Singin’ in the watermelon juice

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Imagine being a moviegoer, say, 60 years ago. Then, as now, Hollywood prompted wiseguys and eggheads to complain that the average picture was made by idiots for idiots. In particular, what could be more brain-deadening than yet another 90 minutes spent enduring gaudy production numbers, rickety romance plots, stale patter, throwaway songs, and forced (as they used to put it) gaiety?

Now we are up to our necks in invasions from outer space, fantasy landscapes, mass destruction everything the average 13-year-old imagination and computer-generated imagery can devise. The barriers for physical depiction have collapsed, yet movies seem dumber than ever, with fewer actual ideas. It’s enough to make you wish for a return to relative realism, like say 100 chorus girls dancing around a giant cake. Really: Quit with the dragons. Bring back the musical.

Strangely, this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival does turn back the clock, in that several of the higher-profile features this year are honest-to-god musicals, and original ones too — there isn’t a boring Broadway transfer among them.

The first musical to open the festival in 20 years (1986 had Absolute Beginners) is Peter Ho-Sun Chan’s lavish Hong Kong confection Perhaps Love, a Jacques Demy<\d>meets<\d>Moulin Rouge exercise in decorative, sentimental self-consciousness. Too many bathetic ballads eventually slow things down, but as an exercise in pure stylistic excess, the result looks and feels like you hope the after-party will.

As idiosyncratic and personal as Love is, it seems conventional compared with the two other musicals from lands of the (Far) East. Eighty-four-year-old veteran Japanese wild man Seijun Suzuki’s Princess Raccoon is an anarchic anomaly based on a popular whimsy almost as old as he is, updated to be just as agelessly lunatic. The against-odds love between titular princess (Ziyi Zhang) and prince (Joe Odagiri) occurs amidst a nonstop camp parade of non sequitur delights, visual as well as aural. There’s song (Hawaiian to rap to prog rock), dance (tap to moonwalk), evil Catholicism, Kabuki theatricality, rampant CGI, giant penis sculptures, and a mystical Frog of Paradise. It’s suitable for unhinging viewers of all ages.

That cannot be said for Tsai Ming-liang’s already notorious Thai-French coproduction The Wayward Cloud. In this gorgeous, absurdist cipher, dizzy production numbers alternate with graphic sex scenes in a Taipei where a chronic water shortage has prompted mass consumption of watermelon juice. If Cloud ever finds a US distributor, multiple viewings will be in order — the first may leave you too gobsmacked to know what just befell you.

I’d like to say the home team is holding up its end in the all-singing, all-dancing department. But the two big guns at 2006 — slotted as "centerpiece" and "closing night feature," respectively — left me cold, even if you’ve got to hand their makers a nickel for trying something different. Actor-turned-director-cum-horrible-scenarist John Turturro’s Romance and Cigarettes is a karaoke musical set to a mix tape of his formative faves (Dusty, James Brown, even Engelbert). James Gandolfini and Susan Sarandon play a working-class Queens couple who bust up, then meander amidst various wacky characters (Winslet, Walken, Buscemi, etc.) before the inevitable reconciliation and a somber finish the movie doesn’t have the emotional depth to pull off. While nicely designed, the film’s scatological humor and broad performances are painful in that same tone-deaf, infantile way as recent John Waters (A Dirty Shame); the production numbers are as shapeless as the screenplay.

Robert Altman’s take on A Prairie Home Companion may well please fans of the radio show. His woozy fallback style, which kicks in whenever the material doesn’t wake him up (last alert moment: Gosford Park), is apt enough for Garrison Keillor’s cozy, faintly ironic cornball humor and penchant for a fake "authenticity" borne of nostalgia for never-was Americana. Keillor is not, to put it kindly, a natural camera presence. But then Companion doesn’t do the professionals any favors either, rendering even Meryl Streep negligible and giving Virginia Madsen the worst role of her career (yes, worse than being Bobcat’s love interest in Hot to Trot). Everybody onscreen appears to be having a very good time. If you want to enjoy tepid, quasi-folksome chuckles and movie actors singing bluegrass and gospel songs poorly, then you will too.

PERHAPS LOVE

(Peter Ho-Sun Chan, Hong Kong, 2005)

 

Thurs/20, 7 p.m., Castro

(Party 9:30 p.m., Regency Center)

PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION

(Robert Altman, USA, 2006)

 

May 4, 7 p.m.

(Party 9:30 p.m., Mezzanine)

PRINCESS RACCOON

(Seijun Suzuki, Japan, 2005)

 

April 26, 9:30 p.m., Kabuki

April 28, 2:30 p.m., Castro

April 30, 8 p.m., PFA

ROMANCE and CIGARETTES

(John Turturro, USA, 2005)

 

April 28, 8 p.m., Kabuki

THE WAYWARD CLOUD

(Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan/France, 2005)

 

Sun/23, 9:30 p.m., Castro

Tues/25, 10:15 p.m., Kabuki

April 26, 3:30 p.m., Kabuki

April 28, 9:15 p.m., PFA