Sunday, 31 March 2013

Easter Special: White Rabbits and March Hares

Rabbits have proved to be a popular theme for this blog, so in lieu of better ideas, why not return to the well this easter? A White Rabbit is a driving force throughout Lewis Carroll's classic satirist fairy tale Alice In Wonderland. Carroll's story has prevailed so long since it offers something in equal measures to children and adults. In addition to rabbits there are bounds of other memorable characters and contents from nonsensical wordplay to studies of varying states of madness throughout the story (as well as it's sequel Alice's Adventures Through The Looking Glass). With such a bountiful subject matter, filmmakers through decades have been able to pick 'n mix contents for adaptations as they have chosen.

With Alice, colorful surprises are plenty, not unlike with what you get from easter eggs. But like easter eggs and their toys, the qualities vary from delicious treats and delightful wonders to saccharine yucks and grade-C toy-making. I'll take a look at three live action adaptations of Carroll's story, varying in quality. Happy Easter!

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (UK, 1972)
Director: William Sterling

This British adaptation seems to be a work against the Americanization of Carroll's story. It emphasizes the language, puns and jokes in a very British manner. The movie rolls out famous comedians in minor cameos, and does songs a plenty. Yet, it doesn't offer much more of anything than its American counter parts, say Disney's animated adaptation, already have.

Besides a few chills down your spine, at least.
Alice (Fiona Futterton) is played by a full-grown woman here, trying to pass off as a young child. The girl falls asleep on a picnic (with Lewis Carroll himself, played by Michael Jayston) and she dreams of chasing the white rabbit down its hole to a magical land of talking animals and living playing cards and such. Meeting various occupants of Wonderland, she eventually finds herself in the court of the King and Queen of Hearts (Dennis Price and Flora Robson).

The animals are presented here with actors in (quite creepy) fur suits and make up. The film plays up the whimsy and glorifies the oddness, yet comes off as boring. The songs are dull, the staging bad, the acting, particularly by Futterton atrocious. Spike Milligan and Michael Hordern make the biggest fools of themselves, running around in stupid griffin and turtle suits, goofing around just because. The joyless film comes off as a heartless and disposable adaptation. Off with its head!

Alice (a.k.a. Něco z Alenky), (Czechoslovakia/Switzerland/UK/BRD, 1988)
Director: Jan Švankmajer

"This is a story for children - perhaps", exclaims the narration at the beginning of this half-animated classic. Indeed, while kids can enjoy is, they have little need for a film such as this, since most of their daily entertainment is filled with unnatural wonders anyway. This is more pointed at adults who have lost their imagination and a sense of wonder with their mundane lives.

The first feature film by the legendary Czech stop motion animator Jan Švankmajer dismisses the set-up of treating Lewis Carroll's story like a fairy tale. His animation re-imagines the story to take place in a mundane environment. Characters and situations are ordinary household objects or toys, brought to life by a child's imagination. It has a dreamy logic to it, wherein anything can happen.

Alice (Kristýna Kohoutová) sees a stuffed white rabbit rise up from its display case and run away. She follows the critter to a writing desk drawer. She consumes cookies she finds that make her grow, as well as drinking ink makes her shrink. Soon, she will have to defend her actions against enraged animals. Stuffed socks and stockings make for caterpillars, cardboard cut-outs for playing card soldiers and royalty. Many animals presented are a blend of taxidermy subjects, bones and toys.

While the young Kohoutová is quite sweet in her role, Švankmajer isn't one to play up too much of cuteness. His characters can pull ugly faces, act intimidatingly or petty and are generally more of a menace, yet not in a scary way. Their carefully done movements are different for every character, and the animation is incomplete enough to give an otherworldly impression. Therein lies the director's biggest charm. The film is edgy enough to be exciting without flashy colors or changing scenery. The movie doesn't show too much, and lets the viewer fill out the blanks with his or her own imagination.

Strange, charming, endlessly surprising and joyful, this is the best Alice In Wonderland adaptation by quite a wide margin.


Alice in Wonderland (USA, 2010)
Director: Tim Burton

Burton's blockbusting belly-landing is a Socratic ideal of everything that is wrong with Hollywood today. It's a flashy re-imagining of a popular story, with more emphasis done on appearances than on story, character development or any contents. Colorful, CGI work (also in 3D) hides the hollowness of it all, and the story is so hallow, it brutalizes Carroll's ideas to a cheap Lord of the Rings knock-off. Marketability is the king here, off with their heads to any artistic endeavors.

The film passes itself as a sort-of sequel to Carroll's events. Alice (Mia Wasikowska) has grown to be 19, and is to be married. Yet she has other ideas and runs off. Encountering the White Rabbit, she follows it down the rabbit hole again, down to Underland (which is what Wonderland is called in this piece of shit).

Meeting her old acquaintances, Alice learns that she is a Chosen One, a legendary hero that will defeat the reign of the tyrant Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and her man-eating Jabberwocky. Writing this synopsis down, I still can't believe how much this sounds like a committee had written this in order to cash in on the most profitable trends going on at Hollywood.

Burton, always one for more visual approach than a coherent storyteller, of course revels in this. The re-imaginings of famous characters from the story have jumped straight out of his drawings. And they do resemble a junior high school student's margin drawings. But they are marketable, so whatever.

The film does have a good cast, even if Burton doesn't bother directing them that much. Alan Rickman as The Caterpillar and Stephen Fry as Chesire Cat in particular are so great choices for their roles, one has to wonder why anyone else didn't get the idea before. Michael Gough has his final film role as the voice of the Dodo. Crispin Glover in all his craziness is a perfect fit for the Knave of Hearts. Pity all these character actors are interchangeable within the story. The only minor character whose role is emphasized within the story (for better or for worse) is of course Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter. Who, in the name of shallow quirkiness is named, obnoxiously and pointlessly, Tarrant Hightopp.

Depp has grown to be such a major star, he gets to do pretty much whatever he wants on the set. So, here he goofs around as if there was no one directing him at all. His horrible Scottish accent comes on and off at points. Much of made of him having to become a warrior in the dire times, since Undeland needs it. Depp's final dance sequence is so dreadful, I'd like to wipe that memory out of my mind entirely.

There are a few amusing enough jokes within all of this. But as a whole it's loud, obnoxious and altogether indifferent. And inexplicably, this marketing ploy worked like a charm. The movie made over a billion dollars profit for its parent company Disney. O tempora, O mores.

★ 1/2

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Docpoint 2013

Room 237

Not too long ago, another of Helsinki's biggest film festivals took place. As always with DocPoint, the focus was on the year's most exciting, thought-provoking documentary films from around the world. There were several interesting movies to be seen, and it's took a while, but here's a brief look into this year's crop.

The Gatekeepers (Israel/France/Germany/Belgium)
Director: Dror Moreh

Will there ever be a chance for peace in the Middle East? Impossible to say, but at least not if one doesn't study both points of view of Israelites and Palestines. While at first glance this documentary about Israeli chiefs of Security seems to be on Israel's side, it provides criticism to the endless cycle of violence as well.

The film succeeds in contrasting the personalities of all the former leaders of Shoh Bet, or Shabak, the Central Israeli Security Agency. They provide insights on how the nation viewed various threats and wars. The endless cycle of violence has made the men develop a hard shell around them, yet there are points of them reminiscing bloodshed that are quite emotional nevertheless.

The stories of these men are filled with exciting details, confidential information, intrigue and contradiction. Their stories help one to understand at least Israel's dire need to keep its face and appear threatening and all-powerful. It's one of the reasons why the two sides can't really come to terms. This is an important reminder of how a life of ordering massacres affects the human psyche, and what comes from a nation that treats each of its foreign problems by reacting with more violence.


The Queen of Versailles (USA/UK/Netherlands/Denmark)
Director: Lauren Greenfield

Here's a story of a wealthy family that lost everything. While this story's true, it might as well be a sitcom. The main characters are self-centered, dim, greedy, oblivious to any realities in life, and, sure enough, in a constant state of Arrested Development.

Before 2008, real estate billionaire David Siegel and his trophy wife Jacqueline loved to flash around their cash. They build skyscrapers, pay to have their daughter win beauty pageants and in the most outrageous move, build a multi-billion dollar mansion in the same vein as Louis XVI's Versailles Palace in France. Yet with the economic collapse, the Siegels lose their fortune. For the most part the film features them grasping onto last remaining shreds of their wealth.

Since the Siegel's are rich sleazebags, they refuse to recognize the moral of the story - the gambling, borderline illegal actions and political horsetrade having gotten them into the mess they are in. When the shoe's on the other foot, they blame others for destroying them and attempt to bounce back by doing the same mistakes again and again. It's incredible how dumb, vain and all-around unlikeable the main couple comes off, but it just makes the movie more intriguing. They don't care the least.

This movie is a testament to this age, a story on how people overemphasize surfaces, appearances and superficial values. They delude themselves to think they are happy when they can raise envy and outrage. But underneath all that surface is but a husk of a soul, one that has a child's idea on how society works, refuses to take responsibility and is doomed to repeat the same mistakes.


The Pervert's Guide to Ideology (UK/Ireland)
Director: Sophie Fiennes

Leftist philosophy superstar Slavoj Žižek delivers another video essay using film clips from old movies, self-irony and societal critique. And, as always it is highly entertaining. This time around the lovable lisping Slovak talks about how Ideology has shaped the world around us, and can be seen in various cultural product we wouldn't necessarily expect to. Case in point are movies, both old and new, obscure and blockbusters, documentaries and fantasy.

While The Pervert's Guide to Cinema had (albeit a flimsy) thread with which to follow, this time around Žižek seems to ramble on whatever comes to mind. That's not to say the film is sloppy, on the contrary the scenes replicationg various film styles are done carefully and to a good comical effect. A lot of the things discussed are quite familiar to anyone who has ever read an article by him, seen his lecture or the documentary film Žižek! I, of course am guilty of all three, but still I enjoyed immensely to hear these theories again in another, more entertaining format. Whether I agree or not is another thing, but the strength of Žižek is that he doesn't pander but provokes and speaks out his mind. Thus, it's up to the viewer to decide what to make of it.

★★★ 1/2

Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present (USA)
Directors: Matthew Akers, Jeff Dupre

The conceptual performance artist Marina Abramović has had a long career of putting herself into her art since the 1970s. She has done this to such extent that without art at 63 years of age, she feels like a quite lonely, vunerable and uncertain person. The film chronicles her preparation fot the retrospective of her career at New York's MoMA. But it isn't just a case of putting art work on a gallery. Abramović also prepares to sit and stare at the museum guests all day, every day for three whole months.

Abramović's career has much been characterized by the search for boundaries of art. Not only allowing art lovers to look at art, but looking personally back at them is a concept as simple as there is. On a smaller scale, it could be done by anyone. Doing it with thousands of museum-goers day in, day out takes a lot of courage and endurability. But when does meeting another person, not saying one word, become art? Is it only when the other party is a respected artist by profession? The surrounding of a retrospective adds up plenty to the work, it puts on the emphasis that the artist is still present in all of her past work.

The film is ponderous and heartfelt, and like its focus, almost unbearably intimate. Just the sight of Abramović's stare brings some guests to the brink of tears. Documentarists Akers and Dupre explain Abramović's history extensively and understandably. The film is not qute as experimental as its subject matter, but it does feel like a real experiment, and makes ponder both the nature of art and humanity by itself. Not a small feat.


Room 237 (USA)
Director: Rodney Ascher

The ominous, creepy atmosphere of the 1980 film The Shining, as well as the well-known perfectionism of director Stanley Kubrick, have made the movie larger than life. Since Kubrick tended to refuse to put all the pieces together, there was much left for individual interpretations. Thus, there are plenty of people obsessing over the film and coming up with several outlandish renditions of its meaning.

The documentary is illustrated almost solely with film clips, mostly from The Shining, but also from Kubrick's other films, as well as unrelated movies which deal with cinema-viewing and audience perception like Lamberto Bava's Demons. The interviewees are only present by sound and they are not recognized with texts or anything. It is a democratic approach, putting all the interpretations to the same line, whether observant or bug-out crazy.

Obsessing over the movie, some people have spotted out odd visual clues that provoke imagination, such as the unnatural geography of the Overlook Hotel. The theories surrounding the film's horrors sexual nature, or the retread of American bloodshed from history, seem kind of plausible. And then again, there are people who insist Kubrick framed the moon landings and uses the film to confess this to his wife. Danny's Apollo 11 sweater on one scene is the key proof of this cuckoo theory. Nevertheless, it is intriguing to hear both these accounts, and all in all the film both puts The Shining into a new light, all the while not taking anything from the mystical aura of the masterpiece. On the contrary, adding up to it!


Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir (UK/Italy/Germany)
Director: Laurent Bouzereau

As controversial as directors come, there's no denying Roman Polanski is a character as fascinating as his films. This documentary is an attempt by his long-time friend Laurent Bouzereau to allow the man to speak his mind himself. Polanski spills his life story while on house arrest in Switzerland, waiting whether he will be handed over to US authorities for imprisonment or not.

Predictably, the story hinges on the major three disasters of Polanski's life: Fleeing the Nazi regime as a child, the relationship with his wife Sharon Tate and her consequent brutal murder by the Manson Family, and the director's actions on Jack Nicholson's house with a drugged-up minor, as well as the travesty of a trial that followed. Polanski is a humble man who doesn't attempt to shine his own shield too much and carries his tragedies as well as his successes like his current wife and children. Yet for a film titled Film Memoir, the movie glosses over Polanski's body of work in favor of a character study. His films stem from his private life, so you can't entirely seperate them, but I for one would've been eager to hear more insights on making a large number of brilliant films that disturb and challenge to this day.


Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap (UK/USA)
Directors: Ice-T, Andy Baybutt

The rapper that brought you Cop Killer is convinced that hip hop saved his life from life on the streets. Since Ice-T owes the music a debt, he attempts to serve it by going around his peers, rap legends and super stars, asking what makes the music matter. The array of artists is quite impressive, from MC Melle Mel through Ice Cube and Chuck D all the way to superstars of the modern era like Kanye West and Eminem.

This is another one in the series of music documentaries that attempt to serve as a gateway to a world of certain genre. It attempts to serve the field as evenly as possible (yet focuses on the most commercial side), leaves out niche groups and offers little information to true aficionados of rap's history. It's always nice to see music legends talk about their work and how they create their verses, so it's an entertaining piece but far from true art mastery.


Men At Lunch (Ireland, 2012)
Director: Seán Ó Cualáin

The famous photograph about the building of New York, hanging on the walls of bars around the world, has inspired this historical documentary. The movie attempts to find out who were the men sitting on a girder on top of the Big Apple eating their lunch without any fear of falling. Thus, it is a story about labor in the time of the Great Depression, and by extent, immigration.

Unfortunately, since the film is Irish, it is very biased. It attempts to prove a confession heard in one pub to be conclusive, while newspapers and competitions have come to different solutions that are dismissed entirely. Likewise, the story is quite thin since there is little evidence on who's who in the picture. The lazy, archival storytelling style is one for sunday afternoon TV documentaries, but doesn't really work on a big canvas. This could've been an interesting detective story, now it's as bland and unjournalistic as they come.

★ 1/2

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Review: Oz - The Great and Powerful

A look into Sam Raimi's gigantic new fairy tale epic and where it stands on a larger scale. Very minor spoilers will follow, but won't probably affect your viewing pleasure.


Postmodern takes on fairy tales are in, that much anyone with eyes knows. In fact, the only thing that has stopped a revisionist interpretation of L. Frank Baum's The Land of Oz series is something different. One film version based on those stories is more famous and popular than all the books Baum ever wrote. And that's, of course, Warner Bros.'s 1939 Technicolor marvel The Wizard of Oz. Any new film version must be tied to that film in one way or the other, because that's what anyone knows and pictures whenever Oz is mentioned.

Baum's books are public domain nowadays, but Disney in its infinite wisdom has since trademarked some of the most famous aspects of it. The studio tried a direct sequel with 1985's creepy, oddball and altogether post-apocalyptic Return to Oz. I have a great deal of admiration for that sole directoral role of sound engineer legend Walter Murch, if only because it didn't spoon feed children with formulaic, cutesy, candy-colored vomit but rather went for something altogether weirder and more disturbing. That movie resembles a horrifying fever dream, with Dorothy starting out in a mental institution, and coming up with a more grotesque account of the events she had at Oz the last time around. Mortal peril awaits at any corner.

Anyhow, that film sadly bombed and it took this long for Disney to have the guts to try again. Now they tried their hands at a prequel, explaining the origins of many aspects from the 1939 movie. So, in a very clear business-move, they copy the formula of their mega-hit Alice In Wonderland. Have the movie in 3D, hire prolific actors and do super-bright visuals, all leading up to a Lord of the Rings-style epic battle in the end. Last, but not least, they hired a quirky, inventive and popular director with a signature style and a fortune made in superhero movies: this time one Mr. Sam Raimi. And thereupon lies the movie's greatest strengths.

Storybook motions

As in the original film, things are set up in the B&W scenes that are mirrored later in Oz.
Part-time con man and womanizer Oscar Diggs (James Franco) performs magic at the circus under the name Oz. He is weary of tiny audiences who don't realize he's destined for greatness. He will also have to admit the limits of his skills. One instance of porking a wrong woman leads him to escape the circus with a balloon. Of course he runs into a tornado and is whisked away into a land of wonder.

After a crash landing, he meets cute a pretty young witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis). She explains that the land is looking for a Wizard to end the tyranny of a wicked witch. Treasures and glory interest Oz and he sets to free the land of the villain, even though he isn't quite sure on how to defeat a witch, or even of her identity. Someone is pulling the strings and sending terrible bat-baboons around. It may be a woman in a far-off land (Michelle Williams), Theodora's sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) or even Theodora herself. While searching for the witch, Oz encounters new friends who join him on their quest, including a flying monkey called Finley (Zach Braff), a porcelain girl (Joey King) and a grumpy midget (Tony Cox).


While the story has a lot of air in it, where characters aren't quite sure on where to go or what to do, Raimi manages to make the film quite an enjoyable ride. The problem is, he gets a lot more chances to play around with his signature sense of humor in the black & white beginning of the film. The further movie goes along, the more conventional and familiar it gets.

Another clear parallel of the movie's themes is Martin Scorsese's Hugo. Both movies (and directors) have an affection of the early days of cinema, when it was still all a matter of magic and unbeforeseen technology. It's a story of a power of cinema, and I especially like that in the end, it is used in spite of violence and bloodshed. Cinema brings peace and ends a battle without any casualities. It's a good break of form in an otherwise pretty formulaic action movie. As a counterbalance then, the end scene after that takes way too long.

Oz Princess Bubble Ride will be the video game adaptation for the girls, War of Oz hack 'n slash for the boys.

Raimi has spoken before in interviews how he wants to make films that feel like an amusement park ride, and with the modern 3D technology he brings this idea a lot more forward. One POW waterfall-falling scene in particular is something straight out of a carnival 4D-cinema showcase reel. Plenty of times Raimi allows elements to leave the borders of the screen, particularly in the beginning when he plays around with a much smaller aspect ratio. Much later, in the climatic end battle, the much-expected spears to the audience's eye of course make an appearance. The 3D here is meant simply to showcase and entertain, not to immerse the audience or do anything particularly new. Many new 3D films don't feel that special any more other than the pain from wearing the classes, but Raimi is desperate to make an impression.

The Oz-born's

Luckily, there's only one song in the entire movie.

Oz has enough of weird little critters, magical beings and occupants in general that it feels like a populated land. Luckily, Raimi also avoids georgelucasism of filling every image with as much CGI creatures as possible in the hopes of some that stick. However, now you'd be hard-pressed to find any that are truly memorable. Baum had more imaginative characters in his books that are not utilized properly.

The meat of the movie is in the magicians. Raimi has also been always the talent to pick good actors for their parts. This skill twindled a bit with Spider-Man movies, but here, he's back on form. The three leading ladies are particularly a sight for the sore eyes with the colorful suits and the 3D effects. The function of the females of the story is to steer a hapless male around, running errands or trying to meet their wishes, so it's not exactly feministic, though. Nevertheless, the leading ladies perform their cartoonish roles with just the right amount of ridiculousness and earnestness. The mixture of beauty and talent is great in all three. Best of 'em all, as always, is the lovely Michelle Williams.

The Great Campbellio - oh. No.

Franco is a good choice for a Sam Raimi lead, and especially in the beginning he seems to channel young Bruce Campbell. His pompousness, comical exaggerated gestures and larger-than-life persona make him likeable even in the beginning where he's quite an asshole. The fast-talking, borderline screwball scenes feel very comfortable for Raimi. Perhaps he'd like to do a Coen brothers' -style old-timey comedy next? Sadly, the film's success suggests the director won't be leaving Oz anytime soon.


USA, 2013
Language: English
Director: Sam Raimi
Screenplay: Mitchell Kapner, David Lindsay-Abaire
Cinamatography: Peter Deming
Starring: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff

Friday, 8 March 2013

The Heroic Female: Michelle Yeoh

Hey ladies! Happy International Women's Day! As it is, cinema is still more or less a boy's club in many parts of the world and both women filmmakers and films about women are still at a minority. This, of course varies from culture to culture. One of the healthiest female images in films comes from Asia, in particular the liberal (compared to mainland China) Hongkong. The Hongkong film industry has raised plenty of strong female role models, both feminine in nature and powerful, independent individuals. The biggest female movie stars include Anita Mui, Zhang Ziyi and Maggie Chung. But the biggest, best of them is Michelle Yeoh, the action goddess. But are her films actually so feminine as they appear on first glance? I take a look at her three early-90s action films to make sure.

Wing Chun (1994)
Director: Yuen Woo-ping

Yim Wing Chun is a mythical figure from China's history, a developer of the wing chun school of kung fu. So who better to tell the story of how young Wing saved her village from bandits and got married than Michelle Yeoh at her kick-assiest and the legendary fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping.

This poster from Ghana doesn't quite do justice to Yeoh's looks
Wing Chun is a respected woman in a remote small village due to her fighting skills. Yet the male-centric society annoys her since she is supposed to get married and settle down when she would rather help her father work. Thus, she tends to dress as a man to work in the mill without being pestled. When bandits attempt to raid her village, Wing Chun single-handedly defeats them and drives them back to their master.

She also takes it upon herself to protect a woman she saved from the bandits, Charmy (Catherine Hung Yan). Charmy starts to work at Wing's mill and bakery. Due to her beauty, Charmy has plenty of suitors attempting to woo her. But after a fight for her honor, one beaten suitor also sets his eyes on Wing herself. Meanwhile, the leader of the bandits, Leung Pok To (Donnie Yen) plans to arrive to conquer the village himself and beat Wing in the process.

Like wu xia films tend to be,  Wing Chun is a blend of romantic melodrama, fast-paced fight scenes, crude farce humor and a few historical, political points thrown to the mix. While Wing is a strong, independent woman that defies the society's expectations, the film does have its share of crude sexual innuendo as well. Charmy is a typical damsel-in-distress, and the dumb men of the village like nothing more but to ogle at her. The film has some homosexual tension between the tomboy and the girly girl, particularly since Wing dressed as a man is mistaken as Charmy's lover. Their friendship seems to be a bit intimate for them to fondle each others head and shoulders so.

"I'll show those chauvinist men by pulling this phallic object!"

The fights are of course beautiful, detailed and kinetic, and they utilize plenty of phallic objects such as a spear penetrating a wall. A scene featuring a crop grinder has the most sexual imagery. The dumb Chinese farce humor isn't something I'm incredibly fond of, but the things are kept relatively low-key here, so one can concentrate on the fight scenes and how lovely Michelle Yeoh is.


Once A Cop (Chao ji ji hua, 1992)
Director: Stanley Tong

This spin-off film from Jackie Chan's Supercop series is a bit more serious business than we've used to seeing. But Michelle Yeoh, returning as Jessica Yang, takes the confident lead and proves to be more than a match for euro-trash gangsters and Chinese terrorist groups. The action is kick-ass and plentiful, but the film is perhaps a bit too long.

Jessica is sent to Hong Kong as an observer with a crack unit of the police attempting to take down an international terrorist cell. Hongkongese criminals are working together with a French terrorist (Alain Guernier) to pull off a major heist in the City Bank. Since her fellow officers are weak and unorganized, Yang soon forgets her role, taking a more active stance against the ruthless criminals. She also becomes involved with detective David Chang (Rongguang Yu), bent on capturing the terrorists. But it soon turns out he has a vendetta against the group since they killed his brother. What follows is a crash course between Yang Love and Chang Vengefulness.

Yeoh is at career-best form here. In the beginning she's seen in masculine military uniforms, seeming quite butch. But once she falls for Chang she starts to mellow out and become more feminine. That doesn't stop her high-kicking terrorists, even if the boys mostly do the shooting. One interesting scene shows her grab Chang's Playboy magazine and start to read with interest. The blurry lines of Yeoh's sexuality are here again, but she'll get turned. It's sad to have such paper-thin innuendo over a character that could be used so much better.

Once again, the Achilles' heel of the film is the comedy. I like the slapstick and all, but can't stand the funny faces, farce, and in the gravest crime of all, men dressed up as women. Jackie Chan also does an embarrassing cameo in drag.


The Heroic Trio (Tong fong sam hop, 1992)
Directors: Johnny To, Ching Siu-Tung

The most unique of the three films on display here is a blend of Chinese folklore, science fiction, crime thriller and even a comic-book superhero movie. For it's a tale of three strong women who happen to have superpowers. They have the same powers as the three most famous female superheroes. Tung (Anita Mui) is The Wonder Woman, a strong, righteous and noble warrior, but with a secret identity. Chat (Maggie Chung) is Catwoman, the super-slick burglar and thief who also has incredible fight skills and can get out of tight spots. And Ching (Michelle Yeoh) is The Invisible Woman, who initially serves the evil warlock (Yen Shi-Kwan).

Bad girls get to have all the fun. Try converting her now!
The three super-heroines use their skills and powers in a very different ways. Wonder Woman attempts to stop the other two and their schemes at first, which makes the three fight each other for most of the running time. But in the end they realize that the Warlock's rising power threatends them all, and the three unite for a super team-up. The men, represented mostly by the police (Damian Lau and Paul Chun) are left to the sidelines. Their incompetence in solving baby-snatching crimes is what springs Wonder Woman into action in the first place. Their place later on is mostly to root for the good guys and to clean up after the bigger scrapes.

Presumably also to patch up her suit later on as well.
The film is thoroughly postmodern which is reflected in how the rise of the new age and the female superstars in the end defeats traditional magic in the story. The tight body-suits, blue lightning and innovative camera movements reflect comic books and anime series in a way that was copied numerous times to films ranging from Irma Vep to The Matrix to Underworld. The effects here are quite good, utilizing wires and practical effects rather than dull computer tricks its carbon copies later would do.

Maggie has nothing but contempt for Underworld, as anyone should.
The main problem with the film is that the goody-goody Mui is a bit bland while the badder girls are hotter and clearly have more fun. In the time where Hongkong was starting to drift back to mainland China, the story of building unity through a common history also rang true. It's not at all a deep film in any way, but it's quirky and fun and inventive and the three leads are as charismatic as ever. And they beat up an androgynous bastard. How's that for female empowerment!


Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Cruising Revisited

The Crime movie genre has some bona-fide classics that are easy to be recognized by anyone. These include your Film Noirs, Heats and Godfathers. But some of the more interesting films of the genre are treasured by some, and leave others completely cold. None more so, than French Connection director William Friedkin's 1980 joint Cruising. I'm even not that sure myself what to make of the film that seems more content in describing the New York gay leather clubs and subculture than it is of having a familiar plot or character arc. The film is certainly one of the most experimental in Friedkin's career, and thus warrants a closer look, however one wants to do it.

So... Revisited or Chew? Even this soon after creating the categories I'm at a bit of a loss on how to treat this movie. Chewisited! There may be spoilers.

The Face Value

Gerald Walker's novel Cruising was a hot property at Hollywood in the late 70's. The novel was based on a true story of a serial killer lurking homosexuals in the underground gay leather-culture circles. Oliver Stone was very eager to direct the book. The French Connection producer Philip D'Antoni was adamant that Friedkin should direct it. After the financial flop of Friedkin's film Sorcerer he agreed to look into it, and when there were a number of brutal unsolved murders in New York, he decided to do it. In a bit of a rare move for the director, he also took over the scripting duties. Thus he made sure Walker's story would not be twisted into a cutesy Hollywood story of good vs. evil and a happy ending to tie the bow.

For Friedkin's demand of reality, many of the film's gay club scenes were shot in actual leather bars, with the patrons being brought out as extras. As a weird coincidence, an actor in a minor role of The Exorcist was also imprisoned for actually murdering the gay film critic Addison Verrill. Naturally, Friedkin went to him for research of the mind of a gay serial killer. Later on, the actor also confessed to the murders Walker was describing in his novel, although the truth in these confessions is questionable. Never let it be said, however, that William Friedkin doesn't work for the authenticity of the milieu of his films.

The Plot

We follow everynight ordeals at gay bars for a while. After a steamy night out, man takes a new friend to his apartment. During sex, the stranger brutally kills him. Elsewhere, in a gay porn theatre, the stranger also stabs a random movie-goer. Body parts show up in the Hudson river and the police are clueless on the identity of the killer. Captain Edelson (Paul Sorvino) figures the best way to get information to capture the killer is to send a man undercover. The young, eager officer Steve Burns (Al Pacino) accepts to complete this mission, and settles to live in Greenwich Village under a new identity. At nights he goes to leather bars to observe the situation and ask about customers.

At first Burns thinks the job will be easy like a walk in the park. While he can't share work details with his girlfriend Nancy (Karen Allen), he remains close. But as he starts to go deeper and deeper undercover, the job also starts to strain the relationship. Burns becomes obsessed, but even his superiors are uncertain whether its for the capture of the serial killer, or if Burns has just been sucked in the gay subculture.

The Contents

As mentioned the film mostly deals with describing the New York gay leather clubs and subculture in the sleazy, pre-Giuliani times. Characters and events are less important and the film hasn't got a satisfying conclusion that would explain the mystery. The movie goes deliberately in circles, and the viewer is either caught up with it or not.

Pacino's Burns is an odd character, since we get so little information about him, and even those nuggets often seem to be contradictory. He doesn't seem to have problems being used as a bait. Many of the serial killer's victims look very similar to him, they are dark-haired young men with large eyes. Burns doesn't seem to mind this or have even the slightest hint of fear or care for himself. The film does hint he's willing to go deeper undercover than would ever be required for his job. And make no mistake, this is no euphemism. I mean gay sex here. Many times he's only shown to be interrupted by a chance.

For the most part of the film Burns seems to be playing a role or hiding under a facade. When he first enters the film, he's laughing (perhaps a bit nervously) at Captain Edelson's enquiries of his sexuality and seems to be most at ease here. After a few nights at gay night clubs Burns channels his frustrations to his sexual performance with Nancy. Later on, their sexual relationship seems to go dry. The end hints that he doesn't see her as sexually desirable any more, yet they both choose to play along with the parts they're supposed to.

That final scene arises more questions than it answers. Are those pieces of clothing Nancy is inspecting the same ones the killer used? Was Burns the serail killer all along? Or did he kill his friend and neighbor Ted's (Don Scardiano) violent lover Gregory (James Remar)? Perhaps Ted too?

I wouldn't try to fit the film's motif into such a tight little package. Those items Nancy examines are to be seen more symbolic. Throughout the film, we have seen that Burns has a bit of a violent streak. In the beginning he expresses it through sex. In the middle, he's disgusted on how violently his fellow officers treat captured rent boys. But towards the end, he shoots one suspect dead when he's attacking him with a knife. He has also made a lot of other moral compromises throughout the film, such as breaking into the suspect's house. This shooting is the final deed that pushes him entirely into the dark side. In the beginning he was comparable to the serial killer's victims. Naive, looking for a thrill, trying to keep his urges at bay until he needs them. But giving in to the violence, S&M sex and a grey moral code, he has made himself more like the killer himself. Nancy has a couple of nasty surprises in store for her.

The other side

The film takes itself and its subject quite seriously. The actual murder scenes are brutal, slow, painful shots of violence, not for the weak of stomach. The dangerousness of sex is emphasized. Friedkin does walk a fine line between damning the S&M culture entirely, although to me he doesn't cross it. Plenty of homosexual critics have analyzed otherwise so I'm not sure. Maybe the film IS offensive. The film has two clear comedic parts that have emphasis on how the film views the underground world.

The first is when Burns makes an attempt to learn the code used by rent boys in gay bars. He asks the salesman (a cameo by Powers Boothe) about them, and learns just the multitude of sex acts people are looking to do in those kinds of bars. If he had paid any attention to the salesman's speech, he would've gotten that yellow scarf in a back pocket means you're into water sports. But he goes to a bar wearing such a napkin, and understandably gets into a fight with a golden shower enthusiast.

This is Pacino as Burns still attempting to make the underground scene work for him, more than other ways. He figures any scarf will get him close enough to speak with bar prowlers and doesn't realize that the hanky itself is more or less a promise in these parts. There's no courting period. Or maybe he would secretly like to pee on gay people, or to just watch such an act happening and just can't manage to come to terms with this sudden urge. I wouldn't rule out that possibility, either.

The method actor Pacino always plays the best loose cops, since in interrogation scenes he often relies in surprising and confusing his opponent. Rather oddly, here his tactic seems to have a bulky black police come by dressed only in a thong and a cowboy hat to slap both him and the suspects around. This part takes the suspect, as well as the viewer of the movie, completely off-guard. Friedkin does have Burns's trait of not being afraid at any point of anything, not even making himself completely ridiculous. Yet at the same time, although it shouldn't this over-the-top comedy scene totally works.

The Legacy

During the time of its release, gay rights activists publicly panned the film and protested its release. This forced the studio to put a disclaimer in front of the film that announces that the leather bars are only a small portion of the gay culture and not all homosexuals are into S&M and rent boys. Still, the film's reputation to this day is of a homophobic relic, even if it's not entirely the case.

Critics panned the film widely and it was even nominated in the first annual Razzie awards for worst pictures. Friedkin was also nominated as the Worst Director, but so were Brian De Palma for Dressed to Kill and even Stanley Kubrick for The Shining. More than 30 years of hindsight really reveal what a sham those awards also are, even if luckily none of the prestigious nominees won.

Thanks in part for the controversy leg-up, the film was a modest success at the box office. However, it was by no means as big a hit as the studio expected from director of The Exorcist and The French Connection. One should also remember Friedkin came from the expensive flop of Sorcerer and was quickly fading into obscurity. For most of the 80's and 90's he would struggle for work. But when he did manage to fim a movie, it was always at least interesting. After all, also his biggest masterpiece, To Live And Die In L.A. was yet to come.


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