Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Crouching Tiger, Thora Birch in a hole, and still more from ClintFest '13 - Reviews #152

I watched a few movies over the Easter break. Now I'm going to tell you about them.

A couple of rewatches:

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000) - I hadn't seen Ang Lee's metaphysical, phantasmagorical epic kung fu love story since it blew me away at the cinema as a 16-year-old; remiss of me, I know. Twelve years on, and fuck me it looks good. Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh play quiet, lovelorn warriors, kept apart by a shared sense of honour, whose tentative steps towards romance are interrupted most abruptly by highly-strung, arse-kicking governor's daughter Zhang Ziyi, and the high-pitched psychopath she calls master.

The script is blessed with a rare profundity, dealing with massive themes in a way that's elliptical yet grounded, and the methodically paced story - which includes a ludicrously ambitious half-hour flashback sequence dealing with Ziyi's formative romance - is offset by exuberant fights of fancy in which Yun-Fat or Yeoh zip skywards to pad speedily across rooftops in pursuit of the excitable, foul-mouthed little tyke, trading kicks and punches with her as they go. There are also more earthy - though no less remarkable - skirmishes that take place at ground level, including fight choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping's nod to his own work in The Matrix, as Ziyi firmly grasps her stolen sword, the Green Destiny, and Yeoh goes at her with everything she can find: a lance, a pole, a big ball on a stick (sorry to get all technical on you) and finally a dock-off sword of her own.

These fight scenes attain a breathless intensity, especially when the remarkable Yeoh is involved, fuelled by a pounding traditional score and their timeless context: if you feel inexorably tied to these characters, weighed down as they are by these emotions, then it matters more when they're fighting for their lives. There's also something truly fantastical about that first action sequence, as if Jet Li had suddenly turned up in A Short Film About Killing: 20 minutes of steady, timeless talkiness and then an explosion of wonder, as Ziyi's masked thief heads for the clouds. Having said all that, Crouching Tiger didn't reinvent screen action in the way that prissy critics claimed back in 2000. They'd just been too sniffy to watch a wired-up wuxia film - like Once Upon a Time in China or Iron Monkey - until the director of The Ice Storm deigned to make one.

What Lee does bring to the genre, though, is a serious-mindedness and a firm grasp of mythology that's too often missing from kung fu films. When the film wants to be funny, it is (well, apart from that completely incongruous gag in the middle of the frenzied Yeoh-Ziyi HQ battle), but it has little of the mugging and none of the weak comic interludes that drag down too many martial arts movies. Its characters are remarkable, their thoughts concerned with lofty ideals, but they are also recognisable human beings, played to a tee by proper actors.

When you cast Chow Yun-Fat in a kung fu film, you forego a certain skill and athleticism (I think he's doubled in some long shots exhibiting Li Bu Mai's technical prowess), but gain immeasurable weight and authority. Ziyi is a trained dancer, not a martial artist, but she has an acrobatic grace, and negotiates her character's dramatic complexities with admirable skill. And Yeoh, well, she's both a great actress and the definitive female action star of the last couple of decades, so she's alright. I've always held that Armando Ianucci was correct, and that a man has truly reached adulthood when he knows what a radiator bleed key is. Perhaps, though, it's the moment when he watches this film and thinks that while Zhang Ziyi's not bad looking, she's no Michelle Yeoh. (Last time, it was: "Wowsers, that Zhang Ziyi is gorgeous; who's that old woman?") In support, Chang Chen is good as "Dark Cloud", the bum-fluffed desert bandit who engages in a Bringing Up Baby/Ashes of Time hybrid of a burgeoning love story with Ziyi that fuses the battle-of-the-sexes, period romance and "I've-got-your-comb"/"Fuck off, give it back" genres.

Crouching Tiger is one of the great films of last decade, often claustrophobic in scale, but epic in its treatment of human emotion, and chock-full of magic, magnificence and good old-fashioned fucking mayhem. It looks beautiful, it sounds beautiful - hell, it is beautiful - and where it's going, we don't needs roads, or even floors. Goodness knows how it took me 12 years to rewatch it. See you in 2025, when I'll probably think Jade Fox is hotter than Michelle Yeoh and be begging her to stick her poisoned dart in me. (4)


Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell, 2012) - A film so great that even Chris Tucker is good in it. I loved Silver Linings to pieces when I saw it at the cinema - entranced by its originality, performances and rich sense of character - and it's even better second time around. I wondered if there might be padding somewhere, but there isn't: every scene serves the story and that dramatic spark lit in the opening scene never fades. Bipolar Bradley Cooper is released from a psychiatric hospital eight months after almost beating someone to death, and tries to get his life back on track, looking to overcome his illness by finding "silver linings" in the everyday. Meeting self-confessed "slut", Jennifer Lawrence, the two strike up a bargain: she'll get a letter to his estranged wife (thus sort-of-circumventing a restraining order), if he'll be her partner in a dance contest.

For all the praise heaped on Lawrence, an actress of almost supernatural talent, I think she was lucky to get the Oscar ahead of Wallis - I suspect it has something to do with the old "I fancy her" criterion. She's excellent, but not Hushpuppy-excellent, and really it's Cooper's film. He dominates the movie with a complex, layered and ultimately unforgettable characterisation that does everything you want it to, and then some, never crossing into melodrama or cliche; always ringing true. There aren't many such revelations in cinema: where apparently limited, one-note performers suddenly rip off the lid, and out pours this explosion of talent - Ben Stiller in Tenenbaums and Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love are other rare examples - and so when it happens, it's invigorating to witness.

The supporting cast is also superb. De Niro is better than he has been in years and Jacki Weaver (looking a lot like Brigitte Mira) gives a superb performance as Cooper's mum - it's nice to see the Academy nominate such an unshowy performance - while Tucker, appearing as a nervy patient who's obsessed with a) The law, and b) His hair, confounds all those who thought he was a load of old rubbish. Like me. I suppose I better add him to that "revelations" list. Tentatively.

Silver Linings is a bold film and a brilliant one, expertly walking a tightrope, as it neither mythologises mental illness nor mines it for cheap humour. Yes, the gnawing unhappiness of Melancholia may be more akin to most people's experiences of depression (not the bit where the world ends or where she shags someone on a golf course, the other bit), but I find Silver Linings an inspirational and captivating film: funny, romantic and blissfully entertaining, yes, but with a point and a purpose that makes it truly great. That and the fact that Chris Tucker is good in it. (4)


ClintFest '13

Yeah, this is still going on. You can join in if you want. You just have to watch some Clint Eastwood films. That's it.

Two Mules for Sister Sara (Don Siegel, 1970) - A mercenary (Clint Eastwood) and a sweary, resourceful nun (Shirley MacLaine) - who he rather fancies - try to outwit lowlifes, Indians and the French, and so make his fortune, in this Mexican-set Western. The episodic story, by B-Western legend Budd Boetticher, is good but erratic, and the same goes for Ennio Morricone's score (which includes an earworm of a theme for MacLaine) and Siegel's direction - a sumptuous tracking shot one minute, a clumsy, uninteresting composition the next. It's good fun, though, with some nice moments of pathos and comedy, and excellent chemistry between the leads. Eastwood is excellent, gradually expanding his familiar, taciturn persona with flashes of vulnerability and even a nice little song, but MacLaine is even better, and I mean Apartment-good, tackling her character's intentional contradictions, and very real faith, with intelligence, imagination and great beauty of spirit. (3)

Tightrope (Clint Eastwood, 1984) - There's a sign on a nightclub door in this film that says: "If nudity offends you, don't come in", and it's good advice, what with all the clothesless women slinking around, getting into jacuzzis or oiling themselves up and wrestling on stage as a midget referee adjudicates and Clint watches. (Yes really.) He plays a cop, divorced and with two young kids, who's trying to track down a sex murderer, while accidentally getting really horny every time he has to go and interview anyone. All that changes when he strikes up a genuinely affecting friendship with tender, understanding anti-rape activist Genevieve Bujold. This creepy thriller is tawdry, sordid and often just plain old horrible, but it's also very well-acted - particularly by Eastwood and his real-life daughter Alison - features a distinctive jazzy score and offers some interesting insights into love, lust and "the darkness inside all of us". Like Sudden Impact, it shows that the mid-'80s Clint just couldn't keep away from fairground equipment at night. And like so many of the star's later movies, it studies and subverts the prejudices rife in his earlier work - in this case the way that films like Coogan's Bluff and High Plains Drifter took rape so alarmingly lightly. (2.5)


Other stuff:

Police Story 3: Supercop (Stanley Tong, 1992) - Hong Kong "supercop" Kevin Chan (Jackie Chan), who as you'll know alternates incredible feats of derring-do with getting whacked in the balls, takes on his most OTT assignment yet, battling drug traffickers with the help of high-kicking Chinese military official Michelle Yeoh. They go deep undercover, getting involved in a prison break and a hilariously excessive jungle shoot-out, and the result is one of the most purely enjoyable actioners of the '90s. In its shortened US cut (which contains incongruous hip-hop and dubbing, though at least the stars do their own voices), the film consists of a string of astonishing action set pieces, held together by the merest suggestion of plot, and interrupted only occasionally by some surprisingly bearable comedy. Jackie is great, being swung across the city by a helicopter at the climax - only to end up atop a moving train, like his hero Buster Keaton - but Yeoh completely steals the show, offering a series of staggering stunts and fight scenes. Like Jackie at the start of the original Police Story, she latches onto a lorry and refuses to be budged, but that's only the start of it: there are artful leaps through windows (another Keaton speciality), split-kicks at head height, and a gobsmacking piece of daredevilry near the close, as she lands a motorbike on that speeding train. I'm keen to see the authentic HK version of the movie, but this isn't bad for now: a popcorn movie of the highest order, and perhaps the only time Jackie's been bested on screen since he stopped working with Yuen Biao. (3.5)


The Hole (Nick Hamm, 2001) - Wooden teenagers play out Rashomon very badly in this risible horror-thriller, which is clunky and embarrassing in that special way that only British films can be. Thora Birch - speaking in a very Aussie "English" accent - emerges from a disused bunker covered in blood. She'd climbed in to try to snare the emo of her dreams, but her three companions - rounded out by long-headed rugger player Laurence Fox and the 16-year-old Keira Knightley, flashing her tits for no discernible reason - had put their lives in danger to avoid a geography field trip. What an extremely credible set-up; now let's find out who's telling the truth about what went on down there: Birch or a potentially malevolent nerd who sounds like Tony Blair. Birch - who gave such an extraordinary performance the same year in the decade's best film, Ghost World - is quite good, and there's a well sexy scene where a green-faced Knightley vomits profusely into a toilet, but The Hole is a thin, unrewarding and ultimately pointless exercise entirely lacking in thrills, scares and, in its second half, anything even resembling real human emotion. (1.5)


Oh look, it's the back of Olivier Gourmet's head again.

The Son (Dardenne brothers, 2002) - A fastidious, haunted carpenter (Olivier Gourmet), who helps young offenders, takes on his son's murderer as an apprentice in this draining, often stunning drama from the Dardenne brothers. That fascinating premise is given mature and unsentimental treatment that compares favourably with the similar In the Bedroom. While, in my limited experience, the Dardennes' films tend to end with a fraught confrontation in a wood, followed by a brief, understated moment of catharsis, it's never quite clear where this story is heading or what the protagonist's plans are - if indeed he knows. Their movies are so richly realistic as to sometimes appear humdrum, providing a meticulous presentation of everyday monotony. And here some of the photography choices are downright peculiar: I've certainly never been better-acquainted with the back of an actor's head. But they clearly believe that you can only understand a character by understanding their way of life and the rhythms within it, and that you can only observe such things properly by literally following them around.

They also clearly feel a great affinity with young offenders, unusual in today's world, repeatedly portraying them as victims of society, so it's interesting to see the story told from their victims' side. My only complaint is that the film, while startlingly original and beautifully acted, is ultimately too restrained for its own good - certainly its selfish, unrepentant teenager is harder to side with than Rosetta or The Kid with a Bike. The decision to have him lament only the time he spent behind bars is a curious one that fatally undercuts the denouement. There's a feeling that this should have been a truly great film, whereas it's only a very good one. Actually, that's not my only complaint. The idea that a table football champion would play without keeping one hand on the goalie is ridiculous. What do they take us for, idiots? (3.5)


Thanks for reading.

No comments:

Post a Comment