Monday, June 23, 2008

Superheroes and Samurai

210. The French cartoonist, Jean Giraud, who goes by the pen name of Moebius, has one of the most distinctive drawing styles in the world. It's an elaboration on the "clean line" style of Herge, and even though many of Moebius's cartoons are mindbending (he frequently collaborates with Alejandro Jodorowsky, for example), they are both narratively and visually clean. His series of Westerns about Mike Blueberry are almost classical. Unfortunately, the makers of the film version of Blueberry (2004, directed by Jan Kounen) retain none of the great cartoonist's virtues. Instead, we have a film that's so muddied up with exotic "style" that it becomes narratively incoherent. The amount of mescaline consumed in this film suggests that the filmmakers are more influenced by El Topo than by Moebius's Blueberry. This movie is pretty much an eyesore, shot through with half-assed Native American mysticism. Even a late performance by Ernest Borgnine can't save this shit. Bad.

211. Speaking of French mud. I'm one of the few people, it seems, that prefers Ang Lee's 2003 version of The Hulk to the new version currently in theaters. The Incredible Hulk (2008, directed by Louis Leterrier) isn't without virtues--most of them provided by Ed Norton--but it's a case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It's much uglier than its predecessor, featuring muddy production design and cinematography that occasionally loses track of its own internal geography, and it's narratively more conventional to the point of predictability; you know the drill: an action mini-climax at the end of every reel. I found this pace irritating. I much prefer Lee's classical rising action. But ultimately, the main complaint that many people have with Lee's film--that the CGI Hulk is unconvincing--seems more applicable to this film, and without an emotional weight to the story, the climax seems like a refugee from a video game. Bad.

212. and 213. I've written about both The Big Combo (1955, directed by Joseph Lewis) and The Scar (aka: Hollow Triumph, 1948, directed by Istevan Sekely) in the past. They remain great favorites. Cinematographer John Alton is the common thread between them, and these two films are among his best work, weaving nightmares out of thin air and darkness. Two of the best lines in film noir come from these films:

"First is first and second is nobody"--Mr. Brown (Richard Conte) in The Big Combo.

"It's a bitter little world full of sad surprises" --John Muller (Paul Henreid) in The Scar.

I love these movies.

214. I had forgotten just how striking the title frame from the first Lone Wolf and Cub movie is (it's Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance, 1972, directed by Kenji Misumi, by the way). It's been a while. Anyway, it features our hero walking a path between fire and water, heaven and hell. And it's not the end of arresting images. The signature image features a headless man's blood rising in a high geysering jet from the stump of his neck, silhouetted against the rising sun. This leads me to theorize that the Japanese have more blood in smaller bodies than Caucasians, else how does one explain the extreme blood pressures exhibited in these movies.

215. A kinder and gentler Kenji Misumi directed Sleepy Eyes of Death: Sword of Adventure (1964), the second in that series. Its star, the ill-fated Raizô Ichikawa, is a far more charismatic actor than Lone Wolf's Tomisaburo Wakayama, and the sly smile he sometimes wears should be a warning to any who cross his path. This series got darker as it went (with the fourth installment providing a template for future chambara mayhem), but this early entry is a close cousin to the early Zatoichi movies, and about as good-natured. It finds our hero protecting the kindly finance minister from the machinations of the spoiled daughter of the Shogun, whose plots are ever more elaborate. Many duels ensue, culminating in a terrific battle in the woods. I wish AnimEigo would pick up the license for these films again so I can fill in my collection.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Pussy Power

206. Teeth (2007, directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein) wants in its black little heart to be a vicious satire of teen-age sexual mores, focusing on one girl's discovery of the power of her hoohah. Because said hoohah is the mythical vagina dentata, and because all of the men in our heroine's life are colossal pricks, it doesn't take long before severed...ahem...members are littering the landscape. This all sounds more shocking than it really is, because the film is entirely too gentle for its premise, and when it does finally get nasty, it telegraphs its shocks. It doesn't go for the metaphorical jellies, unfortunately. The vague misandry that informs this film does it no favors either, though it's probably unavoidable given the premise. Jess Weixler is fine as our heroine, but the script does her no favors as it takes her from abstinence-spouting good-girl to castrating femme fatale in one unconvincing arc. That she makes something out of this is fairly surprising. Meh. Not bad. Not great.

207. Lust, Caution (2007, directed by Ang Lee) seemed a lot like Paul Verhoeven's Black Book for long stretches of its running time, so when it actually arrived at its conclusion it kind of blindsided me, because it's a conclusion that the ever-commercial Verhoeven (even in the arthouse) would never have entertained. But it's kind of perfect. The story follows a young woman who gets involved with an acting company just before the Japanese occupation of China. The company begins to play at being members of the resistance, only to have it end badly. Four years later, they are recruited by the resistance proper to kill the man they originally targeted, the collaborating Mr. Yee. The main agent in both plots is Wong Chia Chi, played by the very willing Wei Tang, who paid a professional price for her willingness to do very explicit nude scenes with Tony Leung as Mr. Yee (Leung, both male and a huge star, paid no price at all). Leung is superb, it should be said. This is one of his best performances, especially given that the movie is really about him, and conceals this until the very end. I liked this a lot.

208. I don't remember much about the Narnia books. I read them when I was a pre-teen, and that was longer ago than I care to admit having been alive. So I had no real investment in the accuracy of The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (2008, directed by Andrew Adamson), except to note that I don't remember the book being as blatantly up-front about its deus ex machina ending. But I could be mistaken. This is a marvel of production design and special effects, but it's not very engaging as drama except when temptation comes the way of our young heroes in the form of the White Witch, as played by the wonderful Tilda Swinton. It's almost enough to get me to watch the first film. Almost.

209. Luchino Visconti is probably my favorite Italian director, mainly on the strength of three films: The Leopard, Senso, and Rocco and His Brothers. Especially the last one. Rocco, made in 1960, shows the director at the crossroads, still clinging to his neorealist roots, but falling in love with the glamour of movie stars at the same time, and pushing his own tendency towards melodrama into the realm of the operatic. You can see the evolution of the director's career summarized in the course of this movie. The result is a delerious bitches brew that culminates in one of the most dazzling cross-cut sequences in film. Although each of the five Parondi brothers gets a chapter in the movie, the film revolves around Rocco and Simone, who are polar opposites linked by bonds of blood and by their separate relationships with Nadia, a prostitute who lives in their building. Rocco is a saint. Simone is a sinner. Both character traits are shown to be equally destructive. Both brothers find their calling in the boxing ring, and this is one of the best boxing movies ever made. In the way it's constructed, you can hardly miss that this film is a progenitur of The Godfather, of Raging Bull, of Mean Streets. This film offers Alain Delon at his most approachable, a stark contrast to the cold, calculating persona he adopted later. Equally good is Anna Girardot. This is one of my favorite films.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Something New Under the Sun

Every so often, when I think I've seen just about everything, something comes along and knocks me on my ass. This week, it's (201.) "Muto," a short Argentinian film the likes of which I've never seen before. Seriously, it's a mind-blower. I hesitate to even describe it, so I'll just refer anyone and everyone to it:

MUTO a wall-painted animation by BLU from blu on Vimeo.

My significant other was seriously creeped out by it, so I guess it's a horror movie of sorts.

In more mundane pursuits, and in brief, this is what I saw last week:

202. There's nothing like a pale imitation to highlight the virtues of a terrific film. Hence, 20 Centimeters (2005, directed by Ramón Salazar) makes Hedwig and the Angry Inch seem better and better as its running time unfolds. Where Hedwig was powered by rage, and by a ferocious score, 20 Centimeters seems a bit limp (if you'll pardon the pun). Perhaps this is a result of having a central character who's a narcoleptic, which is in itself a kind of desperation. I mean, really, a transsexual narcoleptic with an eight inch cock whose roommate is a dwarf? Right. That's reaching guys. Still, it's not all bad. The opening musical number is pretty good, as is the closing number. This last is a version of Queen's "I Want to Break Free," which, like most Queen covers, only serves to highlight how dependent they were on the bombast of Freddie Mercury's voice. But I digress. This gets docked a bunch of points for having yet another transsexual prostitute as a central character, which is not a good way to kick off gay pride month (at least not for me). Feh.

203. I can only imagine the impact that King Hu's Come Drink With Me had when it was originally released in 1966, but it still holds up remarkably well today (compare it, for example, to Chang Cheh's movies from the same period and it looks downright sophisticated). Hu was a master at composing the film frame, something not always a strength in martial arts films (in which framing the action takes precedence over most other elements), and this film is well-composed in depth. The Shaws spent the next two decades copying the production design of this movie. There are several sequences in this movie that take some of the novelty out of the scrolling battle in Oldboy, because Hu and his collaborators were there forty years earlier. There's also a touch of Fritz Lang in the way scenes transition from one to the next--my favorite being the scene immediately after Golden Swallow roughs up the bad guys in the tavern, in which we see them all sitting around the dinner table swaddled in bandages and nursing their hurts. Perhaps most interesting is the treatment of Hu's heroine, Golden Swallow, played by the great Chang Pei Pei. She is every inch the kung-fu badass and never becomes a fainting violet, even after being poisoned. Compare this to Chang Cheh's treatment in the sequel (Golden Swallow), in which she is the title character, but barely registers as support. The Weinsteins are atoning for a lot of sins towards Asian cinema with their Dragon Dynasty label. This is a terrific disc, and something of a revelation for me after knowing this film only from nth-generation bootlegs.

204. Garson Kanin's My Favorite Wife (1940) finds Cary Grant being tormented by his most persistent comic foil. Though they only made three movies together, no one got the best of the Grant persona more decisively than Irene Dunne. In this movie, and in the very similar The Awful Truth, she puts the screws to Grant's unflappability like no other actress (Kate Hepburn included). Mind you, this is a comedy of manners--a marriage comedy--and as such, it's pretty much candy. But it's a rich, dark chocolate of a candy.

205. Dunne and Grant performed together on Radio in a version of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1949, directed by H. C. Potter), but Myrna Loy is fine in the movie version. The movie itself is sociologically interesting as a portrait of the aspirations of Americans with the war and the depression finally behind them, but at its core, it's a sitcom, and a fairly obvious one at that. Grant and Loy make the whole thing appealing, but it's hard to take the sophisticated Grant as the kind of guy who gets rooked and rooked and rooked again as he builds his dream home. For that matter, it's strange seeing Grant joining the bourgeoisie. But the Grant persona is durable, and it works even here.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Nine that Rip

So, a couple of weeks ago, I picked up the recent Image disc for the Shaw Brothers film, The Magic Blade. Like most recent Shaw reissues from the Celestial catalog, this one was festooned with trailers. In addition to trailers for the other Shaw Brothers films in Image's Eastern Masters line, it also included a bunch of trailers for Hong Kong action films from the eighties and nineties. Most of the films in question are crap, though some of them have their highlights. What this mainly did was instill in me a jones for Hong Kong action films. I used to eat, breath, and dream HK action films when I was running a video store in the 1990s. They were part of our specialty, and our selection of movies landed us in one of the appendices of one of the earliest guides to HK action films, Sex and Zen and A Bullet In the Head by Steffan Hammond and Mike Wilkins. Sadly, the store has been defunct for years now, and this book is out of print, and the bloom is off the lily for HK action films, their style having been co-opted by other cinemas across the globe. But I still had that jones. Rather than waste it on some of the crappy films advertised on The Magic Blade--I'll get to some of those in the next few weeks--I thought I'd go straight to uncut shit and mainline it. The first part of S&Z&ABitH is a chapter called "Ten That Rip," which gives an outline of the best of the Hong Kong new wave. It's not a "best 10," which the authors freely acknowledge, but rather a jumping-off point. So what the hell, I thought. Why not go back to first principles?

The "Ten that Rip" are the following:

The Bride With White Hair (1993, directed by Ronny Yu)
A Chinese Ghost Story (1987, directed by Ching Tsui-Tung)
193. Full Contact (1993, directed by Ringo Lam)
194. Hard Boiled (1992, directed by John Woo)
It's Now Or Never (1992, directed by Kwok-Hei Chan)
195. Mr. Vampire (1985, directed by Ricky Lau)
196. Naked Killer (1992, directed by Clarence Fok)
197. Pedicab Driver (1989, directed by Sammo Hung)
198. Police Story III (1992, directed by Stanley Tong and Jackie Chan)
199. Sex and Zen (1992, directed by Michael Mak)

I own 9 of these films. The tenth, It's Now or Never, is a film I've never been able to track down. And believe me, I've tried.

Two things are immediately apparent from this listing. First: even though I say that I've fallen out with Hong Kong cinema over time, that's a lie. I've seen both The Bride With White Hair and A Chinese Ghost Story very recently. I've also been working my way through several Shaw releases. Second: 1992 and 1993 were VERY good years for Hong Kong cinema, perhaps the culmination of the Hong Kong New Wave. Certainly, pop cinema in Hong Kong has not reached such delirious heights ever since. The HK New Wave burned brightly, but it burned for a relatively short period of time.

One can quibble with some of these selections. I've never been particularly fond of Sammo Hung's Pedicab Driver, and I would happily replace it with his Eastern Condors, but that's just nitpicking.

Of the films I watched last week, I found Full Contact to be the most interesting. Maybe it's because I've been watching Shaw Brothers films recently, but the way Full Contact takes the sublimated homoerotic sadomasochism of Chang Cheh's films and makes it overt--Simon Yam's character fairly flames--makes this one jump out. And while it's as thoroughly aestheticized in its depiction of violence, this one makes it hurt a little bit more. The fight in the ice house is a good example of this, particularly when Chow Yun-Fat pins a man's hand to a block of ice with a butterfly knife. It's also possible that I noticed this one more because it has a meaty role for the ubiquitous Anthony Wong, who remains one of my favorite Chinese actors.

Hard Boiled, on the other hand, takes the aesthetic of the Hong Kong gun movie, established in John Woo's own A Better Tomorrow six year's earlier, and pushes it to its ultimate extremity. Woo films everything as if it's a set-piece, and eliminating anything that doesn't get the blood pumping. The long single shot in the running gun battle in the hospital is bravura filmmaking that even the director himself has been unable to match in the years since.

The anything goes attitude that characterizes these films reaches a kind of apotheosis in Police Story III (Supercop in America), which hangs on a couple of stunts that one-up almost all of the stunt films ever made. Watching Jackie Chan dangle in front of a train while suspended from a helicopter is crazy enough, but watching Michelle Yeoh drive a motorcycle onto the back of a moving train is beyond the pale. These people were just crazy.

Mr. Vampire is an example of a different kind of kitchen sink filmmaking, in which the film shifts moods at a whim from horror to romance to knockabout slapstick comedy. If you can get into these shifts, the movie is a lot of fun. Some viewers won't be able to make the leap. I quite like it.

Naked Killer is a remake of sorts of the Shaws' Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan. It adds a LOT of castration imagery and twists the motivations of the cop on the case. But it's all about a lesbian kung fu pas de deux in the end.

And then there's Sex and Zen, which defies easy description. It's a porno movie. It's a kung fu movie. It's a slapstick comedy. It certainly has striking production values. My own personal favorite scene shows Amy Yip practicing her caligraphy while holding her brush in her hoohah. It's that kind of movie, but it certainly makes a strong impression.

200. Away from Hong Kong, I took in Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943), in which the director famously transposes the blank face of evil against a serene small town but less famously begins to transform from his early, Fritz Lang-inspired style into the mature "Hitchcockian" style. The early parts of this film show the director exploring the same kind of cinematic "twinning" that he would later use in Strangers on a Train, both with character names (Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten both play characters named Charlie) and with how they are introduced (both are introduced lying on their backs on a bed, apparently afflicted with melancholia). One wonders if Hitchcock mightn't have embarked on his mature style a decade earlier had he not been reigned in by David O. Selznick, but that's useless speculation, given that he brought to Selznick more or less the same style he was using in England in the late 30s. In any event, as we were watching this, my long-suffering SO turned to me and said: "Hitch is sure making things creepy, isn't he?" To which I could only nod.