The Guillotines (血滴子)
A big action blockbuster for the festive season, The Guillotines has enough stars to overload a Christmas tree. The list of top-name talent starts with director Andrew Lau (劉偉強), who helmed the Infernal Affairs (無間道) franchise that made mainstream Hollywood take Hong Kong crime thrillers seriously, and veteran executive producer Peter Chan (陳可辛), whose track record includes many classics and who made arguably the best martial arts film of this century with Dragon (武俠), released last year. Heading the cast list is Ethan Ruan (阮經天), in his martial arts movie debut. He may not be much of an actor, but he has celebrity appeal to spare, and his presence will help female viewers endure the overblown machismo that is passed off as dramatic tension. Special effects are an essential component of a film about secret military hardware, and the title of the film refers to a super cluster-bomb-type flying star that is perfectly designed to make the most of the film’s 3D format.
Courthouse on Horseback (馬背上的法庭)
Debut feature by director Liu Jie (劉杰), Courthouse on Horseback is a drama set in the backcountry of China’s Yunnan Province and is a throwback to the early films of China’s 5th generation of filmmakers, with echoes of Chen Kai-ge’s (陳凱歌) Yellow Earth (黃土地) and Zhang Yi-mou’s (張藝謀) The Story of Qiu Ju (秋菊打官司). The story centers on two itinerant judges who travel on horseback to resolve disputes among the tribes people in deepest Yunan Province. Yang (played by Yang Yaning, 楊亞寧) is about to retire, but as an older woman with no marriage prospects who has given her life to her job, she has little to look forward to. Moreover, she faces separation from Judge Feng (played by Li Baotien, 李保田), who she has bickered and fought with for so many years, and with whom something akin to comradeship, if not romance, has grown up. Strong acting by the cast, with good support by mostly non-professional actors playing the villagers, all set against the stunning scenery and narrow parochialism of remote mountain communities, has made this film a big hit on the European festival circuit.
On the Road
Director Walter Salles has tackled some difficult source material with films such as Central Station and The Motorcycle Diaries, and by taking on Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, the magical text that brought the Beat generation to the cultural mainstream, he has proved his skill and subtlety once again. The main criticism of this beautifully crafted work is that of an almost too reverential and prosaic presentation that fails to do justice to the mercurial power of the book. Kristen Stewart is luminescent and unbearably sexy as Marylou, the girlfriend of free spirited Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), who destroys himself in the process of making himself the immortal center of Kerouac’s (Sam Riley) text. The film teeters on the edge of brilliance, but never manages to wipe the smug self-congratulatory smirk off its face that repeatedly prevents the vitality of the story from materializing on screen.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
A debut feature by Lorene Scafaria, who had the main writing credit for the enjoyable Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World has plenty of charm and gets off to a really splendid start, promising to provide a fun twist to the recently rather overused humanity-facing-the-end-of-the-world trope with witty dialogue and intelligent insight into humanities absurdities. Steve Carell and Keira Knightley head up a more than competent cast, not sure whether to get on with life as usual, or just make merry in the face of all consuming calamity. It’s not hard to work out that Carell and Knightley will find something special, and what they find rips the film from indie quirkiness into mainstream rom-com that all but kills its spark. A film with lots of promise that does not quite manage to deliver.