In 2010 I saw 100 different movies in 100 different theaters. Here are the details.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

7. Red Cliff

Opera Plaza Cinema
Opened in 1984, Opera Plaza Cinema is a four-screen theater hidden away in the back of a small shopping center on San Francisco's Van Ness Ave. Encircling the plaza's inner courtyard can also be found Books Inc. (originally run as A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books) and Max's Opera Cafe.

The cinema's lobby is a well-maintained time capsule of 80's glitz and color schemes. The concession stand sells vegan cookies, though unfortunately they had closed down by mid-movie when I snuck out for a break. There are numerous flyers available, including playbills for The Castro Theater and The Red Vic Movie House (there are a lot of interesting shows coming up at those locations; it's a shame I'll only be visiting each once).

The screen auditoriums come in two sizes: large (i.e. small) and small (i.e. living room). The larger auditoriums have approximately 100 seats and are comfortable. More than ten years ago I viewed Marvin's Room in one of the smaller auditoriums (called "cozy screening rooms" by the website). It was easily the smallest auditorium I've ever visited, with only about 40 seats, most of which are uncomfortably close to or to the side of the screen. You should arrive early for these small screens to snag the perfect seat.

The theater is owned by Landmark Theaters, which according to this Wikipedia source is #16 in the country for total screens (224) and #7 for total theater locations (55). To top it off, by my estimate they are #2 for Bay Area locations (with 11, behind Cinemark Theaters's 18). I find this standing very impressive for a chain that specializes in foreign and independent film. You can read more about my thoughts on this here.


Wonderful World
Matthew Broderick plays a depressed, divorced, father-of-one who, upon taking his ailing friend to the hospital, becomes involved with his friend's sister. It's a classic "woman as foil to save mediocre man" story. Broderick's relationship with his daughter, who still has some spark left in her, will be fun to watch. A supporting character, watching Broderick ply his craft as a folk singer, says, "It's a shame . . . to be so great at something noone cares about." What a nice line of dialog. But better to toil meaningfully without recognition than to be great at nothing. 109 cuts.

The White Ribbon (Das wei├če Band - Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte)
I have no idea what this film is about. It's set in the past, in Germany, and centers around two young adults who fall in love. Beyond that there is some religious tension, a barn that burns, and lots of children trying to make sense of the world. The black-and-white film appears super stylized, with every shot meant to impress. In German with subtitles, and I'll watch anything in German. 42 cuts.

A Prophet (Un Prophete)

A young man serving a prison sentence allies himself with a dangerous circle of protectors who expect him to serve their drug-trafficking interests once he is released. The head of the prison gang has some good moments reminding the youth of the merits of loyalty. In French with subtitles. 73 cuts.

Red Cliff (Chi bi)
Sometime in the early 1940s, and with much encouragement from the U.S. government, a new film genre was born: the war movie. It took its place beside the already-thriving western and musical genres, and soon some studios were churning out a war movie a month. What an era. I can only dream of getting a couple of comic book or sci-fi movies a month, but for those who were fans of these genres, they had movies coming out of their ears. Today, we don't see much in the way of regular genre film except for horror. But every once in a while a movie comes along that reminds us of the best those genres had to offer, like the western Unforgiven, or musical Moulin Rouge. Red Cliff, John Woo's latest film, is a masterpiece of a war movie.

Looking briefly at the genre, it seems that most war films have fallen into one of four camps. History films (The Longest Day, Patton) are interested in showing us exactly what happened, sometimes at the expense of plot or catharsis, and depending on how hands-off the direction is, can easily tip over into the next category. Propaganda movies glorify courage and honor, typically during times of war. They emphasize meaningful sacrifice and downplay suffering; good guys eat milk and cookies, bad guys eat democracy and roller skates. Realism films (Das Boot, Platoon, and Saving Private Ryan) focus on the gritty violence of war, in hopes of dissuading us from considering conflict as resolution. And finally there is the action flick. Despite the underlying message of "don't forget the P.O.W.s", Rambo: First Blood Part II is just meant to entertain. Some war movies are just an excuse to show guys running around with guns shooting at things.

Red Cliff is all four types, all at once. It serves as a history lesson for a conflict that nearly tore apart the Han Dynasty in 200 AD China, but has a nationalist undercurrent as well, just as in Curse of the Golden Flower and Jet Li's Hero (and these movies don't necessarily let the good guys win). There are moments of brutality, where the characters all but turn to the camera and say, "Don't try this at home, kids," but there are even more moments of glorified fighting, for the sake of getting our blood pumping.

An ambitious viceroy, Cao Cao, has pressured China's young emperor into appointing him Prime Minister, and declaring war on the province of Liu Bei, under the pretense of Liu Bei being a rebel and traitor. Liu Bei's forces are easily defeated by the invading Cao Cao, so Liu Bei turns to Sun Quan, ruler of the southern land, to come to his aid. Cao Cao has been hoping for just such an alliance, so that he could also brand the southerners as traitors and attack their army as well.

What follows are hours and hours of chucking spears, swinging swords, and loosing rainstorms of arrows. (And apparently the U.S. version is an edited-down film, reducing the two part Chi bi to a meager two and a half hours.) We're introduced to three different armies, the numerous generals of each, several epic battle sequences, and amid it all the film finds room for two female leads. (Considering its thousands of extras, this movie could possibly have the highest male/female ratio of any movie ever made, excepting My Dinner with Andre, of course.)

The film is low on the martial arts, stunning choreography, and breath-taking locations that we've come to expect from such imports as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers. But it delivers on two fronts seldom satisfied by the genre, and it does it well.

The film takes pains to make memorable nine different military commanders on the sympathetic side. Most are called out explicitly by name, and even have the equivalent of a solo, where their troops, having surrounded and trapped the enemy, wait patiently as our generals, one by one, show off their stuff. Like The Longest Day with all its cameos and various characters, the effect is ensuring that each battle sequence has several major characters in it, and those characters always have some other great leader standing nearby they can talk to. The only thing lacking was Han Dynasty trading cards free with my ticket.

The other great success of the movie is to demonstrate military strategy. I've seen a lot of movies that have characters looking at maps, and talking about troop formation, but the idea of strategy and tactics seem lost once the action starts. This movie brings the strategy front and center, with several strategists on each side, in interwoven scenes, setting out their plans, predicting the moves of their opponents, and reacting to these predictions. Masses of soldiers effect formations that the other side must try, mid-fight, to understand and penetrate. Each army considers troop numbers, training, morale, and acclimation to the environment; they discuss supplies, terrain, and weather. Politics, egos, spies, deceptions, betrayals, and secret maps all play their part. It's simply awesome. As war movies go, this is one of the absolute best.

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