Saturday, July 18, 2009

On DVD: "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", "House of Flying Daggers", and "Curse of the Golden Flower"

Looking back, the remarkable Stateside success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon ($128 million gross, making it the highest-grossing foreign film in U.S. box office history), while due primarily to the tremendously high quality of the film itself, may have also benefitted from a bit of precipitous timing. American audiences who were, at that time, mostly in the dark with regards to the advances being made in Eastern cinema (and I would put myself in that group, at least at that time), still had a sense of martial arts cinema as being something akin to porn, at least in terms of the viewing experience: you spent a lot of time fast-forwarding to the “good parts.” The hokey, dubbed dialogue and over-the-top acting of the “chop socky movies” that made their way into our limited field of vision were frequently laughable; we could enjoy the fighting, and laugh smugly at everything else.

But in the mid-to-late 1990s, shafts of light began to make their way into that cultural darkness. Indie film geeks who were enthralled by Tarantino’s early works began to track down the electrifying John Woo and Ringo Lam movies that he readily pinpointed as influences; when Woo came to Hollywood and made Face/Off, he gave the American action film a shot of adrenaline that it sorely needed. Around the same time, New Line (and later Miramax’s Dimension imprint) found unexpected success importing crowd-pleasing Jackie Chan pictures; they were still goofy and badly dubbed, but Chan’s sense of humor and Buster Keaton-inspired acrobatics connected with American audiences, even the snobs at the art house. And then came The Matrix, which knocked moviegoers out with its combination of pseudo-Eastern philosophy, Woo-inspired shoot-outs, and kung-fu choreography by Yuen Woo-Ping.

So in many ways, the pump had been primed for the film’s wide commercial success. Its critical lauding was also well-prepared; period Asian dramas had been a mainstay in art houses since the heyday of Kurosawa; more recent films like Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern had met with audience approval and Oscar nominations as well. What Crouching Tiger did for Western audiences, for at least the first time in modern film, was to combine the sensitive acting and mature storytelling of an Asian art film with the thrills and excitement of modern martial arts cinema—it brought the Chinese genre of wuxia to our shores with the best possible vehicle.

We know right away that Crouching Tiger is not your average kung-fu film, because there’s no action of any kind until the fifteen-minute mark. Instead, we are introduced to Li Mu-bai (Chow Yun-Fat), a famed warrior who is giving up his sword, the Green Destiny (“Too many men have died at its edge,” he explains) and the life of a swordsman, in spite of the fact that he has not yet avenged the death of his master, who was murdered by Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-Pei). He lays this out, along with his accompanying case of existential doubt, to his friend Yu Shu-lien (Michelle Yeoh); the pair are clearly fond of each other, though we soon discover that they have never acted on those feelings. Mu-bai asks Shu-lien to take the powerful sword to his friend Sir Te, but before she even leaves the Te estate, it is stolen.

The thief is soon revealed to be Jen (Zhang Ziyi), a spoiled young aristocrat who lives a double life. She is destined for an arranged marriage, but has secretly fallen for the desert bandit Lo (Chang Chen); Jade Fox, posing as her governess, has trained her in the Wudang techniques. The pursuit of the Green Destiny sword, and the intermingling of these five characters, provides the remainder of the narrative, and the screenplay (by Hui-Ling Wang, James Schamus, and Kuo Jung Tsai) alternates thrilling action sequences with the genuinely involving story of Jen and Shu-lien’s quests for inner peace, Mu-bai’s pursuit of the Jade Fox, and Shu-lien and Mu-bai’s unrequited love.

Director Ang Lee is a hard man to pigeon-hole; his filmography swings wildly from English period pieces (Sense and Sensibility) to emotional American drama (The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain) to western (Ride with the Devil) to comic-book action (Hulk). His direction here is supremely confident and assured, even when negotiating the narrative oddity of an extended, 19-minute flashback sequence (of Jen and Lo’s curious kidnapping/courtship) in the middle of the film; in a lesser director’s hands, a break that long from the primary narrative could have sent the film right off the rails. But he never loses sight of his story, and the gamble of that sequence pays off beautifully at the film’s conclusion, in which all of the story threads and subplots pay off exponentially.

And for all of the imitations and parodies they inspired, the grace and energy of the wire work-heavy action sequences still pack a punch. The actors leap and glide across rooftops and down stairs and up trees and through space, and it still takes your breath away; these scenes are thrilling, fast fun. The characterizations are also worth mentioning; I’m not sure I can think of a recent action film, from any country, with this many strong women in it. When Shu-lien prepares to face off against Jen by announcing, “Everyone out, shut the doors,” it packs more heat than a film’s worth of tough-guy taunting. Yoeh and Yun-Fat’s chemistry and quiet longing is one of the film’s best qualities—much of the story (including the genuinely moving closing scenes) is dependent on their relationship, and their affection and shared history is palpable. His performance has great beats throughout; watch how he handles Jen during an early fight scene—amused by her gall, he lectures her on her shortcomings and dares her to study with him, all while besting her handily.

But Ziyi’s is the breakthrough performance; her work is fierce, complicated, and terrific. She manages to seem both fragilely porcelain and full of fight, an incongruity best personified by her calm sipping of tea while being challenged at a restaurant. The smashing battle that follows is perhaps the film’s best single scene—it’s exhilarating, energetic, and very funny. Ziyi was next seen in a throwaway role in Rush Hour 2, but took on a full-fledged starring role in director Zhang Yimou’s Hero—a film picked up by Miramax shortly after Crouching Tiger’s successful release, only to gather dust on the notoriously crowded Miramax shelves for two years (and six missed release dates). By the time of its successful American release in 2004, star Ziyi and director Yimou had already re-teamed for his next film, House of Flying Daggers.

Ziyi plays Mei, the blind dancer who may (or may not) be the leader of the titular group, a revolutionary faction in Tang Dynasty China. Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) goes undercover to expose her, but fumbles; his superior, Leo (Andy Lau) ends up capturing her, but Jin rescues her and aids in her escape, and off they go. The early scenes are the picture’s least successful—some streamlining of the exposition wouldn’t have hurt, and there are a couple too many double-reverses and switching allegiances and the film starts to trip over its own cleverness. But the trust and love that develops between Mei and Jin is real, and fascinating; the film’s heart is in these moments, and, of course, in its action.

There are so many terrific fight sequences, in fact, that it's hard to recall all of them (much less pinpoint the highlight). Early on, Mei’s senses are tested when Leo challenges her to “The Echo Game”; the sequence is beautiful, and the subsequent swordfight is brilliantly done. An extended attack in a wildflower field is a beautifully choreographed ballet of movement (the violence is secondary, and takes on an interesting dimension thanks to a subsequent revelation). There’s a remarkable sequence with a battle atop the bamboo trees, which knocks your socks off, and the film’s closing scene, during a snowy downfall, achieves a kind of delicate majesty.

Performances are strong across the board, but Ziyi is again the stand-out; she remains an ideal heroine, tough and beautiful and always believable. Because House of Flying Daggers was released by Sony Pictures Classics, which had done such a skillful job of marketing Crouching Tiger, the comparisons between the two films were numerous—and deserved. Flying Daggers’ story and characters aren’t quite as compelling as Crouching Tiger’s, but Yimou’s film bests Lee’s in its sheer beauty; it is a picture of rich exteriors, flowing costumes, marvelous production design, and full use of the color palate—the first film since Road To Perdition where I wanted to put frames from the film up on my walls.

Incredibly, Yimou's next film was even more sumptuous. Curse of the Golden Flower is a feast for the eyes, a dizzying display of vivid color, astonishing beauty, and shocking bloodshed. The pageantry on display is stunning—the film is immaculately designed and a visual knockout. The really good news is that the film has a narrative to match the visuals; the storytelling is as sharp and fluid as the action sequences. The story is richly textured and thoroughly fascinating, downright Shakespearean in its royal intrigue and deadly double-crosses.

Gong Li (Miami Vice, Memoirs of a Geisha) is a revelation as the Empress Phoenix—unquestionably regal, ridiculously beautiful, and powerfully (but subtly) expressive. The Empress is trapped in a loveless marriage with Emperor Ping (Chow Yun-Fat again, stuffed with self-satisfied wisdom but triggered to fiery impatience and blood-thirsty rage on a second’s notice). The duo spends the bulk of the film attempting, in various ways, to murder each other. These two fiercely charismatic actors are, to say the last, well-matched.

The martial arts sequences aren’t plentiful, but they’re plenty extraordinary. An early scene finds the Emperor in a sword-fight with his crown prince, and the entire sequence has its own unique energy; Yimou has a tendency (in this scene, anyway) to linger on the details, to pause on the half-beat, to frame his close-ups in such a way as to almost push them outside of the frame, and into their own life. The scene cooks along at its own sprung rhythm, and it swirls around in your head for the following hour or so. Late in the second act, an army of assassins descends on a safe house with startling efficiency and ruthless cruelty; the resulting sequence is an absolute stunner. But nothing can quite prepare you for the awe-inspiring battle sequences at the film’s climax; some of the CGI is less than convincing, and the third act’s turns aren’t always clear. But Yimou is never lacking in narrative thrust. You might not be sure exactly where he’s going, but he is, and you’ll most likely turn yourself over to him.

Luckily, just when the spectacle threatens to overtake the narrative (and it comes awfully close to doing just that), the screws are turned on this dysfunctional royal family, and the tragedy veers away from the Shakespearean and closer to the Greeks. Curse of the Golden Flower is a great-looking film; this much is obvious, and almost expected. But its real accomplishment is that Yimou’s visual poetry heightens and compliments the poetry of his storytelling.

Sony’s decision to only release Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as part of this three-movie bundle has earned some well-deserved ire from the consumers; it is a bit of a rip-off, particularly since the three films are, strictly speaking, only stylistically connected (Amazon’s labeling of the set as a “trilogy” is entirely inaccurate). However, those who have not yet taken the leap on the other two titles will be well-served to pick up this three-pack (particularly if it maintains its low Amazon price for the near future). The video quality on House of Flying Daggers disappoints, but otherwise, this is a stellar set with three great films well-presented in HD.

All three films are currently available on DVD. "House of Flying Daggers" and "Curse of the Golden Flower" are currently available on Blu-ray; "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" makes its Blu-ray review in this three-pack on Tuesday, July 28th.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Today's New in Theaters: 7/17/09

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: Well, the reviews are overwhemingly positive for the latest Potter picture; Movieline is crazy about it ("almost too good, bearing the mixed blessiong of one audience that would have accepted far less and the curse of another audience that won't accept it being more"), as are Drew at Motion/Captured and Brian at DVD Talk. But I've never been able to get into these movies; I loathed the first one and skipped the second, and while I found much to admire in the third, I've got a feeling that had more to do with Alfonso Cuaron's impeccable direction than the material. I saw the fourth one and couldn't figure out what the hell was going on, and skipped the fifth entirely. So I read these reviews and think maybe I should give this one a shot, and then I read Ebert's piece, which ends with the note that "ordinary viewers may be excused for feeling baffled some of the time," and I know this one's not for me.

(500) Days of Summer: I've seldom seen a movie with either Joseph Gordon-Levitt or Zooey Deschanel that I haven't at least liked them in, so the idea of pairing the two of them up is pretty exciting. The twee-cute romantic indie comedy is growing a little grating (and if you don't believe me, watch the trailer for Adam), but this one looks decent, and Ebert's review is just over the moon.

That's pretty much it for this weekend; the Potter juggernaut appears to have scared off any additional mainstream competition.

Kael of the Week: Out of order, out of mind

"It has become easy—especially for those who consider “time” a problem and a great theme—to believe that fast editing, out of normal sequence, which makes it difficult, or impossible, for the audience to know if any action is taking place, is somehow more “cinematic” than a consecutively told story. For a half century movies have, when necessary, shifted action in time and place and the directors generally didn’t think it necessary to slap us in the face with each cut or call out, ‘Look what I can do!’ Yet people who should know better will tell you how “cinematic” The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner or This Sporting Life is—as if fiddling with the time sequence was good in itself, proof that the “medium” is really being used. Perhaps, after a few decades of indoctrination in high art, they are convinced that a movie is cinematic when they don’t understand what’s going on."

-From "Zeitgeist and Poltergeist: Or, Are Movies Going To Pieces?"
Introduction to I Lost it at the Movies, published 1964

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Loose Ends: Soderbergh, TCM, "Funny People", and more

I wanna lead with this one: TCM is doing their usual "Summer Under The Stars" in August, in which they devote each day of the month to a different star and run their movies for 24 hours. That's worth seeing anyway, so check out the schedule. But this year, they did something very cool: they commissioned a series of twelve new posters for twelve classic movies, and kudos to whoever did them. Check out the gallery here (courtesy Rope of Silicon); my two favorites are the Jailhouse Rock poster (right) and the eye-catcher for Guess Who's Coming To Dinner (thanks to Movieline for the tip-in on this).

Steven Soderbergh gave Guardian a candid and kind of sad interview where he indicates that he may be running out of gas, at least in terms of getting the kind of films made that he wants to take the time and energy to make. Give it a read here; I also dug Movieline's commentary on it, in which they say that his voluminous output may have something to do with his current state of mind.

In celebration of the 20th anniversary of Do The Right Thing (what's that you say? Looking for a good review of the new Blu-ray edition of the film? All right, if you insist), New York Magazine went back to the Block on Bed-Stuy with Spike for this piece (thanks to Drew at Motion/Captured for the link). And speaking of New York... I meant, long before now, to post this dynamite piece they did last month about Whatever Works. It's got some terrific interview stuff with Woody and Larry, some photos of them that warmed the cockels of my heart, and a really interesting analysis of Jewish comedy: where it's at, where it's going, and how these two men fit into it.

Finally, we're just under three weeks to the new Apatow movie, Funny People, and here's the red-band trailer, which I'm crazy about:

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Today's New DVDs- 7/14/09

It's kind of a slack week for new movies on DVDs; what we do have are some interesting items on the TV-on-DVD shelves.

Mad Men- Season 2: I haven't had a chance yet to check out the Blu-ray release of season two, but I watched the first season on Blu (over the course of about a week and a half) and the glistening production design is just mind-blowing in HD. I watched the second season as it aired on AMC this season (in lousy standard-def, boo) and this show keeps getting better; it's smart, unpredictable television for grown-ups and continues to highlight some great writing and acting (even if the final episode wasn't quite as strong as the unforgettable first season closer). Adam Tyner over at the 'Talk gives season two high marks on Blu.

The State- The Complete Series: Here's a show that I totally missed when it originally aired, but it has become legendary in the years since; countless members of its cast and crew have gone on to tremendous success and ubiquity in today's alt-comedy scene. So I'll be blind-buying this one, based primarily on my love of Wet Hot American Summerand Francis Rizzo III's five-star review at DVD Talk.

On DVD: "A River Runs Through It"

"In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing." Robert Redford puts those words right at the beginning of A River Runs Through It; the director narrates the film in earnest, reverential tones, his text frequently lifted verbatim from the Norman Maclean novella that inspired it. His considerable charisma (even only as a voice-over actor) lends weight to the film; unfortunately, his workmanlike but uninspired direction doesn’t. As with much of his directorial filmography, Redford knows how to shoot a pretty picture, but not how to give that picture a pulse.

The film tells the story of Norman (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a child and Craig Sheffer as an adult), the son of a Presbyterian preacher who comes of age in Missoula, Montana, where he is taught the value of religion, hard work, and fly fishing. His younger brother Paul (Vann Gravage as a child; Brad Pitt as an adult) becomes something of a rebel (at least for Montana); he takes up with Indian women, drinks and brawls too much, and gambles to a fault. The film spends its first quarter or so with the boys as they grow up; the bulk of the film takes place after Norman has returned home from college, where he attempts to reconnect with his wandering brother while falling in love with Jessie Burns (Emily Lloyd), a local girl who is the apple of his eye.

In terms of plot, there’s not a lot to be found in A River Runs Through It; as with many pieces of short fiction, it is more about mood and character, time and place. But Redford (and screenwriter Richard Friedenberg) lean too heavily on the voice-overs, and they never really manage to find a narrative engine for the film; it’s pleasant to watch, but there’s never much at stake, even when Paul starts running up debts he can’t pay back. We’re told that Paul is danger more than we’re shown it (except for some cheerful drinking, his transgressions are kept safely off-screen), and even when the story strands should be pulled taut, Redford continues to wander from scene to scene, seemingly with all the time in the world to spare.

The closest thing they can muster up to an antagonist is Jessie’s smarmy brother Neal (Stephen Shellen), and the subtlety of his characterization can be best summed up by his first scene, in which he appears with a sweater tied over his shoulders. The same kind of broad brush paints the rest of his screen time, though admittedly, the appearance of this “world-class peckerwood” does give the film a mild (but needed) jolt of energy.

The performances are interesting. Watching the film this long after its release, one can’t help but feel that Redford cast it incorrectly; both young actors appear to be playing the wrong role. Sheffer (who is, admittedly, an actor I’ve never cottoned to) seems too smug for innocent, wide-eyed Norman—there’s a darkness to his on-screen nature, and you catch him faking his kindness, stifling his more interesting impulses. Pitt, on the other hand, would seem a perfect fit for golden boy Norman; I’ve long been an admirer of his work, but he couldn’t quite hit the right self-destructive marks (at least, not at this point in his career). Through most of the film, he seems to think he can convey Paul’s devil-may-care attitude with a wide but empty grin. Tom Skerritt and Brenda Blethyn are strong but underused as the boys’ parents; Emily Lloyd (who, for a brief time in the early 90s, was to be the Next Big Thing) does her best with her bland role, though her American accent is a little shaky. Casting reservations aside, there is some fine acting in the closing sequences, even if the prose of the narration (while admittedly beautiful) is doing too much of the heavy lifting.

When you come right down to it, it’s not there’s anything exactly wrong with A River Runs Through It. But there’s also not a helluva lot to it, either. It is cinematic comfort food—a film of pleasant chuckles and lovely photography and longing for a bygone era, and you can safely watch with your older relatives and not worry about offending anybody. It’s beautifully made, right down to the required sepia-toned flashbacks images at the end. But it’s a museum piece—there’s not much in it that’s living and breathing.

"A River Runs Through It" makes its Blu-ray debut on Tuesday, July 28th.

In Theaters: "Public Enemies"

I’ve seldom seen a modern film subjected to the kind of visual deconstruction that has greeted Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, at least upon its initial release; it’s hard to find anyone remotely film-savvy who doesn’t have an opinion on the way in which Mann has chosen to shoot his biographical portrait of the final months of famed Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger. There’s nothing surprising about the look of the film within the Mann canon—it falls directly within the style he’s been steadily developing throughout the decade (particularly in his last two pictures, Collateral and Miami Vice). He shoots in tight and up close, artfully arranges the compositions within his wide 2.35:1 frames (few filmmakers play as impressively with foreground and background), and shoots much of his action on loose, handheld, high-def digital video.

There’s no question that the doc-style camerawork lends a you-are-there immediacy to the action on screen—it’s just that it is, at first, somewhat disorienting to see a period story shot in such a distinctly contemporary style, and this appears to be the hang-up of the film’s critics. But must every period film shoot exclusively in the style of the films from that time? And if so, why was I the only one singing Soderbergh’s praises when he shot The Good German like a 1940s movie?

Mann’s story begins in 1933 with a daring jailbreak that puts folk hero bank man John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) back out on the streets. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (the terrific Billy Crudup), attempting to up the agency’s profile, makes Dillinger “public enemy number one” and taps agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), who tracked and killed Pretty Boy Floyd, to head up the search for Dillinger. Meanwhile, Dillinger takes up with Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), an exotic beauty who he seems to pick up on a whim before pledging himself to her for life.

The screenplay (by Ronan Bennett, Mann, and Ann Biderman) has its pluses and minuses. The dialogue is terse and tough as nails; I like how Dillinger tells a bank manager, “You can be a dead hero or a live coward—get it open,” or “I’m asking you once, and I just did.” The film is also admirably short on bullshit psychology—we don’t see Dillinger as a child or a younger man, are given no clues as to why he is the way that he is. That refusal to engage in Freudian shorthand, to play by the rules that seem to govern our idea of what biographical film is and how it works, may be part of the reason that Public Enemies seems to be having trouble connecting with some audiences—just as Mann’s Ali did back in 2001.

Neither of these films have the epic scope, slick polish, and narrative discipline we’ve come to expect from biographical drama. But he’s doing something that’s perhaps more interesting. He’s using this particular kind of filmmaking—handheld camera, limited timeframe, non-expositional (and non-presentational) dialogue and scene structure—to create a fly-on-the-wall historical pictures, faux-vérité snapshots instead of all-encompassing portraits (which are basically impossible to do in two hours anyway).

Of course, this kind of elliptical storytelling has its drawbacks. Dillinger’s accomplices never really emerge as particularly memorable or compelling characters (and, for that matter, neither do Purvis’s). In spite of a real narrative thrust, the film drags more than you’d think; it runs a too-slack 140 minutes and meanders from scene to scene, especially in the second act. And in general, for whatever reason, it never quite clicks together the way Mann’s best films do; ultimately, when all’s said and done, it’s a collection of very good scenes.

But they are, in fact, very good scenes. There’s a bit early on where Dillinger comes to Billie’s coat check job and sweeps her away, sweet-talking her while giving the business to a priggish customer, and it’s just plain dynamite. A jailbreak scene around the midway mark is messy, jittery, unpolished, and ruthlessly effective (given an uncompromising tightness by Mann’s decision to eschew the use of score there), and it is followed immediately by a giddily well-executed beat that wrings suspense from a leisurely stoplight. The marvelous sequence in which Dillinger takes a leisurely stroll around the Chicago Police Department (taking care to check out their “Dillinger Bureau”) would stretch the film’s credibility, if it weren’t based in fact. A shoot-out between federal agents and Dillinger’s accomplices at a lodge has a stark, frenzied urgency, amplified by the unforgiving darkness and smeary muzzle flashes (the pulpy digital photography has an almost sensuous quality here), to say nothing of the sharp, tinny gunshots—the entire sequence feels captured, not choreographed, and it’s electrifying. Oh, and the climax at the Biograph Theater is just about perfect

Mann ultimately can’t quite bring the whole thing off, and that’s a shame; with a tighter script and a bit more self-control, he might have approached the perfection of Heat or The Insider. But there’s a part of me that’s not quite sure he’s even shooting for that kind of “well-made film” anymore; he seems less interested in making a perfect film than in making a spontaneous, interesting picture that lives and breathes. If that’s the case, Public Enemies may be one of his greatest achievements: an experimental French New Wave riff cleverly disguised as a summer blockbuster. Kudos, Mr. Mann.

"Public Enemies" is currently in theaters.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Coming Attractions

As the work week begins (well, your work week... I work Friday through Tuesday, but that's neither here nor there), here's a look ahead at some stuff you can expect to see in the upcoming days:
  • Planning to finally see Public Enemies tomorrow. Hi, how ya doin', I'm late to the party.

  • Upcoming catalog titles hitting Blu-ray and awaiting my reviews: A River Runs Through It, 12 Monkeys, and the triple-pack of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragen, Curse of the Golden Flower, and House of the Flying Daggers. I look forward to six or so hours of flying people and lush colors.

  • Requested an odd-sounding "Comedy Legends 4-Pack" of obscure TV appearances by the likes of Dick Van Dyke, Phillis Diller, Redd Foxx, and Tim Conway-- primarily for the chunk of Groucho material on it that I've never seen. That's on its way to mi casa.

  • MoMA is screening Hitchock's Spellbound on Wednesday, which I've shamefully never seen, so barring a catastrophe, I'll get to drink that in on the big screen.

  • Everything I've read or heard indicates that The Hurt Locker is phenomenal. I'll find out myself this week.

  • Also, I'll be trucking waaaaaay the fuck uptown to see Facing Ali, a great-looking boxing documentary that's doing two matinees a day for exactly one week as a qualifying run for Oscar consideration. It will presumably do a bigger, wider run this fall, but it looks so wicked good that I'm gonna check it out while I can:

So keep reading because GOD KNOWS WHAT YOU MIGHT MISS.