royal warriors (david chung, 1986)

It was Michelle Yeoh's birthday Thursday, so I thought to watch one of her movies. She rarely disappoints, and Royal Warriors is a notch above average besides, so I made a good choice. But first, a few words about HK film series, understanding in advance that it all gets so confusing, I am certain to make some mistakes.

An example. In 1986, John Woo directed A Better Tomorrow, which made Chow Yun-Fat a big international star and started the "Heroic Bloodshed" genre. There was a sequel, A Better Tomorrow 2, but disagreements between Woo and Tsui Hark led to Tsui directing A Better Tomorrow 3, which was a quasi-prequel to the first two. Woo's script for that on, much changed, became his film Bullet in the Head. Chow had made such an impression in the first one that they wanted to fit him into the sequel, but his character died in the original. So they invented a twin brother, and I can remember how we all laughed with delight in the theater at this corny way to get Chow into the action. Since Tsui's movie was a prequel, he was able to use Chow as the same character as the one who died in the first movie, meaning Chow is in all three. (There was also a Korean remake of the first movie in 2010, and a Chinese remake in 2018.)

So, to Royal Warriors. This gets complicated. In 1985, Yes, Madam! was released, starring Yeoh and Cynthia Rothrock. Rothrock was an American newcomer and a champion martial artist ... Yeoh had a dance background but no martial arts training. She busted her ass because she wanted to do her own stunts, plus she saw martial arts scenes as just another form of choreography. Anyway, Yes, Madam! was a hit, and so, just as A Better Tomorrow had done for Heroic Bloodshed, Yes, Madam! inspired imitators. Royal Warriors was a (unofficial?) sequel to Yes, Madam!, with Yeoh (as Michelle Khan) returning, although she doesn't seem to be playing the same character, nor is the plot clearly connected to the first movie. That's when it gets confusing. There was a third film in the series ... not sure what exactly it was called at first, but today it is known as In the Line of Duty III. To make the connections clearer (yeah, right), Royal Warriors was renamed In the Line of Duty (I don't think Yes, Madam! was ever renamed). The series continued with In the Line of Duty 4, and on and on, finally leading to Yes Madam 5 (!).

This may not interest most people, but at the least, it will help you find Royal Warriors if you want to watch it, since as far as I can tell, it's called In the Line of Duty more often than it's called Royal Warriors.

Is it any good. Yep. Yeoh is terrific (and very young, still in her early-20s). The action is well done and often over-the-top in true HK style. Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada (a "hey, it's that guy" for American audiences) is excellent as one of the leads. The plot is goofy, but it hardly matters when Yeoh is doing her thing. If you like this, there are plenty more. Try Wing Chun, where she is the star, or Police Story 3 (known as Super Cop ... here we go again), where she shows herself to be the best partner Jackie Chan ever had.

geezer cinema: the outpost (rod lurie, 2020)

Fictional recreation of a non-fiction book by CNN's Jake Tapper. I can not speak to the verisimilitude of the film, but it has been praised by participants.

The hardest thing about making a war film is balancing the human heroics with the possibility of making a pro-war movie. Of course, not everyone worries about this distinction ... there are many pro-war movies with heroic behavior. But there are also films like John Huston's WWII documentary The Battle of San Pietro. The Army delayed its release, fearing the brutal realism would hurt morale. Some called San Pietro an anti-war film, and Huston agreed. But the soldiers in the film are heroic, and no matter how disturbing the footage and no matter the intent of Huston, The Battle of San Pietro is ultimately a story that doesn't exactly glorify war but which presents the soldiers in a heroic light.

The Outpost is filled with regular soldiers acting heroically. Their heroism drives the picture. And the setup (American soldiers stuck in "Camp Custer", an indefensible position from which no one expects to escape) puts us on the side of the soldiers when the Taliban begins the inevitable attack. What follows is a bit by-the-book, but Rod Lurie films effectively ... we never lose sight of where we are during the long second half. But The Outpost never has any pretenses towards being an anti-war film. We learn that a few officers were disciplined for their poor planning and leadership, but there is no sense that the Army itself is the problem. Compare this with the mini-series Generation Kill, which never hesitates to indict the powers that be.

The actors do what they can ... they work great as a group, and it's not their fault the script as written doesn't ask too many characters to stand out individually. Scott Eastwood sounds like dad, and Caleb Landry Jones does wonders with the most showy role. There's a crappy song for those who need to be beaten over the head so they don't miss anything important. The Outpost is a solid film that, especially in its second half, will engross most audiences.

(Letterboxd list of our Geezer Cinema movies.)

losing it at the movies: the story of adele h. (françois truffaut, 1975)

Picking this up after yet another long break, this is the eleventh in a series, "Losing It at the Movies," which is explained here.

In 5001 Nights at the Movies, Pauline Kael wrote of The Story of Adele H.:

A François Truffaut film to rank with Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim, and The Wild Child -- and perhaps his most passionate work. The picture is damnably intelligent--almost frighteningly so, like some passages in Russian novels which strip the characters bare. And it's deeply, disharmoniously funny--which Truffaut has never been before. The story, about romantic love fulfilled by self-destruction, is based on the journals of Adele, the daughter of Victor Hugo; she's played by the prodigious young actress Isabelle Adjani. The visual consistency attained by the cinematographer, Nestor Almendros, enables Truffaut to achieve a new concentration on character.

If anything, the above understates Kael's love of the film. "It’s a great film, I think—the only great film from Europe I’ve seen since Last Tango", high praise indeed from Kael in 1975. And she wasn't alone ... Molly Haskell compared it to Vertigo and The Earrings of Madame de ..., ("for me, the greatest ever made"). I think Haskell hit on something important, though, reflected in the title of her review: "'The Story of Adele H' Is a Tribute to an Experience". She called Adele H "fascinating, but ultimately more as a tribute to an experience than as an experience in itself."

Truffaut digs deep into Adele's obsession, but while Adele might think she is in love with Lt. Pinson (Bruce Robinson), or in a more abstract way, in love with love itself, the truth is if Adele is in love at all, it is with the obsession, not with the object of the obsession. Truffaut seems sympathetic to Adele, although her actions are increasingly excessive, such that we start to feel sorry for the cad Pinson. In real life (the story is based on the life of Adele Hugo, Victor Hugo's daughter), Adele spent her last 40 years in an asylum, and while a case can often be made for the ways "society" calls some people "insane", the Adele of Truffaut's movie, at least, seems to come to insanity without too much help from that society. Her obsession overwhelms her (perhaps that defines obsession), and Truffaut seems almost admiring of the commitment Adele makes towards that obsession. Thus, The Story of Adele H. is "a tribute to an experience" more than it is the actual experience.

Isabelle Adjani is the best thing about the movie. Only 19 when it was made, she received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress (Louise Fletcher won for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). At the time, this made Adjani the youngest-ever Best Actress nominee. She lets her obsession take her over gradually ... she is much worse off at the end of the film than at the beginning, but there is something off about her from the start, which she portrays with subtlety. We see how her obsessions crush her, as she goes from seeming reasonable to making things up out of thin air to, finally, wandering the streets, lost in her thoughts.

I'd seen The Story of Adele H. a long time ago, and didn't like it, but in fairness, I can no longer remember why. Unlike Kael, I don't think it's a great film ... among other things, I have no idea why she says it's funny. But I'm glad I gave it a second chance.

movie-going stat freak stuff redux

Back in 2004, I had a post titled "movie-going stat freak stuff" that ... well, let's cut-and-paste:

"Movielens makes recommendations for movies to see, based on ratings you enter for films you've already experienced. It also offer recommendations for groups of people who have entered data, so if you're renting a DVD or going to the show, it'll tell you what the group would want to see. Being anal, I've rated 732 movies so far.

"A new feature on the site is a stats page that tells you all sorts of stuff. You know I'm gonna post some of the results here."

It's been 16 years, must be time to update. After all, those 732 ratings have grown to 2,363. First was this:

The five least often rated movies that I've rated ... I'd say these were the Obscure Movies Steven Has Seen except they aren't all obscure:

1. Tales of Ordinary Madness
2. The Chase
3. Paid in Full
4. Pipe Dream
5. In This World
This list has had a complete turnover. The top five now:
1. Glastonbury Fayre
2. The Nasty Rabbit
3. Light from Light
4. Rock, Rock, Rock!
5. Paju
Next was this:
A list of movies I don't like as much as other people do. Four of these five are still on the list, albeit in slightly different order:
1. I Am Sam (now #2)
2. Se7en (now #1)
3. Stardust Memories (now #4)
4. Tetsuo (The Iron Man) (now #3)
5. Risky Business (bumped from the list in favor of The Life of David Gale)
Average ratings by genre, with the older rating in parenthesis and a couple of genres now missing and thus removed:
War 3.83 (3.7)
Documentary 3.79 (3.68)
Drama 3.60 (3.42)
Romance 3.54 (3.59)
Animation 3.53 (3.17)
Mystery 3.50 (3.57)
Crime 3.50 (3.47)
Western 3.45 (3.47)
Thriller 3.41 (3.27)
Adventure 3.39 (3.35)
Fantasy 3.38 (3.47)
Action 3.36 (3.21)
Comedy 3.35 (3.19)
Sci-Fi 3.22 (3.2)
Horror 3.19 (3.34)

(The original post also had MovieLens recommendations, but I don't really use it for that anymore.)

mad world (chun wong, 2016)

This movie hits too close to home: a story about a bipolar man trying to retrieve his life. I mention this only as a caveat ... I'm not the most objective observer.

There are many things that Mad World does well. While we can probably assume that the main character, Tung, has some chemical imbalances, they do not explain everything about his life. Society doesn't know how to treat him or to help him, and the "mad world" creates bipolar people, chemistry or not. The film is sympathetic towards Tung without romanticizing his life. But Chun Wong does not spare us the effect Tung has on others. His father (Eric Tsang) takes him in after Tung is released from a mental institution, and he is ill-equipped for the job. He tries, though, and his life is more difficult because of Tung's presence. (The father was absent during much of Tung's life ... he must also take some blame.) For the most part, though, Tung gets the short end of the stick. He has a hard time getting a job (he was a financial analyst), people shun him and make assumptions about him.

The only person who meets Tung on an equal basis is "Fruit", played by Yvan Hok-Man Chan (I may have this wrong, I'm struggling to understand the credits). Fruit is a young boy with an overprotective mother, a nerd who connects with Tung as no one else can.

The film succeeds mainly because Shawn Yue is excellent as Tung. He plays all sides, the depressed Tung and the manic Tung, believably. He is the reason Mad World is at times hard to watch, but he also the main reason to check the film out.

geezer cinema: driveways (andrew ahn, 2019)

What a lovely movie! Quiet but never mundane, thoughtful, with great acting.

"Lovely" is not an adjective I use very often to describe a movie, but Driveways earns it. The subject matter isn't unique, and director Andrew Ahn doesn't show off. He just makes room for his story and his actors to shine, and they do. Driveways tells of the budding relationship between a nine-year-old boy and an octogenarian widower. I feared cheap sentiment and audience manipulation, but Ahn and writers Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen avoid this, letting the emotional impact grow gradually over the course of the film. Some movies like this work the audience over. Thankfully, Driveways moves us without taking away our dignity.

The cast has people I know and a lot of new-to-me actors, all of whom make their mark. I knew Hong Chau, who plays the boy's mother, from Treme and Watchmen. She's versatile ... her characters in those television shows were unlike each other, and in Driveways, she's at it again. She's frazzled, and her relationship with her son is more friend than mom, but their connection feels natural. Lucas Jaye plays the boy, and I'd never heard of him, although he already has a long resume of TV work (the only thing I recognized was Angie Tribeca, and I don't remember him from that). He, too, gives us natural and believable acting. Often it's the child actors that doom films like this, but Jaye is a highlight. (And, as always, I like to give props to the director, because I know how hard it is to get a good performance from a kid.) I recognized a couple of other names, again people I know from television. Christine Ebersole almost overplays her role as a well-meaning but rather obnoxious neighbor ... emphasis on almost. And Jerry Adler, Hesh from The Sopranos, makes the most of his scenes.

The standout is Brian Dennehy as the widower. He has such presence ... my wife and I agreed he makes everything he is in better. Perhaps the best proof of this is that when I looked at his credits, I haven't actually seen him in that many things ... he sticks in my mind anyway. Bos and Thureen give him plenty to work with. This widower is never stereotypical ... he never tells the kid to get off his lawn, but neither is he a meaningless benign character.

Watching Driveways, it's impossible to forget that Dennehy died just a couple of months ago. But Ahn and Dennehy never milk this fact ... this isn't Spencer Tracy in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. I kept waiting for that big scene that had OSCAR written on it, but when it finally came, I didn't notice at first, precisely because it wasn't showy. Dennehy starts talking to the boy, draws us into his monologue, and without our really noticing, he talks for six minutes, after which the credits roll. It's the best scene in the movie. It's like Bos and Thureen give Dennehy a present, Ahn lets Dennehy enjoy the moment, and Dennehy gives the present back to us in the audience.

(Letterboxd list of our Geezer Cinema movies.)

film fatales #88: leviathan (lucien castaing-taylor and verena paravel, 2012)

I can imagine this experimental film appealing to some people, so take this with a grain of salt. I did not find it appealing.

The concept is interesting: a documentary on commercial fishing off the coast of New Bedford, where parts of Moby Dick took place. Credit must also be given to the directors for not just taking the easy route of most documentaries. The film eschews things like linear narrative, dialogue or narration, or any contextual moments to help the audience find its bearings. It is perhaps best described as psychedelic, and I wish I'd taken some edibles before watching.

Wikipedia offers some insight into the production. "Over the course of filming Leviathan, Castaing-Taylor got seasick and Paravel went to the emergency room numerous times.... While filming, the director's first camera was lost at sea and they had to resort to their backup cameras, Go-Pros. The images produced by the Go-Pros created afterimages of haunting qualities due to the lack of clarity within the lens. According to Castaing-Taylor, 'It activated the viewer’s imagination much more.'"

It all sounds fascinating, but I barely survived the 87-minute running time. For me, the key was the total lack of context. I was rarely able to figure out such basic things as what am I seeing, or where is this scene, or why is this important. As I say, it may work on some abstract level, but I'm not sure I have 87 minutes of abstract in me at this point in my life.

There was a scene that summarized my reaction, far too easily, in fact. I actually knew what I was seeing for a change. One of the fishermen is sitting at a table in what looks to be an eating area. There is a jar of mayonnaise on the table, and a tin of chewing tobacco, among other things. The fisherman appears to be having a chew ... he occasionally spits into a cup. We hear what sounds like a television show, although we don't see it, and I'm not sure how they had a TV out on the sea. It's a one-take scene, with a stationary camera. It lasts for around 4 1/2 minutes. We watch the man ... we hear the TV ... the man spits ... he stares in the direction of what we assume is the TV ... he spits ... we watch him ... and gradually, after about 4 of those minutes, his eyes gradually close and we realize he is falling asleep. Everybody's a critic.

Some critics didn't fall asleep ... it's #83 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

by request: he got game (spike lee, 1998)

In most respects, He Got Game has the strengths Spike Lee brings to all of his films. He gets the expected great performance from Denzel Washington. He draws another fine performance from Ray Allen, a basketball player early into his Hall of Fame career who had never acted before. His canny casting brought Milla Jovovich, a teenage Rosario Dawson in only her second feature, and some of Spike's usual suspects (Bill Nunn, Roger Guenveur Smith, John Turturro, Lonette McKee), along with many famous basketball names playing themselves.

But He Got Game is too long. The Milla Jovovich subplot is unnecessary (she's a prostitute that Denzel wants to help). The plot itself is ludicrous ... Denzel is a convict who is offered a deal by the warden. The governor of the state wants Denzel's son, the best high school basketball prospect in the country, to attend the governor's alma mater, so Denzel is released for a week to get his son to sign a letter of intent. If he succeeds, the governor will reduce Denzel's sentence.

Denzel works the hell out of the plot, but he can't save it. Still, the interactions between him and Ray Allen as his son are often powerful, and again, Allen shines in his first acting job. It's not enough to save the film, but it does make it worth seeing once.

Something should be said about the music, because Lee always delivers, and He Got Game is no exception. The movie features a canny use of Aaron Copland that is on target throughout. And Public Enemy does the title track, which is terrific. They later released an album of their own material with "He Got Game" at its center, and it's arguably the best album of their post-peak life. I love that track in particular. I like the video as well, but it's hard to find an unedited version, so here's a lyric video with the correct lyrics in place:

geezer cinema/film fatales#87: the old guard (gina prince-bythewood, 2020)

A superhero movie with a difference, starting with the fact that if, like me, you came to the movie cold, you couldn't tell it was a superhero movie until things were well underway. Gina Prince-Bythewood (Beyond the Lights) gives us a movie that falls into one of my most-used genres, where a movie is praised for what it doesn't do. There are action scenes, but they tend to be more individual fighting rather than car chases. Time is offered to give depth to all of the main characters ... I usually balk at such things, because the efforts are half-hearted and I just want to get to the good stuff. But Prince-Bythewood pulls another switch on the standard superhero film, by making the characters matter. No one wears a costume, and they only have one super power (which does give them the chance to become really good at fighting).

The Old Guard has a strong cast, beginning with Charlize Theron in the lead. Theron is an Oscar winner with a solid pedigree in action pictures as well, from the sublime (Mad Max: Fury Road) to the not-so-sublime (Atomic Blonde). The Old Guard is in the middle, quite a bit better than Atomic Blonde without reaching the heights of Fury Road.

Theron once again does many of her own stunts, which makes her performance more believable. KiKi Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk) is a standout as the second lead, and it was good to see Anamaria Marinca (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) in a minor role. The plot is a little silly, and the movie drags at times (it clocks in at just over 2 hours). But you'll find yourself caring, not just about the action, but also about the characters. Which will be especially important when the inevitable sequel arrives.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

graduation (cristian mungiu, 2016)

Cristian Mungiu wrote and directed 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, a film that made the list of my 50 favorite movies that I did some years ago. For that reason, I looked forward to Graduation, although I didn't know much about it in advance. It takes place in post-Ceaușescu Romania, and while the story it tells is a personal one, the lives of the characters are integrated into their society such that Graduation is never just a drama, never just social commentary, but instead a subtle combination of both.

Romeo (Adrian Titieni) is a doctor, honest, respectable. His daughter, Eliza (Maria Dragus) is about to graduate from school and only needs to pass final exams to receive a scholarship to Cambridge. Graduation seems almost idyllic at first, but that doesn't last long. We soon learn that Romeo has a mistress. Eliza is assaulted, and the trauma makes it hard for her to concentrate on those exams. Romeo is insistent on her passing, because he sees Cambridge as Eliza's way out of Romania (another clue that things aren't quite idyllic ... Romeo doesn't want his daughter to live in a corrupt society). She understandably does poorly on the first test, and Romeo decides he will do anything to help his daughter go to England. He sees her as pure ... he sees himself as an honest person in a corrupt society. But then he decides he will have to break a rule (or two) to aid Eliza. Everyone in Romania seems to know someone who can do a favor for someone in return for a favor. Gradually, Romeo is entwined in the very corruption he wants to direct his daughter away from.

Mungiu likes to plant his camera in one place for long takes. Often in Graduation, those takes are conversations between two people. There is an intimacy to this approach, although the characters often seem to lack that intimacy between each other. Those characters, especially Romeo, think of themselves as outside of the general corruption, but as events unfold, they are forced to confront their own involvement. Mungiu doesn't judge his characters, but neither does he let them off the hook. #976 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.