Monday, December 27, 2010

Animal Kingdom

One of the regrets I had earlier this year was that I missed Animal Kingdom at the theater.

Animal Kingdom starring Ben Mendelsohn, James Frecheville and Guy Pearce; directed by David Michôd; (2010) - Official Website

Animal Kingdom, an Australian film, won a Grand Jury prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. It made the rounds earlier this year at the Kabuki and Red Vic, I believe. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw it was playing at the Landmark Opera Plaza beginning on December 24.

The story begins with quiet and stoic Josh sitting next to his mother watching television. It turns out she is dead (overdosed on heroin) but that does little to stop Josh from concentrating on his show. This typically traumatic event starts an astonishing and horrific journey for Josh (although the nonchalance he exhibits after his mother dies next to him gives an indication of Josh's capabilities).

Josh goes to live with his grandmother, "Smurf" Cody. As we discover from Josh's narration, Smurf is matriarch to a low-level criminal family consisting of Josh's maternal uncles - Pope, Craig and Darren and family friend Baz. The four of them engage in armed robberies and Craig is a low level drug dealer. Pope is the most dangerous of the bunch. Cruel and likely psychotic (his "meds" are mentioned), Pope draws Josh into his sphere of influence with disastrous results for everyone involved.

The film distinguishes itself by the way it portrays the outlaws. Rather than brassy and full of false bravado, Pope is laconic and has feral eyes as if he is always stalking his prey. His prey soon become Josh. The title refers to Guy Pearce's description of the criminal underworld. Pearce plays a cop that is trying to throw Josh a lifeline. He tells Josh that there are hunters and the hunted and Josh is one of the hunted. However, Josh is more resilient than anyone can imagine.

The film is marked by strong performances by the entire cast but Ben Mendelsohn as Pope, Joel Edgerton (also in The Square) as the level-headed Baz and James Frecheville as the frightened but determined Josh merit special recognition.

Animal Kingdom kept me on the edge of my seat. A scene involving Pope and Josh's girlfriend was very unsettling. The ending was quite a surprise too which doesn't happen to me very much anymore. Animal Kingdom is one of my favorite films from 2010.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Go To Hell For the Holidays

The YBCA had a horror series programmed in December. I was able to watch three films in the series.

Feast of the Assumption: BTK and The Otero Family Murders; documentary; (2008) - Official Website
Wolf Creek starring John Jarratt; directed by Greg Mclean; (2005) - Official Website
Meat Grinder; Thai with subtitles; (2009)

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The series wasn't strictly "horror." Feast of the Assumption: BTK and The Otero Family Murders was a documentary about a man whose family was a victim of the BTK serial murderer in Kansas. BTK stands for Bind, Torture, Kill which was the modus operandi of the killer. Over 17 years, BTK killed 10 people including his first victims - 4 members of the Otero family. On January 15, 1974, Joseph and Julie Otero and their children Joseph Jr. (age 9) and Josephine (age 11)) were murdered in their Wichita house. There were three other Otero children who were not at home that day.

Feast of the Assumption follows Charlie Otero, one of the surviving kids. Charlie was 15 when the murders took place. The film starts in the mid-2000s with 50something year old Charlie locked up in a New Mexico prison. I'm not sure what director Marc Levitz saw in Otero that made him think a he was worth a documentary. Otero had been in scrapes with the law since the murders which is not surprising. Over the years, Otero learned that his family had been the first known victims of BTK who was still at large.

When filming of Feast of the Assumption started, I think the intent was to follow Otero around as he deals with his emotional baggage. Despite his scrapes with the law, Otero turns out to be rather well adjusted for a man who family was murdered. He certainly doesn't appear to have the inner rage that I would think a man in his position would have. As I recall, he did not drink or do drugs and was not prone to violence. In short, he didn't seem to make a compelling subject for a documentary.

Then amazing things began to happen. BTK was caught. In 2005, Dennis Rader, an animal control officer and active in his Lutheran church, was arrested in Wichita. Otero followed the trial. I can't recall if he testified but he definitely read a statement during sentencing. Rader was sentenced to 10 consecutive life terms or a minimum of 175 years in prison.

On the day before Otero spoke at Rader's sentencing, he learned his son whom he was largely estranged from, had suffered an accident and likely suffered permanent brain damage. This was the only time Otero showed any anger or rage towards his circumstances and most of his anger was directed to Truman Capote whose work In Cold Blood motivated BTK or at least, Otero believes that.

I've written much so far about a film that I didn't really like too much. BTK's life would have been fascinating because he turned out to be a monster. However, Charlie Otero's life was frankly boring. The most that can be said about Otero is that he has lousy taste in women if the film is any indication. Other than that, he seems too nice and otherwise bland to have a documentary devoted to him. I'm sorry for what happened to him and his family but I didn't really feel this documentary needed to be made. That sums my impression of the film. I kept waiting for an emotional gut punch or Charlie's triumph but the film never delivered.

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In the synopsis of the film, YBCA claimed Wolf Creek as "possibly the best horror film of the decade." The Australian film was directed by Greg Mclean whose most recent work is the disappointing Red Hill which I saw at the Mill Valley Film Festival. I see a trend developing. In both films, Mclean sets the action in the Australian Outback and in both cases, the locals come off looking like inbred psychopaths. Wolf Creek seemed like the bastard child of Deliverance and Crocodile Dundee.

Wolf Creek is about three young people driving across Australia. They stop to sight-see at a meteor crater and return to find their car is disabled. Fortunately, a rugged bushman (John Jarratt) comes along to give them a tow. However, once back at his compound, he drugs their water and tortures them. I won't spoil the ending but what the YBCA trumpets as "possibly the best horror film of the decade" stuck me as derivative and nothing special.

After the screening, the YBCA staff invited the audience to discuss the film. Jesse Hawthorne Ficks was in the audience and praised the film which he saw in Montana on Xmas day. One of the YBCA programmers mentioned he was tired of the misogyny in horror films. That's like someone saying they are tired of the gratuitous sex in porn.

During the discussion, it became clear to me that I cannot "get into" horror films. Unlike some other genres, I cannot suspend disbelief when watching horror films. As a result, the violence and degradation depicted in the films become passé to me. All I can really do is enjoy the film for it mechanics. Is the director able to startle me or skillfully interject dark humor? Does the film build the suspense level even when you know what is about to happen? A horror film become more of a litmus test of a director's skills. Any horror film content is ignored by me as being res ipsa loquitur. That is, horror films are ridiculous by definition so why apply real-world analysis or thought to the films?

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That leaves Meat Grinder which was far from engaging but the best of the three I saw. This film follow a woman who runs a noodle shop. She has a "secret ingredient" and let's just call it soylent green. Apparently, to make the best noodle soup, she needs fresh meat so she keeps her captives alive for several days after beginning the butchering process. This plot premise has been done many times; most famously in Sweeney Todd.

Meat Grinder delves into the psyche of the woman who commits these heinous and sadistic acts. Much is made of her speaking to her past and future selves at the bottom of a jar of water. I felt the scenes were contrived and less than effective. Set in the 1970s, some scenes of social unrest were mixed in to better effect but they were quickly discarded. Ultimately, I had little empathy for the woman and wanted the film to end so my suffering could too. However, Meat Grinder attempted to be something more than a slasher film; its reach mostly exceeded its grasp.

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The series was unsatisfying for me but at least it represented a nice try by YBCA to program something different within the horror genre.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Passion of Joan of Arc

In November 2008, I saw The Passion of Joan of Arc. I recall the event well. The theater was near sellout. I had to sit in the front of the theater. I was one row behind the choral singers. There was an orchestra and a hundred or so choral singers. They took up the the first three or four rows of the theater. They performed Richard Einhorn's Voices of Light which was specifically composed to accompany The Passion of Joan of Arc. I cannot recall which organization the singers were from.

They had a program handout which was very informative. The front page gave some background on Einhorn and his composition. The other side talked about the history of the film. The Passion of Joan of Arc was thought to be a lost film. The original version was thought lost when a fire destroyed the master negative. Director Carl Theodore Dreyer reassembled the film from outtakes. This was the only extant version until the early 1980s when a copy of the original version was found in a Danish mental assylum.

At the time, I was very impressed with the film and score even though I didn't write about it. That has more to do with time constraints than enthusiasm.

On December 2, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival partnered with the PFA to present The Passion of Joan of Arc at the Paramount Theater in Oakland. The live accompaniment was conducted by Mark Sumner, performed by the women of UC Berkeley’s Perfect Fifth as the voice of Joan of Arc, tenor soloist Daniel Ebbers, baritone Martin Bell, the University of California Alumni Chorus, UC Men’s and Women’s Chorales, and a twenty-two piece orchestra.

The Passion of Joan of Arc starring Maria Falconetti; directed by Carl Theodore Dreyer; silent with intertitles; with live accompaniment; (1928)

Let me start by saying that I think the Paramount is the most elegant theater I've been in. Built in 1931, the Paramount was designed by Timothy Pflueger who also designed the Castro Theater in San Francisco (built in 1922). Whereas the Castro has a Spanish Baroque theme, the Paramount is Art Deco which is more to my personal taste. The Paramount also has a larger seating capacity than the Castro so the interior is more imposing. The Paramount was completely rennovated in early 1970s so the interior is more modern than the Castro which has been in continuous use since its opening. The Paramount doesn't have daily events so it gets a lot less wear and tear than the Castro.

The Passion of Joan of Arc is universally acknowledged as one of the most influential films of all time. The plot condenses the trial of Joan of Arc into a 90 minute film. The film looks unique today but must have been particularly revolutionary in 1928. The first thing I noticed were the extreme close-ups. Dreyer had the actors who played Joan inquistors not wear make-up so you see the flaws in the complexion and craggy faces. Sergio Leone would use the same technique to great effect in his Spaghetti Westerns. I remember reading that Oliver Stone used the same trick when shooting JFK. In The Passion of Joan of Arc, the close-ups and lack of make-up give the actors a grotesque and ominous appearance to match their actions.

In addition, Dreyer frequently filmed Joan of Arc (played by Maria Falconetti) from a down camera angle to convey to the audience the submissive position she was in. Dreyer would force Falconetti to kneel for hours on hard stone floors until her knees ached and she was exhausted. Through this "proto-method" acting device, Falconetti physical anguish and fatigue showed in her portrayal of Joan.

The film had a noticeable dearth of establishing shots and long shots. Combined with the sparse sets, the effect was to give the film an austere look which focused the audience's attention on the actor's faces. The ordeal of Joan's scourging was made more personal that way. The title not only refers to Joan's inner passions to serve God and defeat the British but also call to mind the Passion plays depicting Christ's final days.

Everyone raves about Falconetti's performance and rightly so. Her eyes convey fear and confusion as well as anything I recall seeing on celluloid. However, Falconetti needed someone to play against. This was the true inspiration on Dreyer's part. The actors cast as Joan's judges and prison guards were outstanding in conveying their malevolence and contempt. There weren't any scenes to establish the character's names so I cannot single out any of the credited actors. That's just as well since all their performances were worthy of praise.

In 2008, I was most impressed by Einhorn's score. It had sufficient gravitas for the trial of Joan of Arc. Slightly evocative of Carmina Burana, Voices of Light was less robust than the Gregorian chants. It perfectly conveyed the inner turmoil of Joan. At the Paramount performance, Voices of Light was still effective but not quite as impressive as before. Perhaps it was due to having heard the performance before.

I'm glad to report that The Passion of Joan of Arc stood up well to a second screening. I wonder how the film would fare with an alternate score.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Kings of Pastry

I went to the Balboa to see Kings of Pastry.

King of Pastry; documentary; directed by Chris Hegedus & D.A. Pennebaker; (2009) - Official Website

Kings of Pastry was preceded by a short film called Western Spaghetti.

Western Spaghetti; directed by PES - Official Website

Western Spaghetti was stop-action, claymation short about making spaghetti using pencils as spaghetti strands and candy corn as flames on a gas stovetop.

Kings of Pastry was directed by the duo who made The War Room (1993), a fascinating look into Bill Clinton's 1992 Presidential campaign. Kings of Pastry is about Un des Meilleurs Ouvrier de France (MOF), a quadrennial competition hed in France. It attracts the top pastry chefs in France to compete for the coveted Meilleurs Ouvrier de France, an award which entitles its recipients to wear a blue, white and red collar on their chef's smocks. According to one recipient, if a person wears the tri-color collar without having been awarded the MOF, he can be arrested. I don't know if that is fact or hyperbole.

The film mainly concentrated on Jacquy Pfeiffer, a native of France who now lives & work in the Chicago area as the founder and instructor of a pastry school. Seeing one of his colleagues receive the MOF, Pfeiffer embarks on the arduous process to win the award. If I recall correctly, he began preparing 18 months before the competition and took a leave of absence from his school six weeks prior to the competition. During that final period, he prepared at a bakery in Alsace which belonged to a childhood friend.

The key component of the MOF competition is a sugar sculpture event. The chefs make amazing works of art from crystallized sugar. As is show repeated these sculptures are very fragile. I gasped and groaned more than once when a sculpture came tumbling down.

Kings of Pastry follows a few other competitors but most of the screentime is devoted to Jacquy and his coterie of supporters which include his girlfriend, her children (one of the girls may have been his daughter), his assistand and fellow chefs and MOF winner who serve as his coaches. Indeed, the competition is more akin to a sporting event than cooking. Unlike the brassy Iron Chef television program or the combative Gordon Ramsay, the MOF and Jacquy are reserved and genteel. Jacquy never raises his voice or expresses his frustrations. He continually prepares for the competition although I don't recall seeing any of his practice pieces or confections in the actual competition.

The time constraints and unknowns require the participants to adapt to rules and judges (as well as mishaps). There were sixteen competitors in the MOF. It wasn't clear if those 16 had to qualify somehow for the event. Some of the competitor had failed previous MOFs. The 16 are not competing against each other but against the judges' subjective standards. It was possible but unlikely that all 16 would have received the MOF. I can't recall how many of the competitors received the award. Four to six, I believe. I won't say if Jacquy won so as not spoil the suspense.

The film was nice, just like Jacquy and all the competitors. An asshole in the group would have improved the film as it would lead some conflict and given the audience someone to root against. As it was, all the competitors and judges seemed like good guys which is a little surprising given how many there were and that they were French after all. Kings of Pastry had the look and feel of well-made PBS documentary which is where it will likely end up.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Unstoppable

While visiting my father in Las Vegas, we watched Unstoppable.

Unstoppable starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pine & Rosario Dawson; directed by Tony Scott; (2010) - Official Website

This film has been well reviewed. It opened #2 at the box office.

Tony Scott is one of my favorite directors. His brother Ridley directed The Blade Runner, my long-time favorite film. I can't say any of Tony's films are of that stature. More consistently, Tony Scott's film entertain me and his cinematic craftmanship are frequently on display. Among my favorite Tony Scott films are Crimson Tide (my favorite Tony Scott film), The Last Boy Scout, Top Gun and True Romance.

In Unstoppable, Scott largely dispenses with character development. Chris Pine's character seems to have some issues related to his controlling nature and jealousy. Denzel's character seems to have strained relationship with his daugthers. These are never really explored. Most likely, they are shown to give the characters some flaws to counter the selfless act they engage in. If you are not familiar with the film, a train engineer (Denzel) and a conductor (Pine), chase down a ruanway train in their locomotive. Why do they do it? Their lives have some bumps but they seem to have a lot to live for. Ultimately, their integrity and professionalism combined with concern for their families drive them to their actions.

Denzel is Denzel. Like Jack Nicholson or Morgan Freeman, Denzel brings a similar quality to all his roles. I didn't fully realize that I saw a Saturday Night Live sketch a few weeks ago where Jay Pharoah impersonated him.



Denzel is a movie star and you are naturally drawn to him when his is on screen. Chris Pine was serviceable in his role. A few of the supporting actors delivered great performances. Rosario Dawson is building an impressive résumé and is solid as the yardmaster training to solve the problem before Denzel saves the day.

Ethan Suplee as the incomptent railroad hostler that sets the disaster into motion is brilliant as the blissfully ignorant Dewey. Suplee has a consistenly witless look on his face even after the train gets away from him. Lew Temple (who was the shot-order cook in Waitress) makes the most of role as the repetitive redneck who preaches "precision" but ultimately plays a key role.

Scott keeps the action going without dragging things like a mourning widower or husband with a restraining order into the plot. He handles the technical jargon of railroading with ease. What's a rip track? Scott doesn't bother to explain it but I had to look it up. RIP track - repair in place track. We also see Denzel apply the independent brake and astutely observe the knuckle is open on the last car.

So overall, Unstoppable was an exciting and entertaining action film from skilled director and featuring a capable cast.

I should note that the film is "inspired by true events." In 2001, CSX #8888 ("Crazy Eights") left a trainyard in a manner similar to that depicted in the film. The freight train never reached the sppeeds stated in Unstoppable. It topped out at 47 MPH rather than 70 MPH as shown in the film. The incident also took place between Toledo and Columbus, OH and not near Scranton, PA. It seems strange that they would change the location in the film as it didn't add anything to the plot. Much is made of the "Scranton Curve" in the film but the curve shown is actually in Bellaire, OH.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Kurosawa - One Last Time in 2010

2010 is the centennial of Akira Kurosawa's birth. The Stanford Theater and PFA have had Kurosawa programs to celebrate the anniversary. Now, Viz Cinema has programmed another Kurosawa program although it focuses on Kurosawa's work with Toshirō Mifune. The series runs from December 18 to January 6 and features seven films - Red Beard, The Idiot, The Lower Depths, High and Low, Stray Dog, Drunken Angel and Seven Samurai.

I believe The Lower Depths is one of the few Kurosawa feature length film that I haven't seen.

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I have yet to write about the Kurosawa program at the PFA (June 4 to Auguest 29). The massive series included 29 screenings including many Kurosawa films I hadn't previously seen. I watched 13 films in the series. I skipped every screning of a film I had previously watched. The two films from the series which I wanted to see but was unable were The Lower Depths and Dreams. I have seen Dersu Uzala on a VHS tape my father recorded from the Turner Classic Movie series on Kurosawa earlier this year.

The only other full length Kurosawa film which I have not seen, according to IMDB, is Those Who Make Tomorrow (1946). Kurosawa was contractually obligated to direct the film despite not liking the script so he disowned it. According to IMDB, the film hasn't been screened in Japan since its initial release and has never been shown in the United States.

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All 13 films were in Japanese with subtitles and directed by Kurosawa.

Red Beard starring Toshirō Mifune; (1965)
I Live in Fear starring Toshirō Mifune; (1955)
Sanshiro Sugata starring Susumu Fujita; (1943)
Sanshiro Sugata II starring Susumu Fujita; (1945)
The Most Beautiful with Takashi Shimura; (1944)
The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail with Susumu Fujita; (1945)
No Regrets for Our Youth starring Setsuko Hara and Susumu Fujita; (1946)
The Idiot starring Setsuko Hara, Masayuki Mori and Toshirō Mifune; (1951)
Dodes'kd-den; (1970)
The Quiet Duel starring Toshirō Mifune and Takashi Shimura; (1949)
Ran starring Tatsuya Nakadai; (1985)
Rhapshody in August starring Sachiko Murase; with Richard Gere; (1991)
Mādadayo starring Tatsuo Matsumura; (1993)

A few notes - Red Beard was the final collaboration between Kurosawa and Mifune. Dodes'kd-den was Kurosawa's first film in color. 2010 is the 25th anniversary of the release of Ran so the film screened at the Landmark Lumiere for a week and the Castro Theater in November. Sanshiro Sujata (1943) was Kurosawa directorial debut.

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Given that it has been 3 to 5 months since I watched the films, I don't see much need to recap the plots. They are Kurosawa films after all so they is a wealth of material written about them.

I was most looking forward to Sanshiro Sujata and its sequel Sanshiro Sujata II. Since both films were made during WWII, I wondered how Kurosawa responded to the censorship of the Japanese government. Could Kurosawa's artistry and storytelling skills shine through the propagandists edicts of government censorship boards. The films disappointed me. I'm not sure if the problem was censorship and wartime deprivations or Kurasawa not yet having "found his voice." I never really found myself emotionally invested in Sanshiro Sugata (the title character), a young man coming of age with the help of the principles he learns through judo training. The films featured action scenes galore but I found them uncompelling; perhaps because I found the lead character uncompelling.

Having seen two film made during WWII, I was not anxious to see The Most Beautiful. The film was billed as more overtly propagandist than the Sanshiro films. As I started watching the film, I saw more familiar techniques by Kurosawa. Sentimentality, self-sacrifice and suffering were at the forefront. In The Most Beautiful, a group of young women (teenage girls really) live and work at a factory making lens for gunsights. Using a large ensemble cast of young women in his second film, Kurosawa seemed to have reached his zenith with regard to directing women. I don't recall another film where the main character was a woman until 48 years later when he directed Rhapsody in August.

The Most Beautiful features young women who are bit naive. They look upon their work as a contest of sorts and their patriotism seems more lke youthful idealism. It's hard to square the girl's work with the actions of the Imperial Japanese Army so as I watched the film, I divorced the two thoughts in my mind. The enjoyment of the film comes from Kurosawa's manipulation of the audience's emotions. Whereas I was apathetic to Sanshiro Sugata, the girls in the lens factory have an exuberance and esprit de corps which is infectious. The propaganda film set in a wartime factory is tranformed by Kurosawa into an examination of group dynamics among young women. The Most Beautiful turned out to be one my favorite films of the series.

After maintaining a punishing schedule in the 1950s, Kurosawa slowed his pace in the 1960s. By my count, Kurosawa directed 13 films between Roshomon (1950) when his international reputation was established and Red Beard (1965). Between 1965 and 1990, Kurosawa only made five films - Dodes'kd-den (1970), Dersu Uzala (1975), Kagemusha (1980), Ran (1985) and Dreams (1990). Having seen four of the five films, I can say I'm less enthusiastic about Kurosawa's later works.

It is with some surprise then that I found his two works to be among the most enjoyable of the PFA series. Starting with Dreams, Kurosawa made three films in four years. Although the films were not well received upon their release, I was pleasantly surprised by them. The final two films in Kurosawa's filmography are Rhapsody in August (1991) and Mādadayo (1993). Work has been done to complete a documentary Kurosawa made about Noh theater so a new Kurosawa film may be forthcoming.

Rhapsody in August is about three generations of a Japanese family and how the bombing of Nagaski still affects them 46 years later. The key role of the grandmother who survived the bombing is played by Sachiko Murase in the final role of her 60 year acting career. Providing a counterpoint are her four grandchildren who are growing up in the Japanese economic boom years of the 1980s. Kurosawa explores issues related to the generation gap played out against the specific backdrop of Japanese society which experience profound change in the 45 years after WWII.

In Mādadayo, Kurosawa returns to overt sentimentality and male bonding as a group of men celebrate their university professor's birthday each year. The begins in the aftermath of WWII and continues into the 1960s. As the character's age, so does the nature of the party. What starts as a stag beerfest turns into a multi-generational banquet. Tatsuo Matsumura plays the aging professor who inspires such devotion and affection in his students.

Also noteworthy is No Regrets for Our Youth (1946) where Kurosawa teams up with Setsuko Hara three years before she would begin her celebrated collaboration with director Yasujirô Ozu in Late Spring (1949).

Beyond the Kurosawa-Hara teaming, No Regrets for Our Youth is more political than most Kurosawa films. Perhaps to atone for propaganda films during the war, Kurosawa casts the university peace protestors of the 1930s as his heroes. Hara is metamorphisizes from spoiled child of intelligenstia to a traitor shunned by the poor rice farmers she lives amongst.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Stone

I saw Stone which was featured at the 2010 Mill Valley Film Festival as part of their tribute to Edward Norton. I had to use a Landmark Theatres discount card by November 30 and the film fit my schedule. To be honest, it wasn't a film I was particularly interested in seeing.

Stone starring Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Milla Jovovich and Frances Conroy; (2010) - Official Website

I enjoyed De Niro and Norton's previous collaboration which was a 2001 film called The Score. The caper film featured De Niro and Norton as two cat burglars (bankrolled by Marlon Brando!) forming an uneasy partnership to rip off an artifact from the Montreal Customs House. It was full of twists and turns and featured an exciting sequence where they are breaking into the vault.

Stone is a completely different film. De Niro plays Jack Mabry, a Michigan parole officer and Norton plays Stone, a prisoner up for parole. Mabry would seem to have all the power in the relationship but he has two disadvantages. First, Mabry is hollowed out after a lifetime of existential subsistence. He takes no pleasure or comfort from his job, his marriage, his religion or even himself. Second, Stone is a particularly intelligent, observant and manipulative prisoner who eventually pushes his sexy and ferral wife (Jovovich) onto Mabry. Rounding out the cast is Frances Conroy as Mrs. Mabry, a woman who has spent her lifetime having her spirit eroded by Mabry's lack of passion and empathy.

Jovovich has received much praise for her performance which is provocative and open to interpretation. Actually, each character's actions and motivations are open to interpretation. It makes the film more complex and true to life. However the film is morose and depressing; the same could be said for life. Oddly, Stone (the convicted arsonist) seems the least maladjusted of the quartet.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

I saw one of the best films I've seen in 2010 on the day before Thanksgiving at the Castro Theater.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters starring Ken Ogata; directed by Paul Schrader; Japanese with subtitles; (1985)

The pedigree of the film is impeccable. Paul Schrader, who wrote the screenplays for Martin Scorcese's Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, directed Mishima. This is the third film directed by Schrader which I've seen this year. At Not Necessarily Noir, they screened Blue Collar and Hardcore.

The soundtrack for Mishima was composed by Phillip Glass, one of the most influential musical composers of the 20th century. Much of the soundtrack in Mishima was performed by the Kronos Quartet, a noted San Francisco based classical quartet (two violins, one viola and one cello). The producers of Mishima include Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas.

The screenwriters for the film include Schrader, his brother Leonard and Leonard's wife Chieko. The Schrader brothers had previously written The Yakuza (1975) starring Robert Mitchum and directed by Sydney Pollack. That film was set in the Japanese criminal underworld. Leonard Schrader had lived in Japan and married a Japanse woman. Leonard Schrader had numerous screenwriting credits for Japanese films including The Man Who Stole the Sun (1979).

The Castro advertised that a newly restored 35mm print of the film would be screened. Unfortunately, due to a shiping mistake, the print did not arrive so they screened a DVD (presumably hi-def). As a result, the lowered the admission price from $10 to $7.50. I prefer to watch films in their original format but my preferences are not so immutable as to refuse to view a DVD version of the film. According to the cashier, some patrons refused to watch the DVD screening.

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Yukio Mishima (a pen name) was an avante garde novelist, poet, playwright, actor and film director whose primary creative period spanned the 1950s and 60s. Internationally acclaimed (three nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature), Mishima espoused a retro brand of Japanese nationalism which glorified the bushidō code of honor practiced by the samurai. He also advocated restoring full power to the emperor as well as his god-like status. On November 25, 1970, Mishima and four members of his private army gained access to the Tokyo headquarters of the Eastern Command of Japan's Self-Defense Forces. The held the commandant hostage in his office and Mishima demanded to address the troops. He gave a speech which he hoped would inspire the troops to join him in a coup d'état. Instead, they jeered and mocked him. After giving his speech, Mishima retired to the commandant's office where he committed seppuku, a ritual suicide.

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Mishima: A Life in Four ChaptersMishima: A Life in Four Chapters was structured into four parts as the title suggests - Beauty, Art, Action and Harmony of Pen & Sword. Each chapter blended elements from Mishima's last day (filmed in realistic colors) and his earlier life (black and white). In addition, portions of his novels or plays were depicted (pastel hued colors). The effect was to blur the line between Mishima and his characters which was appropriate because many of his works were semi-autobiographical and he seemed to live his life as if he were a character in a play. Schrader and cinematographer John Bailey used muted colors when filming the "fictional" scenes. In particular, many of the sets were salmon pink which would match the color scheme or Mishima's private army. Finally, Phillip Glass added an evocative score with hints Wagnerian flourish.

The film had an elegiac tone which seemed to be the way Mishima lived his life. He practically made a promise to die before age 40 (he was 45 at the time of his death). Schrader's skill at interweaving Mishima's works with his life are evident throughout the film. Mishima had a number of contradictory elements in his life. Mishima hints at the man's sexuality until he removes all doubts with a scene where he is dancing with another man. Mishima projected an image of hypermasculinity but was henpecked by his mother and grandmother, was bisexual and engaged in lurid S&M activities. All the women in the film are shown as grotesque in appearance or behavior which reflected Mishima's loathing of women.

Mishima combines the fascinating works by the author with the fascinating life of the man with the fascinating mythology of the legend. The result is a fascinating film which kept riveted for two hours.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Kamui Gaiden and Cast Me If You Can at the Viz

Perusing the Viz Cinema's December schedule, I notice they are screening Cast Me if You Can from December 10 to 18. Cast Me if You Can was one of the films I enjoyed at the 2010 Mill Valley Film Festival.

Hiromi Nagasaku (left) and Tôru Masuoka in Cast Me If You Can

I'm glad the film is getting a limited release in the Bay Area. I hope it finds an audience in Japantown.

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I swung by the Viz earlier this week to see Kamui Gaiden. There was a colon in the title in the film but I won't quibble.

Kamui Gaiden reminded me of a Japanese version of The Treasure Hunter from the 2010 Chinese American Film Festival. There were a lot of special effects (some of which looked fake) and not much plot or character development. I fell asleep for most of the last 30 minutes. There was a neat trick where a horse's leg was cut off but that was little respite from the two hour ordeal. The plot involves a ninja on the run from his cohorts. He encounters a fisherman and his family. His paranoia leads to tragic consequences.

The film starred Ken'ichi Matsuyama who I previously saw in Detroit Metal City and the Death Note films. He was unrecognizable to me. The actor is truly a chameleon and the role of Kamui was nothing like his roles in the other film.

I didn't find many redeeming qualities in Kamui Gaiden and frankly wished I had spent the two hours doing something else.

Kamui Gaiden starring Ken'ichi Matsuyama; Japanese with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

2010 Chinese American Film Festival Recap

I saw 7 films at the 2010 Chinese American Film Festival at the 4 Star Theater.

For the third year in a row, they screened a Chinese language film without English subtitles. This year, they screened Ip Man 2 without English subtitles. Fortunately (or sadly), my enjoyment of the film was not adversely affected by the language barrier. I've discovered that the only Chinese language word I know is sifu which is a term of respect which martial arts students use when addressing their masters.

The seven films I saw were:

Ip Man 2 starring Donnie Yen & Sammo Hung; with Simon Yam; directed by Wilson Yip; Cantonese without subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
Confucius starring Chow Yun-Fat; Mandarin with subtitles; (2010)
Cool Young; Mandarin with subtitles;
The Treasure Hunter starring Jay Chou; Mandarin with subtitles; (2009)
My Father and I starring Jinglei Xu and Daying Ye; directed by Jinglei Xu; (2003)
Go Lala Go starring Jinglei Xu and Stanley Huang; with Karen Mok; directed by Jinglei Xu; Mandarin with subtitles; (2010)
The Star and the Sea; Mandarin with subtitles; (2009)

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Ip Man 2 continues the saga of indomitable and eponymous kung fu master as portrayed by Donnie Yen. In this installment, Ip Man has relocated to Hong Kong after WWII. No longer wealthy, he lives in a tenement and teaches martial arts on the roof of building amongst drying laundry. His students run afoul of the local triads and Ip discovers the gangs run the martial arts schools in HK. Furthermore, he must defeat them to open his own school. That leads to the most entertaining sequence in the film. Sammo Hung who plays the top gang boss and kung fu master in HK faces off against Ip on a circular banquet table.

Darren Shahlavi (left) and Donnie Yen in Ip Man 2
After that, the film veers into jingoistic territory with a bit of Rocky thrown in for good measure. The British police in HK bring in a Western style pugilist to face off against the Eastern martial artists in HK. The "Twister" is overtly racist and kicks ass on Sammo in the boxing ring. Putting aside any lingering animosity, Ip steps into the ring to avenge Sammo's death as well the yellow man's honor.

It all looked silly and probably would have been more so if I had had subtitles to understand everything they were saying. Donnie Yen plays it straight, actor/stuntman Darren Shahlavi chews up the scenery as the rapid Twister and Sammo is conflicted by his pride and need to serve his English masters.

Having dispatched the Japanese in the first film and the Caucasian colonizers in the second film, Donnie Yen has announced he does not plan to reprise Ip Man in any future films. Ip Man 2 ended on what appeared to be teaser for the next film. At the end of the film, a cocky young boy with a habit of literally thumbing his nose, asks to become Ip's student. He sends him away with instructions to come back when he is older. The boy is Bruce Lee, Ip's most famous student.

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My favorite film of the festival was My Father and I. The film was directed by the star - Jinglei Xu. She also directed and starred in Go Lala Go.

My Father and I dealt with the complex relationship between a man (Daying Ye) and his estranged daughter (Xu). The film starts when the girl was in high school and her mother unexpectedly passes away. Barely knowing each other, the two are reunited by circumstance. The man's faults are slow to manifest themselves as he initially appears to be a doting father of a teenage girl. Eventually, he is convicted of pimping and the two are separated again during his imprisonment.

Upon his release, the two form an uneasy alliance. Disapproving of her new boyfriend, the father tries to influence his daughter's decisions. His own dubious past form a barrier between the two until she divorces and gives birth to a daughter of her own.

I won't recap the rest of the film. The two lead actors occupy most of the screen time and their relationship is quite believable. Heartwarming and heartbreaking, I thought the film was unusually nuanced and ambiguous for a Chinese film which frequently paint their characters with broad brush strokes. Both actors excelled in their roles.

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Go Lala Go is romance/comedy set in an office where apparently all the women are stunningly beautiful and dress fashionably. Jinglei Xu plays Lala, an up and coming corporate type who tries to balance her ambition with a budding romance with her boss. The character of Lala felt contrived as did the whole film. I never quite suspended disbelief but certainly admired the stylish office decor and beautiful women. The comedy was hit and miss and I found Stanley Huang's character to be unworthy of the affection he received from a few women at his workplace. Go Lala Go reminded me a little of Sophie's Revenge with Zhang Ziyi from last year's Chinese American Film Festival. Lala did not have as high a slapstick quotient as Sophie but they both dealt with attractive and sophisticated professionals in modern day China - the looked good, lived and worked in chic environs and behaved like Westerners.

Those three films are all I can really recommend and I'm luke warm about Go Lala Go.

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Confucius is barely watchable. Chow Yun-Fat plays the wise man. We're given little insight into the source of his wisdom. After suffering a military defeat, he wanders the wilderness with his disciples for a decade. It wasn't clear to me how his perseverance in exile led to his forming the dominant philosophy/theology in the world.

I fell asleep during The Treasure Hunter which stars Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou. The film was laden with action sequences and fake looking special effects. Jay Chou was dressed up like a Chinese version of Indiana Jones but the film lacked a coherent plot and my interest quickly waned.

Cool Young was indecipherable. The film was about the interconnected relationship between a group of people but the plot made no sense. In fact, at the end of the film, the actors broke the fourth wall and rhetorically asked why two of the character would break off their relationship. The actors marched into the director's office to ask the question and he gave some answer. By that time, I had lost all interest and just wanted the film to end so I could go about my day.

The Star and the Sea was predictable and schmaltzy. The film seemed intent on covering the most trite and hackneyed conventions of melodramatic films. It tried to manipulate the audiences emotions and may have succeeded if the director and writers had more talent and skill. Ostensibly a biopic on Chinese composer Xiang Xinghai, the movie left me wishing for a better introduction to the man.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sherlock Jr. & The Club Foot Orchestra

On April 12, 2008, SF Jazz sponsored a triple feature of silent films at the Castro Theater. All films were accompanied live by The Club Foot Orchestra. The three films were Sherlock Jr., The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu.

On November 14, 2010, The Club Foot Orchestra returned to the Castro and accompanied the same three silent films. This time, SF Jazz was not a sponsor. My recap even confirms that the short film Woos Whoopee featuring Felix the Cat, preceded each screening in 2008 as was the case in 2010.

This time, I did not watch all three films. I wanted to see The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari but a friend preferred Sherlock Jr. so I went with her to the first screening of the day.

Sherlock Jr. starring Buster Keaton; (1924)

I previously wrote "Sherlock Jr. was another gem. The special effects and stunts were incredible. Long before The Purple Rose of Cairo, Keaton had a character move from "real life" into the movie. Then there is this still impressive sequence where Keaton moves from one scene to another without the jump cuts being visible. Finally, Keaton performs stunt after stunt including steering a motorcycle while sitting on the handle bars. Apparently, he broke his neck performing one stunt."

I can add that the stunt with the water tower is the scene in Sherlock Jr. where he broke his neck. I was still impressed with the film. I recalled the motorcycle stunts from before but I had forgotten the jump cuts in the movie-within-a-movie sequence. I remain impressed that that sequence could be filmed in 1924.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Carlos

I went to the Roxie to see the epoch (pun intended) film Carlos. Originally a French/German television mini-series, Carlos was screened back-to-back-to-back for a total of 5 hours, 30 minutes or 5 hours, 50 minutes after the two intermissions were taken into account.

Carlos starring Édgar Ramírez; directed by Olivier Assayas; French, Spanish, German, Arabic, English and other languages with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website

Édgar Ramírez in Carlos

The film was quite riveting for its entire screening. My attention never flagged and I have been known to doze off during slow parts of some films. The film is divided into three parts which seem to be The Rise of Carlos, The Legend of Carlos and The Fall of Carlos.

For me, the film was more of a who's who of 1970s terrorist groups and government security forces. Carlos interacted with Palestinian liberation groups, the Japanese Red Army, the German Red Army Faction, Saddam Hussein's government, East German Stasi, Soviet KGB, Syrian Intelligence, Sudanese warlords, etc. The film dutifully catalogs Carlos' dealings with these various groups. I was amazed at how many languages Carlos spoke.

What insights did I gain into Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, the man who became Carlos the Jackal? Not too much. He was smart (but not quite as smart as he thought he was) and ambitious; he was charismatic; he espoused rabid anti-capitalism; he enjoyed fellatio; he was not big on monogamy. More than anything, he was opportunistic. He didn't mind killing to further his cause (and himself) and he didn't mind sparing lives to further his cause (and himself). This self-interest (disguised as pragmatism) did not make him popular with the Arabs whose hatred of the Israelis and each other demanded murder and self-sacrifice.

A person with a passing knowledge and interest in history will be amazed as Carlos seems to be the Zelig of the radical movement of the 1970s. He kidnapped OPEC oil ministers. If not for his lack of resolve, he may have led the Arab terrorist who hijacked the hostages made famous by Operation Entebbe. He was part of the Black September battles. He blew up a bullet train in France in the 1980s. The list goes on and on...like the film.

Although I remained alert and interested during the film, I wondered if a skilled film editor would have improved the experience. Indeed, an abridged version of the film exists and is currently available. I may try to see that version to compare.

Even more curious is that this is the third film I've seen in approximately a year covering the terrorist cells of the 1970s. I saw Koji Wakamatsu's United Red Army (2007) last November and The Baader Meinhof Complex in September 2009. The radicalism of the 1970s must be très chic again after having fallen out of favor for the past 25 years.

Whereas United Red Army was brutal and unflinching in its depiction of the radicals and The Baader Meinhof Complex portrayed them as cool and decadent, Carlos tried to be more detached about its subject. Carlos is just shown to be who he is and although there is plenty to disdain about the man, he tried to live by a code of honor. At least at the beginning; later in his life, he became little more than a mercenary and started to believe his own legend.

The film is silent as to the origins of Carlos' career choice. He starts off the film as a car bomber and assassin. It would have been interesting to know what set him on that path but its probably just as well. The filmmakers would have had to film some tired and contrived scene where Carlos as a boy sees some horrible injustice perpetrated and it lights the fire in his belly. Perhaps the origins of the real Carlos are shrouded in mystery. Regardless, I think the film was better for accepting his casual cruelty and criminal sociopathy as a given or a starting point. Carlos is absolutely Shakespearean in the tragic arc of its hero and the Bard rarely bothered with backstory.

Édgar Ramírez as Carlos deserves any awards he receives for his performance. I found two actresses to be outstanding in their supporting roles. Nora von Waldstätten as Magdalena Kopp, Carlos' long-suffering wife, shows the inner conflict she has. Unabashedly attracted to Carlos, I wonder if it was the man or the legend who she first became smitten with. Julie Hummer played Nada, an angry young woman who was too wild for Carlos to work with. She burns up the screen with her savage performance as the most violent of the terrorists in the film.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Polyglot Cinema - Italian Bureaucrats, French Police, Japanese Chefs, Swedish Cyberpunks and American Spies

For six consecutive days in November, I watched films in six different languages.

Without Pity and The Overcoat in Italian at the PFA, Madhumati in Hindi at the Castro, 36 Quai des Ofrèvres in French at the Roxie, The Chef of South Polar in Japanese at the Viz, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest in Swedish at the Embarcadero and Red in English at the Balboa.

Without Pity and The Overcoat were part of the PFA's Italian Neorealism series which I write about next month.

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36 Quai des Ofrèvres starring Daniel Auteuil and Gérard Depardieu; French with subtitles; (2004)
The Chef of the South Polar; Japanese with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest starring Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace; directed by Daniel Alfredson; Swedish with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
Red starring Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren and John Malkovich; with Mary-Louise Parker, Richard Dreyfuss and Karl Urban; (2010) - Official Website

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One of my favorite French films starred Daniel Auteuil and Gérard Depardieu. It was a comedy set in a condom factory called The Closet (2001). 36 Quai des Ofrèvres is a much different film. It's a thriller about two dirty cops vying for the Paris Chief of Police spot. Daniel Auteuil, who is small of stature and whose screen persona seemed milquetoast, plays a hard charging, ass kicking cop who reminded me of Vic Mackey from The Shield. Gérard Depardieu's character is more of a political animal although he is mixed up with gangsters and an alcoholic to boot. Leo Vrinks (Auteuil) allows himself to get mixed up in a murder. He remains silent in exchange for information about a gang of robbers that are sticking up armored cars. Denis Klein (Depardieu) uncovers Vrinks' involvement and uses it to convict Vrinks and get the top job.

The second half of the film is a cat and mouse game between Klein (who killed Vrinks' wife) and Vrinks (who is seeking revenge upon being released from prison). To detail the plot too much would ruin the film. Beyond the twist and turns, this gritty policier features strong performance from the entire cast. I can't really single one actor out as exceptional or horrible when compared to the rest of the cast.

As an aside, there is a scene where a prostitute is beat up in a bar/brothel. I think that exact same set (or actual location) was used in Mesrine.

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The Chef of South Polar which appears to be a grammatically incorrect translation of Japanese memoir written by Jun Nishimura. Nishimura was a Japanese Coast Guard cook who was assigned to Dome Fuji, a research station in middle of Antarctica. The film focuses on the idiosyncrasies of the 8 man team and the stress placed on them due to the harsh environment, isolation and separation from the families and civilization.

Decidedly Japanese in tone, the film mines strange situations for humor and pathos. Of course, isolated in Antarctica means that strange situations aren't strange within that context. I found the film unfocused and meandering although it had its moments. The ensemble cast did a nice job mining the essence of each character despite the manifest zaniness.

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The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is the final film in the Millennium trilogy. The previous two films were The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire. Those films were action/thriller movies featuring the petite Noomi Rapace as Lisabeth Salander, a spitfire cyberpunk and Michael Nyqvist as Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading muckraker.

In The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, Salander spends most of the film convalescing in a hospital after being shot several times at the end of The Girl Who Played with Fire. When released from the hospital, she is held in jail while awaiting trial for the attempted murder of her estranged father. Blomkvist investigates Salander's life and uncovers a national security scandal which is the root of Salander's misery and fury.

Some people disliked The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest because of the lack of action but it was my favorite installment. Rapace vividly portrays Salander's vulnerability and protective mechanisms which seemed incompatible in the first two films but becomes understandable as events unfold in Hornet's Nest.

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Red is a mainstream action film starring Bruce Willis which received good reviews. It's a comedy about aging assassins. I found the comedy flat and the action sequences too extravagant for the comedy it was trying to play against. Helen Mirren as a former MI6 operative and Brian Cox as a former KGB spy stood out. Karl Urban in the thankless role as the up-and-comer trying to bring down the over-the-hill gang makes the most of his role. The talents of Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker and John Malkovich seemed wasted in their roles...in Willis' case, I'm not so sure if they are wasted or were never present. Morgan Freeman is always Morgan Freeman now. He brings mature and weary dignity too all his roles now whether he is playing a washed up boxer (Million Dollar Baby), Nelson Mandela (Invictus) or Batman's majordomo.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Ip Man and the 2010 Chinese American Film Festival

Earlier in November, I stopped by the 4 Star Theater to see Ip Man

Ip Man starring Donnie Yen and Simon Yam; directed by Wilson Yip; Cantonese and some Japanese with subtitles; (2008) - Official Website

Ip Man is loosely based on the true story of Ip Man (frequently spelled Yip Man). Yip was a noted martial arts instructor whose many students include actor Bruce Lee.

According to the SF Chronicle review of the film, the "movie, a huge hit in China and Hong Kong that finally made Donnie Yen, a second and third banana for a quarter of a century, a major box office star. He is the It Man of the moment, even if his Ip Man is largely fictional."

This may be true but I've been a fan of Donnie Yen since Hero (2002) with Jet Li, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Maggie Cheung and Ziyi Zhang. Apparently, the 4 Star Theater's programmers are fans of Yen as well because they have two of his recent films screening soon - Ip Man 2 (2010) and Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (2010)

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The film is a throwback action film - lot's of kung fu action, a reluctant master who is pushed into fighting and even Japanese as the bad guys. The premise of the film defies belief. At the start of the film which is set in the mid-1930s, Ip is a gentleman of leisure with a beautiful wife and precocious toddler son. He does not deign to teach martial arts although his city is known as the martial arts capital of China. Ip has a source of income which is not explained as he is able to employ servants, live on a large estate and bankroll his friend's textile factory.

Actor Fan Siu-wong comes to town as a small-time robber and martial arts master. He kick ass on all the city's kung fu masters and figures he'll strong arm everyone until he hears about Ip Man. He goes to Ip's villa and they engage in a hellacious but decisive fight in Ip's living room. After vanquishing the bandit, Ip is the toast of the town. I suppose the first half of the film was to estabish Ip's bona fides as a peaceful gentleman who practices martial arts to test himself but the film painted Ip's inner contemplation with strokes as broad as the kung fu moves he used to dispatch opponent after opponent.

The second half of the film takes place a few years later when the Japanese have invaded China and are the occupying force in the region. Ip is reduced to working at a coal or petcoke facility. He gets a piece of bread and a yam for lunch everyday. He dutifully saves the yam for his wife and son who now live in a tenement.

One day some Japanese soldiers come by looking for the famed practioners of kung fu they have heard about. They want to test Japanese karate vs. Chinese kung fu. A few of the men, including Ip's friend and former student, accept the challenge. For his part, Ip has put aside childish things and just wants to eke out a living and feed his family.

Ip's friend is killed by the Japanese and that adjusts his attitude towards the Japanese and fighting. The next time the Japanese come by, Ip takes up their offer and comes out victorious in a 10-on-1 match. Having sufficiently exorcised his anger, Ip once again retreats to his life of hard work and peaceful existence. Two things interfere with his life - Fan Siu-wong comes back to town and terrorizes the textile factory which Ip previously bankrolled. The factory is still in operation and the Japanese rely on it since all the other textfile factories have been destroyed. Ip goes to the factory to teach the workers how to protect themselves from Fan and his gang. The other problem is that Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), a Japanese general and karate master, is anxious to test his skills against Ip. He sends out his troops to look for him.

Since I've mentioned Ip Man 2, one can imagine how the film turns out. Ip Man is not about plot or surprises. It's about fight scenes and a devotion to the conventions of old-school, HK kung fu films. By that measure, Ip Man is a smashing success. Donnie Yen, Hiroyuki Ikeuchi and Fan Siu-wong play their roles just right. Shibuya Tenma as the sadistic Japanese colonel gets to sport coke bottle eyeglasses and buck teeth but still delivers a memorable supporting performance despite having to play the stereotype.

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Ip Man 2 is being screened at the 4 Star as part of the 2010 Chinese American Film Festival. The festival officially opened on October 31 at the Marina Theater but all the other screenings are occurring between November 17 and 23 at the 4 Star. The line-up consists of 10 films. Films that interest me in addition to Ip Man 2 include

The Treasure Hunter - the northwest desert where countless prosperous dynasties have flourished and fallen, there is a rumor that buried amongst the sand exists a tomb containing countless riches. A group of mysterious guardians have been guarding the map to the location of the treasure until a fierce rivalry erupts. A notorious international crime group, The Company, manage to hunt down the map keeper but not before he manages to pass the map to a young chivalrous man, Ciao Fei (Jay Chou). Ciao Fei was forced to give up the map to save the live of his mentors daughter Lan Ting (Lin Chi Ling). Teaming up with Hua Ding Bang (Chen Daoming) (a famous archeologist) and Lan Ting they embark on a dangerous journey to recover the map and fight to protect the ancient treasure.

Cool Young - The film adopted elements from Western structuralism and Chinese theatrical aesthetics. It depicts different pictures of people from different social class within modern Chinese community through an artistic angle. All the characters in the film have different emotions within the different plot. The story is about lives of different people in the city and relationship between them each other.

Confucius - In the 6th century B.C. China was still a patchwork of feudal kingdoms and states, fighting with each other for supremacy. Kong Qiu was born in the kingdom of Lu, where the court ruled in name only and real power had developed to the three most powerful local clans. Kong Qiu’s reputation as a social and ethical thinker led the ruler of Lu to appoint him to ministerial office, and he scored some brilliant successes in restoring prestige and authority to the court. His efforts to curb the ambitions of the powerful clans also appeared to succeed, but the Lu army (led by the young general Gongshan Niu) turned against him and the ruler of the kingdom of Qi used bribes to turn the ruler of Lu against his minister...

In the past, they have screened films without subtitling although the program guide explicitly states that all films are English subtitled. Let's hope all the prints have the right subtitling this year.

Friday, November 12, 2010

2010 3rd I San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival

I only caught one film at the 2010 3rd I South Asian Film Festival.

Madhumati starring Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala; directed by Bimal Roy; Hindi with subtitles; (1958)

The presentation was disappointing. Long stretches of the film were not subtitled although a volunteer recapped the action twice. Even though the program said the screening would be of a 35 mm print, they projected a DVD copy of a beat up print. The projectionist had a hard time get the settings correct as computer images associated with the projection or color settings frequently appeared on the screen.

Madhumati was billed as the progenitor of "entire genre of ‘reincarnation’ films." I wasn't sure what to expect but Madhumati definitely surprised me.

Plot synopsis - two men take refuge at an old, creepy-looking mansion on a rainy night. Once inside, one of the men (Dilip Kumar) realizes he has been there before. I can't recall the plot device used but at that point, the film flashes back to the man's previous life as the manager of the estate. The man falls in love with Madhumati, a girl who lives near the estate (Vyjayanthimala). His kindness and her beauty evoke the wrath of the lord of the manor (Pram). He kills Madhumati and banishes Kumar. In a contrivance that only happens in film, Kumar meets Madhumati's doppelgänger (also played by Vyjayanthimala). They can be distinguished by the distinctive birthmark on Madhumati's chin. The two of them devise a plan to dupe/scare Pram into confessing his crime.

That sounds like a standard potboiler and in fact, 3rd I's program guide described it as a "gothic romance." So I was quite surprised the first time, the character break out in a song like a modern Bollywood film such as Om Shanti Om. The songs put the film in an untenable position as far as I was concerned. I have a hard time taking musicals seriously. I can enjoy them the heavy subject matter of Madhumati was incongruent with light-hearted and upbeat songs. Johnny Walker provided some buffoonish comedy as the sidekick. Walker (a stage name), who I saw last year in Full Moon (1960) must have specialized in playing cowardly sidekicks.

Between the technical difficulties, extended language barriers, misguided expectations and my rigid terms of acceptance of musicals, I was disappointed in Madhumati. Pram as the evil overseer was excellent. Johnny Walker, in small doses, was also tolerable. I thought Dilip Kumar in the lead role, was bland.

Vyjayanthimala, in the title role, had a tremendous screen presence. After marrying in the late 1960s, she retired from film to be a wife, mother and shrimp farmer. In the 1980s, she was elected to India's national parliament.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Return of Kenji Mizoguchi

In June, Viz Cinema screened four films each by acclaimed Japanese directors Akira Kurosawa, Yasujirō Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. In October, Viz Cinema screened four new films by both Ozu and Mizoguchi.

Of the three directors, I was least familiar with Mizoguchi's works. I was down on two of the films but thoroughly enjoyed Street of Shame (1956) which happened to be Mizoguchi's final film. I am happy to say that I was more impressed with the four films in this second Mizoguchi series much more.

The title of the series was "Mizoguchi and His Muse: Kinuyo Tanaka" so all the films featured actress Kinuyo Tanaka in the lead roles or co-lead roles.

Women of the Night; Japanese with subtitles; (1948)
Life of Oharu with Toshirô Mifune; Japanese with subtitles; (1952)
Sansho the Bailiff; Japanese with subtitles; (1954)
Miss Oyu; Japanese with subtitles; (1951)

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Life of Oharu was the most epic and heart-wrenching of the films. Tanaka plays a woman who ages 30 years during the film. 43 years old when the film was released, Tanaka was quite believable as a younger woman. Her character, Oharu, is a lady-in-waiting at the royal court in Kyoto during the 1600s. She tries to resist the advances of a lower-ranking page (Toshirô Mifune) but his persistence and her own attraction to him prove too much for her. They give in to their desires and this starts Oharu down the path of misery. Her dalliance is discovered. She and her family are banished from Kyoto; losing their spot in the royal court. For his part, Mifune's character is beheaded.

Stuck in the hinterlands with a resentful father, Oharu's life is uncertain until a representative of Lord Matsudaira, a daimyō in Edo (Tokyo) comes to town looking for a concubine. He has very specific criteria and is worried he won't find his woman until he encounters Oharu. The perfect match, it is arranged for Oharu to take up residence in Edo and produce a male heir for the daimyō as Lady Matsudaira is not up to the task. Resentful from the start, Lady Matsudaira and the court nobles conspire to send Oharu back home once she has fulfilled her task. Oharu is returned home with little money in the way of severance. She discovers her father has run up debt in anticipation of her stipend as a concubine. What's a family to do? In feudal Japan, the sell the daughter off to be a courtesan. The English subtitles kept using the word courtesan but to me she was more like a geisha since she recited poetry or played music and sang.

Oharu is ultimately a failure there as well. Rather than recount her whole wretched life, I'll summarize. Oharu is then sent to work as a maid of sorts for a tailor's family. When the head of the household discovers Oharu was a former geisha, it unlocks long held desires on his part to have carnal knowledge of a geisha. The only thing that has kept him from his dream is that he doesn't want to pay for it. Now with Oharu under his roof, his pecuniary concerns are eliminated by brute force.

After being cast from the house by the jealous wife, Oharu finally lands a nice man and gets married but shortly finds herself a widow when he is killed by robbers. At this point, Oharu tries to become a nun but the pesky and randy tailor tracks her down and forces himself on her again at a Buddhist temple. Discovered in flagrante delicto, Oharu is cast out of the nunnery. At this point, she hits rock bottom and turns to prostitution, a straight-up streetwalker.

After several years of this, Oharu is reunited with her mother (her father having passed in the ensuing years). She is told that the new daimyō (Oharu's son) wants her back at his court in Edo. Excited by the prospect of meeting her son, Oharu is once again bitterly disappointed when she is instead lectured on the shame she is bringing to her son by being a common whore. Especially ironic since the men lecturing her are the same ones who cast her out of the court years earlier without compensation. Sentenced to house arrest for the rest of her lifetime, Oharu escapes and the film ends with her homeless and begging (too old to even be a whore).

The synopsis I just wrote was for a 2.5 hour film. The relentlessly bleak plot consists of Oharu enduring countless misfortunes although most of them were precipitated by rigid gender roles and blatant sexism in Edo Period Japan. That Oharu directed films with similar plots set in post-WWII Japan only add to the poignancy and sadness of the plight of Japanese women.

Anchoring the film is Kinuyo Tanaka who plays Oharu from a naive and headstrong teenager to a weary old woman. The most brutal scene was towards the end. A man (a monk I believe) brings Oharu back to his inn. Rather than paying for her sexual services, he shines light on Oharu's face and uses her as an example to the young men in his company. If you desire the flesh, you'll end up like this withered old whore. Oharu meekly accepts the man's insults and money but showing the last vestiges of self-respect and fire-in-the-belly, Oharu rises up to kick and berate the man.

I didn't the enjoy the film as much as I was emotionally drained by it. Only a man with a heart of stone could stay dry-eyed throughout the film. Life of Oharu was the first film in a five year run at the Venice Film Festival. Each year from 1952 to 1956, a Mizoguchi film was accepted and nominated for that festival's highest honor, the Golden Lion Award. At the time, Mizoguchi rivaled Kurosawa as the most famous and admired Japanese director in international film circles. Melodramatic by modern standards, the film allows Mizoguchi to engage in long takes and deliberate pacing to a degree which is no longer allowed in most commercial films.

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Women of the Night reminded me of Street of Shame which was my favorite Mizoguchi film from the June screenings at Viz.

In post-WWII Japan, two sisters must ultimately resort to prostitution to feed themselves. The two sisters (Tanaka and Sanae Takasugi) take slightly different paths. Tanaka's character is more resistant but once they hit rock bottom, she seems more accepting of her circumstances. The film had a moralistic tone which is offputting 60 years later but it had an emotional scene at the end where Tanaka's character is brutally beaten by a gang of prostitutes for being an outsider.

Women of the Night, Street of Shame and Life of Oharu are variations on the same theme which is the second class role women had in Japanese society and that without the protection of a husband, women have only one asset to sell. As I mentioned in my previous post, Mizoguchi's sister was sold to a geisha house (like Memoirs of a Geisha) and the experience profoundly affected Mizoguchi and his films.

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Sansho the Bailiff is a well-known legend in a Japan. It's ultimately about the price of staying true to one's convictions but as is de rigueur in Mizoguchi films, the mother (Kinuyo Tanaka) resorts to prostitution.

Set in feudal Japan, a province governor refuses to raise taxes on the poor despite direct orders from his lord. For this offense, he is banished and sends his wife and small children to live with his brother. The three of them are deceived by strangers and sold into slavery and prostitution. The brother and sister are sold to work as slaves for the eponymous Sansho while the mother is sold to a geisha house (which in Mizoguchi films always seem to be a temporary stop on the road to street walking).

As the children grow into adulthood, they keep alive the hope to be reunited as a family. The kids discover their mother is still alive and plan their escape. The sister has to sacrifice her life to allow her brother to escape. However, once he finds his mother, he discovers her blind, crippled and homeless. That's how the film ends which I find more powerful than some ridiculous, tacked-on happy ending which would have happened in a Hollywood film of the time and perhaps still today.

As I watched these films, I wondered what kinds of film Mizoguchi would have done if he wasn't Japanese. Japanese customs and experiences were such a part of his stories that it's impossible for me to imagine any other kind of film from the man. Whereas Ozu's films on family are universal and Kurosawa's epic influenced and were influenced by Western films, Mizoguchi's films are resolutely Japanese not to mention relentlessly downbeat.

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My least favorite film of the quartet was Miss Oyu. Set in 1951, Miss Oyu is a love triangle featuring two sisters - Tanaka as the older sister who is a widow and Nobuko Otowa as the younger, titular sister. Actor Yuji Hori is cast as the young man whose marriage to Miss Oyu is arranged by others. The odd part of this film is that Oyu is well aware of the attraction between her sister and her fiancé but rather than taking steps to put herself in the predominant position or conceding to her sister, she goes through with the marriage and asks her husband to make her sister be happy. Equally ridiculous is that Tanaka's character seems oblivious to the peculiarity of her relationship to her brother-in-law, the scandal it causes or ever her own not-so-latent attraction to him.

All three characters suffer for their inability to admit the truth as well as the social pressure put on them to behave a certain way. In that sense, the film was engaging but the plot was so contrived by 2010 American standards that I lost interest.

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Having seen 8 Mizoguchi films now, I can say that he's your man if you are looking for a good cry. In particular, if the plight of women in male dominated societies is something that interests you, you would do well to see some of his films.

Friday, October 29, 2010

2010 Berlin and Beyond Film Festival

I saw three films at the 2010 Berlin and Beyond Film Festival - all of them at the Castro Theater.

Pope Joan starring Johanna Wokalek and John Goodman; directed by Sönke Wortmann; (2009)
The Robber; directed by Benjamin Heisenberg; German with subtitles; (2010)
The Silence; directed by Baran bo Odar; German with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website

This was the first year that festival founder Ingrid Eggers was not programming the festival. As I recall, she officially retired due to age limits for the employees at the Goethe-Institut. I've also heard she was forced out due to a power struggle. That seems awfully byzantine but who knows. Ms. Eggers founded another festival called German Gems which screened a number of films earlier this year at the Castro Theater. I cannot recall the exact reasons but I was busy watching other films when her festival ran.

This is also the first year which Berlin and Beyond was held in October. It previously ran in January. There were a number of reasons given for the switch and they may be valid but for me the change was unwelcomed as it puts Berlin and Beyond in the October film schedule which is the busiest time of the year. This year, I passed on SF DocFest so I could see some Berlin and Beyond (among other) films.

The new festival director at Berlin and Beyond is Sophoan Sorn who is of Cambodian descent and immigrated to the US at a young age. He founded the San Joaquin International Film Festival.

I found the three films to be middling affairs.

The centerpiece film was the ponderous Pope Joan which lasted nearly 2.5 hours. Oddly filmed in English, the film is set in the French/German border area and Rome of the 9th century. That started the film off on a strange note. The protagonist is born of an English father so there is some reason to have her speak English but strangely, John Goodman is cast as the Pope who is Italian but also speaks with an affected British accent that is distracting. The film suffers from lack of editing and weak performances. This could have been a decent 90 minute film but predictable and one-dimensional characters pop up again and again and the actors cannot add anything to the poorly developed characters. Based on a novel by Donna Woolfolk, the film surely must suffer in comparison to the novel as well as the famous legend upon which is based.

Equally unsatisfying was The Robber. An hour shorter than Pope Joan and with German dialog, the The Robber tells the story of a paroled convict who does two things well - runs and robs banks. The audience is never really given any insight about why this man is so solitary in his pursuits. Tellingly, the best scene in the film involves the man's heart monitor. He wears it as he trains and downloads the data to his computer. You see him maintaining a level pulse rate which spikes (presumably when he robs the bank) and then returning to normal.

The man's parole officer has the man down pat. He tells him that he needs to make friends and talk to people or else he'll slide back to his old criminal habits when something goes wrong. The PO will find out who accurate his prediction is. As for me, I had no idea what drove the man to rob banks as he was earning prize money for winning marathon races and having a relationship with a childhood friend (even living at her flat). I was passionately apathetic about the robber's plight.

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The best film of the bunch was The Silence which at 2 hours was also in need of some editing. The story was familiar to me. There was a Clint Eastwood film a few years back that covered some of the same ground and several films before that. Pia, an 11 year old girl is raped and murdered in 1984; the crime is never solved. That crime emotionally devastates the girl's mother, the lead police detective and the accomplice of the perpetrator. 23 years later, a 13 year old girl is missing from the area and her bike is found in the exact same place in the wheat field where Pia's bike turned up. This sets in motion a reunion of sorts between the three previously mentioned characters as well as the 1984 killer/rapist, the parents of the missing girl and another police detective mourning the loss of his wife.

The plot has potential but I thought there were too many character and too much back story which resulted in a lot confusion and the 2 hour length. I think I would benefit from a second viewing but I wasn't engaged enough to really want to see it again.

The best scene was when the killer shows his accomplice what appears to be a snuff film or child porn. The girl looks into the camera with a forlorn look that really cut through me. I wish I knew the name of the dark-haired actress who played the girl.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Social Network

Having a soon-to-expire discount card for the Balboa Theater, I ventured there to see The Social Network.

The Social Network starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield and Justin Timberlake; (2010) - Official Website

I don't have a Facebook account and The Social Network is not a film that interested me. Seeing the film was serendipitous because I enjoyed it quite a bit. In particular, I thought Justin Timberlake's performance as Napster founder Sean Parker was inspired. I've long appreciated Timberlake's appearances on Saturday Night Live so I had an inkling of what he could do on screen but his portrayal of Parker raised the bar to a new level.

More difficult was Jesse Eisenberg's turn as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg whom he portrays as perpetually trying to be an asshole. I don't know anything about Zuckerberg or the factual events regarding the founding of Facebook but the screen version of Zuckerberg is hard to like or draw sympathy or empathy. I'm sure that's the way the character was written but it would have been nice to give Eisenberg some range in his role of Zuckerberg. I was left wondering how he got a girlfriend in the first place (his break up from her serves one of the key as the motivating factor in starting Facebook) or why anyone was friends with him.

The film was number one at the box office for a week or two and hundreds of reviews have been written about it. I don't need to recount the plot or give a critique. I enjoyed the film and will leave it at that.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

All About Evil and the Peaches Christ Experience

I caught All About Evil at the Victoria Theater on the first day of a four day run.

All About Evil starring Natasha Lyonne and Thomas Dekker; with Cassandra Peterson and Mink Stole; directed by Joshua Grannell; (2010) - Official Website

All About Evil premiered at the 2010 San Francisco International Film Festival at the Castro Theater. As I much I love the Castro Theater, it was a shame that the film premiered there because All About Evil was filmed and set at the Victoria Theater.

Director and screenwriter Joshua Grannell (aka Peaches Christ) to the film on the road after its premiere on the Tour de Fierce. It's played in a dozen cities since SFIFF with a stage show before each screening. It was extra special that the film was screening where it was filmed. Several of the characters in the film (different actors) were working the front of the house prior to the show. When the show started, they danced and sang on stage. This didn't make a lot of sense before the screening but afterwards, I realized they were performing songs which paralleled the film. Then Peaches came out and sang a song or two and told a few stories. The pre-film show was billed as "The Peaches Christ Experience in 4-D!" The best song was "Shh! Means Shut the Fuck Up Bitch!"

Then it was on to the film. Deborah Tennis (pronounced Deh-bore-rah Ten-niece) owns the Victoria Theater, a movie house previously and lovingly owned by her late father. As a young girl, Deb had a mishap on stage involving her urine and a faulty electrical connection. By the way, I think some of the seats in the Victoria were wired because when an electrocution occurred during the stage show, several people screamed extra loud. Back to the film, the electrical mishap has left Tennis (Natasha Lyonne) with a white shock of hair into her adulthood. Making ends meet as a librarian, Tennis spends her nights working the ticket booth and concession stand at the Victoria which has become a grindhouse. Attendance is down and things aren't looking good. Deb's evil stepmother arrives with a document she demands Deb sign. She wants to sell the Victoria to land developers and pocket the cash. After some insults about her father, Deb stabs her stepmother in a moment of rage. The murder is caught on the security camera and that tape is mistakenly projected onto the screen. The sparse audience loves the film which they think is a PSA before the film. The audience loves the realism of the short film.

Tapping into her creative energy (not to mention her inner rage), Deb goes about torturing and killing people on film and showing the encounters before feature films as "A Deborah Tennis Production." The audience and city go nuts for the films which have names such as The Maiming of the Shrew and I Know Why the Caged Woman Screams. Deb recruits her deranged projectionist, a pair of psychotic twins just released from an insane asylum and a sociopathic junkie to costar in her films and work at the Victoria.

Deb's #1 fan is Steven (Thomas Dekker), a high school student with a big thing for horror films and a smaller thing for older women like Deb and who can blame him since his mother is Cassandra Peterson (Elvira Mistress of the Dark whose poster adorns Steven's bedroom wall). Steven, whose popularity rises when his longstanding friendship with Deb becomes known, begins to suspect that the Tennis Production films are more vérité than cinéma. You can guess what happens.

Featuring black humor, Natasha Lyonne impersonating everyone from Bette Davis to Katharine Hepburn to Mae West and frequent cameos by Peaches, All About Evil is a lot of fun. The film is more campy than black comedy (I would have preferred the opposite) but what can you expect from a drag queen in San Francisco directing his first feature film?

After the film, some of the cast took questions from the audience. If I recall correctly, Peaches said she was already at work on another film. I'd pay to see his next film based on All About Evil. Also, Peaches announced that she will perform a Christmas show at her home base of the Bridge Theater in December.

Over the closing credits, they had posters for fictitious Deborah Tennis Productions. I really enjoyed the titles and posters - The Slasher in the Rye, The Satanic Nurses, The Diary of Anne Frankenstein, MacDeath, Gore and Peace, etc.

Actually, last year or perhaps earlier this year, I saw a Gore and Peace poster at the Victoria. I thought that was a great name for a horror film. It turns out that was going to be Deborah Tennis' first feature length film where she poisons the audience on film à la Jonestown. The poster was up at the Victoria Theater for filming of All About Evil. I went to the Victoria Theater website to see the showtimes for Gore and Peace but of course, there were no showtimes. In a sense, I was punked by Peaches during the filming of All About Evil.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Taiwan Film Days

I caught two films San Francisco Film Society's Taiwan Film Days at Viz Cinema from October 22 to 24.

Monga; directed by Doze Niu; Min Nan (Taiwanese) and Mandarin with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
Tears; directed by Wen-Tang Cheng; Min Nan (Taiwanese) with subtitles; (2009)

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Monga which means canoe in Min Nan was a showy gangster movie about five teenagers who come together to form a gang. The leader is Dragon who is the son of the local mob boss, the brains behind the outfit is Monk, the fighter is Monkey and the coward is A-Po. The fifth member is a new kid a school called Mosquito. The five of them form a tight-knit group who assert their collective will at school and in the neighborhoods. As they get older, Dragon's father essentially sends them to a gangster training camp which consists of learning mental discipline and fighting skills with knives, swords and fists (but not guns).

Change is coming though. A mainlander (Chinese from the PRC) has aligned himself with a Taiwanese gangster recently released from prison. Director Doze Niu plays Grey Wolf (the mainlander) who preaches co-prosperity but secretly wants to take over the street action in Taipei. To accomplish this, he induces Monk to betray his gang. Monk is ambitious and harbors resentment towards Boss Geta (Dragon's father). Balancing him out is Mosquito who never knew his father and has made Boss Geta his father figure.

The film boils down to a story of betrayal and youth growing up to harsh realities. Another nice touch is the film was set in the 1980s so Dragon has a mullet that makes him look a little like Jose Canseco from the late 1980s. Monkey and A-Po have New Wave bangs which reminded me of the band A Flock of Seagulls.

Clocking in at nearly 2.5 hours, the film could have been edited down to beneficial effect. Also, I was expecting more of a gritty gangster film and Monga was rather stylized. Striving for epic dimensions, the film felt like a special 2 hour episode of Miami Vice set in Taipei. Ethan Juan and Mark Chao are effective as Monk and Mosquito, respectively. Han-Tien Chen as Mosquito's initial nemesis Dog Boy and Ju-Lung Ma as Boss Geta stood out among the supporting cast.

I can't fully recommend the film because of its excessive run time but I was entertained for most of the film.

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More gritty than Monga is Tears - a tale of partial redemption for a crooked cop who isn't so bad when you get to know him. Guo (Chen-Nan Tsai) is a fifty-something cop who shows the younger cops a thing or two about water boarding. He lives in what is basically a SRO with his dog. Divorced, mostly estranged from his children and he claims to have not shed a tear in 10 years. His only semi-emotional interaction is with a betelnut beauty named Wen (Enno Cheng).

Guo catches a case involving a girl who overdosed on extra pure heroin. His dogged pursuit of that case leads to unexpected connections with Wen and brutal consequences. I won't say much more except the connections were highly contrived but the portrayal of Guo is told in a detached manner that gives the story a weary & cynical feel to match Guo's outlook. Guo's ultimate fate didn't elicit much of an emotional response from me. It was more of a dispassionate coda to the story which tried to be elegiac.

Maybe I'm getting soft in my old age but Tears rates a lukewarm recommendation from me as well. Chen-Nan Tsai's performance is worth the cost of admission or rental. Jian-wei Huang's performance as Guo's junior partner who isn't as sensitive as he appears also stood out.