paris, much to the disapproval of her traditional family. Will decides to take Gadarene along as her photographic skills could prove helpful. King co-wrote the script with Dani Valent, and it often resorts to facile metaphors (maps, roads, journeys, finding yourself, etc), but is also a powerful film about culture, tradition, and communication. And, of course, existential pondering (Will, explaining his passion for maps: "I wanted to see how far I could go before getting lost"). We don't learn much about Will--only that he's a loner and letting someone tag along, much less reluctantly allowing himself to fall in love, is out of character. Only at the very end do we see the effect that Will's time with Gadarene and her family and friends and in her country has had on him. There's a scene where Will is left alone with the husband (Hovak Galoyan) of one of Gadarene's friends, and the two don't understand one another's language, but bond over shots of strong Armenian vodka and each teaches the other how to say "friend" in their language. It's a wonderful scene that's beautifully and naturally played by Foster and Galoyan. There's lots of little moments like that throughout HERE. With its somewhat Ry Cooder-ish minimalist score and long scenes of driving or hiking through desolate areas, King establishes a vintage Wim Wenders mood with HERE. Some will find this boring and pretentious and admittedly, one has to be in the mood for it, but HERE is a quietly powerful and richly rewarding film. (Unrated, 126 mins)
THE FLOWERS OF WAR (China - 2011)
Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou has amassed a long list of revered films over his illustrious career: JU DOU (1990), RAISE THE RED LANTERN (1991), TO LIVE (1994), SHANGHAI TRIAD (1995), HERO (2002), HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (2004), CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER (2006), and a few others. I guess every great auteur has an off-day, but Zhang shits the bed with THE FLOWERS OF WAR, a tone-deaf and appallingly misguided drama set during the horrific Rape of Nanking in 1937. Budgeted at the US equivalent of $95 million, it currently ranks as China's most expensive film, and was the country's top-grossing release of 2011. It didn't fare as well in the US, topping out at $300,000 on just 30 screens, generating almost no interest despite the presence of Christian Bale. Based on Yan Geling's novel 13 Flowers of Nanjing, THE FLOWERS OF WAR concerns a group of teenage girls in a convent who take refuge in a Catholic church during the attack by Japanese soldiers. They're joined by John Miller (Bale), an American mortician/drunkard/con man who's there to bury the Catholic priest who recently died. They're soon joined by several prostitutes, and Miller finds himself in the position of pretending to be the new priest in order to protect everyone, as the Japanese soldiers won't attack the sacred ground of a church. What could've been a compelling story is bogged down by an overstylized look that shouldn't even be used for a serious period drama, even if it is a fictional story taking place during a real event. Presenting the atrocities in a brutal and accurate fashion is appropriate, but Zhang inexplicably opts for slo-mo bullet blasts and garish, tasteless CGI splatter, with a couple instances of arterial spray that seem like he's paying homage to RIKI-OH. The film was shot entirely on sets, including the exteriors, so many of the buildings seen in "exterior" shots look completely cartoonish and have an almost graphic novel artifice that's more fitting for SUCKER PUNCH than an ostensibly sincere film set during one of the most painful periods in China's history. The stunt casting of Bale is clearly a marketing decision, and he's one of the film's biggest problems. Bale is a great actor, and for one so renowned for disappearing into his characters, he never stops being "Christian Bale" here, and never seems like he's in the same film as his co-stars. It's his worst performance since HARSH TIMES, but THE FLOWERS OF WAR isn't his fault. Overlong, overwrought, and utterly pointless considering the much better fact-based films that deal with the Nanking Massacre (THE CHILDREN OF HUANG SHI, CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH), THE FLOWERS OF WAR is a shocking misfire for a filmmaker of Zhang's caliber. (R, 142 mins)