Saturday, September 15, 2007
FLASH POINT (Hong Kong/China; 2007)
D: Wilson Yip Wai-shun
Re-teaming of the director and star of SPL and DRAGON TIGER GATE is an extra lean, meaty police revenge thriller that treads familiar ground but builds to a protracted action climax that's sure to please fans of mixed martial arts, a school of increasing interest for producer and action director Donnie Yen, not to mention one of the most popular and profitable sports in the world at the time of the film's release. Story has venemous Vietnamese brothers (Ray Lui, Collin Chou and Xing Yu) hardballing their way into territory controlled by Hong Kong gang boss Ben Lam and his compatriots. The near-mortal wounding of Lam convinces the other three to seek justice from Organized Crime & Triad Bureau detective Donnie Yen, a one-man tornado to wants these guys disposed of in the worst way. Yen apparently finds his badge a little restrictive and his deep cover operative (Louis Koo) increasingly at risk of exposure. When gang honcho Ray Lui (in a solid comeback performance) is finally captured, the brothers start eliminating witnesses and eventually sniff out the mole in their midst. Koo survives their attack, but they kidnap his girlfriend to ensure that his memory fails at the trial, and when Lui walks free, Yen's snatches the guy up for delivery to the big showdown. In time, bodies are pushed beyond the limits of known human endurance, just as they have been in Hong Kong action cinema for decades, and Yip's camera swoops and glides to capture the elegant ferocity of these duels without a flurry of smash-cut editing constructing the fights for him. What Hong Kong cinema needs is more movies like this to balance the current lean toward romantic comedies and show that the former colony's film industry hasn't lost touch with the martial artistry and screen action design that have placed it on the international stage
Friday, September 14, 2007
THE EXODUS (Hong Kong/China 2007)
D: Edmond Pang Ho-cheung.
The opening shot, a slow, meticulous dolly backwards down a hallway, says it all. It begins with a tight closeup of a pair of alluring female eyes in a photograph. The subject of the portrait is revealed to be Queen Elizabeth II, and beneath it stand two men in swim trunks, goggles and flippers who light up smokes and casually redirect a Hong Kong police officer who has unwittingly entered the doorway at screen left. These must be cops, pre-1997, and as the frame continues to open up, we notice two, then three, then four of these "frogmen" beating a suspect with mallets and phone books as he struggles violently to flee.
"All the hatred of this world are caused by men," claims one of the film's female characters, but as evidenced by this gorgeous opening shot, much of it happens under the watchful eye of condoning women, and in pondering the question of why the female almost always outlives the male, as well as what they talk about when they go to the ladies' room together, writer-director Edmond Pang, along with co-writers Cheuk-Wan-chi and Jimmy Wan Chi-man, have crafted a sleek black comedy that, strangely, doesn't manifest most of its inherent dark whimsy until well into the final reel.
Nagged by a condescending mother-in-law who only sees value in a man who runs his own business, and long ago demoted to a desk job as a reward for interdepartmental whistle-blowing, bored and complacent Tai Po police sergeant Simon Yam—who we later learn was the redirected officer in the opening sequence—begrudges a favor to a fellow officer and agrees to take a statement from a peeping Tom (Nick Cheung), who foams profanely about a top-secret organization of women plotting the elimination of the male species, one unsuspecting rube at a time. Yam thinks little of it, until the report disappears from the evidence room and the suspect one-eighties his story after a visit from a prickly female senior officer (Maggie Shaw). Eager to learn why such a patently ludicrous story would need to be hushed up, he soon comes to the realization that Cheung was telling the truth!
Artfully directed and photographed (by Charlie Lam Chi-kin) with an emphasis on static, contemplative frame compositions the seem to grow organically from the modernist yoga-zen architecture that dominates the locations, but the concept begs for a playfulness that the filmmakers seem to avoid until the last ten minutes of the picture. The build-up is played with such a straight face that sequences which all but confirm the existence of the assassination club pass with nary a raised eyebrow. Perhaps that was the point, but the shift in tone is nonetheless jarring. Yam underplays nicely throughout, as if his character knows all too well how ridiculous his mission might seem to those looking in. Fine music score by Gabriele Roberto features exceptional piano solos by Aiko Takai.
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, T.V. Carpio
ACROSS THE UNIVERSE (2007; USA)
D: Julie Taymor
Ever have a particularly strong memory play out in your head while you were listening to a cherished song on your mp3 player? You know the routine: the song isn't necessarily about you or your particular fragment of history, but nonetheless there's the movie unspooling in your mind with it's own soundtrack, if only for a few minutes.
ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, the latest film from renowned stage director turned film director Julie Taymor seems to be built almost entirely on the effortless ability of virtually any song in the back catalogue of The Beatles to evoke a certain time, a certain place, a certain frame of mind in virtually any listener. Taymor chooses these moments wisely, if rather obviously: they're pretty much the cultural touchstones that have all but replaced actual history in the minds of recent generations, in no small part becauce they've formed the backbone of nearly every Big American Movie about "the sixties" to come down the pike. As such, they're cliches, but set to the music of The Beatles, they're magic, and besides, cliches are what works best in any good musical. Like most of the recent crop of stage musicals based on pop repertoires (Abba, Rod Stewart, Queen, Billy Joel), the story here would be a dreadfully thin, left-of-center oversimplification without them.
The film's much-touted musical/fantasy sequences are fuel for daydreams, as one would expect from director of TITUS and director/designer of Broadway's LION KING refit, but many of the songs that frame them were never intended to forward a narrative, and they'd more than likely stop the plot cold if it weren't for Taymor's dazzling visuals completing the character arcs within these sequences more effectively than her unquestionably talented cast of singers, who look more 60s-as-we-remember-it than 60s-as-it-really-was, and often need only be present in a scene surrounded by the director's dreamy phantasmagoria and singing a typically evocative (but non-narrative) tune for us the audience to grasp their evolution.
Of course, without the music, there's about as much plot here as you'd find in any stage musical based on any pop act's back catalogue (paging Abba!), and the plot is this: idealistic early 60's goody-goodies become late-60's cynics, burnouts, protestors and veterans, full stop. That old chestnut has pretty much turned up in countless major movies about "the sixties" made in the last 20 years, but the timeless quality of the music keeps us from ever caring that Taymor and 69-year old writing duo Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (THE COMMITMENTS, STILL CRAZY, umm...NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN) are just running down a checklist of important signifiers of the decade, and coating each with a gorgeous new lacquer.
Taymor's cast of actor/singers (Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson, Martin Luther and Dana Fuchs, the latter two both debuting here as Joplin and Hendrix refurbs respectively) is impressive across the board—as are the numerous guest stars, including Bono, Joe Cocker and Eddie Izzard as Mr. Kite, but as an avowed fan of Hong Kong cinema and Cantonese pop music, I'll give special props to T.V. Carpio as the bisexual Prudence (bad with men, yearns for the ladies). Carpio's mom is famous Hong Kong diva Teresa Carpio, and it's obvious T.V. has inherited her mother's pipes, particularly during her opening rendition of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" a yearning ode to lesbian love.
This is a director's picture all the way, and one very much worthy of the big screen experience. The ground it covers may feel well worn, perhaps a bit pat, but Taymor and her team of designers and effects engineers dress it up in a such a beautiful new wardrobe, it'd be a pity to not see it writ large, while appreciating its artistic intensity rather than its philosphical/political underpinnings, because the latter are, naturally, better suited to the history books.
Monday, September 10, 2007
GEORGE A. ROMERO'S DIARY OF THE DEAD (2007; USA/Canada)
D: George A. Romero
In an age where everyone's dying to tell a story, to make themselves known, and increasingly fitted eight ways to Sunday with the means to do it, it should come as no surprise that a reimagining of George Romero's DEAD franchise would be a timely affair, particularly now that it's been liberated from studio interference.
This time out—his 146th if I recall correctly, and I think I do—Romero's trademark unexplained zombie apocalypse rises up while the protagonists, a bunch of pretentious film school students and their besotted professor, are shooting a low budget monster movie deep in the woods outside Pittsburgh. The one in Ontario, Canada, that is. Armed with the videographic weapons of the digital age—cell phone cameras, DV cameras, Webcams, security cameras, Myspace and YouTube videos— and the knowledge that the end is nigh, the group sets out in their grimy Winnebago (with the "W" logo rather lazily taped over by Romero's set designers) to document the mayhem with an eye to uploading the results so that people can see the truth this bunch believes the world is being denied by the mainstream media, which has almost immediately attempted to put a positive spin on the plague.
Folks who like to piss all over Romero's last zombie flick, the narrative-driven LAND OF THE DEAD (which really wasn't that bad), will find much to savour here now that he's working to his own specs on a comparitively modest budget and freed of a standard narrative. There's a sense of urgency and nausea (and, of course, calculation) in the hand-held camerawork— much of it performed by cast members—that has been largely absent since Romero's original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.
That to achieve any of this Romero's characters had to be pretentious film-school students (and their besotted professor) was a bit of a bother, but in this age of untrusted media conglomerates and ubiquitous, listen-to-ME "personal reporting," I suppose it is the most topical route to catch up to the zeitgeist. But the concept wears a bit thin over the course of 90+ minutes, though by then you've invested enough in these characters to at least see how, or if, they die. The whole cynical "are you gettin' all this on your stupid camera?" ethical-moral routine is present and accounted for as pretty much everyone takes a shot at their student "director" (Joshua Close) for his seemingly callous drive to capture every gruesome moment on video. A brief snippet of Close's character talking to the camera is about all we're given to suggest he's NOT motivated by a filmschoolian lust for fame, and it's barely enough to convince. Indeed, the entire film is set up as a patchwork documentary pieced together from various sources by the director's girlfriend after he's no longer capable of finishing the project. Indeed, the film's opening title isn't DIARY OF THE DEAD, it's THE DEATH OF DEATH. Clever, if not particularly inventive. Her switch from loathing his decisions to finishing the project in his honour—replete with a horror-film score because she feels she needs to "scare you"—is just a bit too tidy (and quite how she does it is never explained, even though we're supposed to be watching the final results)
As stated, a lower budget apparently couldn't deny Romero the services of the folks at KNB Effects Group, and their gore doesn't disappoint in the least! A few little bits of CG are evident in the head shots, but that's acceptable in this day and age. Overall, though, the zombies meet some very inventive demises this time out, via defibrillator paddles, acid, scythes, gunshots, you name it. An attempt to be all meaningful in the final scene rings a bit hollow, but the effect used to put it across is exceptionally well done.
The film's most memorable character is bound to be Samuel, the deaf-mute Amish man who proves rather handy with his little chalk-board, with which he communicates with the protagonists when they stop at his farm, and sticks of dynamite, with which he dispatches three undead ghouls before turning around his chalkboard, where's he written an introductory "Hello, I'm Samuel" that he punctuates with confident little nod of the head! Priceless.
VEXILLE (2007, Japan)
D: Sori (Fumihiko Sori)
2077. Ten years after Japan withdraws from the U.N. in opposition to legislation banning continued development of advanced robotics and biotechnology, the entire country has become an impenetrable fortress: no one gets in, no one gets out.
The discovery of a human limb made up of an unknown artificial biology—severed from his own body by a Japanese agent trying to shake off the film's exo-suited heroine clinging to it as the pair dangle from the wing of an airplane that has just torn through a towering chateau (!) on U.S. soil in the film's jaw-dropping opening sequence—forces the American government to greenlight a covert infiltration using members of S.W.O.R.D., a high-tech special forces unit clad in gadget laden battle armor.
The chosen super-soldiers have got a three minute window, and they're almost immediately hit by a violent welcoming party, but one of them makes it through. She's Vexille (voiced by Meisa Kuroki), and she soon discovers the entire country is a barren (and flat!) wasteland, with once-pulsing Tokyo nothing more than a vast, teeming, shantytown populated by the victims of a government biotechnology experiment gone horribly, morally south.
In a brilliant set-up for the climax, Vexille's commander and his minions are briefly able to run surveillance of the secretive country, but a biometric scan reveals only two actual human beings among the hundreds of thousands clearly populating the former metropolis, including those aiding Vexille in her mission, which suddenly takes on a much greater importance for the future of mankind.
Director Sori (billed this way on screen), the effects director on Shinji Aramaki's groundbreaking APPLESEED (2004), takes the helm for this gorgeously grim cyberpunk ethics lesson. The moral implications of man and machine reaches its apex here: this is a world in which science has gone far beyond the melding of man and machine into the realm of slowly evolving mankind into machines via a cyber-virus disguised a Heavy-Industry controlled government as a cure for another less-threatening malaise. In VEXILLE, the final vestiges of humanity are wiped out during a few moments of agonizing convulsions, and the newly-minted android is ready for conversion into just about any variety of domestic or military machinery. This ain't your afterschool anime, kiddies.
Character design here is more fully developed than technology allowed on APPLESEED; character faces in particular are much more naturalistic and, because the story demands it, ethnically correct. And where the earlier film dazzled with its gleaming mega-city and shiny robots, VEXILLE's animators have applied the same attention to detail to the crowded Tokyo slum, which resembles nothing so much as a bustling city-wide street market rich with telling details: rusted sheetmetal, weathered wood, a cobbled together existence for a people who are all to aware they're soon to lose the last remnants of their culture, their humanity.
Of course, like APPLESEED, VEXILLE also has exo-suits, albeit pared-down versions, and they're cool and shiny and loaded with options, but the film's undoubted standouts are the "jags," humoungous, screaming, burrowing wasteland worms made up almost entirely of scrap metal and failed "experiments," cast-off robots and machinery that, in assimilation, finally find a purpose: to assimilate more of the same, ultimately inside the massive barriers that surround Tokyo. The jags also figure heavily in VEXILLE's signature setpiece, in which Vexille and rebel leader Maria and her motley, dwindling crew undertake a hair-raising, theatre-rumbling mission to infiltrate the offshore headquarters of the company responsible for virtually ending the Japanese race. It's a sequence packed to exploding with rapid-fire action, incredible detail and an ever-escalating series of seemingly insurmountable threats, all set to a pounding techno score by APPLESEED maestro Paul Oakenfold. Indeed, the film pushes things a bit too far during the final moments of this sequence, with one limping character chasing another limping character who has just survived the inferno of a full-speed helicopter crash. But it's a minor offense, and that might be more easily overlooked on the small screen which, somewhat sadly, is probably where the majority of westerners will be able to experience it.
One thing's for certain: with animation technology now capable of creating such richly, minutely detailed environments and such subtle degrees of character realism, and also capable of emulating the language of live-action so convincingly that you nearly forget you're watching a cartoon, the dawn of a new anime age may be just around the corner.