DANCER IN THE DARK. Lars von Trier, 2000. 140min.
A bit repetative after Breaking the Waves (1996), Lars Von Trier nonetheless explores new ground with the addition of fantasy sequences set to music. Whereas Emily Watson escaped into religion, Bjork escapes into the world of musicals offering plenty of opportunities to turn her grey washed out world into a techincolor dream. Whether this makes the film itself a musical is up for debate, but Trier manages to blend the different disciplines into more or less of a seamless whole. Bjork runs away with the film; her impish portrayal of the title character is charming even as she struggles with the major upsets in her life. As a whole, however, I found Waves somewhat more affecting and well thought out. As Dancer drags on to its final conclusion, I couldn't help but hope there was a greater theme or belief running through the film, as in WAVES. Still, Trier manages to explore new ground even as he mines over his already established premise, and if the songs aren't quite what you would expect, at least it's wonderful to hear Bjork sing them.
DAYS OF BEING WILD. Wong Kar-Wai, 1991. 94min.
A prequel of sorts to In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai, 2000) [incidentally, my favourite new film to have been released in some time], and Wong Kar-Wai's first "art" film, Days of Being Wild recounts the lives of a man in search of his mother and those women he meets along the way. Set in the same time period as Love, the screen is drenched in the period, though the film is surprisingly dark. The advent of his trademark stylistic touches are in evidence, as well as the story-telling, and it's interesting if only to see where he got his "art" start. The introduction of Tony Leung at the very end is a tantalizing suggestion of a sequel that was never strictly made.
DAYS OF HEAVEN. Terrence Malick, 1978. 95 min.
How intensely beautiful is this film? It's so intensely beautiful as to suggest an analogy to Vermeer. For as Vermeer captures light on canvas so do Malick and his cinematographers Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler (there's been oft-discussed dispute as to how much each contributed leading Haskell to watch a print with a stopwatch to determine how much of his film made the screen) capture light on film. The stars are not Sam Shepard, Richard Gere, or Brooke Adams, but the sheer beauty of the cinematography and the little girl (Linda Manz) who provides voiceover narration; sharing with us her take on the world she inhabits. If it were merely for the beauty of the film, I would have to recommend this. The storytelling adds a dimensional counterpart that's impossible to ignore. Incidentally, if you've not seen Malick's first film, Badlands (1973) that is another beautiful must see film.
DEATH OF A CYCLIST (aka Muerte de un ciclista). 1955, Juan Antonio Bardem. 88min.
A beautifully shot mediation on the decline of morality in post-Franco Spain (though it's more fun than that description sounds) Death of a Cyclist charts the downfall of a couple after a hit-and-run incident with a bicyclist. It's a noir of sorts, with a woman caught between love and position, where no one ends up with what they want. Alfredo Fraile, the cinematographer, uses deep focus to create shots reminiscent of those by Greg Toland in films such as Citizen Kane, and the editor pays particular attention to transitions throughout the first half of the film. 10.08
THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE. Luis Bunuel, 1972. 102min.
The flip side of sorts to The Exterminating Angel , the plot concerns itself with a group of friends who continually invite each other to various meals only to find themselves interrupted, never able to eat. Around this simple conceit, Bunuel weaves an extremely lucid comedy revealing on-screen subjects unspoken of in polite society, externalizing our more base urges. Throughout, Bunuel toys with the audience with the understanding that he wishes us to join in on the joke; the consummate prankster, he keeps always one step ahead. A very funny and engaging film, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie proved to be Bunuel's most successful film, garnering both the Oscar for best foreign film in 1973, and the National Society of Film Critics award for best film of the year. 01.25.02
DOGTOWN AND Z-BOYS. Stacy Peralta, 2001. 91min.
In the late sixties a group of kids hanging around Jeff Ho's surf shop in Southern California decided to take to the streets in the afternoons and evenings after they'd exhausted the morning waves. Organized into the Zephyr crew, they brought the agressive techniques of surfers such as Larry Bertlsman to the heretofore staid world of championship skateboarding. Originally chronicled and championed by Craig Stecyk in various magazines, the film was made by one of the original Z-boys (Stacy Peralta who went onto Powell Peralta fame) who tracked down most of the crew after not seeing many for almost 20 years. What emerges is not only a document of the roots of skateboarding today, but a portrait of a group of wayward teens who rode their passion to suprising stardom and self destruction. An exhilarating documentary even for nonfans. Oh, and the soundtrack RAWKS! 2.15.03
THE DONNER PARTY. Ric Burns, 1992. 90min.
"Never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can." In 1846, a band of immigrants attempted a shortcut en route to California on the Oregon trail. The Donner Party tells of their sad fate leading to the above-quoted lesson learned. Before Jazz (Ken Burns, 2001) and New York (Ric Burns, 1999) cemented the Burns' style into multi-part celebrations, this film uses the same techinques to uncover a smaller piece of history with an irony and desperation lacking from the longer works. A beautiful piece of filmmaking before the Burns became the ubiquitous face of PBS documentaries. 02.27.03
DOUBLE SUICIDE. Masahiro Shinoda, 1969. 105min.
A highly stylized live action retelling of a bunraku puppet performance, the film opens with backstage rehearsals at a puppet theater, the director talking to a location scout about where the final suicide scene should be shot. As the film opens on a beautifully shot double bridge, figures walk into and out of the frame as they cross, finally entering into a space that marries the theater and the cinema. Live actors act convincingly for the screen while the presence of masked stagehands in full view perform their duties as on the stage, moving and supplying props where necessary, seeing to a small detail that would otherwise go unnoticed. The sets, while built as "real" cinematic spaces are adorned with the broad strokes of a theatrical stage. Like nothing I've ever seen before, the mix of styles becomes a seamless whole, the two parts adding up to a much greater whole, each element suddenly suggesting a new interpretation.
DRUNKEN MASTER II. Chia-Liang Liu, 1994. 102 min.
Did I recommend Drunken Master (1979, Woo-pint Yuen)? Well forget it. While you're at it, shelve The Matrix (1999, Andy and Larry Wachowski). I have never seen such amazing martial arts action in any other film, hands down. The last 20 minutes will leave you gasping as the fight choreography just keeps getting better and better. To give a sense of the complexity of the final scene, the seven-minute fight at the end of the film took nearly four months to shoot--Jackie Chan indicated that one day's filming typically produced three seconds of usable film. A very anti-imperialist film, the main thrust of the plot (which otherwise meanders much) involves the theft of Chinese artifacts for the British Museum. Boasting much higher production values than most Hong Kong kung-fu spectacles, the film makes full use of its widescreen presentation to showcase Chan's acrobatic skills and daredevil stunts--the stunts aren't always so obvious until the ending credits where, in now typical Jackie Chan fashion, they show bone-crushing outtakes. This film must be seen to be believed. Incidentally, if anyone knows of a better fight scene than the last bit of this film please tell me. And then I'll have to rest up to watch it.
DAREDEVIL. Mark Steven Johnson, 2003. 103 min.
Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner star in this decidedly B-movie adaptation of the Daredevil and Elektra story. With special effects borrowed from Spiderman [Sam Raimi, 2002] and kung fu sequences that look as though they were recorded at 78 and played back at 33 1/3, there is little to recommend. On second thought, there is nothing to recommend. Save your time and money and spend it rather on the Frank Miller comic books that inspired this insipid translation.
DARK CITY. Alex Proyas, 1998. 100min.
With a set design that recalls Batman (1989, Tim Burton) by way of the dark side of Dick Tracy (1990, Warren Beaty) and an antagonist that calls Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins to mind, Dark City manages to precede the Matrix (1999, Andy & Larry Wachowski) with its blend of futuristic nihilism and the elements of a thriller. Unfortunately, the cartoon sets and situations never quite elevate the film beyond b-movie status, and nothing quite fits together exactly right. Partially, it's the way the film is shot, and partially it is the actors who have been chosen, but the sad thing is that the movie never quite realizes its potential. As a sci-fi film it is at best average; even the world seems too clean for what it is--the atmosphere verges upon comic when it should be creepy. Give me another showing of Bladerunner (1982, Ridley Scott) anyday. 04.01.01
THE DAYS. Wong Xiaoshuai, 1995. 80min.
Two artists share their lives and space without ever really connecting in this black and white Chinese film. The days are spent sharing the same space without ever really inhabiting it together. The time stretches until the movie becomes bogged down with its rumination of itself. The film comes alive when the protagonist and his girlfriend return to his hometown to visit his family, but it is a case of too little too late. The film plays like a student piece, and while there is much hype that appears to be being generated around the sixth generation of filmmakers from China, they don't appear quite to be filling the giant shoes of the generation that came before.
DRAGON INN. Raymond Lee, 1992. 103min.
While the casting and the elements bespeak what should be a great wuxia film, Dragon Inn somehow fails to deliver on the promise of love and betrayal that form the crux of so many of these films. Produced by Tsui Hark, the film boasts some good fighting sequences, but as the characters remain sequestered in the inn of the title, the story began to stagnate and I . . . well, I began to feel somewhat claustophobic. With the desert beating at the doors, I wished the action would move out onto that expanse, giving rise to more story possibilities. As it was, the film feels like a long game of solitaire, as the main characters wait for something to happen--the rain to stop so that the heros might leave, and the reinforcements of the antagonist that they might stop them. Brigette Lin continues her semi-androgynous protrayals, and Maggie Cheung plays the vixenish boss lady of the establishment. Rounding out the love triangle is Tony Leung as the man who must save his friend's children from the evil forces of the Emporer he has dared stand up to. 03.22.01
DROP ZONE. John Badham, 1994. 101min.
A Wesley Snipes vehicle involving theft by parachute, this film offers the chance to experience the thrill of skydiving without leaving your couch. An adequate action film, there's very little really to recommend other than a few hours passed on a lazy sunday afternoon. It's still weird for me to see Gary Buesy in anything. I keep thinking of him as Buddy Holly.
DRUNKEN MASTER. Woo-pint Yuen, 1979.
Jackie Chan . . . IS . . . Wong Fei-Hong (not that you would necessarily know it from the dubbing) in this action packed kung-fu extravaganza! While the story is simple and obvious from the first two scenes, that's not really the point. More fights are packed into this film than I thought possible as everywhere Chan turns there's a reason to exhibit his balletic physical style. Presented in letterbox, it's the first time that I could actually watch the composition in a kung fu film, and it's amazing how seamless the editing is when there's so much motion--if not true emotion. Funny, daring, and how-the-hell-do-they-do-that-without-killing-themselves, it's good kung fu. But if you're not into the kung fu thing, then definitely skip this as there's really little reason otherwise to see it. 4.18.00
DURIAN DURIAN (aka LIULIAN PIAO PIAO). Fruit Chan, 2000. 116min.
With a first half that would better have been served by the likes of Wong Kar-Wai, Durian Durian tells the story of a woman from China come to Hong Kong to work and make money to bring home. Unfortunately, she learns that finding a job is not so simple and ends up prostituting herself, a fact she must hide when she returns to China and is asked to bring a cousin back with her to Hong Kong in order to do as well as she. It not until her return to China that the film settles into itself, and as she wanders through her past trying to make sense of it and her future the film finds its true heart. The Durian of the title makes its appearence every so often, providing comic relief and a connection to the first half of the film (involving a quick friendship with a young girl who has also come to Hong Kong with her family for financial gain, albeit illegally), but also suggesting the innocence that comes with the unexepected and new. While the second half of the film is touching, it's just too bad the first half is so wayward and uninvolving.