Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Almodovar & To at the 4 Star

I forgot to mention in this post that the screening of The Way, Way Back was my first visit to the Landmark Guild in Menlo Park.  In fact, I believe that was the first time I have ever stopped at an establishment in Menlo Park.  I've driven through a few times but never visited a business or residence in Menlo Park.  The Guild is an older, worn-down, no-frills theater which reminds me most of the recently departed Bridge Theater on Geary in the City.  The Bridge had an elevated mezzanine above the entrance to the auditorium.  The Guild is not split level.  It only has one level which was not very raked.  I remember thinking the slope of the cement floor was unusually flat for a movie theater.


I'm So Excited! starring Javier Cámara, Cecilia Roth, Lola Dueñas & Raúl Arévalo; directed by Pedro Almodovar; Spanish with subtitles; (2013) - Official Website
Drug War starring Louis Koo & Sun Honglei; directed by Johnny To; Mandarin with subtitles; (2012) - Official Facebook

The Spanish title of I'm So Excited! is Los amantes pasajeros.

I saw both I'm So Excited! and Drug War at the 4 Star.

Many, many years ago (in the 1990s I'm certain), the Roxie had a Pedro Almodovar series.  I remember seeing Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón.  I went for many years without seeing an Almodovar film after that.  In 2011, the Castro ran a  multi-day series of his films.   Since seeing six of his film in that series, I consider myself a fan of his work.

It is with considerable disappointment that I say that I didn't enjoy I'm So Excited!.  The reason I appreciate and enjoy Almodovar's films is that he expertly mixes complicated narratives with melodrama and absurdist humor.  He is like a master chef making some complicated sauce with many ingredients.  Watching his artistry and skill as a director is part of the enjoyment of an Almodovar film.

I'm So Excited! is a lightweight sex comedy about an airplane whose landing gear is stuck while in flight.  The first class stewards are all gay men; one of the pilots is gay and the lover of the chief steward.  The co-pilot is bisexual.  Everyone in coach class is gassed unconscious so the only people aware of the impending crash landing are the stewards, pilots and first class passengers.

One by one, we learn their life stories - the high end prostitute, the disgraced banker, the assassin, the virgin, etc.  Almodovar throws all the balls in the air and I waited for him to juggle them but instead they just fell to the ground and rolled away.  I'm So Excited! is weighted too heavily towards the farcical and not enough towards the melodramatic.  It suffers in comparison to my favorite Almodovar films and that may be unfair to I'm So Excited!.  As the business phrase goes, "It is what it is."  How can it be anything other than what it is?  The film is what it is and as Popeye said, "I yam what I yam."  I'm a little loopy from to many consecutive days of posting.  I can only evaluate the film from what is becoming my embarrassingly large catalog of films seen.  By those standards, I'm So Excited! just doesn't make the cut.  I wonder how objective my standards are in this case.

Similar to Almodovar, it was a Johnny To series (at the PFA) which cemented my love of his films.  Since that 2008 series, I have seen several films directed and/or produced by To.  Also like Almodovar, To has a distinctive style such that a To film is immediately recognizable to the initiated.

Drug War is a slight departure in style to To's earlier works but I'm glad to say it is quite satisfying.  Sun Honglei is Zhang Lei, a police captain.  He arrest Timmy Choi (Louis Koo), a drug kingpin who wholesales crystal meth.  Facing a death sentence, Choi agrees to turn snitch for Zhang.  Choi is the middleman for a drug deal involving a crime syndicate and a smuggler with a fleet of ships.  Zhang pretends to be one when meeting the other and vice versa.  As the movie progresses, Zhang becomes suspicious that Choi may renege on his deal.

In typical To fashion, he introduces some colorful characters.  Zhang is a no-nonsense cop and Choi plays his cards close to his vest but there is a whole panopoly of memorable criminals.  Choi has two deaf mutes who work for him who are pretty handy with a gun and they have a stockpile of them.  HaHa's (the smuggler) name is indicative of his frequent and loud laughing with Zhang doing a spot on impersonation of Hao Ping who plays HaHa.  Choi's Uncle Bill is the front man for a crime syndicate including the always memorable Suet Lam.

The violence crescendos twice from what I can recall.  First, the two deaf and dumb guys shoot their way out of a warehouse while a SWAT team is raiding it.  The finale consists of an extended running gun battle which involves a school bus full of schoolchildren.  These two scenes leave no doubt that To has not forgotten which side his bread is buttered on.

As I mentioned Drug War is a slight departure from To's earlier action films.  Drug War tones down the stylized violence and invests more time in the details of the plot to the point that it feels like a procedural for the first hour.  The two scenes where Zhang assumes false identities and mannerism are quite a showcase for the actor's skills.  Rather than visibly emotional, Zhang and Koo play their characters as cool, close to the vest and in control of themselves despite the tremendous pressure they are under.  This makes Drug War more of a thriller than an action film.

Whereas I'm So Excited! seemed like a misfire or step backward for Almodovar, Drug War seemed to signal a slight change in direction for To (at least in his action films) which has barely slowed him down.

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