Archive for September, 2014
Buster Keaton’s The General is one of those movies that are on every cinephile’s best-of list, and with good reason. Elegantly structured, coolly executed, and funny as hell, the film was Keaton’s own favorite, although it was the movie that almost ruined his reputation when it first came out. It took a long time to shoot, was prohibitively expensive, and absolutely did not make bank when it was released—Keaton’s rep as a comedic star took a big hit and his studio reined him in after The General‘s box office failure. The movie was anything but well-received when it was released in 1926, although it’s now considered a classic.
The storyline follows a railroad engineer and wannabe Confederate soldier during the Civil War (nimbly played by the diminutive Keaton) who traces the theft of his beloved railroad engine, named The General, behind Union lines. The movie features some of the most beautifully choreographed stunts of the silent era, involving huge piles of rolling logs, steam engines on collision course, and the spectacular demise of a full-size locomotive. The sight of an actual train engine falling many dozens of feet from a bridge to a riverbed is still amazingly impressive, even in this age of CGI and digitally created special effects. The film is Keaton at his best, with its stripped down, symmetrically structured narrative, its large-scale, dangerous, and perfectly executed stunts, and its underdog hero struggling within a vastly unsympathetic world.
Silent film comedy of an entirely different sort are the Laurel and Hardy two-reeler short films, Two Tars (1928) and Big Business (1929). Two Tars follows a day in the life of a couple of sailors on leave in Los Angeles as they go joy-riding among the California chaparral with a couple of dames. Although Stan and Ollie play sailors, all of the action in the twenty-minute movie takes place on a pair of landlocked Southern California roadways. Featuring Laurel and Hardy’s signature physicality and escalation of destruction, the short also includes some very suggestive digital manipulation of a gumball machine as well as several excellent Stan Laurel pratfalls. The short concludes with an epic traffic jam that would make Godard proud that illustrates the primal allure of large-vehicle destruction, the weaponization of cow pies and rotten tomatoes, and a gal getting a faceful of black ink.
Big Business is even more of a felon’s wet dream, as a small misunderstanding rapidly escalates into complete mayhem, resulting in an entire house vandalized down to its spinet piano and brick chimney. L&H play door-to-door Christmas tree salesmen plying their wares in the sunny, overexposed 1920s Southern California suburbs, which were about as sparsely populated as the high desert at the time. The two get into a scrap with a feisty homeowner and soon the axes are out and windows, doors, and a Model T fall victim to the OTT belligerence of the battling adversaries. The humor derives from the extreme reactions of both Stan and Ollie as well as their antagonist, played with righteous fury by L&H regular James Finlayson.
All three of these comedy classics are screening as part of Silent Autumn, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s one-day event on Sept. 20 at the glorious Castro Theater. Also notable are screenings of new restorations of The Son of the Sheik, starring the beautiful Rudolph Valentino, and the German expressionist classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. As per usual with all SFSFF events, each program includes live accompaniment, by silent film score maestro Donald Sosin as well as the always innovative Alloy Orchestra. Go here for complete schedule and ticket info.
The third of three big South Korean historical blockbusters to reach our shores in the past couple months, The Pirates may be my favorite of the bunch. Along with The Admiral: Roaring Currents and Kundo: Age of the Rampant, which also played this summer in the U.S., The Pirates is among the top ten highest grossing movies this year in its home territory.
An easy-to-watch romp that doesn’t take itself too seriously, The Pirates is free of the self-conscious weirdness of Kundo and the self-important mythologizing of The Admiral and balances slapstick, swordfights, and adventures on the high seas. Add into the mix several wacky characters, lots of silly humor, and a hunt for a magical whale and her baby and you have a recipe for big-screen fun.
The Pirates a rip-roaring good time that makes no pretentions toward historical accuracy or cinematic innovation, and is unfettered by any attempts at realism or the need to hew to biographical details. The movie instead is a great addition to a long list of buccaneer films that started way back in the silent era and continued onward through Errol Flynn, Douglas Fairbanks Senior and Junior, and Johnny Depp, among many others. The pirate genre transfers quite neatly to the Joseon period, with mangy hair-extensions, hoop earrings, broadswords, and facial tats all easily making the cultural transition. A bonus is lots of slapstick humor courtesy of a group of inept bandits led by rogue soldier Crazy Tiger (Kim Nam-gil) and a seasick former pirate who can’t convince his mates that whales are larger than a tea table. Unlike this summer’s other two South Korean blockbusters, which were distinctly androcentric, The Pirates includes a strong female protagonist. Played with a badass frown by Son Ye-jin, who’s best-known for her role as an early Alzheimer’s patient opposite Jung Woo-Sung in the classic tearjerker A Moment To Remember, Yeo-Wol is a pirate queen who can swing a sword with the best of them.
There are also several super-fun set pieces, including one that would put a smile on Buster Keaton’s face that features a huge wooden water wheel chasing a cart laden with explosives down a very long hill. Director Seok-hoon Lee has mostly worked on romcoms in the past and The Pirates reflects this as, unlike Kundo or The Admiral, the screen violence is moderate and the bloodletting mild and the focus of the film is the banter between the various characters rather than weighty issues such as revenge, bloodlust, patriotism, or war. The movie is a great piece of escapist fun that moves smoothly between humor, action, and adventure, and is an outstanding way to round off an excellent summer of South Korean flicks in the U.S.
AMC Cupertino Square 16
A couple Chinese-language romantico films made their way into the U.S. market this week and one works while the other doesn’t. Hong Kong release Temporary Family uses the backdrop of the superheated HK real estate market to frame its romantic comedy, while PRC rom-dram But Always flails about in China and the U.S. as it attempts to tell its story of lovers pining for each other across years and continents.
Hong Kong renaissance woman Cheuk Wan Chi (aka Goo-Bi GC aka Vincci aka G) directs Temporary Family, an amusing romcom starring A-listers Nick Cheung and Sammi Cheng, along with mainland Chinese starlet Angelababy and rapper/singer Oho (who sings the title track). A broad, hyperlocal comedy that sends up the tight housing crunch in the former Crown Colony, the movie also includes cameos by Heavenly King Jacky Cheung, TVB stars Myolie Wu and Dayo Wong, and Chinese film star Jiang Wu (as an ultrarich PRC real estate speculator) and, not surprisingly, the movie has been a huge hit in its home territory. Although the film tilts towards the slapstick at times it still manages to sustain its narrative tension for most of its running time and is an agreeable timepass. Nick Cheung (Lung) started his career back in the day as a Stephen Chow wannabe so it’s not surprising to find him successfully tempering his usual dramatic intensity in a lighter comedic role. Sammi Cheng pulls out her neurotic jilted lover persona most famously seen in Johnnie To’s huge romcom hit Needing You, this time playing Charlotte, a recent divorcee unable to break from the past. Angelababy plays Lung’s adopted daughter, a slouchy millennial who bounces aimlessly from one low-paying job to another. Oho rounds out the main characters as the awesomely named Very Wong, Lung’s intern and the scion of an unnamed rich man in China. The plot contrives to throw together this unlikely crew as temporary roommates in a luxury condo in Hong Kong’s toniest neighborhood as they attempt to cash in on the real estate market’s volatility.
The movie is chock full of local references and in-jokes (why do all the real estate agents have bleached blonde hair?) and follows the time-honored Hong Kong movie tradition of good-natured vulgarity, including a running joke about a stray pubic hair. Structurally the film recalls the slackly constructed, improvisational comedies of Hong Kong Lunar New Year films and, maybe due to director G’s relative inexperience (this is her second feature), at times scenes abruptly and inexplicably fade to black. Though the movie’s energy flags a bit about two-thirds in, the amiable cast powers through the rough patches and manages to pull out a reasonably entertaining conclusion including the sardonic last scene, as Lung and Charlotte finally find their bliss. Nick Cheung as the desperate realtor Lung is as always quite watchable. Sammi Cheng is somewhat less so, as her neuroticness precludes much lovability, which in turn spoils any chemistry she and Nick might have had.
The movie has been a big hit both in Hong Kong and the PRC, and it’s great to be able to see it here in the U.S. on the big screen, if only to ogle the panoramic shots of Hong Kong harbor and its skyline at night. I had no luck tracking down the U.S. distributor so I was a bit surprised when it popped up here at the Metreon, but I’m glad that I ran across its screening schedule in a random facebook post. It looks like some Chinese distributors are following China Lion and Wellgo’s lead in targeting the Chinese-speaking audience here in the States, although their choice of films is somewhat random. But I’ll take what I can get, especially if it means releases of non-action films like Temporary Family and Pang Ho-Cheung’s Aberdeen, which showed up without fanfare down in Santa Clara a month or so ago.
Like those two films, the Nic Tse/Gao Yuan Yuan romantic vehicle But Always had a day-and-date release here in the Bay, but the movie is no great shakes and is in fact one of the worst, most hackneyed and clichéd films I’ve had the misfortune to witness in a long while. Granted, I don’t go see a lot of romantic films, since my preference is for movies with guns and gangsters, but I know a bad movie when I see one. Not only is the storyline derivative and the narrative conflict forced, but the characters are poorly drawn and the film’s direction is sloppy and amateurish.
The movie starts in 2001 in New York City, then flashes back to 1970s Beijing where Anran (Gao Yuan Yuan) and Yongyuan (Nic Tse), are young kids. This is the best part of the film as the movie renders mid-century China as comfortably shabby and not yet touched by modern global capitalism. The movie then laboriously follows Anran and Yongyuan’s relationship through the years in both China and the U.S. as they hook up, fall apart, and reconcile numerous times for no apparent reason except to generate dramatic angst. The film trowels on the melodrama as suicide attempts, love triangles, jilted lovers, and other tragedies mount. The only things missing from the hit parade of drama trauma are amnesia, long-lost twins, and a car crash, though the ending surely tops these in its maudlin, fatalistic conclusion. Hint: the date and place of the lovers’ last rendezvous gives away the fantastically tragic coincidence at the film’s climax.
Nic Tse and Gao Yuan Yuan are nicely lit and photographed throughout, though Nic seems a bit embarrassed to be in such a crappy flick. It’s also funny to note that, being a PRC production, we get to see his a lot of his beautiful torso and cut abs but almost none of her naked skin except a decorous peek at her bare shoulder.
There’s nothing wrong with the old-time narrative of star-crossed lovers patiently waiting for each other through endless adversity and I’m all for a well-told version of a classic story, but this movie is not that. Instead it’s a lazy, clumsy rehash of tired tropes without any freshness, originality, wit, or style. Yeah, I didn’t like it much.