Friday, 26 November 2010

Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960) Review

There's a famous story concerning the censorship of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) that goes a little something like this...

Hitch, aware of the trouble the MPAA would have with the film, had a cunning idea up his sleeve. The censorship board consisted of five members - upon first viewing three members insisted that they had seen a nipple and knife penetration in the infamous shower scene, but in fact the scene contains nothing of the sort, as recognized by the remaining two members. Hitchcock sent the print back the very next day, unchanged, and the majority approved the scene to be suitable for audiences. The two remaining members however, who has previously passed the scene, this time saw nipple and knife penetration. The point Hitchcock was making is that often the mind can see what it wants to see - the idea of fear can often work as a more powerful stimulant than a film containing supposedly explicit material. The board knew of the films reputation and had simply imagined the more lurid content. In many ways this simple story says everything we need know about the dangers of cinema as a voyeuristic tool, and the ability it has to implicate an audience member with a fantasy not happening onscreen, but in their mind. It indulges us.

On the other side of the pond, British treasure and filmmaking legend Michael Powell was about to lose everything over a voyeuristic masterpiece named Peeping Tom - another spectacular case of mind over matter, that this time put those very board members in the frame. Basically reversing the formula of Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954), Peeping Tom sees the killer with the camera and the victims as helpless citizens. Psycho was a roaring public success because it allowed the viewer to enjoy a dark slice of the macabre from an outsiders perspective. But Peeping Tom was one of the most controversial films of all time because it put the audience in the place of the voyeur (killer). The opening sees a P.O.V. shot from a concealed camera as Mark (Karlheinz Böhm) picks up a prostitute on the street. The camera is hidden in his coat and we see the event unfurl from his depraved eyes. In this scene Powell places the audience in the shoes of a man about to commit murder. The camerawork in this scene is hugely inventive and innovative - we slowly move towards the victim who crawls backward, terrified - until she lets out a piercing scream (above image). The scene is soon replayed in Mark's studio, through his projector. The murder film plays out in black and white and Powell's camera zooms out of that image, enlarging it, while Mark - comfortably sitting in his seat admiring his work, is made smaller. As Roger Ebert stated in his Great Movies essay, this shot "shows us a member of the audience being diminished by the power of the cinematic vision". Mark is as much a member of the audience as we are - except he suffers from scopophilia, a form of voyeurism that finds the 'looker' gaining sexual pleasure from peeping at erotic objects...

It is to Powell's credit that we both loathe and sympathize with this man. We do not sympathize with him as a sociopath or a murderer, nor do we derive erotic pleasure from 'looking'. However, we do see the events of the film through his eyes, and I didn't turn away. I was drawn into this seedy world. The experience of watching murder through Mark's eyes was an interesting one. A captivating one. So, what does that make me? The fact that I understand this mans desire to look in private places? That's essentially the deal you strike with a film upon entering the cinema. For a short while you'll be invited to spy on the lives of people you'll never meet, never know, never truly understand. You'll watch them in their most intimate of moments. We, as a collective audience, do not suffer from scopophilia. But we do have a desire to watch and, in the 21st century, be watched. Cameras record our every move it seems, and reality TV is bigger than ever. George Orwell was right and films like Red Road (Andrea Arnold, 2006) express the danger of 'looking' with an all too relatable eye. That film, as much as Michael Haneke's Caché (2005) forms a fascinating companion study to Peeping Tom. Whenever a filmmaker challenges our desire to 'look' (also seen in Haneke's Funny Games, 1997) we must step back from the experience and attempt to understand it. Powell did this better than anyone. The film (photographed by Otto Heller) has a saturated, pornographic colour scheme. It indulges itself in blood reds, dank greys and haunting blacks - as well as blinding whites and spotlight greens. It is this use of colour that also draws us deeper into the film, and somehow makes it more appealing. A key scene sees Mark persuade an extra (Moira Shearer) to stay behind (Mark is a focus puller at a movie studio) and shoot some of her own scenes. At first he lurks in the shadows, turning spotlights on her as she uneasily looks for a sign of Mark. She calls out his name, frightened, as the bright lights illuminate her, in vibrantly different shades. The Technicolour works beautifully in this scene. It is perhaps the most colourful of all the sets in the movie - the most aesthetically pleasing, inviting, exciting, alive and captivating. The scene is incredibly tense and as Mark edges towards his victim, unsheathing the blade that hides in the leg of his tripod, we begin to see fear write itself across her face. We stare at her, unable to look away. We are about to witness another murder. But will we look away?

It is later revealed that Mark put the body (a brief cutaway would hint he chopped her up) in a blue box - comically, the prop for a scene in the morning shoot. Mark claims that the most frightening thing in the world is fear itself. He finds pleasure in people feeling it. He finds more pleasure in photographing them feeling it, and showing to them their own fears, before they die. Perhaps that was Powell's point all along. Perhaps in a twisted way he was Mark, sat in the directors chair - showing us fear, so that our fear may be recorded. It may not have been photographed visually, but the record of the films controversy stands as testament that it was fear that terrified us most of all, back in 1960. Peeping Tom is as unnerving, terrifying and engaging as it was the day it was made. If anything, it's more relevant. Because now there are security cameras in every shop, train station, street corner... we are never, ever alone. There's always someone spying on us when we walk home, do the shopping, fill in the paperwork at our jobs. Maybe somebody, somewhere, is watching you a little closer than you care to imagine. You may loathe that prospect, like you loathed Mark. But could you live without it? Could you live without the prospect of wandering into the cinema to spy on somebody's life, all the time being watched by somebody unknown to you? A voyeur? Do you sympathize with that need or emotion? Funny thing is... I think you do...

Friday, 19 November 2010

LFF #6: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Loong Boonmee raleuk chat) (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives has already recieved some coverage on the blog. It was my second favorite film of the festival after Lucy Walker's Waste Land (2010) and it hits select (arthouse) cinemas in the UK today.

The controversial winner of the Palme D'or at this years Cannes Film Festival, Uncle Boonmee is now within a fair shout of a Best Foreign Film Oscar nod. It probably won't win - Of Gods And Men (Xavier Beauvois, 2010) is much more 'worthy' - but the nomination would definitely provide a bigger platform for Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul to play on. Not that he needs it of course. His films may be small in budget but they are huge in scope. Along the lines of Tropical Malady (2004) this finds him in the realm of the jungle dealing with spirits, life and death - with a good deal of the action taking place in shadow. Of course that film was a tender drawing of gay romance, whereas Uncle Boonmee, from portentous title to existential denouement, is about reincarnation and the worlds of and between life and death. What's remarkable about Uncle Boonmee (and this is true of all of Weerasethakul's oeuvre) is how unique it is. The press notes proclaimed that there are things in this film you've never seen before - universes to be explored. Truly this is a totally unique and captivating experience that will likely stay with you forever. And depending on your tolerance for snail paced painterly pondering, that will be a good or bad thing.

Cannes is famous for making unpredictable, left-wing decisions when it comes to awarding the Palme D'or and Uncle Boonmee recieved some scathingly negative and reactionary complaints at the time. French critics were less than kind to the film, proclaiming it hopelessly boring and a failed experiment. The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw has rightly given the film 5 stars, calling it "mysterious, dreamlike, gentle, quiet, magical". In many ways, that's as accurate a summary as you're going to get because the content of Uncle Boonmee can't really be described in words. I gave it a bash in my brief write-up two months ago, when I said that the film contains "questions arisen through symbols that propel you into universes - the visual language of Weerasethakul's cinema is extraordinarily assured, personal and poetic. It's a deeply spiritual film; an existential film that explores the literal and metaphorical boundaries between the worlds of life and death". I stand by these statements and also by the fact that the catfish scene, the source of some amusement for the films detractors, has an almost religious, hypnotic quality. It's certainly the bravest move I've seen in a film for years, perhaps only equalled by a scene in P.T. Anderson's Magnolia (1999) where the entire cast begin to sing along to Aimee Mann's 'Wise Up'. And that's my favorite film of all time.

If you can find a cinema that's playing Uncle Boonmee you should take the time to watch it. It's frustrating, confusing and breaks most filmmaking rules, but that's exactly what makes it so captivating. It consists of long static shots and ambient natural sound, yet retains a quality that is epic and distinctly cinematic. A shot of the sun going down over a dense, mystical forrest inhabited by spirits is beautifully evocative. The red penetrative eyes of a monkey spirit and the emerging ghost of Boonmee's dead wife are quietly haunting. The ending will leave you with more questions than answers but as the perky pop music begins to play over the most conventionally shot and lit scene of the film, which could be existing anywhere, you'll be glad you came. To end I'll quote another 5 star review, from The Telegraph's Sukhdev Sandhu... "It's barely a film; more a floating world". Uncle Boonmee certainly exists in a place that most other filmmakers dare not touch - a place of furious intelligence, exasperating ambiguity, dazzling imagination, artistic ambition and quietly affecting honesty. That a film like this should even exist in the 21st century is a miracle - so lets savor it. It's a bewildering, life-affirming experience and you're either going to love or loathe it. But that's what cinema is all about. Right?

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Wild Grass (Les herbes folles) (Alain Resnais, 2009) DVD Review

Wild Grass, the 18th film from 88-year-old nouvelle vague director Alain Resnais, is that strangest of things: a genre film without a genre. It's a romantic comedy, but it's not. Or is it? You will ask yourself this and many questions like it while watching Wild Grass. Scenes come and go with seemingly no purpose. Flashbacks intercut at inappropriate moments, or are they flashbacks at all? Perhaps they're more trickery, like the narration - what purpose does it serve? Who's perspective are we seeing the film from and why do characters randomly butt into the dialogue? If you're looking to this review for answers, you won't find them. I'm baffled. I'm baffled by the characters, the colour palette - hell, even the direction! Resnais is clearly playing with film form again but is Wild Grass a self conscious experiment (an in-joke with all involved)? Or is it an avant-garde genre piece? A waking dream designed for analysis but working on a much simpler, more human plane of existence? Why do scenes fade to black at the moment they provide answers? Georges (André Dussollier), a troubled soul who believes he has (and may well of) committed a murder, fears the police. An officer named Bernard (Mathieu Amalric) is suddenly struck with recognition, when looking through the bright blue gates at Georges. Cut to black. The same can be said of the films ending, or whichever of the three scenarios you choose to be the ending. The classic Hollywood embrace, set to the 20th Century Fox theme? The possible plane crash, hinted at from the opening frame? Or the 30 second closing shot of a mother - a writer? - being asked by her daughter "When I'm a cat, will I be able to eat cat munchies?" These are people we've never seen before. I've never been so unsure of a movie, so how can I review it? It would be dishonest, borderline pretentious, to propose insight that I don't have. So don't think of this as a review. Think of it as a discussion board. If you want to know what I think of the film, it's fantastic. It's deceptive, dangerous, magical, whimsical, funny, exciting, romantic... everything you could want from a film is here and Resnais directs it with the imagination, energy and vigor of a man half his age. The colour palette - alternatively soft and vibrant primary colours - is stunningly evocative, at times ethereal. The camerawork is fluid, invasive, stylish, secretive, observant and confusing - the camera placed at unusual angles, including a high angle shot of Georges entering the police station. The performances are terrific and the film is bursting at the seams with dazzling invention and playful eccentricity. It's a fairytale alright, but a (sur)realist one, a cineliterate one, and one brimming with an untold darkness.

So here's what I think it means. Resnais' has toyed with the ideas of memory and dreams before in Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and Last Year At Marienbad (1961), which are both also about relationships - one is forbidden and one is ambiguous. The relationship in Wild Grass between Georges and Marguerite (Sabine Azéma) is both of these things. They meet through a seemingly random incident - Marguerite has her handbag stolen and Georges finds the wallet from inside it. Both of these sequences are quite surreal. One shot focuses on the yellow handbag flying through the air in slow motion, a soft, radiant light illuminating it as if this were a dream. Georges finds the wallet (red) in a car park and when two women walk past, the narrator tells us of how he thinks of strangling them for bad taste. "Thinking about that again?" his interior monologue goes. Georges is clearly a dreamer - he begins to obsess over Marguerite, sending her endless letters and phone calls, until one day he goes too far and slashes her tyres. Or does he? Perhaps he's just a sick fantasist. He also obsesses over the fact that the police will recognise him - perhaps catch him for a previous crime. When they come to his house to question about the tyres he's panicked. But the police don't blink an eye. Or do they? The significance of Bernard's sudden recognition is unknown. Maybe I even imagined it. The film certainly never touches on it again. In fact, the police never make another appearance. Marguerite and Georges begin to meet, at first outside the cinema at a screening of The Bridges At Toko-ri (Mark Robson, 1954) and a casual, non-sexual affair begins to emerge. At this point the film takes a strange turn as Marguerite begins to obsess over Georges and starts phoning his home. Perhaps this is all part of Georges' imagination? Perhaps in his mind she is madly in love with him (when they meet face-to-face for the first time Georges says "so you do love me?") and is stalking him. Perhaps that's what he wants. Marguerite's best friend, Josepha (Emmanuelle Devos) is suspicious of both their activity and accompanies Marguerite, Georges and his wife Suzanne (Anne Consigny) to the airfield (Marguerite is a pilot). This is where the three-way ending comes into play, and I'm not sure that they are meant to follow each other in a narrative sense, but are rather three possible outcomes to whichever plot you have been following - dream, fantasy or surrealist reality. The loving embrace seems to make the most sense but is far too simple a conclusion for Resnais. More than a film, Wild Grass is like a box of magic tricks, all competing to tell the same story. The second ending would also make some kind of sense were it not followed by the dark, actually quite scary surreal trip through a forrest, graveyard and rocky mountain. What does that mean? The music (Mark Snow) is eerie and operatic, like the beginning of a crescendo from a horror movie. And then there's the final ending. Who is the woman at the chair? It's possibly Josepha. The camera swoops past her so fast it's impossible to tell and this is, of course, exactly the point. The girls line, "When I'm a cat, will I be able to eat cat munchies?" is a nod towards the idea of reincarnation. Would it be too much to think of her as the deceased from the plane accident, if such an event happened? Or is it just another rabbit out of a hat? I don't know. But I do know that Resnais has crafted one of his finest films and at 88 shows no signs of stopping...

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Jackie Chan Season #3: The Karate Kid (Harald Zwart, 2010) DVD Review

So lets just face facts. The original Karate Kid (John G. Avildsen, 1984) is one of the most undeserving classics of all time. It's cheesy 80s fun with a few quotable lines, but as a whole? It doesn't hold together, and you certainly never believed Ralph Macchio fought his way to the top of a karate championship. All in all then, Zwart's attempt at making contemporary a tale of honour, perseverance and friendship should be an improvement? Well, even though it should be renamed The Kung Fu Kid I'm happy to report that yes - it's a huge improvement.

The basics of the plot are pretty much the same - kid moves away from home, is bullied, learns to fight back. Except this time the move is made from Detroit to China, a much smoother and more believable setting for the story to unfold, which also allows for some visually impressive set-pieces (the training on the Great Wall Of China for example, see above) and a kinder visual aesthetic.

The first thing that has to be addressed about The Karate Kid is its length. The original was by no means a brisk venture at 120 minutes but Zwart's version runs at 140 - far too long for a story as simplistic as this one. That's not a slight against the film - its premise is basic but allows for a wealth of character development which, with credit to the slog of a running time, it certainly foregrounds with credibility. The first half hour of the film consists of Dre (Jaden Smith, son of Will) settling into his new China home with mom Sherry (Taraji P. Henson). He soon wins the attention of Meiying (Wenwen Han) and some unfriendly bullies who quickly beat him down in a surprisingly brutal playground smackdown. The Karate Kid has a questionable PG rating and the reason the drama is so effective in the first third is because of the intensity of the violence and the way the film deals with bullying as a theme - Dre cautiously tiptoeing around corners as to avoid his assailants, addressing makeup to a black eye and venting his frustration on the wrong people - namely his mom. There's a really at ease pace to the film that fits with the meditative and concentrated state that the final two thirds explore thematically. But in the first third this pace actually gives the impression of a social drama. This may sound like I'm trying to add unnecessary weight to a popcorn movie but Zwart, previously a hack for hire on movies like The Pink Panther 2 (2009), shows a real sense of visual artistry here - he restrains any impulse to make a sentimental action movie and focuses on character, theme and location. Beautifully shot by Roger Pratt (a Harry Potter veteran), a key scene sees Dre, Sherry and maintenance man/kung fu teacher Mr. Han (Chan) attending an evening theatre performance. In typically Chinese fashion this is a decorated and vibrant event, mixing bright lights and colours - a gentle shade of blue, blossoming red and gentle white light give a sense of atmosphere and romanticism. James Horner also provides a wonderfully evocative score, mixing traditional sounds with exciting action beats. Hs sensitive side is perfectly shown on the track Leaving Detroit, a quietly disarming and memorable piece that soars in its final minute, recalling the composers best work.

Of course I can sing the praises of the drama for paragraphs and what many will want to know about is the training and fight sequences. Training takes in the same relaxed pace as the drama and the two are beautifully balanced. A scene of Han revealing his inner demons is emotionally intense and darkly sad (Chan really pulls out the stops to deliver his best ever performance) but followed by an energized training montage that ends in a fizzing high kick. It's this balance that makes us so invested in the finale - a twenty minute sequence of the championship. If we didn't care about the characters (and this was the case for me in the original) then the fighting really doesn't matter. But Zwart has invested (perhaps too much) time in these people, who feel real and relatable. And on this note the fighting begins...

Zwart brings a real emotional centre to the action too. The focus is on the fighting, which is shot with flair and edited with brio. But occasional cutaways to Sherry and Meiying in the audience, and Mr. Han watching, and hoping, in the sidelines, give motivation to the action. Jaden Smith is also an appealing lead - he has the same relaxed charm of his father and hits all of the comic cues perfectly. But he also brings weight to the central character arc and you believe in him as a fighter. Pain is written across his face at every knock down and even though a scene involving an injury sways too far into sentimentalism, he still makes me care. The film is quite violent but treats martial arts with respect - basically as a tool for defense. If you know how to fight you won't have to fight, is the final moral message. Dre is instilled with a sense of honour and its this that he fights with. This is kung fu in the traditional sense of Hong Kong cinema and the scenes are as exciting (if not as inventive) as some of Chan's own work. When the final three round finale comes there's an urgency to the action that few films of this type can match, and it makes the outcome just that little bit sweeter.

While The Karate Kid may not be a perfect film it is a perfect example of a remake. Smart, funny, exciting and respectful, this is a character drama of substance that knows when to hold back and when to go full throttle. Photography, music and choreography are the name of the day but Smith impresses in his first leading role, Chan delivers a sensitive and nuanced turn as an actor and despite the swelled running time I had a blast and would happily re-watch it.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Fantasia (Various Directors, 1940)

Fantasia was Disney's 3rd feature film and their biggest venture to date, after Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs (Various Directors, 1937) and Pinnochio (Various Directors, 1940). Snow White had recieved a standing ovation from industry officials such as Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Marlene Dietrich, and became a box office smash, putting Walt Disney on the Hollywood map and the cover of TIME magazine. Pinnochio was less of a financial success, finding some support from critics. Fantasia, however, was a revolution. Intended as more of an extravagant entertainment experience with fancy dress, reserved seating and Fantasound speakers (which would later influence the invention of surround sound), Fantasia was an example of cinema at its purest. Sadly the film initially failed to find an audience which means that its status has grown over time and is now rightly positioned as a classic. I don't think the film is perfect (certainly it's not their masterpiece) but this new DVD/Blu Ray release is a fitting transfer for one of the most ambitious films ever made...

You may wonder why I keep writing 'Various Directors'. In the early days of Disney each picture would have around 5 directors including 'sequence' and 'supervising' directors. Fantasia has eleven: James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, Ford Beebe, Norman Ferguson, Jim Handley, T. Hee, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield and Ben Sharpsteen (uncredited as a director on this picture, Sharpsteen also produced Fantasia and is the director of my favorite Disney short Moving Day, 1936).

The biggest flaw of Fantasia is the live action interludes. Until around 1960 it was not uncommon for an actor, director, producer or perhaps even a hired announcer to introduce the picture - Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931) opens with a friendly warning that the film may "shock" or "horrify" you - calmly suggesting that viewers with a weak stomach would do well to leave now. This was also the tradition with movie trailers, my favorite of which is James Stewart explaining the plot of The Man Who Knew Too Much (Alfred Hitchcock, 1956). I've always had something of a problem with this technique - mainly because it's too theatrical for my tastes, and also because it's a little condescending. Fantasia opens with an announcer (Deems Taylor, composer and music critic) telling us of Walt's ambition for the picture - and how it was devised with a group of artists interpreting classical music from the likes of Bach, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky. It contains, he tells us, three story types - and these will provide the images that we imagine when we listen to the music. This is the problem that I have with the film. Not only do these interludes interrupt the fluidity of the film and make it seem more like a live theatre event (the orchestra is never hidden and sometimes actively takes part in applause and set-piece jokes) it is also very condescending. Personally I don't need any artist to tell me what to think, and how to imagine - especially when the music on offer is so naturally beautiful and evocative. Each sequence lasts around ten minutes, and most are captivating, but after a short while one begins to fear the ending for the looming appearance of Taylor, a perfectly adequate but unnecessary narrator, who grinds the film to a halt far too often for it to be recognised as a classic in my mind. His presence is annoying and adds at least thirty minutes to the run-time (124 minutes) - which is not to mention the interlude at the hour mark, strangely kept in this DVD release. Stranger still is the intact inclusion of the following segment entitled Meet The Soundtrack - a brief jazz session preceding a lesson in sound design, narrated by Taylor. It really saps the magic.

You'll never be bored though, such is the quality of animation and music. Each sequence has something different to offer. My personal favorite is Stravinsky's Rite Of Spring sequence, directed by Roberts and Satterfield, which depicts a condensed history of the Earth, from the genesis of the planet to the extinction of the dinosaurs. I'm a big fan of Stravinsky (famed also for his affair with couture queen Coco Chanel) and his music here is used to perfect effect. The colours in this segment are spectacular - living, breathing browns, crashing yellows and volcanic oranges, the palette is alternately dreamlike and dangerous. The shots of the planet evolving are masterful - especially the overhead shots of bubbling lava and smoke rising into the black skies. As life evolves under the sea Stravinsky builds up to a crashing statement of evolution. Soon the Pterodactyls are stalking overhead, occasionally diving into the ocean, and the Brachiosaurus' reach to the treetops and protect their young. The music, played out in full, is observational for this period of time until the carnivorous side of prehistoric life is explored. A Tyrannosaurus Rex is stalking its prey, eventually dueling with a Stegosaurus. Just as the spiked dinosaur has the upper hand he's pinned down by the Rex, who bites into his neck to seal the kill. Soon an earthquake occurs, water runs dry and the monsters are forced to travel through sweltering heat. Both the animation and music are of an exceptional standard in this piece, for me the highlight of the film. There are sequences better timed to the music - Armstrong's Nutcracker sequence for example, which makes beautiful use of a more vibrant landscape and the changing of the seasons as seen through nature itself - flowers, spider webs and an iced lake. There are some dud sequences, especially the opening Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, also directed by Armstrong. The films most famous sequence, The Sorcerer's Apprentice (Algar) is impressive but nowhere near as exciting as I had previously been lead to believe. The inclusion of Mickey Mouse has no doubt boosted its profile, and it's certainly influential (see The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Jon Turteltaub, 2010) but there are stronger sequences to be found, including The Pastoral Symphony (Luske, Handley, Beebe), which is a dreamlike, pastoral vision of Greek myth, and Night On Bald Mountain/Ave Maria (Jackson), a dark, exciting nightmare whose monster Chernabog was based on movement by Béla Lugosi, who served as a live action model.

If it weren't for the live action interludes this might place much higher on my Disney ranking. The individual sequences are mostly majestic, towering works of art, but they're let down massively by boring, tedious and needless sequences of Taylor explaining everything we're about to see. If this is your first viewing, you may well be disappointed. But you'll also be amazed, excited and enthralled by Disney at the height of their visual powers - as evidenced in Rite Of Spring, a masterpiece short in a flawed feature.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Jackie Chan Season #2: Wheels On Meals (Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, 1984)

快餐車 (Kuai can che)
When embarking on a Jackie Chan marathon one recurring name becomes synonymous with quality. That name is Sammo Hung; director, actor, choreographer, writer, producer - you name it, he's left a mark on it. The Hong Kong legend even has a band named after him... although oddly enough, they're Welsh. Hung has worked with Chan on a number of occasions, taking on different roles with each project. Hung directed and acted alongside Chan in Wheels On Meals, a hilariously stylish caper that plays as a buddy movie for the first half, and three musketeers rescue mission for the second. What it never lets up on is chemistry or set-pieces, and the finale boasts one of Chan's most impressive fights - against fighting legend Benny Urquidez (he has black belts in nine different martial arts). We start with the plot...

One of the films numerous alternative titles, Million Dollar Heiress, actually does a pretty neat job of summing things up. Thomas (Chan) and David (Biao Yuen) are cousins who own a traveling fast food service. One day they visit David's father (Paul Chang) in a mental asylum, where they meet Sylvia (Lola Forner), the daughter of his girlfriend Gloria (Susana Sentís). Despite her beauty Sylvia turns out to be a petty thief - and soon causes trouble for the cousins who have fallen for her. Meanwhile bumbling sidekick Moby (Hung) is promoted to Private Detective when his boss mysteriously disappears. He's put in charge of tracking down Sylvia for a mysterious client and soon the characters lives intertwine into one action-packed adventure.

The most interesting point initially is that Wheels On Meals is set in Barcelona, Spain. In terms of Hong Kong cinema Chan is famed for his division between classical period pieces (Project A, Jackie Chan, 1983) and his police thrillers (Police Story, Jackie Chan, 1985), alternately evoking old world tradition and contemporary crime issues. In other words, they're distinctly the work of the country in which they were made. While Wheels On Meals has all the martial arts action you could hope for, its setting plays an interesting role in the film and adds a new dynamic to the way Chan and Hung interact with the world around them. The film is lent a European vibrancy - the colours are more profound and the architecture closer observed. Hung and Chan have fun playing with the culture of Spain... its market stalls, back alleys and castles are a perfect backdrop for their playful set-pieces. The beautiful buildings rise far above the city streets and it's one of the most visually pleasing films from this era of Chan's career, and certainly the best directed.

The film was originally to be titled the more obvious and sensible Meals On Wheels, but distributors Golden Harvest had recently had two box office flops starting with the letter 'M' and superstitiously thought this was to blame. The name was changed to the more unconventional and silly Wheels On Meals. It does do a good job of establishing tone however, because just like the title, certain elements of the film feel very last minute. Entire plot devices seem to exist just for the sake of dragging the film out to a reasonable running time - the entire middle third consists of Sylvia being kidnapped, rescued, kidnapped, rescued etc. All we know is that bad guys are after her and they won't stop coming until it's time for the final showdown which, in all honesty, is worth every second of the over-extended story. The fight is among Chan's best...

Benny Urquidez proves to be a formidable opponent to Chan and their fight is blisteringly fast paced and brutal; famous for a spin-kick performed by Urquidez that's so fast it extinguishes a row of candles. What's interesting is the physical difference between the two men. Urquidez is short, stocky, well built and takes a solid stance - like a stone warrior. Chan is much more flexible, able to move his limbs at lightning speed, able to dodge attacks and recover quickly. Every blow feels like a real bone breaker and there's a point where the blood and bruises actually start to look real. It's a really energetic, varied and intense fight which also finds time to add in the usual Chaplin-esque slapstick tomfoolery. Brilliantly directed, the sequence is intercut with an athletic fight between David and a second suited thug played by professional martial artist Keith Vitali, and a sword fight between Moby and the main villain (Pepe Sancho), whose demise is a little disappointing.

Throughout all of this what's most in abundance is the chemistry. Chan, Yuen and Hung strike sparks off each other in every scene. Chan and Yuen especially have the feeling of having grown up together - when a scene requires comic timing they know when each others beats are coming, and a comic put-down will hit just the right tone. It doesn't feel like scripted dialogue - in fact it sometimes feels like a competition for screen time as they talk over each other. It's very relaxed, very natural, and very engaging.

This is a really funny, exciting and visually impressive piece of martial arts comedy, stylishly directed and packed with star chemistry. The plot does feel dragged out but there's never a boring moment due to the unrelenting pace and classic action sequences, including the Chan/Urquidez smackdown, one of the finest fights in his back catalogue. There's a great car chase too, with the fast food vehicle making an impossible stunt jump that's as exciting as anything in modern action cinema.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Jackie Chan Season #1: City Hunter (Jing Wong, 1993)

城市獵人 (Sing si lip yan)
Based on the hardboiled manga by Tsukasu Hojo, City Hunter is something of an oddity in the Chan canon. The original comics, published in the Weekly Shōnen Jump (an anthology magazine still in publication today, by Shueisha Inc.), told the story of Ryo Saeba - a private detective on a mission to rid Tokyo of crime. The series ran for six years (1985 - 1991) and Sunrise Studios adapted the material for an animated TV series in 1987, currently available on R1 DVD. Most UK viewers probably won't have any knowledge of City Hunter in either comic or anime form, but some will have been lucky enough to pick up this kooky crime comedy on the Hong Kong Legends series. It's no forgotten masterpiece, but it's surely an energized, exciting start to a season celebrating one of the greatest movie stars in the world...

Ryo (Chan) is hired to track down the runaway daughter of a publishing tycoon and inadvertently stumbles into a terrorist plot. The runaway boards a luxury cruise liner which a group of hijackers are planning to take over. Ryo and his sidekick Kaori (Joey Wang) board the ship where sexy cops Saeko (Chingmy Yau) and Shizuko (Kumiko Goto) are tracking down the terrorists. The plot is basically non-existent - an excuse for slapstick, cleavage shots and some impressive action sequences. This both helps and hinders the film.

To get an idea of tone, the film opens with Ryo sleeping and dreaming of a sexy female chorus surrounding him while he swims. Kaori tries to wake him for an important client meeting but he won't budge - even after she kicks him in the face. She ties Ryo to the top of the car, drives to the meeting and continues the trek by wheelchair. Comedy has always been a big part of Chan's cinema - even when the fight sequences bruise they normally have an element of slapstick to them. City Hunter takes a slightly different approach by focusing on the comedy rather than the action. This is Chan channeling Chaplin, making the most of his flexible body and farcical facial expressions. An early chase sequence sees him running from the ships cabin crew - he manages to get above the dopey sailors by clinging onto the bars surrounding the horn. One cutaway later ("there's another ship ahead!") and Chan has been permanently deafened - his face screwed up into a comic ball as he falls backward off the rails and slams onto the deck. That this chase has been focused around a piece of bread for the constantly hungry Ryo only adds to the oddness of it all. In fact, most of the gags/fights in the film are based around Ryo's desire for either women or food - or both. While searching for the runaway in the ships indoor swimming pool he encounters Shizuko, skimpily dressed, who has the intention of chatting him up. Ryo's jaw hits the ground as his gaze moves downwards towards her breasts - which soon become tasty hamburgers. Equally, now salivating, Ryo imagines her legs to be fried chicken.

So comedy is the name of the day. This isn't to say that City Hunter doesn't have its fair share of action however - one scene in particular sees Chan pay loving homage to screen legend and martial arts master Bruce Lee. Chased into an onboard cinema screening The Game Of Death (Robert Clouse, 1978) Ryo is faced with a replica of the enemies Bruce faces onscreen - and copies his moves to take them down. Another scene, heavily inspired by Street Fighter (the videogame; Steven Souza's awful adaptation came a year later) sees Ryo facing off against terrorist leader MacDonald's main henchman, played by Gary Daniels. This may be an exciting prospect for fans of the kickboxing champion and movie star, but the scene is played as another tongue-in-cheek loving homage à la Bruce. Chan and Daniels are kitted out in various Street Fighter attire and given all the powers of their respective characters - which means energy beams and stretchy legs are flying all over the place between some nifty edits and average (yet cheesy) effects. This scene is most interesting for fans of this years Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (Edgar Wright) - which would appear to owe something of a debt to City Hunter. Knowing Wright's passion for and knowledge of cinema, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that he had this film in the back of his mind when shooting his own comic book adaptation. The fight scenes have a retro gaming feel with flashy effects that go for the aesthetic of a console beat 'em up. Sadly it also means that the sequence is more of a gimmick than a smackdown, so fight fans hoping for a Chan/Daniels showdown will have to resort to their wildest dreams. MacDonald himself is played by Richard Norton, turning in a wooden performance but impressing in the final fight - which is much more in the traditional Chan mode, albeit with plenty of visual gags. The fight is mainly weapon based, but Chan and Norton have a superior fistfight at the end of Mr. Nice Guy (Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, 1997), an action spectacular that sees Chan as a TV chef.

So fans of Chan's traditional period work or cop sagas will be disappointed, but City Hunter doesn't entirely deserve its bad reputation. It's competently made and stylish with some visual flourishes that are not only inventive for their time but impressive in a post Scott Pilgrim world. I was left wanting a proper fight sequence, and even though it's a furiously paced and inventive film with lots of action, none of it is particularly rewarding. The comedy works well most of the time and if you've got 95 minutes to spare, this slapstick adventure could prove an entertaining diversion. Check it out...

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Calculated Risk (Norman Harrison, 1963) DVD Review

Does the success of a good heist movie lie in the planning or the execution? A film like Ocean's 11 (Steven Soderbergh, 2001) lives and dies on the charisma of its stars as it stylishly hops from setup to setup, making the presumably rather boring and frustrating act of detail double-checking exciting enough to carry a two hour movie. In fact, I could happily watch Ocean's 11 without the heist. Which is the exact opposite to a movie like Rififi (Jules Dassin, 1955), the French crime classic, which is held up by a breathtaking silent heist - 32 minutes with no dialogue or score. Calculated Risk, at just 69 minutes in length, is a film that pays equal attention to both. The script, by Edwin Richfield (who earned his wage as an actor in TV series like The Avengers, 1961-1969, and films like Quartermass And The Pit, Roy Ward Baker, 1967) relies on an old formula, but injects a social awareness through tense scenarios. The plot focuses on Kip (John Rutland), an aging ex-con out for one last job after the death of his wife. The score? £200,000. He ropes in Steve (William Lucas), an old fence and robber, to help him recruit the team and set plans in motion. But of course, things don't go to plan...

Beautifully shot by DoP William McLeod (it would be his last feature), the film opens with a visit to a graveyard on a snowy winters day. Soon Kip is pitching the perfect con to Steve over a cup of tea and using common kitchen appliances - saucers, salt pots etc. - to demonstrate the layout of the area. The plan? Get underneath two bombed houses, situated next to the bank, and dig through to the safe - blowing a hole in the wall with plastic explosive. The team is assembled with a variety of sorts, the most entertaining of which is the Irish rogue Nodge (Terence Cooper), who makes occasional statements about the IRA as well as downing bottles of bitter (he even sneaks a drink into the heist). The next half hour focuses on the planning of the heist - scouting locations (and girls) and creating the schedule. In a typically British way, this is done with zero flair; think of it as kitchen sink crime. The original Ocean's 11 (Lewis Milestone, 1960) was a Rat Pack razzmatazz - a sharp suited, quick witted caper full of bright lights and cool music. Calculated Risk takes a minimalist approach to the action and honestly portrays the tedium and excitement equally involved with the excruciatingly exact process. The planning takes four weeks and although this time is edited within an inch of its life the performances are convincingly apprehensive come the robbery. Unlike the Ocean's crew (all swagger and smiles) this bunch are on-guard from beginning to end, keeping a steady eye on the wristwatch for scheduled tea breaks. They spend most of their time at Kip's house, sat round the dining table with a pint of beer or cup of tea, as if they were planning a committee meeting. Market traders hold the secrets to the shady and policemen patrol the streets at night - on a regular beat. This is 60s Britain right down to the table cloth and it's refreshing to see a crime thriller that's not only restrained, but thoughtful and shot with a socially conscious realism.

The heist itself is played with the same realism but also manages to squeeze in some extremely tense set-pieces. These never stray into suspension-of-disbelief territory but rather play the situation for what it is. Kids investigating a trapdoor, policemen attracted to a noise and a dog sniffing around unwanted are some of the simple scenarios that Harrison manages to elicit genuine suspense from - but this is mainly because we're so behind the characters. Which is interesting, seeing as they're essentially petty crooks stealing the wages of innocent citizens (the heist takes place at a time where the factory workers money arrives). They're not in it for a great cause, charity or injustice. But neither are they vile hooligans feeding on the poor to further some crime syndicate. They're just blokes out for an easy living and it's down to Richfield's script that this is so engaging. When the thieves break through to the other side of the wall and discover the bomb, it sets up a wicked scenario - suddenly the thieves are put in a life or death scenario where their greed could be their undoing. But we still root for them when they continue - because they're comrades. To say any more about the route the film takes at this point would be to say too much. Harrison gives a genuine sense of time dragging and tiresome manual labour while still creating atmosphere and mounting the odds against our (anti)heroes. You may think you have the ending figured, but don't be so sure. This is a brave, slick and social piece of realist crime cinema - brilliantly efficient in just about every department. Sadly until now it's been all but forgotten - the picture at the top of the review is the only one available online and the film has just 12 IMDB votes clocking it a 5.0 rating. It's no masterpiece, but trust me - it's much, much better than that...

The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)

Full review at

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Dougal And The Blue Cat (Pollux et le chat bleu) (Serge Danot, 1970)

If you've ever asked yourself what a David Lynch animation would look like, the answer may lie in this undervalued and underseen animation from the early 1970s. Released the same year as Performance (Donald Cammell, Nicolas Roeg) and El Topo (Alejandro Jodorowsky), Pollux et le chat bleu feels strangely at home with the surrealist strand of 70s cinema, while retaining the quintessentially British tone of the 60s TV series, aired by the BBC but originating from France, on ORTF (Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision Française). What most people don't realize about this cult series is that the version we know and love actually has nothing to do with its inventor Serge Danot - indeed, Eric Thompson watched each episode without Danot's original script and invented his own storyline and characters based on the visuals alone. All the character traits we know and love are his, and his narration and voice work is impeccably dry and softly magical. Much like Brian Cant's work on the brilliant Camberwick Green (1966, and one wishes there were a feature film of Windy Miller and her pals), Thompson's thespian skills are what gives the animation such a unique flavor and long lasting appeal. The opening scene (with beautifully restored colour) sees a cuckoo clock strike 7pm - Dougal, with nightcap intact, leaps out of bed; "What? What? What? What? Man the lifeboats! Ban the bomb! The dams burst! Is me nightie on fire? Vote conservative! Keep off the grass! What? What? What? What?" Later in the scene Dougal crawls his way out of bed reassuring himself; "just have a cup of tea". It's odd then, and wonderfully so, that seeing as Dougal is essentially channeling the post-WWII working class Englishman, the visuals are so distinctly gallic...

In fact, despite having a totally different animation style and story, the film Dougal And The Blue Cat most recalls is René Laloux's La planète sauvage (Fantastic Planet, 1973), in its surreal, almost trippy oddness and focus on the colour blue. Both films also share an incredibly relaxed pace and attention to landscape - Ygam, the land of the Draags, is in many ways the primary character of La planète sauvage, and its rituals and culture are the most interesting aspect of the film. The same thing can be said for the sense of community created in Danot's brightly quaint stop motion universe, which almost appears to be on another world itself. The most interesting thing about the film is Thompson's ability to ground this unspecified and fantastical location (pink trees, talking animals and a spring-footed magician named Zebedee) in a Englishness perfectly encapsulated by Dougal's declaration of "writing to The Times" every time a problem should arise. Even when Dougal and Buxton (the evil blue cat of the title) take a 2001 (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) homaging trip to a yellow moon, it retains an Englishness that few films from the period can claim to match. "Hmm, what a place. Worse than Barnsley". Every joke is perfectly written and performed, and Thompson's understanding of his audience is remarkable.

What's really to be celebrated about Dougal And The Blue Cat though, is exactly how odd it is. One scene sees Buxton inducting himself into the blue cause by way of a test... he must correctly identify the shade of blue on a door in order to enter and progress to the next stage. There are seven doors and behind each he finds a different manufacturing process that will turn the whole world blue - but one room holds a greater surprise (3:08 in this clip). The masks hark back to German Expressionism/Weimar Film, in particular the Moloch that appears as a vision in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927). Dougal's nightmare has a creepy, Lynchian feel to it... the looming factory projecting light into the dark blue cavern, with an eerie voiceover by Fenella Fielding ("I am blue. I am beautiful"), feels like a deleted scene from Mulholland Drive (2001). Brian, Ermintrude, Dylan and co. are kidnapped by an army of blue men, thin as sticks and with strands of cloth for hair - which they can extend in order to trap their victims. Mustached and with a permanent smile, these little troopers are given a strange menace by their silence, efficiency and sheer number. Even the scene where Dougal is tortured by sugar cubes feels surreal, as he delivers a Shakespearian soliloquy on the moral dilemma of consuming the sweet snacks.

The fact that this beautiful animation has been forgotten for so long is a crime, and the fact that it only now reaches DVD feels strange, considering that the audience for it has all but passed. Had it appeared in 2005 along with the CG reboot it would have at least felt like a tie-in, but most kids now aren't interested - and its questionable how many adults would even remember the film. So it remains a cult curio - dedicated to the archives of cinephiles. It's criminally underrated and honestly one of the best animated films I've ever seen. Check it out while you can.

DVD Extras: The original and distinctly different French version, 'Thompson And The Magic Roundabout' feature, Mark Kermode interview and stills gallery.