Monday, December 03, 2007

Movies for the week of 11/26-12/2/07

I'm still mulling over my reaction to Johnnie To's Throwdown (2004), which seems to be a weird hybrid of his comedies and his crime films. It's shot in the Hong Kong noir style (as opposed to the bright, open style of, say, Yesterday Once More), but it's populated by lovable misfits and a sense of redemption that seems almost out of place in such a world. The story follows ex-Judo champ Sze-To Bo, who walked away from the sport to open a (failing) nightclub, where he seems to be drinking himself to death. Enter a young judo artist intent on challenging him, and a vagabond singer who's looking for a job. Mix well. The plot is almost entirely irrelevant. It's an excuse to watch these characters (and some others besides). My favorite character in the movie is the triad boss who is so competitive that he crushes little kids at air hockey. Louis Koo is pretty good in the lead, in a role that demands that the audience not know that he's blind until two thirds of the way into the movie.

On the other hand: To's Election 2 (2006, aka: Triad Election) is, if anything, even blacker than the style with which it is filmed. Picking up the threads from the first movie, we find Chairman Lok (Simon Yam) coming to the end of his term, and scheming to extend his rule contrary to triad custom. We also find Jimmy (Louis Koo) in the Michael Corleone role, a gangster who thought he was out, but who got dragged back in anyway. Having framed the romance of the Hong Kong crime film in the first two thirds of the first film only explode it in the end, To begins this film in a much darker mode. It's easy--poisonously easy--to see these films as a riff on The Godfather, but I think the true source is Kinji Fukasaku's Battles Without Honor and Humanity series. In the first of Fukasaku's films, the director mocks the yakuza sacrifice of fingers as penance for transgressions against their bosses by throwing one of those fingers into a chicken coop, where it is promptly devoured. To goes that one better in a scene of baroque nastiness involving a dog kennel, a cleaver, and a meat grinder. If the audience was making the mistake of sympathizing with Koo's Jimmy, this sequence obliterates it. Everyone here is a soulless lowlife. And that's where the movie becomes most interesting, because in addition to the triad machinations, there is also the specter of the government. Jimmy doesn't want to be a gangster, but the authorities on mainland China WANT him to take over the triad. To is cagey--he knows the game of pleasing the censors while saying what he wants. This is a masterclass in that kind of gamesmanship.

Milos Forman's Amadeus (1984) is witty (the title, in addition to being Mozart's middle name, is a terrific verbal bon mot). But it's not particularly good. Oh, the movie covers for the fact with lush production values and all the Mozart you could ever want, but the performances are stiff and the resolution is ridiculous. Still and all, I was surprised to learn that the god-awful laugh that Tom Hulce invented for Mozart was based on historical fact (a contemporary described the real Mozart's laugh as sounding like steel rubbing over glass). File this in the category of entertaining bad movies.

Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong (2005) is as shameless a love letter to a favorite movie as has ever been penned, but it's not an unreflected one. Especially in its extended edition, the movie echoes the original scene by scene (and occasionally frame for frame), but it manages the not inconsiderable feat of offering subtle, and occasionally scathing criticism of the original point by point. Consider, for example, the use to which Jackson puts Max Steiner's original score and the costumes worn by the natives in the original in a scene that lays bare the colonialist racism of the first film's natives. The film also difuses the weird (and racist) Freudian innuendo of the first film and places a character into the film that sympathizes with Kong as much as the audience does. But, of course, what's of real interest here is the dinosaur mayhem and the swarm of biplanes, and here, Jackson delivers in spades. Some viewers have called these scenes excessive, but when has Jackson ever delivered restraint? It's not in his nature.