three (johnnie to, 2016)

This is Johnnie To's most recent film, and he certainly hasn't lost his touch. Three is an economical 88 minutes long, and despite the previews, it takes more than an hour for the special To violent scenes to really burst. Until then, Three is a medical drama that takes place in a hospital. There is some tense suspense, because one of the patients is a dangerous thug with information the police want, so even as the movie seems dedicated to sticking with the medical angle, you keep expecting something awful to happen.

Actually, something awful happens right away, as an overworked doctor (Zhao Wei) botches a brain surgery. The three main characters of the title are the doctor, a cop, and the thug, and they are all working their own agendas, with the doctor and the cop trying to save people and the thug just going for what he wants. Various other patients also have distinctive personalities ... it's amazing how many characters we get to know in such a short movie.

The simmering pot finally boils over in the last 20 minutes, including a remarkable shootout in the hospital that seems partly like an homage to Hard Boiled. After To spends most of the film seemingly hiding in the shadows, he cranks up the style (this has also been compared to The Wild Bunch, for the way it takes its time getting to the slaughter).

Zhao Wei (aka Vicky Zhao) is great as the obsessive doctor, but Wallace Chung has the showiest role as the thug, and he plays it just this side of over the top. This is one of To's better movies. 8/10.

 


the mad monk (johnnie to and siu-tung ching, 1993)

The Johnnie To marathon continues with this one, which came between The Heroic Trio and Executioners. (Ching worked on all of these, as well ... he's the stunt guy, i.e. the martial arts director, i.e. wire fu). Probably the key collaborator here is star Stephen Chow (Kung Fu Hustle), a massive star in Hong Kong who later crossed over into U.S. popularity. Rumor is that Chow and To did not get along, although I can't see evidence of this one the screen. But it feels more like a Chow movie than a To movie, which doesn't help me, since Chow's specialty is comedy that doesn't always translate well across cultures. (There is a term for this, Mo lei tau, which refers to the kind of humor, often verbal, that involves nonsense and puns, just the kind of things that don't travel.)

There were a few things I liked. Maggie Cheung is always welcome at my house. The same goes for her Heroic Trio co-star Anita Mui, whose two appearances amount to an extended cameo. Anthony Wong is different than I usually see him (he plays "Nine Lives Beggar"). The less said about the loony plot, the better. If you like these movies, you'll like The Mad Monk OK, I suppose. But I'm giving it 6/10.

 


revisiting vengeance (johnnie to, 2009)

Continuing my mini-festival of Johnnie To's movies, prior to attending an interview with him in a couple of weeks.

I am surprised when I read what I wrote about Vengeance the first time I saw it. I liked it more than any other Johnnie To film I'd seen (that is still true, I suppose), gave it 8/10, but I seemed most interested in noting that it was the first movie I watched on my Kindle Fire.

My opinion hasn't changed over the last six years. Then, I said, "The action scenes (i.e. violence with lots of shooting) are top-notch, and a couple of HK veterans, Anthony Wong and Simon Tam, are good as ever. But it’s French pop star Johnny Hallyday who steals the movie as an aging Frenchman seeking revenge for the murder of his daughter’s family." Hallyday is the key. Without him, Vengeance is just another fine Johnnie To movie. He takes the movie to another level. Hallyday is often called "The French Elvis", which is accurate and a complement, except being the French Elvis is a bit like being the MVP of the 1962 Mets. Still, Hallyday's work here (and in The Man on the Train, which I also liked), makes me wonder once again about something I wrote years ago about The Man on the Train: "Watching this movie, you can't help but wonder, what if the real Elvis had made it through the 70s, what if he'd been rediscovered later in life as a character actor, what if he'd shown up in something like Jackie Brown?"

Vengeance will remind many of Memento, but there is also one scene that recalls Macbeth's birnam wood:

8/10.

 


by request: 20th century women (mike mills, 2016)

Greta Gerwig is an indie Queen. I admit this is only the third movie I've seen with her. When I wrote about Damsels in Distress, I didn't mention her name once, which in retrospect seems odd. She was much harder to avoid in Frances Ha, where she not only starred but co-wrote the film. I bring this up because she seems perfectly cast in 20th Century Women, placed in the middle between Annette Bening and Elle Fanning. Truthfully, in saying that I'm admitting that all three women are perfectly cast. What helps make the film successful is that such care is taken to make everything seem "real". The characters interact, the actors fit their parts, the writing is great (Mills got an Oscar nom for Best Original Screenplay). Mills admits it's autobiographical, which explains the feeling of accuracy ... no one should know these characters better than Mills.

Mills pulls off an interesting trick, hinted at in the title. It may be autobiographical, and Lucas Jade Zumann adds his name to the list of fine performances as Jamie. In some ways, Jamie is at the center of the film. But Mills isn't quite writing about himself, he's writing about his mother. It's not called "My Teenage Years", it's called 20th Century Women. Jamie grows as a character to the extent that his understanding of women grows.

Annette Bening's mom is a combination of middle-aged cool and middle-aged unconnected to the current lives of the young. It takes place in 1979 in Los Angeles, and there is a scene where she and Billy Crudup try to understand the kids music. Conclusion: Black Flag no, Talking Heads yes. (That scene includes on of my pet peeves, when vinyl is used ... Crudup put the needle on the first track of a side of More Songs About Buildings and Food, but the song we hear, "The Big Country", is the last song on the side.) Better is a scene where the kids explain the music to the mom:

Mom: What is that?

Abbie: It's The Raincoats.

Mom: Can't things just be pretty?

Jamie: Pretty music is used to hide how unfair and corrupt society is.

Mom: Ah, okay so... they're not very good, and they know that, right?

Abbie: Yeah, it's like they've got this feeling, and they don't have any skill, and they don't want skill, because it's really interesting what happens when your passion is bigger than the tools you have to deal with it. It creates this energy that's raw. Isn't it great?

(For what it's worth, Mills says he drew upon an essay by Greil Marcus to inform this scene.)

The biggest problem with the movie has nothing to do with what's on screen. I just struggle with moms in movies. Bening's mom is great, not perfect but who is, eccentric in good ways (which could be said for all of the characters). But she gave me a slight case of the heebie-jeebies ... I imagined my own mom in the same situation, which made me uncomfortable.

I can't go without mentioning Elle Fanning. She first appeared on these pages in 2001, when I said, in a discussion of Super 8, "(Oh, and Elle Fanning is really, really good.)" I'd like to say I was on this before anyone else, but in fact Fanning has gotten good reviews for many years. Her role in 20th Century Women could have been overwhelmed by the Oscar-nominated Bening and the indie Queen Gerwig, especially since when Gerwig is on the screen, it's hard to pay attention to anything else. But Fanning holds up her end.

I liked this a bit more than the other Mike Mills movie I've seen, Beginners. Call it a vote for the cast. #886 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10.

 


drug war (johnnie to, 2012)

I'm going to see Johnnie To interviewed in a couple of weeks, so I thought I'd binge through some of his movies I haven't seen yet. Among the ones I have seen: 

I don't think I realized how many of his films I've seen. My general impression of To is that I like him enough to check out one of his movies when I can't decide what to watch (6 or 7/10 for everything except Vengeance, which gets 8/10). I'll be browsing, and based on my past viewing, a Johnnie To movie will be recommended, and as often as not, I'll watch it.

Drug War is noteworthy as the first action film To shot entirely in Mainland China. There is some disagreement about how much this affected To ... the settings are more expansive, while some of the adjustments are small to an outsider. For example, To has noted he used Hong Kong actors for the bad guys (the reverse of how it often is in HK films). And the original ending was changed, although whether this was to avoid the censors or simply because they ran out of money is unclear.

Drug War is non-stop, but in a different way than the average action picture. A drug lord is arrested, and to avoid the death penalty, he agrees to work with the police. What follows is a step-by-step presentation of the case, if not as detailed as something like High and Low, at least more detailed than usual. The trick, though, is that To doesn't achieve this forward progression by piling on action scenes, one after another. Yes, there are action scenes, but most of what propels Drug War involves the various deceptions taken by the police to ensnare the drug lords.

And then, with about twenty minutes to go, it all explodes, and all the interested parties converge on the same space. What follows should best be experienced fresh, so I'll offer no spoilers. But To pulls of this colossal finish without resorting to much CGI. It is just a lot of people shooting at each other.

And the ending brings together the cop and the criminal in a perfect, unique way.

I wouldn't call Drug War subtle, but To definitely resists the urge to go all Hard Boiled on us. #765 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10.

 


okja (joon-ho bong, 2017)

Okja is the fifth movie by Joon-Ho Bong that I have seen. I've been impressed by all of them ... even as his films test different genres, there is a consistency to the quality of his work. As I wrote of Memories of Murder:

Thus far, Bong has demonstrated the ability to make very good movies, but for some reason, I wouldn’t put any of them in the “great” range just yet. He’s got time, of course, and he has yet to make a stinker. Even his American movie was good (Snowpiercer). Bong is reliably consistent, even though there is no telling what he’ll come up with next.

If there's a problem with this consistency, it's that I am running out of things to say. But I was also prescient ... there is no telling what he'll do next, and Okja is a perfect example. Like Snowpiercer, Okja is an American movie. Unlike Snowpiercer, a significant amount of the film is in Korean. Snowpiercer was a futuristic sci-fi dystopia; The Host was a monster movie; Memories was a procedural. And now Okja, an anti-corporation tale where the title character is a genetically-modified "super pig" and the main human character is a young Korean girl (played by Ahn Seo-hyun). It's a bit like a live-action Miyazaki movie, except with cussing and some brutal slaughterhouse scenes.

The cast is interesting, with Steven Yeun from The Walking Dead, Paul Dano, Lily Collins, and Devon Bostick from The 100 as a group of animal-rights activists. Giancarlo Esposito is a bad guy, and Tilda Swinton (who was also in Snowpiercer) plays twin sisters. Swinton manages to chew the scenery while somehow being subtle about it, although this may just be her ethereal look, the way she seems magnificently odd.

I mention this because the worst part of Okja comes from Jake Gyllenhaal, whose overacting takes over the movie whenever he's on the screen. Gyllenhaal has been fine in many films, and I'm not sure what has prompted this performance, which is as if Ace Ventura popped in for a lengthy cameo. In such cases, my tendency is to blame the director. Gyllenhaal doesn't make Okja unwatchable ... I'm exaggerating his awfulness, and he is not the main character. But he, as much as anything, contributes to Okja being yet another Bong movie that is very good, but not great.

Bong is one the best living directors, and he's only 47. To quote myself, he's got time, and he has yet to make a stinker. 8/10.

 


what i watched

A couple of classics that aren't.

Stalag 17 (Billy Wilder, 1953). It's based on a play, and you can tell. This isn't in itself a deal-breaker, but we're not exactly talking A Streetcar Named Desire here. William Holden stands apart from the cast, as does his character, and perhaps it's appropriate that he won the film's only Oscar. But there isn't a lot of competition in the movie (he beat a very impressive group for the Oscar: Brando, Richard Burton, and cancelling each other out, Montgomery Clift and Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity). No, in Stalag 17, Holden is up against what I imagine was a who's who of "hey, it's that guy!" for 1953: Peter Graves, Neville Brand, future sportscaster Gil Stratton. Not to mention Robert Strauss and the immortal Harvey "Eric von Zipper" Lembeck, whose mugging, especially from Strauss, may have played well on the stage, but who are tiring in the film. Otto Preminger pops in every once in awhile as a more competent Col. Klink. The reference to Klink is on target, considering the plot of Stalag 17 would have fit right in as an episode of Hogan's Heroes. The movie is better than I'm making it sound ... if you could eliminate Strauss' character, I'd even call it enjoyable. But I can't say I'm happy with the ending, where Holden's pseudo-antihero is accepted as one of the guys. If Stalag 17 isn't as good as Wilder's best, it is at least far better than One, Two, Three7/10.

To Catch a Thief (Alfred Hitchcock, 1955). The kind of movie where Cary Grant romances a woman (Grace Kelly) half his age (in fairness, it's really Kelly's character that romances Grant's). It's an odd film for Hitchcock, with barely any attempt at suspense. The French Riviera looks marvelous ... the movie's only Oscar went to Robert Burks for Color Cinematography. You can't blame Burks for the worst scene in the movie, when Hitchcock combines a fireworks display and some Grant/Kelly kissing into something that looks like it was concocted by a first-year film student. To Catch a Thief is pleasant to look at, and it generally keeps your attention. But it's not the first Hitchcock movie I'd recommend to a newcomer. 7/10.

 


revisiting blade runner (ridley scott, 1982)

How many times will I have to see Blade Runner before I finally love it like everyone else? I watched it today for ... well, I've lost count, more than half a dozen times. I have never loved it, and at times I react negatively to it. So why bother to keep giving it another try? I have no idea.

For a long time, I wondered why Philip K. Dick reportedly liked Blade Runner, since one of the ways the movie falls short is in its depiction of the Dickian world. So I was glad to read an anecdote I had missed in the past, that Dick only saw the first 20 minutes of the movie before he died. I do not think movies need to slavishly follow the books they are based on. But I do think we can wonder when a major part of a fairly short novel is completely eliminated.

Have you ever heard of Mercerism? Named after Wilbur Mercer, it has its basis in empathy. All over the world, Mercerists join together via "empathy boxes", sharing common experiences in real time, which always involve Mercer being attacked by people throwing rocks. The participants feel every rock as it hits Mercer.

Never heard of it? That's probably because you didn't read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the Dick novel on which Blade Runner is based. Mercerism is a key element in the book, and I don't have any idea why there wasn't room for it in the movie.

I have always admitted that Blade Runner looks great, with an influential and idiosyncratic future world. Scott deserves credit for that. But that's about it for the good parts. The film plays like a precursor to Slow Cinema, with everyone speaking their lines very slowly. There is enough underplaying by the actors that Rutger Hauer's scene chewing, by contrast, seems like he's channeling Klaus Kinski. The atmosphere is suitably oppressive, and perhaps it's poor form for me to say it just lays there, but it's true ... watching Blade Runner is like being stuck in a dark, drizzly, dirty city. Scott does such a good job of creating this atmosphere that there is no air for an audience to breathe.

Meanwhile, there's the Big Theme that has inspired endless surmising about the meaning. What makes us human? Well, however this might have seemed in 1982 (I saw the movie then, but I don't remember this particular angle), in 2017, all I could think of was the Battlestar Galactica did an far better job of digging into this theme. Hell, the less-heralded English series Humans does a better job. You can see the problem when you dive into all of the arguments about whether or not Rick Deckard was a replicant. Because it doesn't matter ... Scott does nothing with the possibilities, it's left entirely to the audience to concoct theories, and really, who cares anyway?

As I watched Blade Runner this time, I found myself feeling more fondly towards it than usual. Writing this, though, has pissed me off all over again. Still, I'll raise my rating slightly. #40 (!) on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.

 

 


le samouraï (jean-pierre melville, 1967)

The title character is a contract assassin, impossibly good looking, well-dressed and stylish ... he even has a pet bird in a cage.

I'm not talking about Chow Yun-Fat in The Killer ... this is Alain Delon in Le Samouraï. But John Woo has often expressed his debt to Melville:

Melville is God to me. ...

My characters, like Melville’s, are sad and lonely, almost disconnected from reality; they always die in the end. But despite his heroes’ tragic fate, I don’t think that Melville was a pessimist. Although they look cool and self-contained, his characters are passionate and care about each other. The great thing about friendship is that you can really love someone without feeling the need to let him know; you just do what you can do for him. Even if you die in loneliness, and no one knows about it, it doesn’t matter–you have done what you had to do. Melville’s characters behave like that, and I believe that he was a man who always cared for others. ...

I’ve always tried to imitate Melville. ... 

It was when I got a chance to do A Better Tomorrow, in 1986, that I was really able to use Melville’s style and technique, since it fit with the film’s genre, a contemporary urban thriller. I based Chow Yun-fat’s performance, his style, his look, even the way he walked, on Delon in Le Samouraï. In Hong Kong, you never saw people wearing raincoats, so it was a surprise to see Chow Yun-fat in this kind of outfit. It was all part of the Melville allusions throughout the film.

It is a sign of the excellence of both directors that The Killer has obvious roots in Le Samouraï, but the films are not close to identical, each reflecting the vision of their director.

It's always interesting to come at an old classic through the experience of the films it influenced. It is as if time has flip-flopped, as if Woo's film came before Melville's, because that's the order in which I saw them. The same goes for all of Melville's work, for I have only recently begun to watch his movies. I am not alone in this ... his classic Army of Shadows, made in 1969 directly after Le Samouraï, wasn't fully released in the U.S. until 2006, more than 30 years after Melville's death, when it promptly made the Ten Best of the Year lists of several critics.

Le Samouraï is almost austere, in tone certainly, in the cinematography as well. Like The Killer, it is a reflective examination of Cool, not by dialogue but by example. (No words are spoken in the first ten minutes.) Like The Killer, it is a look at the passing of an era, featuring main characters who know the future is now and there is no place for their kind of life. Unlike The Killer, the "hero" is a loner ... there is no friend who understands. And Delon is perfect for this. It is hard to imagine Chow Yun-Fat going through life friendless ... he is the Cary Grant of HK films. But Delon's acting, such as it is, depends on detachment. This makes Le Samouraï abstract, with little connection to real life.

Ultimately, we do not want to become assassins after seeing Le Samouraï. We want to become Alain Delon. #191 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.  9/10.


train to busan (yeon sang-ho, 2016)

Genre fare often offers implicit commentary on the state of social affairs (sometimes it's explicit). This can be illuminating when you are familiar with the social context, but I feel I am missing something when I watch films from other countries. So I know that Train to Busan is seen by some as an allegory for Korean politics, but I don't know enough about the topic to be able to identify the allegory. It's not that the allegory is missing, it's that I am missing the allegory.

Which thus leaves me to react to Train to Busan on its genre elements. And on that level, this is a terrific movie. Wikipedia calls it a "zombie apocalypse action thriller", and that pretty much gets it. The zombies are of the fast-moving variety. One article by Ezra Klein suggests that such zombies  are "too fast to be truly scary", and a case can be made that the slower version of zombies have a better chance of taking over the world. But the fast ones are indeed scary in the immediate sense, especially when there are lots of them. This was the case in World War Z, but the huge budget for that movie seemed to make it more a special-effects extravaganza than a character-driven thriller.

Train to Busan is constructed like a classic thriller. Right from the start, there are intimations of the horrors to come, but they are only intimations. Still, the suspense is serious (after all, we know the zombies are coming). And once the zombies arrive (fairly quickly), the suspense is replaced with open-jawed thrills.

Two things in particular make Train to Busan impressive. First, there is a dedication to the characters, who are painted in quick scenes but who always feel slightly more than stock from the genre's closet. We care about the characters, which isn't a necessary component to a zombie thriller, but it does lift this movie a bit above the rest. Second, the zombies really are impressive. It's not just that they are fast, it's that they feel real. I don't know how much, if any, CGI Yeon used, but it's very old-school in its presentation, as if instead of going straight to the computer, they actually hired a bunch of extras. Yeon's previous work was in animation, and the zombies have the kind of physics-defying qualities you'll see in cartoons.

The tension is mostly non-stop, with little time to take a breath. I don't suppose Train to Busan will appeal to people who don't like zombie movies, but it certainly ranks high within the genre. 8/10.