Thursday, 11 April 2013

Glenda Jackson, Trance, and flying daggers - Reviews #153

Of course the only thing anyone's really watching this week is Glenda Jackson's excoriating, yet deeply-moving takedown of Thatcher and her legacy. I've watched it four times already - speak for Britain, Glenda! - and never have the words "thousands" and "extra-ordinary" been bellowed over the sound of mewling right-wingers with such stentorian, earth-shaking intensity. I always did like her. I suppose I should review some films now.


The Hired Hand (Peter Fonda, 1971)
- The Hired Hand is a New Hollywood masterpiece from Peter Fonda, a reflective Western in which redemption comes not through revenge, but romance, in all its selfish, selfless glory. Its title comes from the stone of story at its centre, in which Fonda tries to atone for walking out on his wife (Verna Bloom, shorn of all vanity) by signing on as her hired hand, accompanied by his friend Warren Oates. That set-up suggests gender battles or sexual power-games, but what we get is something altogether quieter, subtler and more persuasive: a story about forgiveness, dependence and the healing of wounds, with an almighty kick in the tail that takes genre mythology and proceeds to do something unforgettable with it. The relationship between the reformed, gentle Fonda and his strong, unrepentant wife only accounts for perhaps a third of the running time, but gives the film such heart that it can justify the numerous asides and self-contained vignettes: a fatal shot from out of nowhere, an early-morning mission of vengeance and the shattering of a tranquil idyll as a young girl's dead body snags on a fishing line.

Fonda's Easy Rider is a great film, because it captures a feeling, epitomises an entire period and exploded an outmoded cinematic status quo, but it isn't a very good film. It's tacky, juvenile, boring and full of ridiculous visual quirks that make no narrative sense (there's a reason why no-one uses those juddering transitions it attempted to initiate, and it's that they're pointless and crap). The Hired Hand, however, is a film touched with that refined, adventurous brilliance that seemed to be in the air in '70s Hollywood. It's visually outstanding, but it's more than that: it's like Monte Walsh - William Fraker's film about the "last cowboy" - but loaded with longing and sexual angst, and equipped with some trippily avant garde imagery that still stays true to the genre, Fonda, photographer Vilmos Zsigmond and editor Frank Mazzola simply kicking Winton C Hoch's eye-popping compositions up a notch. The most remarkable has Fonda and Oates talking by a corral. As they turn gradually to silhouettes, close-ups of their faces illuminate the sky behind, tinted by the setting sun. It's a jaw-dropping trick that pitches them as Western icons, larger-than-life, greater than contemporary folk heroes and at one with the sprawling plains and vast skies that are - or were - America. Fonda isn't interested in a conventional narrative, more in evoking an atmosphere, and as he slips from one episode to the next, he layers one piece of footage - a body twisting in a river, horses stalking along the trail - over the next. It's odd, then, that some of the interior scenes in the early part of the film look flat and cheap, if not '50s-B-Western shoddy.

Fonda is superb, while Bloom, one of the best things about Eastwood's High Plains Drifter, gives a remarkable performance as a woman who refuses to repent after looking for sexual solace in his absence, but yearns to be loved - and not just wanted. It's only during her pivotal speech that I feel she falters, but perhaps subsequent viewings will be kinder. And Oates? Well, Oates is simply sensational. Perhaps only Jason Robards ever combined the scuzzy, the world-weary and the roguishly appealing as well as the toothy, grubby, bearded Oates, and as a good guy fighting the lust coursing through his body, he damn well walks away with the film. The Hired Hand is one of the great movies of the '70s: a unique, unsentimental vision that doesn't seek to dismantle the Western, as Altman would with McCabe and Mrs Miller, but to take its iconography and its stock characters somewhere new. The gunfighter still rides to the rescue. The showdown still happens. And his body still falls to the floor with that same sickening thud. But then a hired hand returns to a homestead and closes a door, and we realise that there was never a Western like it, and that none ever gave us an ending like this, in all its simple, beautiful and perfect ambiguity. (4)


A Zhang Yimou double-bill:

House of Flying Daggers (Zhang Yimou, 2004) - A blind showgirl and the undercover agent sent to catch her run away together, pursued by scores of soldiers AND OH MY WORD, WILL YOU LOOK AT THOSE COLOURS, I THINK MY EYES HAVE AN ERECTION. Zhang Yimou's stunning, vivid, extremely green contribution to the wuxia genre is like opium for your optics: beautifully designed and filmed in colours both bold and gentle, vibrant but never garish, its vast widescreen frame filled with an abundance of detail: drums, trees and ribbons all seen as if seen for the first time.

There's also like a story. Zhang Ziyi stars as a blind, dancing prostitute and enthusiastic insurgent - allied to a revolutionary movement called the House of Flying Daggers - who's trying to bring down the authoritarian government. The government, however, has other ideas, as captain Andy Lau arrests her and then sends his pal Takeshi Kaneshiro to break her out of prison, inveigle his way into her confidence, and so trap the whole House. It's a great set-up, with something of It Happened One Night about it - though the stakes are higher -and for over an hour the film carries confidently along that path, its story of romantic awakening finding time for a song, two dances and a flurry of fights. Then five minutes of twists send it careering off in another direction. That change of tack looks unpromising at first, threatening to skew our sympathies, but boy does it ultimately deliver. (Just to confirm: yes it does.)

Wuxia movies are, of course, comparable to musicals in their construction, and if Fred and Ginger's first starring vehicle, The Gay Divorcee, was a sophisticated comedy with periodic concessions to superlative song and dance, then Flying Daggers isn't really a martial arts film, more a love story of epic proportions (it must be, look at that snow), with kung fu interludes. Those interludes are a mixed bunch: exhilarating to begin with - particularly during the rough-and-ready prison break sequence and Ziyi's flight through the woods - then too samey, too gimmicky and too overloaded with fantasy elements and baddies moving in Oompa-Loompa unity to really engage. By the time our heroes are trapped inside a prison of lusciously green bamboo that's just come at them from three dozen angles, you're marvelling at the look of the film, while wondering if perhaps we could just get back to Ziyi kicking people in the head.

The problem may be that the cast lacks many proper proponents of martial arts, meaning a lot of close-ups, quick cuts and some busy, CGI-led direction that follows the flight of objects: more 42nd Street (where the camera dances) than Top Hat (where Fred does). Having said that, the editing is absolutely virtuosic - a wonder to behold - with one notable exception: what kind of pervert puts jump cuts in a sword duel? In some ways the film reminds me of Jeunet's A Very Long Engagement, sharing that breathtaking visual originality, rich romantic sensibility and fondness for a nice field. Like that movie, while it offers countless entertaining diversions and a litany of quirks, it succeeds because of the strength of feeling generated by its central love story. In terms of obvious influences, Flying Daggers is enough of a one-off to escape easy categorisation, but I do wonder if the early scenes in the brothel were inspired by Satyajit Ray's bright, brilliant satire of colonialism, The Chess Players.

Yimou's film stutters a little at the beginning of the final third, as plot twists send the story juddering to a halt, and I wish certain action scenes didn't feel as synthetic, but its first 80 is brilliant, its ending is unforgettable and between that there's enough swordplay, sentiment and spellbinding cinematography to keep you nothing short of enraptured. Ziyi is in scintillating form, displaying that combination of the earthy and the ethereal that served her so well in Crouching Tiger - as well as that predilection for a) Dressing up as a boy, and b) Showing everybody her shoulders all the time - though while Kaneshiro makes a good fist of his cliched part, Lau has a rather lacklustre crack at a more interesting one. Flying Daggers is flawed, yes, but it's remarkable too: engaging, enthralling and simply extraordinary to look at. (3.5)

Hero (Zhang Yimou, 2002) - At last, a film extolling the virtues of a brutal, oppressive regime! I haven't seen one of those since Triumph of the Will. Do you know what that smell is? I'm not sure, but I think it might be fascism! Jet Li, exhibiting all the expressiveness of a Botoxed cyborg, is a minor government official who wins an audience with the king after crushing the state's three most notorious dissenters. But all may not be what it seems, prompting much Rashomon-ish remembrance, each vignette given a striking colour scheme and a directorial style all its own. Yimou's first martial arts movie is big on spectacle, with a cast of thousands, and its epic sweep is allied to stunning, distinctive photography: the scene in which the world turns red as Zhang Ziyi perishes is one of the most breathtaking bits of visual artistry ever to grace a cinema screen. At a more prosaic level, Hero is also notable for featuring only the second screen teaming of genre icons Li and Donnie Yen - whose previous film together was the greatest kung fu movie I've ever witnessed: Once Upon a Time in China II - and reuniting the leads of Wong Kar-wai's incredible In the Mood for Love, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung.

A shame then, that Hero - despite that uniquely arresting imagery and a hugely promising pedigree - is such a hollow, misguided venture: shallow and aloof, with a hideous totalitarian undercurrent that dominates both the tedious opening and a climax that would have had Stalin licking his lips. You know his line about one death being a tragedy, but a million deaths being a statistic? That's this film. Enjoy! It's also a movie where you see things happening, but you don't really feel them. Characters die, betray or are betrayed, but they seem distant and hard to relate to, while the story is fractured, convoluted and hard to understand. And while Yimou is a magnificent filmmaker, he's no action director. There are mesmerising shots throughout, which extends to the action sequences, but the fights themselves have little energy and no rhythm: choppy and feverishly edited in a way that's both distracting and pointless.

If you have Li and Yen, you don't need to cut endlessly, or have your camera flying through the air, you just hold steady and shoot. Yimou may be the superior stylist, but he could learn a thing or 10 from Tsui Hark about how to make a mythic martial arts film while establishing a visceral intensity in the fight scenes. Flying Daggers was certainly a step up in terms of choreography and spatial coherence, but once the fists start flying (or, indeed, the outsized pieces of bamboo), these films start floundering. There a couple of exciting moments during Li and Yen's monochrome fantasy duel, but this film just isn't a very good showcase for these talented martial artists.

There are virtues all over the place in Hero, but aside from the way the film looks - which is unequivocally fantastic - each one is met by a vice; y'know, like yin and yang. Periodically, the story latches on to some idea of clarity and wonder, the script matching the visual invention that drips from every frame, but these moments of incisiveness are scattered and disconnected, and not helped by characters dying and coming back to life with alarming regularity. The orchestral score is rousing and memorable, but it's also rather repetitive. And while Ziyi and Maggie Cheung are actresses of extraordinary emotional attractiveness, and both are excellent, they're ill-served by that confused, confusing, bitty and ultimately rather tiresome story, an oddly inconsistent performance from Tony Leung and uniformly lacklustre ones from the rest of the male cast (particularly Li, who has been replaced by a blank-faced automaton). Having said that, the king does make a noise like a motorbike when he runs around, which is hilarious. I had high hopes for Hero, but it didn't come close to matching them. Gobsmacking photography aside, it's a bit of a mess. And a dangerous one at that. (2.5)


Splash (Ron Howard, 1984) - This I liked. Produce trader Tom Hanks. who fears he may never fall in love, is reunited with the mermaid he met when he was eight (Daryl Hannah). She arrives at the Statue of Liberty, starkers, and while he doesn't know her secret, painfully unfunny scientist Eugene Levy does. According to a copy of Empire lying about in my front room, this movie filled Charlize Theron with lust, and you can see why. It's a headily romantic movie with lovely performances by the leads, an enjoyable one from John Candy as Hanks's wide boy brother and an abundance of dry, low-key comedy, which partly explains why Levy's endlessly shouty supporting turn feels so completely out of place. Perhaps the film goes a bit too gloomy for a bit too long during the customary "down time", but it's still one of the decade's best rom-coms. And while I laughed a lot, its greatest strengths are an old-fashioned sensibility that overrides its '80s trappings, and an unshakable conviction in its wonderfully appealing central romance. (3.5)


Kung Fu Hustle (Stephen Chow, 2005) - Kung Fu Hustle is like a martial arts movie as imagined by Frank Tashlin: a dizzying genre mash-up turned live-action cartoon that slings everything at the wall, from Tommy Guns to spoofery to sparring matches, and comes up smelling of bonkers. The story, if you can call it that, sees a slick urban gang of be-hatted, machine-gun sporting hoods trying to crush a poor rural district under its heel. Unfortunately for them, there are an improbable number of retired kung fu warriors working in a single village square. As the mobsters get their arses handed to them, reformed good guy (writer-director Stephen Chow) attempts to ingratiate himself with the gang, spurning the advances of the mute girl he once tried to save from bullies. With a film this frenzied, freewheeling and full of energy - something like wuxia's answer to Hellzapoppin', or Chuck Jones - of course not all of it hits the target, and Yuen Woo-Ping's purposefully OTT fight scenes work best when they at least pay lip-service to reality, but it's frequently funny, has a genuinely sweet romance at its centre and is impossible to second-guess, which is a welcome trait in any movie. (3)


CINEMA: Trance (Danny Boyle, 2013) - This reminds me of the time I shaved my pubes to impress James McAvoy. Mr Tumnus plays an auctioneer hospitalised during an art theft committed by Vincent Cassel and his gang. They think he knows what happened to a priceless Goya but, since he's now an amnesiac, they send him to a pouty hypnotist (Rosario Dawson), and from then on it's twist, twist, twist, naked Dawson, twist, naked Dawson again, another twist. The latest from one of Britain's most reliable - if not greatest - filmmakers is a flashy, well-directed thriller that's happy to give its audience a bit of credit, cutting between scenes from different timeframes, dropping tantalising clues as to its direction, and yet still keeping a couple of surprises up its sleeve. It does a reasonable job of shifting our sympathies as the back stories hove into view, and exhibits Boyle's handiness with an action set-piece, boasting a handful that throb with kinetic energy and dissolute discombobulation, soundtracked by a thumping score.

It's been called "Hitchcockian", but it's not quite. There's a little of Spellbound in there (art, amnesia and vivid dreams), but it has a whole lot more in common with the '60s thrillers Charade and particularly Mirage, both written by Peter Stone and said to bear the mark of the Master. Where those films are superior, though, isn't just in the crackling dialogue, it's in reeling you in with gimmicks and even gags, then giving you characters to empathise with and root for. Trance doesn't really do that. McAvoy and Cassel are passable and Dawson is quite good - while shot in that adoring, slobbering way that can only mean "this actress is my girlfriend" - but the film would rather give you another twist than a human feeling, and the effect is much like the way you pine for something savoury if you spend a day stuffing your face with cake. (Yes, I am quite greedy.) Trance is consistently entertaining, keeping you guessing much of the time, but it's more Shallow Grave than Slumdog: a malevolent rug-puller that just about delivers the goods as a mystery, but offers little that will linger after the credits have rolled. (2.5)


Thanks for reading. I'll do a bit more ClintFest in a little while.

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