Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Michelle Yeoh, Skyfall and why philosophers love Thor - Reviews #156

A couple of these are in-depth, the rest are mostly jokes (you'll be the judge of that), as I had a busy weekend, without much time to scribble. This reviews update includes... Peter Lorre! James Bond! The return of ClintFest! But first, a Michelle Yeoh double-bill:

Reign of Assassins (Su Chao-pin and John Woo, 2010) - A reformed killer (Michelle Yeoh) with a new face gets a visit from her old gang, and must take up her flappy sword once more in this colourful wuxia film overseen by John Woo. It's Crouching Tiger-lite, but it's enjoyable, affecting and, at their best, the action scenes are a joy to watch. They all involve swords. Yeoh doesn't move with the same breathless speed that she once did, but, like Fred Astaire in the '50s, she's adapted to middle-age delightfully, and that peerless physical grace is still present and correct. Unlike Fred Astaire in the '50s, she could also still have you in a fight.

While the story, which sees various sword-wielding assassins vying to get their hands on the two halves of a corpse that will give them supreme martial arts abilities, is too confusing in places, it's agreeably personal in nature, with most of the characters getting a nice little sketch of a back story: one wants to open a noodle shop, another fears he isn't a real man, and newcomer Barbie Hsu is great fun as a promiscuous psychopath who's offed her fiance and his family, and now can't seem to keep her clothes on. As with The House of Flying Daggers, a third act twist that threatens to derail the whole movie instead provides a wholly unexpected but completely satisfying ending, which in this case should leave you with a tear in the eye and a stupid grin splashed across your face.

Of course, you don't just watch a martial arts movie for the plot, you watch it because you want to see people pretending to have a fight. At first, the action scenes here are infuriatingly mediocre, particularly in the imprecise way they're directed, so you can't quite see what's transpiring. But as the movie progresses, they improve exponentially.

Yeoh's scenes are typically superb - I could watch her just hopping up and down walls all day - and the scene in which she reveals her kung fu smarts is as superb as you'd expect, though perhaps the most memorable scrap has a chap called The Magician nattily employing a load of fire as he engages in a night-time duel. The scene, which sees no fewer than five assassins facing off (pun intended) in a courtyard, has a real whiff of Crouching Tiger about it, even if at that stage the human context hasn't been amped up as effectively nor are the characters as pure and well-defined for it to pack quite the same heavy emotional punch. But, really, what does? It's still an ace set-piece. And while there's scant evidence of Woo's fingerprints in this lively actioner, I do wonder if he suggested that tasty 3D-photo gimmick used to introduce the characters at the beginning.

Reign of Assassins is slightly too inconsistent in both its narrative and its fight sequences to approach the true classics of the genre, but it's entertaining, touching and has a fantastic pay-off. And without wanting to sound like a massive, creepy, lovestruck weirdo, it's just good fun hanging around with Yeoh for an hour-and-a-half - she's an excellent actress and the finest female action star on the planet by an almost insulting distance.


Magnificent Warriors (David Chung, 1987) - There's an action sequence here - in which Michelle Yeoh decides to "distract" the enemy - that's among the most extraordinary things I've ever seen on screen: five solid minutes of eye-popping combat, stuntwork and feats of outrageous derring-do that sees her evading, fighting and escaping from a slew of soldiers, and is akin to watching the very best of Jet Li, Yakima Canutt and Buster Keaton all at once. It's worth the £2.99 that I paid for the DVD at least 10 times over. The rest of this period, Indy-ish adventure movie is quite fun too, hampered by a bitty, rather uninvolving story, some tiresome comedy and an unfortunate predilection for slo-mo, but with many incidental pleasures and enjoyable individual scenes. Can't say I think much of Yeoh's hairdo, mind. (3)


Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012) - What the hell have they done to this Bond movie? It's got real characters, an interesting story, and even a good supporting cast. And wait, Bond can act? And his best gadget's a gun? It's almost like they made a proper film, and it only took them 50 years. Craig Not Bond (Daniel Craig) is James Bond, international man of misogny, who gets shot by a sexywoman (Naomie Harris), but survives to enjoy further encounters with sexywomen, and to do battle with a cyber-psycho (Javier Bardem), who's gunning for Bond's boss (Judi Dench). Chock-full of imagination and shot through with a Tinker Tailor-ish view of patriotism, it's exciting, amusing, even pleasantly sentimental at times, and though a smidgen of silliness remains and the offbeat final act goes on a bit, Mendes and his team still deserve great credit for trying something a bit different, particularly in the pay-off, while still retaining the requisite number of massive explosions. The whole piece is exalted by a great cast, with Harris, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Whishaw all wonderful additions, and both Craig and Dench making the most of the hidden depths revealed across this unusually elegiac, reflective and grown-up action movie (that still includes a bit where a man gets eaten by a Komodo dragon). The name's Bond, and for once my reaction isn't to yawn in his face. (3)

See also: Casino Royale was my previous favourite; it was alright.


ClintFest '13:

The Dead Pool (Buddy Van Horn, 1988) - Have you ever wanted to hear Clint call Liam Neeson "love"? Stupid question, of course you have. Received wisdom has it that the Dirty Barry movies follow the law of diminishing returns. I disagree. The Enforcer, a daft, gimmicky flick pairing Clint with a female sidekick, is far more entertaining than Magnum Force - which squanders a fine premise and has no concept of its own muddled worldview - while the widely-reviled swansong, The Dead Pool, for all its many and glaring faults, is a whole lot easier to take than the disgusting rape revenge movie that preceded it, Sudden Impact.

Yes, the story here about a serial killer is daft (even with its then-novel twist), the script has an unfortunate tendency to explain its own one-liners - along with easy-to-grasp phenomena like celeb deaths coming in threes - and the guy playing the hospital psychiatrist seems to have been fashioned from the same block of wood that once produced Charlton Heston. But look at what else we get: Jim Carrey miming to Guns N' Roses as a hopped-up rock star, Liam Neeson sporting a proto-Qui-Gon Jinn ponytail as an egomaniacal horror director, and future indie darling Patricia Clarkson cooking up some surprisingly strong chemistry with the greying Clint, in her role as a saucy TV journalist.

Most excitingly of all, the film features one of the best and most surreal car chases in movies (though I'll acknowledge that I find almost all car chases deathly dull), as Clint is forced to speed around the streets of San Francisco, pursued by a toy car. And, of course, there's the solid entertainment value that comes with each one of these films: their winning formula, strong sense of location and charismatic central performance, which carry them through even when the improbabilities begin to pile up, the stock situations start to tire or the unsuccessful catchphrases ("Marvellous", "Swell") get trotted out one more time. You'd be hard pushed to argue that it's a great film, or that it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as that unassailable original, but - at least until it tips over into nastiness in the final reel - it's good, silly fun: a diverting little curio undeserving of its dreadful reputation. And Clint calls Liam Neeson "love". Nope, no idea why. (2.5)

Trivia note: Clint becomes the first person to take a harpoon to a gunfight since Sterling Hayden in Terror in a Texas Town. Almost certainly. ***

Mr. District Attorney (William Morgan, 1941)
- Hurray, it's the New York Times' least favourite film of 1941! And to be honest, you can see why: the dialogue is dire and the story's even worse. Dennis O'Keefe plays a wannabe lawyer from a powerful family who becomes attached to the DA's office, thanks to his uncle's connections, then attached to the pretty newspaper reporter he keeps accidentally walking into (Florence Rice). That's all very well, a suitable set-up for a screwball mystery, but, from then on in, the characters' actions make no sense: he overrides a colleague to purposefully botch a case (while supposedly observing), the central couple reconcile immediately after she tries to write in the paper that he's hounded someone to suicide, and they wrap up the case of mystery man Mr Hyde (Peter Lorre) through a heady fusion of dumb luck, incoherence and unfunniness. There's one laugh in the whole picture (the DA's exasperated retort to O'Keefe when sending him back to his office), which is half the number of hideously misjudged gags: one about a stroke, and the other Rice's baffling exclamation in the climactic scene: "Don't waste ammunition, hit something - if it's only an innocent bystander." Err, what?

So why the two stars? Well, for two of the stars. Rice is cute and appealing as our perky, sparky heroine, calling to mind her performance in the Thin Man rip-off par excellence, 1938's Fast Company. And Peter Lorre is just mesmerising. I'm a big Lorre fan - I'd have him in my five favourite actors of all time - but that fondness for his singular artistry isn't obscuring my judgement. His performance drips with menace and creeping malevolence, turning the movie from a stale programmer to something truly remarkable each time he appears. He has only three scenes, but those passages, shot in an Expressionistic style completely at odds with the rest of this bland movie, are visually superb and dramatically electrifying. We hear a lot about Hyde before he appears, but nothing prepares you for that ominous entrance - emerging from the shadows like Harry Lime - or his quiet, introductory spiel, the potentially banal dialogue lent a chilling air by Lorre's unapproachable delivery. And he even hides out after a murder by just inching up some stairs, as he had in the "first noir", Stranger on the Third Floor, the previous year.

O'Keefe, who would find a niche as a cynical, brutish leading man in Anthony Mann's superb noirs of the late 1940s, is simply miscast as our lolloping, effete lawyer, though there's a ridiculously strong supporting cast for a film from the cheapo Republic studio. Almost a dozen recognisable character actors appear in some form or another: camp southerner Grady Sutton, bespectacled Charles Halton, even gaunt, blonde-haired Billy Benedict, whose sole contribution is to walk down a corridor. Charles Arnt - who played a cheery banker memorably in I Love You Again - is neatly cast against type as, well, a banker again, but one driven to theft by pure animal lust. Joan Blair is also quite interesting as unrepentant bad girl Betty Valentine, overcoming some dodgy material thanks to a dose of unexpected charisma. She had a bit part in Citizen Kane, of all things, the same year.

Mr District Attorney is a patchy, brainless affair that begins with a crap "meet cute" and ends in a blizzard of incoherence and improbability, but it is worth it for Lorre's startling contribution, and Rice's best efforts to inject some sense of charm and realism into an almost wilfully scrappy hotchpotch of improbable plotting, inconsistent characterisation and deeply unamusing irascibility. O'Keefe returned six years later for a film with an identical name, based on the same successful radio series, though no longer playing for laughs. Not that he, or anyone else, get many here. (2)


Also, I found this great quote by Heidegger about how much he enjoyed the film Thor: "The less we just stare at the hammer-thing, and the more we seize hold of it and use it, the more primordial does our relationship to it become, and the more unveiledly is it encountered as that which it is." He's right, you know. He also likes it in Avengers when Hulk goes smash.

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