revisiting the 9s: red cliff (john woo, 2008)

[This is the nineteenth in a series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10.]

In 2008, I wrote about Red Cliff, "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." More to the point, I wrote the following about Red Cliff II the next year:

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 did indeed rate Red Cliff 9/10, which is why it's in this series. I gave the second film a 10/10, and I'm not sure why I thought it was the better of the two films ... they are equals. In fact, in some ways they are exactly equals: in America, the films were combined into a shorter version (also called Red Cliff), and I'm pretty sure Woo thought of them as two parts of the same movie. I have never seen the shorter version. This time around, I was taken by the acting. I've seen Tony Leung in 12 movies ... I've never given one of his pictures less than 7/10, and I've given my top 10/10 rating to four of them. Chow Yun-Fat was the HK actor who first got my attention, but over the years, I think Tony Leung Chiu-wai may have overtaken him. Heck, he might be my favorite actor of all time from any country. (I re-watched both movies back-to-back over the past two days.)

spring in a small town (mu fei, 1948)

In 1945, Brief Encounter was released. Directed by David Lean, from a play by Noel Coward, it told the story of an affair between two married people, an affair that is never consummated. It's been a long time since I've seen it, and I don't remember thinking much of it, but it's considered a classic of English cinema, and the feel of suppressed emotion is overwhelming. People, including me, have often noted the similarities between this basic story and that of Wong Kar-wai's 2000 film from Hong Kong, In the Mood for Love, which happens to be one of my all-time favorite movies. There would seem to be something that grabs audiences in these stories of love that can't be fulfilled.

Spring in a Small Town is a 1948 Chinese film about an unhappy marriage and the introduction of a third person who is an old friend of the husband and, unbeknownst to the husband, an old lover of the wife. Much of the movie is taken up with the same kind of will they/won't they plot from the aforementioned films. Perhaps the biggest difference is the setting. The small town of the title is ravaged from the Sino-Japanese war that had ended only a few years earlier. The Chinese Civil War was nearing its end, with the Communist Party eventually triumphant. The Civil War isn't part of the story of Spring in a Small Town in the way the destruction of the Sino-Japanese war is a constant reminder. One result of this apparently is that once the Communists were in power, they found Mu Fei's film to be insufficiently political. It was buried for decades.

In more recent times, the film has had a renaissance, and is considered a classic of Chinese cinema (it's #184 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time". In 2005, the Hong Kong Film Awards called Spring in a Small Town the greatest Chinese film of all time.

I found the film atmospheric and touching, with subtle acting and interesting artistic touches under a small budget. I wouldn't call it the greatest Chinese film of all time, although I haven't exactly seen them all. But I'd put it about in the middle between the greatness of In the Mood for Love and the disappointment I got from Brief Encounters.

geezer cinema: meg 2: the trench (ben wheatley, 2023)

There's no point in writing a review of Meg 2. That would be true even if I was a professional critic with a large readership, but it's especially true when only a dozen people will see these words.

Meg 2 is a sequel to The Meg, a 2018 movie I never saw. That film cost $130 million and grossed $530 million at the box office, pretty much guaranteeing a sequel. Jason Statham is the star of the movies, and he has proved over the decades to be a reliable presence in action films. As they say, you know what you are getting with Jason Statham. And you know what you are getting with the sequel to a movie about giant prehistoric sharks. Toss in 3D, and, well, you don't need a review. You already know if you want to see it. Action, Statham, giant sharks, 3D.

Meg 2 doesn't stink, nor is it any good. It gets in at less than two hours, and doesn't disappoint if you don't have any expectations in the first place. Kudos to Statham for doing his own stunts in the jet-ski scenes.

the world (jia zhangke, 2004)

The World is the second Jia Zhangke film I have seen, and my reaction is similar to what I thought about Platform. My ignorance about the cultural and political context of these films prevents me from fully understanding what I'm seeing. Both movies look idiosyncratic, with The World even including brief animated sections.

The very existence of the Beijing World Park fascinates me. As is said at the beginning, "See the world without ever leaving Beijing." It's a theme park that features recreations of famous places around the world, so France has the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower and America has Manhattan (the towers are still standing in the park), and there are the Great Pyramids and the Leaning Tower of Pisa and Big Ben and much more, all scaled down. Most of the characters in the film work at the park, including many who work in stage productions that fit the replicated area. It's like Las Vegas ... of course, there's shopping and places to eat ... Las Vegas plopped into the middle of a socialist republic.

Platform also focused on a young entertainment group. This allows for plenty of interactions among the young characters, while making subtle statements about the presence of art in China. (This was more obvious in Platform, where the troupe is meant to create productions the government will approve of.) While much of The World is taken up with character development, the presentation is often surreal, as people have conversations while standing in front of recreations of famous landmarks.

As with Platform, I'm sure I am missing a lot, too much to lock completely into what Jia is doing. Zhao Tao is excellent ... she appears in many of Jia's films, and they eventually married. From scene to scene, there is always something interesting going on. I don't want to damn The World with faint praise; I'm just noting the distance between what is on the screen and what I can usefully process. Which is on me, not on the film makers.

geezer cinema: operation fortune: ruse de guerre (guy ritchie, 2023)

Another Guy Ritchie movie. He's like Michael Bay, in that you recognize his films, even though they aren't usually any good. There's no question why Ritchie gets to make movies ... they usually make money, often a lot of money (his live-action Aladdin earned more than a billion dollars world-wide). I've seen five of his films, and only liked one of them (the first Sherlock Holmes). Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels was tolerable, The Gentlemen less so, and I thought Snatch was a real dud.

There's that category I invented, Not for Steven, but I usually assign that label to movies by people like Terrence Malick, arty directors who know what they are doing and get what they want while not connecting with me. I guess Guy Ritchie falls into that category, although I'm not as certain he knows what he's doing, and I wouldn't call his movies arty. No, they are popular, and more power to him and his fans. But they clearly Aren't for Steven.

Operation Fortune lies in the middle of the pack. Jason Statham is in a lot of Ritchie movies, and I like Statham ... he's made some decent action pictures. Operation Fortune has the added advantage of Aubrey Plaza, who is a lot like Statham in that she's made some decent pictures, and every one of her movies that I have seen are better because she was in them. In fact, Ritchie often has large casts with recognizable people in smaller parts ... it's one of the best things about his movies (this time around, besides Statham and Plaza, he has Josh Hartnett, Hugh Grant, Bugzy Malone, and Eddie Marsan).

I found Operation Fortune incoherent and stupid, but there's always something happening and it's never boring. There are worse movies ... Ritchie has made some of them himself. Me, I'd go with the fact that Aubrey Plaza is once again the best thing in the movie, and if I hadn't seen it, I'd check out Emily the Criminal, which is a bit better and has Plaza in almost every scene.


platform (jia shangke, 2000)

This is my first film from director Jia Shangke, another entry in the It's About Time department. Platform was Jia's second feature, made when he was 30 ... he is considered a leading light in the Chinese "Sixth Generation" school of films.

While there was much to appreciate in Platform, I felt like I was only scratching the surface. Clearly, Jia is commenting both on the 1980s, when the film mostly takes place, and 2000, when the film was released, but I don't have enough context to pick up on subtleties. What is left is a good, if long, look at 20-somethings as they interact with each other and experience the changes in Chinese society. The focus is on a theater troupe whose repertoire seems to focus on things The Party would approve of. As time progresses, the troupe becomes more pop, but again, my lack of context means I noticed this without being able to know the implications of much of the situation.

The main characters are played by Wang Hongwei and Zhao Tao, both of whom have worked frequently with Jia. (Zhao is married to Jia.) Jia often uses stationary camerawork, but the compositions are effective, and there is enough movement to prevent a static look.

I liked Platform; I just wanted to get it enough to love it. #376 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, #36 on the 21st-century list.

Here is the opening scene:

film fatales #133: ascension (jessica kingdon, 2021)

2021 was a good year for documentaries, and the Oscar nominations actually got it right. At the least, the four nominees I have seen are all very good, and classic at best (Summer of Soul being my choice for best movie of the year). Jessica Kingdon (along with co-cinematographer Nathan Truesdell, who is crucial to the film) had the idea to show the "Chinese Dream" and the impact of capitalism ... she doesn't shy away from big topics. She has mentioned being influenced by Frederick Wiseman, and it shows ... Ascension lacks narration or even explanatory information, with Kingdon and the cameras being observers, not participants (at least in theory). The result is like Wiseman's more abstract work, like Meat. The film always looks interesting, and Kingdon has done great work in the editing room. She may not explain things in an overt manner, but the flow of images can be entrancing, and, like Wiseman, she lets the viewer construct meaning from those images. Dan Deacon's score adds a lot to our appreciation.

Kingdon films in China, and it's easy to assume Ascension is specific to its locale. But what we as viewers bring to the movie matters ... an American will react to certain scenes about work and workers based on our own experiences, but we don't have a monopoly on the meanings. If nothing else, Kingdon shows us regular Chinese workers, without the propaganda that influences how we think about working conditions there. Again, Kingdon's film is not judgmental. But you do get a feeling for the mentality of the Chinese worker, just as you would watching a documentary about workers of any country. What we get from Ascension is a people who are told that hard work leads to success. Kingdon lets us decide how true that statement is, or how it works in reality for Chinese workers.

shadow (zhang yimou, 2018)

This is the eleventh film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 11 is called "Fifth Generation Week":

Beginning in the mid-late 1980s, the rise of the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers brought increased popularity of Chinese cinema abroad. Most of the filmmakers who made up the Fifth Generation had graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1982 and included Zhang Yimou, Tian Zhuangzhuang, Chen Kaige, Zhang Junzhao and others.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Fifth Generation film.

My favorite "Fifth Generation" movie I have seen is probably Farewell My Concubine. As for Zhang Yimou, his movies are always gorgeous, and I usually like them, but for whatever reason, I've never found him great (on my list of favorite directors, he is #97). Shadow ranks with his best, and yes, it's gorgeous, but that means less than you'd think. It's a definite case of Taste Preferences, and you love movies that look great, his films in general and Shadow in particular should be your cup of tea. As I once said of Zhang's House of Flying Daggers, it was "the Elvira Madigan of its day. Whether that's a compliment or a pan is up to your subjective judgment."

The look of the film is unusual ... it's shot in color, but the sets and pretty much everything else work on black and white tones, which makes Shadow different from what you normally see. Cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding explained:

Once Zhang decided he was going to make a motion-picture version of a Chinese ink-brush painting, every department worked on every detail from it—to design of the sets to costumes to props. They were all what you saw on the screen, and there were screens and screens in the palace that were calligraphy on silk—like, waves and waves of them—and the interiors were all black, gray, and white, and so were the costumes, so that what you saw on the screen was actually what we shot in that regard.

Of course, we filmed in color, but that was the color of what we were filming, and with the skin and blood, there was some color-grading to make it all feel like it was of a piece. Basically, the departments, including FX, worked together to make sure what we built and what people were wearing was what we saw on the monitor and what we got in the movie. We had very little green-screen, so it was all a work of, “How do we create a Chinese ink-brush painting movie?”

No question Zhang got what he wanted, and it's a feast for the eyes. The action scenes are also effectively choreographed:

Shadow takes a long time setting up the various characters and their relationships to each other, and after a while, you might wonder where the action is. It's all necessary and pays off once the stories of the characters merge, but the film still feels a bit long. That pay off, though, is pretty spectacular. And the character arcs are Shakespearean, in a Titus Andronicus kind of way, especially in the final scenes.

(Other Zhang Yimou movies: Hero, House of Flying Daggers, A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop.)

what i watched

The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2015). This fine film deserves its own post, and originally, it had one, but my computer crashed, and now I'm just working from memory. Suffice to say that this was my first film by Hou Hsiao-hsien, and I'm ready to see more. The cinematography is gorgeous (by Ping Bin Lee), and while there are very few closeups and plenty of long takes, The Assassin is never static. I had seen this film called "Kubrickian", which isn't necessarily a point in its favor for me, but I can see why people make the comparison. Kubrick movies are always beautiful to look at, as well, and he's not afraid of a "slow" movie. The primary reason I found Hou's film superior to anything Kubrick gave us in his last 30 years is that Hou cared about actors. In the case of The Assassin, we are rewarded with many award-winning performances, especially from Shu Qi, who plays the title character with heartbreaking subtlety. She also conveys confidence in the fighting scenes, even though she came to the film untrained in fighting. #87 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

Geezer Cinema: The Little Things (John Lee Hancock, 2021). Denzel Washington plays a cop with a past, and if you've seen any other films with that description, you've already seen The Little Things. There are a couple of reasons the movie is a bit better than the others. The cast is full of interesting actors (Rami Malek, Jared Leto, Chris Bauer, Terry Kinney, Natalie Morales, Glenn Morshower, Maya Kazan). And while The Little Things deals with a serial killer, Hancock does not turn the killings into something enjoyable for voyeurs. It's not enough to turn this into a great movie, but it helps. Here are the first ten minutes:

The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942). Watched this again ... earlier review is linked in the title.

godzilla: king of the monsters (michael dougherty, 2019)

I've been impressed enough by the previews for Godzilla vs. Kong that I decided I needed to prep. I'd seen the first film in the series, Godzilla, and liked it a lot. I began to catchup recently by watching Kong: Skull Island, which was a bit of a drop but still entertaining. Now I've seen Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and the drop is a lot bigger.

This one brings out a bunch of the Japanese originals ... Mothra, Ghidorah, Rodan, and of course Godzilla, all of whom are listed in the credits as playing themselves. This is more fun if you're a fan, although Rodan seems less important to the plot. Michael Dougherty shows his love for the genre, and the film isn't condescending. It's just not very good.

We're invited to care about the characters, and the cast is impressive. But the characters never get deeper than their stereotypical base: family struggling over events in the earlier movie, Japanese scientists with more understanding of the monsters, smart-ass American scientist, Charles Dance as a bad guy. Hey, these are stereotypes for a reason ... they make it easy for us to slide into the movie. But when we are asked to actually care about them, to react emotionally to them, I didn't care and didn't get emotional.

Perhaps it's a bit of a surprise, given the all-star cast, but the standout is someone making her first appearance in a feature film: Millie Bobby Brown, who had already established herself via the television series Stranger Things. Brown only just turned 17, but you can see she'll have a solid future. She isn't just playing the cute factor. Indeed, Brown is the one person who convinced me her character was worthy of an emotional response from the audience.

As for the action, it's fine, as expected, although during the climactic battle, they kept switching attention to the humans when all I wanted to see was Godzilla going up against Ghidorah. Truth is, the action in the Godzilla vs. Kong trailer excited me more.