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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:



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.


music friday: day on the green 1974

43 years ago, we attended our first Day on the Green. (I eventually attended five. My second featured Robin Trower, Peter Frampton, Dave Mason, Fleetwood Mac, and Gary Wright. The third had The Who and The Grateful Dead. The fourth, Peter Frampton, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Santana, and The Outlaws. Finally, my fifth and last had Led Zeppelin, Derringer, and Judas Priest.)

First up was Jesse Colin Young, who was at the peak of his post-Youngbloods career. I remember him being enjoyable. Here he is from late 1973:

Next, we got Joe Walsh and Barnstorm. This was just before they broke up, with Walsh going solo and eventually joining The Eagles. Again from 1973:

The co-headliner was The Band, who we had seen just a few months earlier with Dylan (the tour album, Before the Flood, had come out the previous month). From The Last Waltz in 1976:

Finally came Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. If you want to hear the entire 3+ hours, you can click on this link:

We saw them near the beginning of the tour, which was a reunion of the foursome. They were supposedly not happy with the results of the tour, playing in giant stadiums ... ah, but they got lots of money! As was often the case at Day on the Greens, people took toilet paper rolls to the top row of the upper deck and slowly unrolled them ... the best ones would completely unravel and float across the sky towards the center of the stadium. When CSNY began the acoustic part of the show (a bad idea in itself), the crowd had been there for many hours, and heard some great music. CSNY wasn't really doing it for me, at least, and I remember a guy sitting next to me shouting, when Crosby was admonishing us to quiet down for the acoustic stuff, "Sorry, Dave, the toilet paper guy's got you beat!"

Here they are from near the end of the tour:


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.


glow, season one

Nelsan Ellis died. Probably best known for his turn as Lafayette in True Blood, Ellis always captured the attention of the audience, and based on the outpouring of sentiment, he was a beloved co-worker as well. My sister posted, "I don't watch True Blood, but I really enjoyed him in Elementary." Her phrasing interested me. True Blood ended its 7-season run on HBO three years ago. The retired English professor in me thought, "you should have written 'I didn't watch True Blood'", because the series now exists only in the past.

But I'm wrong. In the world of streaming, no series exists only in the past. If, for instance, you wanted to watch all 80 episodes of True Blood for the first time, you could do that.

Tim Goodman, who over the years has become perhaps our best writer on the business of television, wrote recently about a "staycation" where he did little besides catching up on the TV series he had gotten behind on. Peak TV has assured that viewers will always be behind, because there is so much good stuff to watch. More and more, even TV critics, who are paid to watch stuff, are always behind. There is too much good stuff. Goodman called it "the critic's conundrum ... adjusting to a world where it was frustratingly impossible to watch every (scripted) thing after being able to do just that several seasons prior".

He came to this conclusion:

[W]riting about television in this new world order has an evergreen aspect to it. Yes, there will still be post-mortems from series creators posted right after the finales are over. People who are caught up can read those. And they will still be there, searchable, for whenever everybody else finishes ... 

[T]hat opens up an opportunity for change — for a mixture of coverage that is there if you finished on time but will also be there — fresh for you — not because you had to search for it a couple weeks later, but because more critics will be writing and revisiting series on a delayed basis, perhaps writing something more meaningful because they've actually had time to think about it.

This business is changing across the board. As for criticism, I think it's an exciting time to be more thoughtful, brought about by an industry-wide inability to be up to date on everything. And I think there's a huge audience for that, composed of people equally delayed in their viewing because they've been overwhelmed and otherwise busy.

I often write about television, just as I often write about movies. Many/most of those movies are older (7 of the last 10 are from the 20th century). I don't worry that no one is interested in my take on these old films ... I have no illusions about the size of the audience for this blog, but I don't mind if that limited audience is forced to read what I have to say about a movie from the 1950s. Yet when I have written about television, I feel the need to be current. Who wants to read what I'm thinking about an old TV series?

It's not just old, retired series, either. It's the new ones. If I'm not completely caught up, I don't want to write about them. But if I don't get to them until long past their original showing, I assume no one cares what I write.

There is also the hope that if I like something, if I praise something, it might convince a reader to give it a try. But in my old-school mind, this means getting them to watch each episode as it airs. And no one watches TV like that any more.

What I take from Goodman's piece is that I need to get over it. If I'm going to write about Stalag 17 (1953), then there is no reason I can't write about a TV series that recently ended a season.

And so ... GLOW. GLOW is a Netflix series, which says something right from the start. The day the first episode premieres, all of the season's episodes become available. If you have five hours to spare, you can watch the entire first season of GLOW in one day. I am not much of a binger, so I'm more likely to finish a season in ten days than in one day. In this case, it took me about two weeks, by which time there were all sorts of online reviews of the whole season. It feels too late to add my two cents worth. But what the heck.

GLOW comes to us from Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, who worked together on Nurse Jackie. Mensch also worked on Weeds and Orange Is the New Black, series from Jenji Kohan. Kohan is an executive producer for GLOW,  and it has a real Orange flavor to it: big, diverse cast of women, with lesser-known actors (the biggest names are Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin, and Marc Maron), and a setup that seems to invite cheese (women's prisons, women's rassling). 

I think the achievements of GLOW in its first season might be missed. Yes, it is cheesy. But over the course of ten episodes and five hours, we get a decent idea of who all of those women are. Brie is the "star", but the series doesn't revolve around her ... it revolves around the group. And if you think that group won't grow on you, think again. It's actually a fairly standard concept for sports movies and series, the coming together of a bunch of castoffs into a coherent group whose characters begin to bond and identify with each other. But standard or not, GLOW pulls it off ... it's very entertaining and often funny, but it also works as a character study.

And as we watch the first live GLOW wrestling card at the end of the season, we realize that we care, just as we might in a movie where Mickey and Judy put on a show. We care about the characters ... even more surprising, we care about what happens in the ring.

GLOW is not perfect. It deals with stereotypes ... it's a wrestling show, based on an actual show, set in the mid-80s and featuring women who, no matter their backgrounds, become simpler caricatures in the ring: Liberty Belle (all-American), Machu Picchu (pseudo-Mexican), Beirut the Mad Bomber, the black woman who wrestles as The Welfare Queen, the Cambodian immigrant who becomes Fortune Cookie. Brie, who plays a barely-employed actress, works out her own character: Zoya the Destroya from the Soviet Union, who feuds with Liberty Belle. Brie's Russian accent is hilariously bad, as it is supposed to be. Anyway, GLOW walks the thin line between making a point about stereotypes and exploiting those stereotypes, and it doesn't always fall on the right side.

I was surprised at how emotional I got at the end of the season. I look forward to more. 


music friday: hair

Let me get one thing out of the way at the start. I have never seen Hair, on stage or on screen. My memory is vague on this, but I think a lot of my friends went to see it in San Francisco, where it first ran in 1969, continuing on for a couple of years. I didn't go with them. You'd think Hair was right up my alley, between my love of rock and roll and my status as a wannabe hippie. But I am not a big fan of stage musicals in general, I didn't think the music in Hair was anything like the rock I loved, and what kind of hippies are there going to be in a play, anyway?

I suppose one day I should see it.

Meanwhile, I did have one encounter with Hair, a tale I have told many times. Here, I'll pull a quote from the first year of this blog, in 2002, slightly edited:

In January of 1981, a friend and I played hooky from work on Reagan's first Inauguration Day to attend a Punk Inaugural Ball at the Mabuhay, headlined by a drag band called Sluts a-Go-Go. It's been more than 35 years, but one thing from that night still sticks with me, when the Sluts sang "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In" while incense burned. There I was, in a punk club at the dawn of the Reagan Era, listening to men in drag sing a Broadway version of hippiedom, and I'm not much for irony, for that matter ... in any event, I felt one with the band and the crowd, I wasn't alienated from America in that moment, I was as close to Hippie Community as I'd ever been in the actual hippie days, and I started to cry at the ridiculous wonder of it all.

I've often wondered what was the primary force that brought me to tears. Was it simply that I was amongst "my" people? Was there something brilliant in the performance by the Sluts?

Whatever. To this day, I can get choked up by any and all versions of "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In", including the actual finale of Hair, which is "The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In)". I don't know why, any more than I know why I was so taken by the Sluts a-Go-Go version in 1981.

Here are a few of those versions. First, the original version, a medley from the musical at the Tony Awards:

The Milos Forman film ... apparently this has a different ending than the stage musical:

A more recent version, on The View, for those of you who wondered what it would be like if Barbara Walters got swept up in hippiedom:

The hit version:

And finally, a clip of Sluts a-Go-Go:


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.