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Friday, 29 May 2015

Painted Faces (1988)

YouTube to the rescue again! Being a big fan of Hong Kong movies of the 80s and 90s, I have wanted to see the above film since I first read about it. It's not exactly easy to get hold of nor widely reviewed. There was a late night showing on German television a while ago which I managed to mis-set, so I was delighted to find a wide-screen copy complete with subtitles for the Cantonese dialogue on the Net.

The movie is loosely-based on Jackie Chan's memoirs of his early training at the Peking Opera School back in the 1960s, along with other future stars like Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao. Children were indentured for up to seven years' non-stop training from dawn to dusk in the traditional Opera skills, with little or no emphasis on book-learning. The film's focus, however, is not on the youngsters, but on the charismatic yet strict head teacher, Master Yu, embodied here in the solid form of Sammo Hung himself. In fact it is a little surreal to see Yu sternly training the kids under his command, including one named Sammo -- the actor himself as a child.

The movie is more a docudrama than any kind of kung-fu actioner, with a series of unrelated scenes over the years. It tends to view the apparently harsh daily realities and daily punishments through somewhat rose-tinted glasses. Master Yu's mantra is one of tough love; as the students practice their tumbling, fighting, voice projection, and yes face-painting skills, the reality that all might be disciplined for one student's failings is played down. In fact the kids seem remarkably cheerful, despite being subjected to a heavy-handed routine and forced to earn their keep by being lent out for evening performances. When the Chan character, affectionately called 'Big Nose' here, is first taken to the school when his parents left to work in Australia (autobiographically correct), he is keen to stay there for maybe ten years, if his days will be filled with little more than doing acrobatics and playing at sword-fights. The realities were much more severe.

But as mentioned, the movie really centres on Master Yu: his students are being trained in a disappearing art and he is the ruler of a dying empire. His best friend, a former opera player turned stuntman is Uncle Wah (a wonderful performance by Lam Ching Ying); the pair go out drinking together and reminisce about the good old days. However Wah is getting older and tired and disillusioned, and there is a wonderful last scene where he is trying to perform one difficult stunt too many. Yu himself and the school are symbolised by the pet turtle holding up one corner of his wonky bed; he feeds the creature over the years and watches it grow, all the time keeping it under tight control. When word comes that the school will soon be closed, he frees the turtle and watches wistfully as it struggles to walk free. Soon, his pupils too will need to find their legs in the cut-throat world of Hong Kong cinema and we now know that some of them did -- spectacularly. Incidentally, Wu himself left for Los Angeles where he continued to teach youngsters (rather more benevolently one assumes) until his death in 1997.

Jackie, Sammo, and Yuen all survived those early and often difficult years, and when one watches their films, there is a certain child-like and endearing quality to their acting. They still take delight in the skills that were drilled into them back in the days when they had no real childhood to call their own.

Friday, 22 May 2015

A Bit of This, A Bit of That

Yet another week where the more recent films available on satellite and terrestrial TV were so dire that I won't even bother with capsule reviews. This leaves me to mull over some recent 'silent' viewing and one re-watched 60s' classic.

I'm sure I've written before that there was a time when there was at least a sprinkling of silent movies available on British television. For a start there was Brownlow and Gills' Thames Silents series which re-introduced golden oldies to a new generation, often with new Carl Davis scores. However those days seem gone forever. Nowadays I rely on the wonderful selection available on YouTube and the occasional seasons on the German/French satellite channel Arte. The latter can go months without showing any new silent films and then schedule a weekly cornucopia of flicks new to television -- for which I for one am most thankful. Their selections are often obscurities and are not always terribly memorable but that doesn't stop my watching them and hoping for the best.

The past three Monday nights have offered the following: "L'Inhumaine" (1923) which I kind of hated when I saw it at the National Film Theatre a while back (http://prettypinkpattyspictures.blogspot.co.uk/2006/04/l-1924.html), but it was worth another watch for its splendid Art Deco design.  The second (much more) rarity was "Pest in Florenz" (1919); this obviously translates as 'The Plague in Florence' and was a delightful telling of how licentious aristos and clergy received their comeuppance for their loose living by 'The Pest' embodied in a dead-eyed walking female. It reminded me in many ways of Corman's "The Masque of the Red Death" but without its glorious colour and Vincent Price. Most recently there was "Die Stadt der Millonen" (1923), a documentary love-letter to Berlin, with some interesting cinematography, but not a patch on Walter Ruttman's 1927 "Berlin, Symphony of a Great City". Next Monday's offering is "Chronicle of the Grey House" (1925) which I await with bated breath... sort of! 

The 1965 re-watch was Vittorio De Sica's "Marriage Italian Style" of which I seem to have two copies for some reason. This is not the joke-fest of the earlier "Divorce Italian Style" but a semi-serious look at a non-marriage. The movie was Oscar-nominated for best foreign film and for best actress for Sophia Loren in the lead. I have never counted how many movies she made with Marcello Mastroianni but they are numerous and memorable for their effortless chemistry. This one traces their relationship over twenty-two years from their first meeting in a brothel during World War II where she plays a wide-eyed and terrified seventeen-year old through their on-off relationship over the years. Mastroianni plays moneyed Lothario Domenico who always returns to Loren's Filumena for a bit of 'how's your father'. He moves her out of the brothel and into a sumptuous flat where she is expected to tender to his senesccent mother; he also employs her to run several of his bakery businesses. When she learns that he is due to marry the latest of his popsies, she feigns a fatal illness forcing him to compassionately marry her on her would-be deathbed (from which she rises triumphant).

And so it goes over the years with Domenico ever in the background between his many liaisons until lawyers annul their marriage on the grounds of her deceit. No worry she retorts, your money has helped me to raise my three sons -- 'only one of which is yours'! This sends him into a flap to discover which is his son and heir, only for the movie to move forward to the totally expected happy ending. Loren gives a virtuoso performance as she moves between na├»ve innocent, strutting tart, and devoted earth mother, embodying the many sides of womankind. As for Mastroianni, well Marcello is always the cheeky, twinkling Marcello that we know and love. After his early masterpieces, this may be one of De Sica's finest late offerings, along with "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" (1970). 

Friday, 15 May 2015

Conundrums...

Why is it that some Fridays I look back on my week's viewing and can't grit my teeth to write about one or even two movies in some depth? Why is it that I struggle to remember even a small detail about some of the flicks that flash by my jaded eyes? Why, you may well ask, do I watch so many forgettable films? And why when a worthy title begs for some insightful analysis do I shy away? I don't actually plan to answer any of these questions today, but will fall back on my answer to previous 'barren' weeks -- to briefly comment on some of the week's contenders for blog glory:

Let's start with a few of Sky's boring, boring, boring premieres. The two that have faded into oblivion only days after watching them are "The Hooligan Factory" about an old-time football yobbo taking a youngster under his wing as some sort of lost-son surrogate and "Deliver Us from Evil" a cross between a policier and supernatural hokum. Then there was "Sex Tape" with Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel in an idiotic chase to retrieve copies of their aging lust, inadvertently sent to all and sundry. Desperate, if you ask me. "Keeping Rosy" which played like a British TV Movie was marginally more interesting with Maxine Peake's life spinning out of control after she accidentally kills her cleaning-lady and finds the char's child parked in the back of her car and nothing but champagne in the fridge. A rather nicely constructed nightmare for a totally unsympathetic heroine. As for "The Devil's Knot", I'll be dipped to justify this film even being made since the same story has been dealt with in depth in the three "Paradise Lost" documentaries and "West of Memphis" --teenaged goths unjustly imprisoned for so-called ritual kiddie killings.

Other channels offered some watchable fodder mixed in with the standard made-for-television dross (although "The Devil's Teardrop" was a superior offering in the latter category.) "Bunraku" (2011) was a feast for the eyes with its mash-up of spaghetti Westerns, samurai actioners, video games, anime, and more, with a surprisingly starry A-list cast. However the colourful staging began to pall half-way into its two-hour running time, undermined by the somewhat incomprehensible plot. "Safe" (2012) starring the inexplicably popular and money-spinning action star Jason Statham (I do wish he would learn to shave) had him entering into the fray between nasty Russian gangsters, fiendish oriental gambling kings, and corrupt cops, as he tries to protect a little Chinese girl with an eidetic memory for important numbers. I didn't (or couldn't) count the number of bodies Statham dispatched, but it's amazing there were any baddies left in New York when he finished. And what ever became of the Mafia? I especially liked the fact that one of the Chinese villains was that nice Wu out of Grimm (one of the few serials I faithfully watch). No kind words, however, for "Soldiers of Fortune" (also 2012) with Christian Slater (he once had a career!) shepherding thrill-seeking millionaires into actual war-zones -- largely spoiled by the prominent role given to what must have been the producer's or director's girlfriend.

Then there were the 'golden oldies' or at least two of them along with two now rather tarnished early talkies. "Salome" (1928) is always worth a look for its visuals with Natacha Rambova's sets and costumes evoking Aubrey Beardsley and the would-be actress Nazimova throwing her all into this Wildean folly as she is spurned by John the B. "Beggars of Life" (also 1928) is another worthy watch, if only for the charismatic Louise Brooks spending half the film disguised as a boy as she is on the run from a murder charge and fending off the lecherous approaches of Wallace Beery. No, they don't make them like these anymore! Against these two 'classics', "Ten Nights in a Barroom" (1931) -- it felt more like ten months -- had little to recommend it as an upright man succumbs to the perils of booze and his sickly little daughter must plead "please come home Daddy" before being knocked unconscious by a rogue whiskey bottle. The other pre-code movie was "Blood Money" with George Bancroft as an iffy bail bondsman and Judith Anderson, of all people, as a vaguely femme fatale. The highpoint of this movie for me were the two appearances of chanteuse Blossom Seeley, a kind of cross between Mae West and Al Jolson.

That's not the lot, but it will certainly do for now, as I face another week of who knows what delights....   

Friday, 8 May 2015

Moebius (2013)

Since the coming of sound to motion pictures there have been but a handful of 'silent' movies, where there may be some music and/or sound effects -- much like the early transition films between silents and talkies -- but no (or very little) spoken dialogue. Titles that spring to mind include Aki Kaurismaki's "Jura" (1999), the wonderful nearly dialogue-free Hungarian flick "Huckle" (2002), of course the Oscar-winning "The Artist" from 2011, and the delightful Spanish movie "Blancanieves" from the following year. Also, I can just about recall seeing actor Ray Milland's directorial debut "A Man Alone" (1955) where his Western hero had no dialogue at all for the first half of the film.

However none of these exercises in style prepared me for this new 'silent' film from cult Korean director Kim Ki-duk, which might actually mollify subtitle-hating cinema-goers. He has been a prize-winner in Berlin, Venice, and Cannes, and has given movie-lovers a challenging catalogue of titles, from his early movie "The Isle" (certainly censored here for the painful things the heroine did to herself with fish-hooks), the elegant and elegiac "Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter...Spring" (2003), the smart "3-Iron" (2004), and more recently the fraught mother/son drama "Pieta" (2012). The above title, his 19th or 20th directorial outing, was actually initially banned in his own homeland and it is not difficult to understand why.

It is not because the film has neither dialogue nor music, but because of its very controversial subject matter. It's not possible to discuss the movie without certain spoilers and a brief summary of the plot: briefly a married couple are at daggers drawn in a loveless marriage, and their teenaged son seems indifferent to both of them. However the wife reaches boiling point when she observes her husband shagging his mistress -- the shopkeeper from across the way -- in his car outside her window. What does she do? Well she tries to castrate him in his sleep, but when he manages to kick her away, she successfully does the same to their sleeping son and eats the cut-off! From then on we have a selection of scenes featuring rape, mutilation, ridicule, sexuality, self-abuse, penis transplants, and incest. There may be no dialogue in this film but there are plenty of gasps and groans of both pain and pleasure.

If the viewer manages to survive the opening horrors, the film continues to pique one's curiosity to discover just where it is going. It is certainly well-acted by the main cast of three. It was not until I double-checked the credits that I realised that the wife and mistress were both played by the same actress, who looks completely different in the two roles, although both characters seemed to flash their substantial embonpoint and tight-knickered crotches with gleeful abandon. I will refrain from any more spoilers regarding the action or denouement, but will quote the director's own words about the film. He said, "We are not free from physical desire for our entire life; we either self-torture, maltreat, or become maltreated -- and in the middle of all this lies our genitals". He goes on to claim that our whole body is a sexual organ and he includes scenes where a climax is reached by vigorous self-abrasion of 'non-sexual' body parts or by the pain of knife-gouging. Behind this is meant to be some sort of Buddhist message that one must try to deny both desire and ego. The action is book-ended by a man kneeling in the street before a spot-lit head of Buddha in a shop window (and a similar head at home hides the knife used to inflict the damage mentioned above); it is suggested that the figure dressed as a monk in the final scene can well smile beatifically for the first time in the movie, since he is now finally free from any sexual urges.

The title presumably refers to the mathematical twisted strip, a loop where time has no beginning and no end -- presumably another Buddhist precept. This film is anything but an easy watch but if you are able to take in shock after shock, you may enjoy this outing from the eclectic Mr Kim.  

Friday, 1 May 2015

The Salvation (2014)

The Western is alive and well and living in Denmark! This European take on the western genre, a la the spaghetti westerns of yore, was finally released here a few weeks ago. The first review I read didn't sound that promising, but further critics managed to pique my curiosity, so off we went; however, like so many new and potentially more interesting releases than the latest Marvel bang-whizz, the film is no longer showing widely -- down to only one central London cinema -- and will probably disappear shortly from live showings. This is a great pity as the director Kristian Levring has displayed a finely-tuned understanding of the genre's conventions and has embodied these brilliantly in his protagonist Mads Mikkelsen's determined, set-in-stone features. His film may be somewhat derivative in its story-line, but it is a definitely cool addition to the ranks of great westerns.

Although it is an English-language movie, much of the opening section  and occasional later scenes are in Danish. Mikkelsen and his brother have emigrated to America, veterans of the mid-19th Century wars; after seven years' hard slog he has finally sent for his wife and young son. His joy on seeing them again is short-lived, as the two ruffians who force their way onto their stagecoach are drunk, uncouth, and violent. After trying to molest his wife and grabbing the son with a knife to his throat, they throw him from the coach. Heartbroken, he plods through the barren countryside, finally finding first his son's corpse, then his wife's, and finally the stage's driver. Grabbing the latter's rifle, he happily kills the pair.

Reaching the homestead where he is joined by his brother, he buries his family and decides to sell up and move on. In town he is offered a desultory sum for the property from the mayor-cum-undertaker, Jonathan Pryce. In the meantime the brother of one of the two dead men rides into town, a charismatic turn from Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the embodiment of evil, and demands that the community deliver his brother's killer by sunset, blithely killing several of the townsfolk as an example of what will happen to them if his revenge is thwarted. The town seems to be populated by a bunch of cowards, straight out of "High Noon", so Pryce together with the weaselly minister-cum-sheriff Douglas Henshall finger our hero and arrest the brothers. Mikkelsen is handed over to Morgan and his gang (including his second-in-command Eric Cantona) for some gratuitous torture. Eventually rescued by his faithful brother the pair escape, but while our near-death hero recovers his strength, the baddies capture and kill his brother, leading to further resolves of revenge and retribution and the movie's blood-soaked denouement.

The second most interesting character in this melodrama is played by the French actress Eva Green, who has had a fascinating career in English-speaking films and who previously co-starred with Mikkelsen in "Casino Royale". Here she plays the widow of Morgan's brother after whom he has always lusted and whom he ravishes with great enthusiasm. Her backstory is that her tongue has been cut out by vengeful Indians, with her face still bearing the scars, and she is mute. However her acting is nothing less than brilliant as we understand her every emotion through her expressive eyes and her generous heaving bosom. When she tries to escape her situation on the next train, Morgan's men drag her back to their base and are given leave to do what they wish with her body before slitting her throat. I should mention at this stage that although Morgan looks every inch the black villain that he is portraying, I found his mumbly, low-pitched delivery hard to understand; he put me in mind of Benicio del Toro's character in "The Usual Suspects".

It helps that the film's cinematography is superb evoking the feel of the best westerns of the past. It was actually filmed in South Africa, but the American West of John Ford looms over the chosen locations and we can just about believe that Monument Valley is around the corner.
Highly recommended.