A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Dragon Princess

May 20, 2011

Dragon Princess

I have to admit that this movie is a bit of a mess. I’m not sure if it is a result of the dubbing, or of the poor pan & scan, or if it’s because I am so debilitatingly tired or if the movie itself is really as slapdash as I felt it was as I watched it this afternoon.

What we have here is a Sonny Chiba karate movie from the seventies. The thing is that a lot of the time I felt like I should have known what was going on because it is a movie firmly rooted in the tropes of its genre. It involves revenge and a team of evil weapons masters that need to be defeated and a mysterious young man whose motives are not immediately clear and… well… a lot of concepts I’ve seen before in many an anime or martial arts movie. There’s just some kind of disconnect in the way it is presented.

For the most part this is the story of a young woman named Yumi. In the pre-credit sequence her father is brutally beaten by an evil quintet of backstabbing martial artists. (According to the dubbed dialog it is because he is up for a job as a karate instructor and the leader of the five meanies wants the job instead. I think it must have lost something in translation.) Anyhow, Yumi’s father is defeated and barely left alive. During the opening credit montage he trains his daughter relentlessly to be the greatest fighter of all time. Eventually (after many years) he dies – it is implied from the injuries he sustained at the start of the movie – and implores that Yumi avenge him.

All this is pretty standard and it’s no particular mystery where this movie is headed. Next we get to see what the evil master is up to now in Tokyo. He’s got his own dojo where he trains a big group of students by beating the crap out of them. One new student is able to hold his own against the master, and you know he’ll be back later. The dubbed dialog informs us that there’s a martial arts competition coming up and the evil Nakaido has his heart set on winning. So much so that he dispatches his four underlings to every corner of the Earth to kill the other masters signed up for the competition. (The movie begins to feel a little samey here as each rival master in turn is assassinated in a fight scene very reminiscent of the opening scene of the movie.)

There’s also a street gang that is extorting protection money from some local merchants (including our comic relief, a brightly dressed pickpocket and porn merchant.) Yumi, who has come to Tokyo to live with her grandfather, beats up the gang and attracts the attention of Nakaido, who is in cahoots with a corrupt politician and somehow involved with the gang as well. It’s unclear to me exactly what the connection is. Anyhow, the gist is that Nakaido sends his promising new pupil Masahiko to kill Yumi.

Instead Masahiko teams up with Yumi after revealing that he’s the son of a murdered police officer. They fight the five evil masters and although they survive Yumi is gravely wounded, losing the use of her left arm. She is determined to hunt down Nakaido even if it means she’ll die in the process. There’s a long scene where her grandfather begs her not to throw her life away, but pretty much tells her to go after Nakaido anyhow. Then there’s the climactic fight scene where Yumi and Masahiko confront Nakaido and his entire student body as well as his weapons masters in an overgrown field. There’s a lot of fighting and then the movie abruptly ends.

I really had trouble keeping up with this movie tonight. The fight scenes are frenetic and hand held and the cropping down of the frame to fit the movie to full screen means that a lot of action takes place off the sides of the picture, so I never really had a feel for what was going on. The movie has all the individual parts of a classic revenge action movie but for some reason they never really fit together. The strange translation and abrupt editing don’t help. (We were particularly amused by the non-sensical sex scene which appears to have been edited into the middle of the film from some other movie.)

I simply didn’t enjoy this as much as I would have liked. I can see that there is a cool movie buried in here, but it isn’t allowed to really come out to play. The end result is amusingly cheesy and more than a little bit cheap feeling. It’s so clearly not the movie it wants to be. I have to say I liked the concept more than the execution. I’d be very curious to see how different the movie is in the original Japanese and in wide screen.

May 20, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Five Superfighters

May 12, 2011

The Five Superfighters

After watching several of the grand epic films of Yimou Zhang it is almost a relief to watch a simple, low budget, brainless kung-fu movie. It would be difficult to make a simpler movie than this one, at least plot-wise. It would also be difficult to fit any more kung-fu into a ninety minute film than is crammed into this one – the movie is seventy to eighty percent fighting scene with a couple seconds of establishing shots and a couple lines of dialog to explain why the next fight is going to happen.

My one complaint would be that I can’t figure out who the five titular super fighters are. Pretty much every single character in this movie is a kung-fu master of some sort, so it’s a lot more than five. I’m guessing the five refers to the three apprentices in the story, their master, and the wandering dickweed who starts the whole movie going by beating the crap out of all four of them.

Things get underway when a man in black drifts into a peaceful town and starts taunting and then beating up kung-fu fighters. He starts out by defeating an entire dojo of students and eventually their master. This is just to establish his M.O. As he leaves the dojo he comes across three young students and their master, and decides to teach them a lesson as well. He beats each of the students individually, then all three together, then their master as well.

That very evening, without rousing their master and his wounded pride from a troubled sleep, the three students decide to go out into the world to find other kung-fu masters so they can develop their skills and return on their master’s birthday in six months to defeat the man in black. (Of course they have one last quick friendly fight between themselves first to decide who gets to go south.)

Each of them finds an unlikely master to train with. One comes across a young widow who makes a living selling home-made bean paste and who he discovers while she is fending off a trio of ruffians. Another meets a drunken cripple who turns out to have uncanny skills. The third enters into servitude with a simple fisherman who has unearthly abilities with a bamboo rod.

They each fight their potential master/mistress to gain the right to learn. Then there’s some more fighting which is part of their training. And more fighting to establish at the end of the six months that they’re learned enough to go back out into the world. In the mean time their old master has a re-match with the man in black and becomes a depressed drunk since he’s humiliated a second time and his young apprentices have all left him. (He demonstrates the depths to which he has sunk by fighting his kindly neighbour who brings him food to eat.)

It’s just a movie packed with fight scenes. Which is actually pretty cool. I didn’t have to use my brain at all tonight. I could just sit back and take in the pretty pictures. The fights are full of cool moves and fun humor. Everything is very much tongue in cheek. At the start of the movie I thought that perhaps I had seen it before, but now I’m less sure. I think it’s more that this movie is so steeped in the tropes and cliches of the genre that were well established before this was made. It has hints of Drunken Master. It has familiar kung-fu settings and stereotypes. It just feels comfortable and familiar.

I also really enjoyed the eclectic soundtrack. It’s a mix of all kinds of different styles and each fight has its own theme. It uses jazzy seventies guitars and electric video-game bleepings such as would have been popular in the eighties when this movie was made. And oh, does the version we watched tonight feel gloriously mired in the eighties. To start with it is your usual cheesy US dub. It’s also clearly encoded from a VHS master (there are VHS artifacts like tracking errors at the top of the frame and occasional lines through the center of the picture.) It’s also pan & scan – mostly. The opening credits bizarrely change aspect ratio – anamorphic for any title that would otherwise have gone off the sides of the TV but cropped for shots that have no titles over them. (The credits are over the initial fight scene of the man in black coming to town and kicking some unworthy asses.) Taken all together I was transported back to my high-school days of renting Jackie Chan movies from Mike’s Video or watching kung-fu films on channel 38. It was a fun and nostalgic feeling.

This isn’t a big movie. It isn’t a great movie. It’s one of hundreds of low budget films ground out by the kung-fu powerhouses of the sixties, seventies and eighties. It doen’t have anything original or new to say. It’s just a bung of fun fights strung together, and that is just fine with me. Not every movie has to be great – some can just be fun.

May 12, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 432 – Desperado

Desperado – May 6th, 2011

Last night when we finished El Mariachi I insisted we put Desperado in right away. Not to watch completely, but for the opening and for the eventual shoot out in the bar. After all, they are two incredibly bad-ass scenes and they have direct callbacks to the first movie. So we put it in and we watched until the bit where our hero meets our heroine and then we turned it off and went to bed because crap, it was late and we needed to get up in the morning for work. But really, this is that kind of movie, and it was difficult to turn it off and not just watch it all the way through and call it done. And we probably still would have put it in tonight. It’s just that good.

What’s interesting about this movie is that it’s a direct sequel to El Mariachi, but the two movies have such wildly different budgets and scales. The first movie was as low budget as they get and this movie has fancy explosions and people like Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek. It’s a huge difference in terms of the money spent to make it, and it does show in things like film quality and effects and cast. But then too, in terms of the writing and humor and drama and action? It’s very much in the same vein as the first movie. It’s got that sly winking humor along with the pathos of a man consumed by the need for vengeance and regret for that need. It’s fantastically balanced, which is one of the things I love so much about the first movie.

We pick up the story a couple of years after the first movie. El Mariachi is now hunting down drug lords and their gangs, taking them out with the weapons he pulls from his guitar case. The opening of the movie is perhaps one of my favorite opening scenes ever. Steve Buscemi (who is credited as ‘Buscemi’) walks into a seedy bar. He is as white as white gets and proceeds to tell the bartender (Cheech Marin) and the rest of the bar regulars a story about this huge Mexican man he saw in a bar a few towns away, and how said huge Mexican man wiped out everyone in the bar but himself. Buscemi narrates the story quickly and neatly, with little touches of humor, while we get to see El Mariachi do everything he describes in a shadowy imaginary bar. It’s a fantastic introduction to what’s happened to the lead character since the first movie without actually needing to reintroduce him. Buscemi does it for us. And of course he’s working with El Mariachi, setting up the locals to test them, see if they know of the man El is looking for. And they do.

What follows that is very similar to the first movie in many respects. El Mariachi shows up in town, ends up killing a lot of people, gets taken in by a smart and tough (and beautiful) woman who is, of course, linked to the very man El Mariachi is looking for. Except this time instead of being unwitting in the whole situation, our hero came looking for it. He hasn’t been accidentally pulled in because of a passing resemblance to a killer. He is the killer. And there’s even another case of mistaken identity here! It’s wonderfully done to both follow up on the first movie and retread many of the same steps while not being a complete rehash. And as a bonus, while the lead character is now played by Antonio Banderas, Carlos Gallardo, who played him in the first movie, gets to be a bad ass mariachi still. He shows up as a friend of El’s in the climactic showdown scene, with some fantastic weapons of his own (he also shows up in a dream sequence, playing backup to El).

I really am impressed with the compare/contrast one can do with the first movie and this one. I think it’s a testament to Robert Rodriguez’s talents that he was able to make something so close to the first but not have it feel like a copy. And while having seen Gallardo in his cameo in this movie I think he likely could have pulled off the title role again, I like Banderas in the part. The one tricky thing for the character is that while in the first movie he’s a somewhat carefree musician who lucks into the kills he makes, in the second movie we need to believe him as an utter bad-ass. We need to know he’s had a tough few years and hardened because of it. And while Gallardo does a good job in the action scene he’s in, Banderas smolders and stalks and is just plain dangerous. And let’s face it, he’s a name, and names pull audiences. He’s also a good actor. I’m conflicted on it, to be honest. I would have loved to see the character continue with the same actor, and I don’t doubt he was up to it. But at the same time I do love Banderas in the role, so. Yeah.

I also utterly adore Salma Hayek as Carolina. She’s got several points in her favor. One, she’s the sort of gal who’s not shy about speaking her mind. Two, she’s the sort of gal who will look to a medical textbook in order to do some quick and dirty bullet removal. Three, she’s the sort of gal who will open up a book store in a town that’s never had one. She’s got some spirit to her, and all in the name of literacy and reading and well, I’m partial to that sort of thing. And when she loses the book store? Dude, I’d want to kill the jackass responsible too, no matter how nice he’d been to me beforehand. It’s definitely something I like about both this movie and the first one: Solid and strong female leads.

And then there are the action scenes. There are a couple and they’re all done beautifully. They are a joy to watch, both for the carefully orchestrated action itself and for the humor that’s evident in the weapons of choice in the climax and the ceiling fan in the bar. When I think about this movie I think of it as being a wonderfully cohesive whole, but I also think of each action scene on its own. That’s not easy to achieve, but it’s the case here and I love it. Because every scene in between the action just supports those scenes as being more than mindless violence. There’s a purpose behind it all and regret on El’s part that he’s done the things he’s done. It makes the bad-ass character sympathetic still, even if he’s not as innocent as he once was. It’s a great development of both the character and the story and if it wasn’t so late I’d probably watch it again right now.

May 6, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 431 – El Mariachi

El Mariachi – May 5th, 2011

I admit I’ve sort of been saving these movies. I love them and it’s been ages since I’ve seen them and we’ve run through a lot of our series and a lot of the movies I’ve seen before. So I’ve been saving them. Not for any specific day or event, but then we didn’t have anything planned for today and it is Cinco de Mayo and hey, why not, right? Any halfway decent excuse to watch these movies would have been good with me.

Now, Desperado gets shown on television with some decent regularity and Once Upon a Time in Mexico was made most recently, though it’s not new anymore by any means. But I just don’t see El Mariachi in the television listings as I see the other two. It just doesn’t crop up, which is a shame because it’s a fantastic movie even if you don’t know how it was made. It’s got some good action, a little romance, a fair amount of wit and humor and a fun plot, even if there is a giant hole in it. It’s all in Spanish, sure, but why should that matter?

Amusingly, I think I could possibly have watched this without subtitles and still followed it. I’m absolutely horrible when it comes to foreign languages and what I’ve retained from college and high school isn’t usually enough. But for some reason the dialogue in this movie goes slower than I’m used to Spanish language movies going. And I found myself able to look down and just listen and catch the gist of what was being said. Maybe it helps that I’ve seen it before, but still. I was surprised and unsure of just why the dialogue is spoken at a speed I can still handle. Goodness knows the El Santo movie we picked up that has no subtitling was totally out of my league (and yes, I do regret that, because when we watched it, it looked awesome, but totally incomprehensible to us Spanish-challenged folks).

Anyhow, the movie is a story of mistaken identity and dueling gangsters in a small city in Mexico. A mariachi arrives in town, hoping to find work so he can continue on his family legacy of musicianship. A noble goal! Unfortunately for him, a notorious gangster named Azul is in town too, and he’s been going after the local crime lord, Moco, taking out his men with weapons he keeps in a guitar case. Since Azul kills pretty much ever associate of Moco’s whom he meets, Moco’s other men have only a sketchy description of him: He wears all black and carries a guitar case. You know what two things also describe our hero? He wears all black. And he carries a guitar case.

Now, being the pedant that I am, I feel I have to mention the gaping plot hole here. Azul? Is heavy-set and has a mustache. El mariachi? Slimmer and not a single whisker on his face. And yet various people describe them at different points and the only identifying things they can say are ‘wears all black’ and ‘carries a guitar case’. Come on, people! Can we differentiate between a leather vest and a black jacket over a white shirt? Maybe between facial hair and no facial hair? Build? Apparently not. But I guess that would unravel the whole movie and while some things could have been relatively simple to fix (similar wardrobe for the two characters, shave off the mustache, etc.) we are talking about a movie made for the equivalent of $7,000. I doubt there was much money for wardrobe and my guess is that the cast wasn’t being paid big bucks. Demanding that someone shave their mustache? Eh, I’ll get over it. To be honest, it adds to the ridiculousness of the whole film.

Really, much of this movie is intended to be over the top. There’s some sly humor to it all. The repeated joke with Moco lighting his matches off his henchman’s face? The sped up footage when people phone him to tell him Azul is in town? Things like that. When Moco sends his men to take out Azul in the beginning they pay off a woman who’s guarding the jail he’s hiding in. And then Azul pays her off on his way out after killing them. There’s the whole bathtub scene! After our hero manages to get the fantastic bar owner, Domino, to let him stay in her apartment to hide out from Moco’s men we get shot after shot of Domino’s dog’s reaction. Which is a blank and disinterested stare. I’ve never seen such an uneager pitbull, to be honest. It’s not a laugh-out-loud sort of funny. These aren’t big obvious gags and set-ups or knee-slapper jokes. They’re winks. Little teasers that let you know that the movie isn’t to be taken entirely seriously. Sure, much of it is serious, but the audience should keep a certain perspective on that.

Of course you know that eventually there’ll be a showdown between Moco and Azul, and the mariachi will get caught in the middle and since Domino’s the love interest she’ll be involved somehow too. It’s not a movie full of surprise twists and turns. Once you know there’s an innocent dude caught in the middle of a gang war, well, the end is a bit of a foregone conclusion. People are going to die and there will be consequences. What I like here is that while there is humor to the movie, the plot with the mariachi and Domino is still carried off with a nice sense of drama and emotional weight. I think part of it is that Domino is so cool. She’s not immediately won over by our hero and she’s no damsel in distress for most of the movie. She’s got a mind and her independence and she’s not afraid to enforce it. So her relationship with the mariachi comes across as genuine, which makes the ending have a great tone to it.

I remain absolutely thrilled to know how this movie was made as cheaply as it was, with shortcuts like single takes creatively edited around mistakes and improvisation to work around missing props and the like. It’s well written, well acted, well shot and well edited. Robert Rodriguez has certainly moved up in Hollywood, gaining budget potential and the ability to attract big name stars to his projects. But just look what he did with what he started? It’s fantastic and I can’t wait to watch the sequels.

May 5, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

El Mariachi

May 5, 2011

El Mariachi

Happy Cinco de Mayo! Apparently it is not so much a Mexican holiday as one promoted in America by beer companies (according to the wiki) but we figured we’d watch a Mexican movie nonetheless. A really great Mexican movie.

Robert Rodriguez, as I’m sure I have mentioned in some past reviews, is a genius. This is the movie that proved that to the world. With $7000 and no crew, recording his dialog on a cassette recorder and using a wheelchair for his dolly shot. This is amongst the greatest, classiest, and coolest independent films ever made.

The plot itself is fairly simple. A ruthless drug lord has made the decision to kill one of his rivals rather than paying him the money he owes for some past deal they had. Moco, the man in white, lives in a palatial villa and has his tendrils in every little business in the nearby town. His rival Azul (who wears black and not blue as his name would imply) has been living in a seedy jail, from which he has continued to run his own businesses. Moco dispatches some assassins to kill Azul in his jail cell, but they fail, and Azul sets out on a mission of vengeance, with a guitar case filled with weapons as his preferred tool.

The Mariachi of the title is a simple fellow who wanders into town looking for work at the wrong time. Moco’s gang are looking for a man wearing black with a guitar case, and they mistakenly think that the mariachi is their man. After he evades them (killing a couple in the process) he hides out in the saloon of a beautiful young woman named Domino.

It’s your typical mistaken identity western, with the mariachi on the run and forced to defend himself. Of course it turns out that Domino has her bar as a gift from Moco, who has been wooing her. You know that’s not going to end well.

What makes this movie so much fun is the sheer audacity of its production. Rodriguez has a keen clarity of vision and you can sense, watching this movie, how meticulously planned and executed it was. Take, for example, the opening shots of Azul’s jail and the police woman arriving to take over her shift guarding him. I get the sense, watching this, that it was almost edited in-camera. That every shot was set up, filmed once, and then immediately he’d move the camera for the next shot. It flows so smoothly and has such a distinctive style to it. Apparently (according to the trivia on IMDB) he did the dialog for most scenes in single takes. If an actor flubbed their lines he’d move the camera to a new angle and re-start the scene just before the flubbed line.

Basically what I’m saying is that this movie is astonishing to me because I have seen so many other low budget movies in my day. This movie had a smaller budget than Manos: The Hands of Fate or The Beast of Yucca Flats. The only reason it works is that Robert Rodriguez is a man who knows exactly how to bring the movie he has in his head to the screen. It’s a unique talent. Tomorrow we’ll see what happens when he’s given a big Hollywood budget and big name actors.

May 5, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 423 – Curse of the Golden Flower

Curse of the Golden Flower – April 27th, 2011

Going into this movie I knew next to nothing about it. Chinese period piece with lovely visuals and Chow Yun Fat? Yes, that was pretty much it. And that does describe it on one level. It’s a very pretty movie and it is indeed a period piece and Chow Yun Fat plays the emperor who looms over the entire story. But there’s a hell of a lot going on in this story and in this movie. It’s a brutal story, full of characters who seem sympathetic but aren’t, but then again they are.

I really wish I wasn’t fighting a head cold right now because I’d love to spend more time on this review and I simply can’t. Not without losing precious sleep. This movie deserves more attention and time than I can invest in it tonight, which is a real shame. Because it’s beautiful and tragic and after listening to a little bit of the director talking about it, I’ve got things to say about a few of the character and I’m afraid I’m going to end up glossing over too much. So I apologize for that right now. And I would highly recommend this movie with a couple of caveats: There are no happily ever afters here and the movie has some incestuous relationships. If you’re not up for dealing with either of those, just walk on by.

I’d rather not spoil the specifics, but one incident of incest is rather crucial to the plot and comes out very early on. Set in the Imperial palace in ancient China, the movie follows the implosion of the royal family. The Emperor has three sons: Wan, the eldest, was his first wife’s. Jai is the next, followed by Yu, both of whom are the sons of the current Empress. For the past ten years the Empress has been taking medicine every two hours as ordered by the Emperor. For the past ten days it has been poisoned with a plant that will drive her mad, also as ordered by the Emperor. The Empress is having an affair with her stepson, Wan, who doesn’t want to continue it. Jai has been stranded out on the borders to be taught to respect his father’s control. And then there’s Yu. Whom no one seems to pay any attention to. And they all come together for the upcoming Chrysanthemum Festival, where the schemes and plots and secrets they’re all hiding and planning will come to a head.

What strikes me about this movie is the contrast between the overtly lavish sets and setting – clearly made for the purpose of showing just how opulent the Imperial palace and lifestyle is here – and the very personal views we get of the various desperate characters. As I mentioned before, very few of the characters are completely sympathetic. Jai, yes. His brothers? Not so much. And I should feel sympathetic towards Wan, who’s stuck in an impossible situation, but his actions make it difficult to feel completely one way or another. It’s the same with the Empress. On one hand you feel terrible for her, stuck in a loveless marriage with a cruel husband whom she knows is poisoning her, but on the other hand she’s forced her step-son into a clearly unwelcome sexual relationship. And the Emperor? He’s so far on the nasty end of the spectrum it’s amazing. It’s an impressive display of characters who have all been so hurt and twisted they end up hurting others and perpetuating a cycle that’s leading inexorably downwards. But really, it’s all the Emperor’s fault at the root.

It comes out later on that his first wife didn’t die as he claimed, and that revelation and its implications are what truly start to rock this already sinking boat. While the Empress apparently rapidly loses her grip on reality it ends up seeming as though perhaps she’s unwittingly set up the ultimate in revenge on the man who put her in the position she’s been trapped in. And according to the director, one of the things he wanted to highlight in the movie was the horrible situation a woman would be in at the time period in the movie. He seems to have wanted to show just how bad it could be and in the comments made on camera he’s speaking of the Empress specifically, but I believe there are two others who are far more sympathetic and clearly caught up in a world in which they could never have won. Regardless, it’s an interesting note for the movie and if I had more time I’d want to really explore it.

I’ve spent so much time talking about the plot – which I believe is based on a play from the 1930s and I’d love to see that too – I haven’t really taken the time to talk about the visuals. But they deserve some time. They are astounding. And that’s a lot of the point. They should be gorgeous and opulent and amazing. The vast numbers of servants, the lavish clothing, the rooms, the carpets, the masses of yellow chrysanthemums. It is, in the true sense of the word, decadent. I loved the feel that this all gave the movie. It turns the palace into a very elaborate and large cage for those living inside it. What I also found fascinating was the huge number of servants who always seemed to be around. Sure, the Emperor and Empress dismiss them with the wave of a hand whenever sensitive topics are spoken of, but given the response time when something is needed? There is always a servant nearby. There is no way all of the scheming and vitriol would stay a secret. Yet the family clearly assumes that no one will speak of their secrets. Because their underlings are only barely people to them. Yet another symptom of their sickness.

I enjoyed this movie quite a lot, even if it was brutal. The cast is fantastic, and I don’t just mean Chow Yun Fat. Gong Li as the Empress brought a much needed humanity to her and all three actors playing the princes were wonderful. Everyone involved seems to have truly nailed their characters, making this a difficult movie in many respects, but difficult in the way that I like movies to be difficult. They aren’t simple characters, or easy ones. They’re complicated and painful and so are their relationships. It was, in my opinion, excellently crafted in every respect to be beautiful and terrible all at the same time.

April 27, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Curse of the Golden Flower

April 27, 2011

Curse of the Golden Flower

We’ve reviewed a couple of Yimou Zhang movies for the project by now so although I haven’t seen this before tonight I thought I knew what to expect tonight. I was expecting something lush and gorgeous with spectacular and well choreographed martial arts sequences. And I got that, but this movie is also so much that I had not expected. I had not expected an epic tragedy full of intrigue, secrets and betrayal. I was not expecting something of this scope and grandeur. I could not have anticipated anything of this opulence and sheer scale – simply because there isn’t anything else like this out there. The closest I can come is Akira Kurosawa’s grand Shakespearean adaptation Ran, and that was constrained by the practical limitations of the time. Here, with the modern technology that made possible the epic battles of the Lord of the Rings series with apparently unlimited resources and a cast that appears to reach into the tens of thousands Zhang has made one of the most impossibly colossal movies of all time.

At the same time there is a surprisingly intimate story buried in this grand and extravagant movie. It’s a story about a family torn apart by secrets. We’re introduced to the imperial family slowly, getting a feel for each of them and the burdens they carry. At the center of the movie is the Empress – consort to the Emperor and mother to two of his sons. She has been having an affair with the Emperor’s other son, Wan, the eldest who was born of another Empress. Her elder son, Jai, is a steadfast and honest young man freshly returned from the frontier where he has been commanding the imperial armies. Then there’s the eager and youthful Yu, the youngest prince, who longs for glory of hos own and chafes at always being in the shadow of his elder siblings.

It would seem that the Emperor is aware of the Empress’ affair, and he has commanded his physician to start administering a gradual poison to the Empress in the cordial she is required by the Emperor to drink every two hours. With time, the physician tells his daughter Chan, the black mushroom being fed to the empress will destroy her mind. Meanwhile Chan has also been having an affair with Wan, who seems to be somewhat of an irresponsible layabout.

Things really get complicated when a mysterious woman in black shows up in the palace. She is the wife of the Imperial physician, mother of Chan, but the brand on her face hints at a darker past which she does not wish to initially divulge. She wants to help the Empress because she bears a grudge against the Emperor, and it is the root of that grudge that drives the film towards its inevitable and tragic conclusion.

To ground such a grand tragedy Zhang needed a stellar cast, and he clearly has that here. Chow Yun Fat portrays the Emperor. He’s so wonderfully imposing – a cold and aloof man isolated by his power. On the other side we have Li Gong as the Empress. She’s the primary character, and her quiet desperation and determination is almost palpable.

Add to this great story and great cast some astonishingly detailed production design, elaborate period costumes and an enormous apocalyptic battle and you have this movie. The sets are astonishing. In particular the halls of the palace with their glowing glass pillars are so detailed that it humbles you just to look at it. The vast courtyard of the imperial palace is apparently the largest movie set ever constructed in China and was big enough to dwarf the thousand professional soldiers involved in the battle scene there. (Their ranks were augmented by computer to fill the space.) The costumes too are intricate, detailed and ornate. Apparently they were also quite heavy and cumbersome.

This movie is an amazing accomplishment. It tells an interesting story of corruption, decadence and decay, and it tells it on a scale not often to be found even in the modern era of hundred million dollar blockbuster movies. I’d say that this is a movie that could not be made here in the United States. It’s so quintessentially Chinese. Not just in language and design, but in thought. Only in modern China, I think, could such a film exist. I’m glad it does exist too, because this movie makes the entire world a richer place.

April 27, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Trainspotting

April 21, 2011

Trainspotting

When we heard that today was Iggy Pop’s birthday today the first thing that popped into both of our minds was this movie which not only features the music of Iggy Pop but has a plot point revolving around tickets to one of his concerts. We had been saving this movie for a special occasion. It’s one of the best movies in our collection, for one thing, and we need really great movies once in a while when our day-to-day lives. For another thing this is a movie that Amanda has an awful lot to say about, so we couldn’t do it on a day when we didn’t have time to do a proper write up.

For me the story in this movie is not what it is about. The plot involves a series of vignettes in the lives of some people in Scotland – mostly having to do with how heroin is destroying their lives. It mostly centers on our narrator Mark Renton, but it doesn’t have an extremely strong narrative – it’s just a series of things that happen to him and his mates. (Amanda has told me that given Irvine Welsh’s original novel it’s astonishing that there’s any narrative arc at all since that book takes the form more of a series of only tenuously related short stories.) Renton is an unapologetic heroin junkie who shoots up with his suave pal Sick Boy, his pathetic loser friend Spud, young mother Allison and their dealer the Mother Superior (so called due to the length of his habit.) His straight edged friend Tommy is having relationship problems. Then there’s complete psycho Begbie who hangs out with them and gets them all into trouble with his fondness for brawling.

Over the course of the movie Renton repeatedly tries to break his heroin habit with varying degrees of success. He tries to go cold turkey. He enters a methadone program after getting caught shoplifting to feed his habit. Ultimately he is forced by his parents to go cold turkey, after which he attempts to lead a more normal life. Even this, however, is difficult for him because his friends continue to pull him back into their life of crime.

I have no experience whatsoever with heroin. To my knowledge there are no heroin addicts even in my circle of friends. As such this movie is very much a window into a foreign and terrifying world. It is presented in such a way, however, that somebody like myself can understand and to some degree sympathise with the characters in the movie. My particular vices (coffee and video games) may be very different, but I can still understand the power of the high, the ache of withdrawal, and the near impossibility of kicking the habit.

This movie introduced me to a lot of people. In most cases it was not their first film, but there are a lot of great artists involved in the creation of this movie that I hadn’t known about before seeing this. Danny Boyle, for example had done Shallow Grave (which I still haven’t seen) before this, but this was the first of his movies I ever saw. Likewise this was the first thing I saw Ewan McGregor in or Robert Carlyle. I think that I did not see Hackers until after I had seen this already so it’s probably the first thing I saw Johnny Lee Miller in too. In every one of these cases these people went on to wonderful careers that never cease to delight and astonish me, and I always look fondly back on this movie when I seen them in something new. Robert Carlyle in particular is astonishing. That he can play the thoroughly awful Begbie here and then go on to movies like The Full Monty and Marilyn Hotchkiss never ceases to astound me. Poor Ewen Bremner, on the other hand, is so distinctive and delivers such a memorable performance as Spud that it is impossible to see him in any other role without seeing this pathetic character.

What sets this movie apart from others in my mind, aside from the great performances throughout, is the directing. This movie is the reason that I’ll grab anything with Danny Boyle’s name on it without hesitation. (That’s how I ended up with Sunshine for example.) There are so many fantastic, surreal moments in this film that help us to get inside Renton’s head. I don’t think there’s a special effect in this entire movie; it’s all accomplished through in-camera tricks, which endears it even more to me. There’s Renton climbing into a filthy toilet to retrieve a pair of suppositories. There’s the shallow world around him speeding by as he aches for a hit. There’s his overdose – where he sinks into a thick shag carpet and that comfortably numb POV follows him to the hospital. There’s the lengthy montage of his withdrawal with the stretching room, mechanical baby on the ceiling, characters visiting him in his hallucinations and such. This is a movie full of fantastic moments that have stuck with me ever since.

Put all that together with a soundtrack including Underworld, Lou Reed, and, yes, Iggy Pop and you have a simply irresistible, magical, terrifying and yet ultimately uplifting tale of drug addiction and poverty. It’s a unique sort of movie that remains amongst my favorite films of all time, and deservedly so. Now if only we had The Naked Lunch so we could make this a drug movie trilogy with yesterday’s viewing of the Reefer Madness musical.

April 21, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Hero (2002)

April 13, 2011

Hero (2002)

I’m finding this movie difficult to review. It’s an amazing, gorgeous, poetic masterpiece of a film, and that right there could be everything I have to say about it, but it’s a bigger film than that. Not just larger in its epic scale with its cast of tens of thousands or its great wide gorgeous vistas, either. This is a movie with a grand, impressive central message that overshadows the action and drives the motivation for some of the main characters. It’s a message that I find myself somewhat uncomfortable with, and as a result I’m vaguely uncomfortable with the entire film, though I cannot deny its greatness.

This film takes place in ancient China, before it was even a single country when it was a collection of smaller warring nations. Jet Li is a nameless warrior who has, at the start of this film, somehow vanquished three deadly assassins who have been plaguing the lord of the Qin. How could this single unknown have bested Sky, Broken Sword and Flying Snow, each of them masters of the martial arts who have defeated hundreds of Qin soldiers? The movie is told in flashback as Nameless relates his tale, and as he is questioned by the Qin lord it is slowly revealed that he is not what he at first appears to be. Ultimately Nameless has a fateful choice to make – one which will shape the very course of history.

This was the first of several spectacular and artistic wire-fu action films directed by Yimou Zhang, and probably the most ambitious. The stories that Nameless tells are full of grand emotions and epic swordplay. Within the context of this film it makes sense that these larger-than-life figures are able to defy gravity and the laws of physics. They are more than simple mortals – these almost mythical figures, and these stories being told are like tall tales about vanquishing titans of yore. Beyond that there’s the way the story unfolds. Nameless and the Qin lord take turns telling different versions of events, and so we get to see several key scenes replayed in different ways, which adds to the story-book mythical feel of the movie.

It has a strong episodic feel to it. Each distinct fight scene has its own aesthetic (something I recognise as a Yimou Zhang trademark) and the various re-tellings of events each have a different color palette, which helps keep them distinct but also heightens the unreality of the film. As we circle closer and closer in to the truth of the past and what has actually happened that led us to the point we are at now it becomes clear that this movie has a deeper message. I would almost say that it has an agenda.

I appreciate the message that there are greater forces in the world than personal gratification or individual vendetta. This movie has at its core conflicted characters having to deal with choices that will alter the course of entire nations. The English version even starts out with a block of text that sets the stage by asking us to think about those beliefs that people are willing to die for or kill for. What I can’t wrap my head around, and what ultimately makes me uncomfortable about the movie is that it promotes the notion of achieving peace through conquest. At least that’s my ultimate interpretation and that leaves me feeling slightly uneasy about the entire film.

I won’t deny that it is mesmerizing and gorgeous. Magical and mythical. It involves some fantastic visual story-telling and awe inspiring scenes with unprecedented scale. It is an epic movie and a gorgeous one. It involves many, many fantastically choreographed and filmed fight scenes. It has great acting and daring costume design. I just happen to disagree on a fundamental level with its core premise, which makes me a little sad. Because I’d really like to simply love this movie on every possible level instead of simply respecting it for its art and its composition.

April 13, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Appleseed: Ex Machina

April 9, 2011

Appleseed: Ex Machina

This movie addresses just about every problem I had with the first one. It doesn’t have to do any of the world building, so it isn’t packed with exposition. The story isn’t particularly revolutionary (I commented to Amanda as we watched it that I had just watched a Doctor Who episode with almost exactly the same plot.) It doesn’t try to be anything except a fun futuristic action story, and it’s kind of a relief.

The biggest improvement this movie makes on the one we watched yesterday is that it feels so much less ambitious. It might seem counter-intuitive that a simpler film would be more enjoyable but it’s almost relaxing to be able to simply take in the visual spectacle and not have to use my brain at all. Instead of trying to encompass the entire world of Appleseed in a single film this movie has the feeling of being simply an episode in the lives of Deunan and Briareos. Since Appleseed as a manga has a very episodic feel to it this ends up feeling quite appropriate.

At the start of this movie Deunan and Briareos are still working for eSWAT – the paramilitary police force that defends the peace of the Utopian city state of Olympus. They and their elite squad have been dealing with a recent surge in terrorist attacks which appear to be perpetrated almost exclusively by cyborgs. During the opening action scene Briareos is injured and so Duenan is assigned a new partner. This partner, Tereus is a bioroid engineered primarily from Briareos’ DNA, which means he’s a dead ringer for Briareos before he lost his original body. This is upsetting and confusing to Deunan; it’s like a ghost from her past.

Of course the whole Deunan/Briareos/Tereus triangle is just a distraction from the main plot. The central plot revolves around a scheme to use the unified satellites of all the remaining countries on Earth to turn the populace of the world into mindless zombies. It starts with just taking over cyborgs (which is a concern to Briareos since he’s having a lot of insecurity about his cyborg state) but soon it spreads to the general populace by means of little PDA earbuds.

I don’t think there’s an original idea in this entire movie, and do you know what? I don’t care. It’s full of gorgeous animation, cool action and involves Deunan being a hot-headed and unstoppable kickass killing machine. It’s just great fun watching here and Briareos working together against all odds. The world of Appleseed, even when simplified for the cinema, is such a rich and cool one that it’s just fun to visit it again. I love the futuristic tech. The landmate walking armor. The big hulking cyborgs. All the floating cars and hovering personnel carriers. It’s a world that seems designed to capture the imagination of the fifteen-year-old kid inside of me, and it works. This movie is exactly the stupid light-weight explody action movie I needed tonight.

April 9, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment