red cliff 2

Red Cliff was probably my favorite movie of 2008 … only other possibility would be Man on Wire. It took us several months of maybe-perhaps-ok before we finally got around to watching Red Cliff 2, and it looks like John Woo is going to be sitting atop my list again this year. I didn’t say much about the first installment, so I’ll stretch out a bit now. I should note that I haven’t seen the version playing now in American theaters, which edits the two parts down into one movie.

There are two essential items going on here, the strategy preparing for battle, and the battle itself (as I recall, it was much the same in Part One). I’m not a fan of “war strategy” movies, but this stuff is fascinating. It takes place in the early 3rd century, so the weapons aren’t very advanced. But they are put to ingenious uses, and the overall strategies on both sides are interesting mostly because of the point/counterpoint feel. The leaders on both sides know how war is “supposed” to be fought, and there’s a bit of game theory going on, as first one side and then another attempts to figure out how the other will vary from the norm, so that they can themselves vary in a useful manner. The result would please the A-Team’s Hannibal … as you watch in admiration, you think “I love it when a plan comes together.” The final battle sequence is as good as any you’ve seen. The only problem is that we’re getting aesthetic pleasure from the deaths of tens of thousands of people, and while there are brief moments when we’re reminded of the deceased, for the most part our reaction is more “Wow!” than “poor fellow.” This was true in Woo’s HK action films, of course, but the scale here is far beyond that of a movie like Hard Boiled. Still, watching Woo put all the pieces together in such a way that the audience can clearly follow the action mirrors the way the warlords put the pieces of their plans together.

I don’t know enough about the history being told here to say anything with confidence about how close to reality Woo comes, but I don’t know that it matters. I also don’t know how the two films reflect on contemporary China … Woo made his name in Hong Kong, left before the handover, made a gazillion dollars in Hollywood, then returned home to make this remarkable epic that I’m sure says something about how things are today. But Red Cliff and Red Cliff 2 are magnificent, stirring films … they are as inventive as his earlier heroic bloodshed movies, on a much greater scale. 10/10.


what i watched last week

Frozen River. Many times, people write about some text that they find too dark and depressing. The joke is that I agree with them, but they conclude that the text is bad while I end up liking it. Frozen River is so relentlessly downbeat that it even got to me. It almost works like a horror movie, in terms of the amount of dread it inspires ... you just know something bad is about to happen. As many have noted, this is largely because while Frozen River is a slice-of-life film, rather like a 21st-century rural version of kitchen sink realism, it also has a plot that moves forward. The characters may be stuck, but that doesn't mean "nothing happens." So you have people leading dismal lives, and you have events conspiring to make the continuance of those lives at least as dismal in the future. Nominated for two Oscars (best screenplay and best actress Melissa Leo), and I suppose it could conceivably win the writing nod (Leo is excellent, but she's up against Streep and Winslet), which will impress those who prefer their movies to be low-budget (this one cost about $1 million). 7/10.

Zodiac. If I needed any reminders why I'm not very excited about that Benjamin Button movie, Zodiac is one. I am not a big fan of David Fincher. I've seen four of his movies now, and haven't really liked any of them. His Alien movie wasn't much good, I really really hated Se7en, and found Fight Club watchable without ever wanting to watch it again, despite the possibility of revisiting it after knowing the "secret." Now along comes Zodiac, which was about as watchable as Fight Club, but after sitting through all 2 hours and 37 minutes, I'm not sure why I bothered. The police procedural was good enough to keep my attention, even though we all know how it ends, and Robert Downey Jr. and Chloe Sevigny are good as always. But the primary theme of the movie is obsession, with the central obsession of the film being that of cartoonist Robert Graysmith, played with appropriate oddball intensity by Jake Gyllenhaal. Yet the film never bothers to explain to us exactly why Graysmith is obsessed with the case. He's on the peripheral of the events that take place in the Chronicle, he likes to solve puzzles, and then suddenly the identity of the Zodiac killer is all he cares about. But nothing in the film convincingly shows how that obsessive leap takes place. His wife (Sevigny) calls him on it late in the movie, and he gives some lame speech that does nothing to suggest the depths of his obsessions ... she says "that's not enough," and soon afterwards, she leaves him, taking their kids along with her. She's right ... it's not enough, nor is this movie. (I'm reminded that Graysmith also wrote the book Auto Focus, which was turned into another movie with fine acting where I found myself wondering at the end why the movie was made in the first place ... claiming that you've exposed the real killer of Bob Crane is not enough.) #29 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the best films of the 21st century. 6/10.

Bullet in the Head. Arguably John Woo's most ambitious film, at least until Red Cliff. Long before I had a blog, I had an obsession with Hong Kong films, and John Woo was my favorite. I put up with some of his more problematic idiosyncrasies because they fit in the with whole exotic foreign-film aspect of the movies. Almost two decades later, I have a bit more distance, and I can see that the schmaltzy beginning of this movie and the overblown ending are a bit much. It's still a terrific film, excruciating to watch as it progresses and the various characters are driven further over the edge. There is some great acting here ... Tony Leung may be incapable of a bad performance, and he looks v.young here, Simon Yam is, well, Simon Yam, and I think Jacky Cheung is impressive as the guy with the bullet in his head. There are other Woo films that are more pleasurable to watch, but this is as good as any of them. 9/10.


what i watched last week

The Godfather. I finally realized that no one was going to watch my new Godfather Blu-rays with me, and since Robin is downstairs, I can watch whatever I want in the evening after the noisy workers are gone. So I cracked open the box and took in Part One of the greatest movie ever made. This time I was particularly noticing that Michael's roots are in America, as opposed to his father's in Sicily (which is made more explicit in Part Two, of course). When Vito tells Michael, "I live my life, I don't apologize, to take care of my family," we know, from Part Two if not before, what made Vito into Don Corleone, know that he means both that he knows what his life has been and he is unapologetic, but also that he did it for family. He may be deluded, but I don't think so ... I think he starts with taking care of himself, then taking care of his wife, then his kids, then his neighbors, then his entire community, then the world, which is all part of his family. Michael is corporate ... for him, it is always business, not personal, and while the first times we see him, he seems quite human, when his Sicilian bride is killed, he loses that ... his personal loss turns him away from the personal, towards "business," and I doubt he ever really believes the stuff he says about family being important. Vito would never kill Carlo, much less Fredo. The essential differences between Vito and Michael are reflected in their assistants: Clemenza and Tessio are old school, Al Neri is a silent suit. 10/10, duh.

Cloverfield. Yeah, it's about 9/11, and the YouTube generation, and Godzilla, and a bunch of other cool pop culture artifacts (and in this context, that's what 9/11 is, a cultural artifact). I didn't care much about any of that. And I didn't really care about the long party scene that kicks off the film, where everyone demonstrates how vapid they are, although it was nice to see Lizzy Caplan, whose nude scenes on True Blood have already made her an Internet legend. But the party stuff is merely setup, and I'd say it lasts just the right amount of time ... just when I couldn't take another minute, BOOM! What follows is, as Stephanie Zacherek points out in Salon, "unpleasant to the point of being unconscionable; it's so relentless that there's no suspense, nothing that makes us wonder what's going to happen next." I happen to agree with her wholeheartedly. The difference is, she hated the movie, I thought it was excellent. It cranks up the tension, it brutalizes the audience by sticking us right in the middle of the horrified emotions of the characters that only a few minutes earlier seemed so mundane, it doesn't give two shits about suspense, it's a Japanese monsta movie made in America and taking place in New York, and all of that cultural artifact stuff is irrelevant, although I guarantee this movie will get a chapter in someone's dissertation in the year 2038. And it's only six minutes longer than Booty Call ... hell, if you walk out during the extremely long end credits, you'll spend less time watching than you would even for that immortal classic. I can't say it would hold up for a second viewing, but on first look, I give it 8/10.

Red Cliff: Part I. John Woo returns to China, makes two-part historical epic, regains his Mojo. I haven't had time to really think about this movie yet ... what it "means." But it's a marvelous thing to watch, with some fascinating battle scenes. The second part comes out next month ... nothing has been released in America yet, but supposedly a one-film condensation of the two parts will come out here. I picked up a Blu-ray of the Part I original, and it's worth it. 9/10.


infernal affairs (andrew lau and alan mak, 2002)

As always, I’m a few years behind on stuff. I finally got around to watching Infernal Affairs, because I wanted to make sure I saw it before I saw the new Scorsese remake, The Departed.

[Tangent: I don’t know what to expect from The Departed … Martin Scorsese directed a couple of my favorite movies of all time, but the last of those was thirty years ago … twenty-eight if I count The Last Waltz. Of the Scorsese films I’ve seen since, there have been good ones and bad ones, but, for my money, no great ones. (For the record, I’ve seen, in reverse order, The Aviator, Gangs of New York, Casino, Cape Fear, Goodfellas, New York Stories, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Color of Money, After Hours, The King of Comedy, and Raging Bull … as well as my faves, Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, and the lovely Last Waltz, and New York, New  York, and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and Who’s That Knocking At My Door, and The Big Shave for that matter.) The best of those are probably Goodfellas and Raging Bull, and I’m aware that most people think much more highly of Raging Bull than I do, but even if you consider that his apex, it’s been twenty-six years, and if you want to say Goodfellas was great, even that was sixteen years ago. So it’s safe to say that I think Scorsese is always capable of greatness, but it’s been a long time since I expected it of him.]

Infernal Affairs is one of the most highly-regarded HK films in some years, so it’s probably a sign of something that I waited so long to see it … I guess the days are past when I’d go into video stores where no one spoke English and point to pictures of Chow Yun-Fat, saying “I want to rent this one.” I don’t know if what follows contains spoilers for The Departed, since I don’t know how closely the remake follows the plot of the original. So I’ll just mention the basic premise, in order to avoid as many spoilers as I can.

The usual “two guys from different paths are actually a lot alike” plot is so lacking in originality that I’ve already seen it once this week, in Sympathy of Mr. Vengeance. Infernal Affairs doubles the twists, though, and the complications are worth the effort. As in John Woo’s The Killer, we have a gangster and a cop who are “alike,” but this time, the added twist is that neither is what they seem. The cop is really working undercover for the gangs, and the gangster is really working undercover for the cops. It’s a nice addition to the norm … the plot and character development are more than twice as interesting than usual, and the kind of mind-warping thoughts that go through the viewer’s head are something like what happens when you try to follow a Philip K. Dick plot. Beyond that, the whole movie is well-done, for what that’s worth … the sound is terrific, not something I generally notice, and I recommend seeing it either in a theater with a good sound system, or in a home theater with surround (I did the DTS version, and it was stunning … a scene where some guys are hitting golf balls off a rooftop was especially impressive).

Also, I think it might be time to realize something. I’ve been one of Chow Yun-Fat’s biggest fans for a long time now. And I mean no disrespect to him here. But at this point, I think Tony Leung is my favorite HK actor (speaking of Tony Leung Chiu Wai, if that helps). He is great here … he matched up well with Chow in Hard-Boiled and A Better Tomorrow … he ruled in Bullet in the Head … he’s a perfect fit for In the Mood for Love and 2046Chungking Express, can’t forget that one … he’s great in everything, and he’s got range.

Infernal Affairs isn’t quite up to the best HK movies … I prefer Woo’s over-the-top romanticism, I suppose, and In the Mood for Love really grows on a person. My buddy Steve Fore tells me the prequels/sequels aren’t as good. But Infernal Affairs itself is a fine movie in its own right … Scorsese had his work cut out for him.