Short, Short Takes
It’s been a busy week for me, but I managed to fit in a bunch of movies; it’s just unfortunate that I haven’t had an equal amount of time to write about each and every one (not that I feel compelled to in some cases). It was kind of a disappointing week after last Sunday’s screening of The Secret Lives of Dentists
. Here are some brief write-ups of the movies I’ve seen in the last week and a half, in the order of viewing:
(d. Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pucini)
Given the subject matter, I guess the filmmakers did not want to make Crumb Redux
, which is too bad, because the documentary segments of the film were the most interesting, even considering the quality of Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis’s performances (I guess it was a Hope Davis week for me; man, did she really look like Joyce). The real Harvey Pekar is just such a compelling character, that my level of interest lagged whenever the docudrama were on screen (though I did enjoy Pekar’s voice over commentary during these scenes). The film’s mixture of documentary, docudrama, animation, and clips is a postmodern stew that serves to illustrate a central question that Harvey asks Joyce (I’ll have to paraphrase, it was over a week ago): “Am I a character who writes comic books, or a character in a comic book?” Allyn is right though, the film does kind of peter out in the humor department, and the ending is fairly conventional, though they are kind of constrained by actual events.
Sarah and Son
(d. Dorothy Arzner)
A creaky melodrama from 1930, by one of the few female directors to work during the classical studio era. For a Pre-Code drama, this one was pretty staid; I was expecting something more salacious. A nicely modulated performance by Ruth Chatterton, however (I liked the way she adjusted her character’s Austrian accent).
(d. Woody Allen)
Ever since his last great film, 1997’s Deconstructing Harry
, Woody Allen has been seriously coasting; it’s not that I haven’t found something of interest in his subsequent films (I actually thought that both Sweet and Lowdown
and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
were good films, and hey, I even kind of liked Celebrity
), but the spark just wasn’t there. It’s like Allen is making his one film a year out of habit; he needs to rest and rejuvenate. Anything Else
is no different; it’s not a bad film, but it really only comes alive when Allen himself was on-screen. Here he plays Dobel, the paranoid lunatic/philosopher mentor to Jason Bigg’s young writer; Allen’s comic timing is sharp as ever when it comes to his philosophical bon mots disguised as classic one liners. The rest of the cast tries, Jason Biggs, like Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity
, even adapts some Woody-mannerisms (though not to that extreme). Despite the Moby playing in the background of the Manhattan party scene, Allen’s grasp of twenty somethings seems tenuous at best; personally, I can’t remember the last time someone at a party tried to strike up a conversation about Dostoyevsky with me.
BTW, while the theater at the Saturday matinee screening that I attended was mostly empty, two young girls were eagerly sitting in the audience. I could tell they had been taken in by the deceptive Dreamworks advertising campaign. I could see them slouch farther and farther down into their chair as the film went on, and then they actually left with about ten minutes left to go.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico
(d. Robert Rodriguez)
A big, sprawling messy B-movie which was mildly engaging; I didn’t hate it as much as Phyrephox and Joker. Personally, I thought the “cheap” staging of some of the action sequences was done intentionally, to evoke a film’s whose budget is much less than $30 million; Rodriguez obviously hasn’t lost the knack for staging action sequences (of course, he still hasn’t picked up a knack for writing screenplays), i.e. the thrilling escape from the fifth floor of the hotel for instance (plus he can pull off some stunning imagery with his DV camera). The whole thing falls apart into a nonsensical shoot ‘em up by the end of the film (so the peasants knew the army was going to stage a coup?). Johnny Depp again steals another inferior film, with his flamboyant portrayal of CIA Agent Sands (liked his habit of wearing outlandish shirts, like his “CIA - Cleavage Inspection Agency” t-shirt, and you got to dig the pot leaf belt buckle). Oh yeah, is it just me, of did Enrique Iglesias looks “constipated” when he was supposed to look “smoldering?”
Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan
(d. Chu Yuan)
The first Shaw Brothers Cinematheque screening that I was able to attend, and boy, I’m sure glad I didn’t miss this one. I mean lesbianism, kinky sex, and guys having their heart ripped right out of their chest (and I don’t mean that metaphorically). Come on! Ai Nu is a young headstrong virgin kidnapped and forced to work in a brothel owned by Lady Chun, a beautiful lesbian and powerful kung fu master (with a habit of thrusting her fingers and/or arm through the body of anyone who gets in her way, followed by a sensual licking of her bloody fingers). Ai Nu’s virginity is auctioned off to four rich men, initiating her into the life of a courtesan. Following a botched escape attempt, Ai Nu settles into her role as the brothel’s prize courtesan, continuing to habitually serve the same four men, while seducing the admiring Lady Chun, who instructs her young protégé into the powerful arts of kung fu. A big, big mistake. Ai Nu swears vengeance (in a wuxia pan, I can’t believe it), and two years later proceeds to carry out her plans for revenge, eliminating each of her four clients, one by one (I think she tears the penis off the first one; burns the second one; kills the third one by heart attack caused by a combination of a herbal aphrodisiac overdose and group sex; and brutalizes the last one in his specially made S&M chamber). Even though she’s clearly killing everyone, and is slowly working her way back to the brothel, all of the men see her as to weak to actually kill them, and Lady Chun is so blinded by love, that she is in serious, serious denial. Eventually, Ai Nu alerts the local constables to the slavers. When the guards turn on her, along with the brothel’s co-owner, another kung fu master, Ai Nu and Lady Chun join forces in an orgy of blood. The two of them rip through the male guards in a bloody whirl of silk, before the two co-owners face each other to the death (uh, let’s put it this way, Lady Chun spears her arm all the way through his chest, only to find it cut off with by his sword). When Ai Nu reveals her treachery, the betrayed Lady Chun turns her fury upon her erstwhile lover. Ai Nu only wins because Chun has already lost an arm (Chun spears her arm into a wooden column; with her arm trapped, it’s an easy target for Ai Nu’s sword). The dying Chun slumps against a bed and pleads for a final kiss from Ai Nu; she takes pity on Chun, and the two share a passionate kiss. Alas, Chun has poisoned Ai Nu with the final kiss, and the two die together (it’s not as romantic as it sounds, with green poison dribbling down Chun’s lips, and Ai Nu convulsing in pain). It’s kind of like a insane version of Hamlet
. Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan
’s combination of surreal sexual fantasy and bloody, fluid violence has propelled it to the top of my personal kung fu movie pantheon. Hot damn.
(d. Chang Cheh)
After the lunatic delights of Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan
, I was left kind of disappointed by this film, which was still good. It was more of a straightforward kung fu movie, featuring a love triangle, a couple of betrayals, and a revenge plot. David Chiang and Chen Kuan-tai play a pair of bandit brothers, who befriend an ambitious young soldier played by Ti Lung; after the three fight side by side against incredible odds, Lung’s ambitions and his love for Chen’s wife, leads to the ultimate betrayal and revenge. If this sounds familiar, well take out the female character, and you’ve pretty much got the plot of Bullet in the Head
, which is no surprise. Chang Cheh was John Woo’s mentor. Something funny about the film though is the ridiculous amount of flailing that people go through before they die (I swear to God, that one guy flailed around for about a minute after being shot with an arrow); and don’t get me started on the rolling down in the hill. Yun-fat knows what I’m talking about.
(d. Catherine Hardwicke)
I liked it better when it was called kids
, though this film has much better acting, and much more credible adult characters. Basically an After School Special which liberally uses the word “fuck,” the best part of my filmgoing experience was seeing the obvious discomfort of a couple of senior citizens who sat behind me; in the immortal words of Krusty the Klown, I thought they were going to plotz.