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Rashomon (1950) April 28, 2009

Posted by Cal in : Drama, 1950s films, Jidaigeki , 17 comments

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Main cast: Toshirô Mifune; Machiko Kyô; Takashi Shimura; Masayuki Mori; Minoru Chiaki  Territory: Japan

Bandit Tajômaru (Toshirô Mifune) spots a husband and wife travelling along a mountain road and immediately decides he must have the woman.  After luring her samurai husband away and incapacitating him, Tajômaru returns to the woman and drags her to her tied up spouse and rapes her.  Three days later, huddling together under Rashomon gate to avoid a downpour, three men discuss the events, recalling conflicting accounts of the incident that left the samurai dead and the bandit arrested for his murder.

Rashomon has a very simple premise – the same story is told four times from four different perspectives and all of the versions are completely different.  A kind of eleventh-century courtroom drama, the film asks the audience to ponder the perception of truth when it becomes clear that all of the accounts are told to shed the best possible light on the teller and not necessarily to tell the truth.  The bandit, the woman, the dead samurai (whose story is told through a medium) and the woodcutter (who discovered the body and claims to have been an eyewitness) all give a “true” account of the events. 

This must have been pretty heavy stuff in 1950, and it’s by far the most daring film I’ve seen from this period.  Pretty much everything is open to interpretation, and no clear resolution is offered at the end.  Personally, I have a strange love of films told in flashback (here we have flashbacks within a flashback), and this one has the added bonus of a really atmospheric setting in the Rashomon gate in heavy rain.  It also has some pretty revolutionary camerawork.  Many “effects”, such as a tracking shot of a woodcutter crossing the path of the camera, and pointing the camera directly at the sun, are still in use today.  And it uses music to great effect, too.  You have to hand it to Kurosawa – he certainly was a true pioneer of cinema.

Rashomon

The acting performances, particularly from Mifune, has dated the film quite a lot.  His delivery does seem overacted at times, but I am informed that this was typical of the Japanese style of acting at the time.  But then again, in the retelling of the story, his character was acting, so who can say?  Rashomon strikes me a story that would work great as a stage play, what with its limited locations and small cast of characters, and I thought I’d probably make a killing putting on a version at the local town hall – until I did some research and found out it has already been adapted for the stage.  So my alternative idea, the musical version of the film (tentatively titled Oh Rashomon!), may take some time to put together.

At less than 90 minutes, Rashomon is over an hour shorter than any other Kurosawa film I’ve seen.  While I can’t honestly say I think the film is in the same league as The Seven Samurai or Ran, it is certainly an atmospheric, thought-provoking film.  The more I think about it, the cleverer it seems, and several things have occurred to me since watching it that I hadn’t really considered at the time – one such revelation coming to me while writing this very review, in fact.  One thing is for sure: Kurosawa was way ahead of his time. 

Operation Scorpio (1992) April 19, 2009

Posted by Cal in : Action, 1990s films , 2 comments

Director: David Lai  Main cast: Chin Kar-Lok; Kim Won-Jin; Lau Kar-Leung Frankie Chan Chi-Leung  Territory: Hong Kong

Fai Yuk-Su (Chin Kar-Lok) dreams of being a hero while wasting his education drawing comic books.  When he runs into Jade (May Lo), an enslaved maid for the evil Wong, he gets his opportunity.  However, Wong has a son with extraordinary abilities (Kim Won-Jin) and so Fai must find a master or two to save the girl and be the hero he always dreamed of…

I’ve only seen a couple of movies with Chin Kar-Lok as the lead, and none of them are bad films.  But for whatever reason, he never really made it as a leading man, and with this one, it’s easy to see why: he’s upstaged by two of his co-stars.  Kim Won-Jin plays the Scorpion-like son of Wong with the Flock of Seagulls hairstyle and blows the competition away…almost.  And although Lau Kar-Leung was advancing in years, he has the presence and moves he always had.  Really, how could Chin Kar-Lok contend with such competition?

Operation Scorpio is one of those films from the nineties that’s often talked about fondly by fans.  It’s close enough to the eighties to have that distinctive hyperkinetic feel to the action scenes that is so well loved.  However, the story is quite unengaging and flies too close to Pedicab Driver to be coincidental and has a similar period setting.  There also seems a lot of fluff to the film, and especially annoying is the inclusion of not one but two musical montages.  Another staple of kung fu cinema is the training element – where an inexperienced but enthusiastic pupil is honed into a killing machine.  Operation Scorpio resurrects this practice and the results are somewhat predictable, despite Fai training under two masters. 

Operation Scorpio

It’s lucky then that the action scenes are so good, although there is quite a lot of wirework mixed in with the more realistic style of fighting.  Don’t get me wrong, wire-fu has its place when done well, but personally I like to have a film that fits either in one camp or the other and this is occasionally too exaggerated and unrealistic for its own good.  But Kim Won-Jin is truly a spectacle, and Lau Kar-Leung is also fantastic.  When they face off at the end it’s all terribly exciting, but unfortunately Lau has to step aside to let Chin save the day, and I can’t be the only one who wanted to see the Shaw Brothers star go all the way with Kim.

Although it falls short of its potential, Operation Scorpio is still an enjoyable romp and shows that scene-stealing bad guys wasn’t invented by SPL.  If you’re a fan of Hong Kong action films from this era you’ve probably already seen this, but if not, it’s certainly worth a viewing.

This movie was released in the UK under the title The Scorpion King, which of course meant it often got confused with that Mummy spin-off thing.  I have a suspicion this was a (bad) decision of the late, lamented Hong Kong Legends label as I can’t for the life of me remember it going by that name before then, but it’s a moot point now I suppose. 

Legendary Assassin (2008) April 10, 2009

Posted by Cal in : Action, 2000s films , 6 comments

Director: Nicki Li; Wu Jing  Main cast: Wu Jing; Celina Jade; Lam Suet; Alex Fong  Territory: Hong Kong

Bo (Wu Jing) assassinates and beheads Chairman Ma, the head of a Hong Kong crime organisation, but is foiled in his escape from the outlying island by a typhoon warning.  Temporarily stuck, he befriends pretty police officer Hiu Wor (Celina Jade) while the triad gang and the police are both searching for him.

Before the film begins, I had a shock: the Seasonal films logo comes up on screen.  I’d seriously thought Ng See-Yuen’s company had gone the way of the dodo in the early eighties.  What’s more, when the film starts, Kara Hui Ying-Hung appears, in what amounts to as an extended cameo.  It’s quite a way to open a film, but what follows is not quite so surprising.  Oh, and yet another example of the inane two-word action film title here.  In case you’re wondering Legendary Assassin is another non sequitur, title-wise.

The story’s got great potential: a morally ambiguous killer trapped on an urban island while the bad guys (headed by Lam Suet) and the cops track him down.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t make the most of the premise and instead of feeling like a claustrophobic cat-and-mouse thriller, you often forget that Bo has nowhere to run to.

While this can be overlooked, the action scenes are a real puzzler.  Everyone knows by now that Wu Jing is the real deal.  So why, then, does he choose to shoot all the action scenes with fast editing and close-ups?  It’s almost criminal that you never actually get to see what he can do.  Even stranger when you realise that Wu Jing actually co-directed the movie.  If there’s one performer who doesn’t need such smoke and mirrors (and wires), it’s Wu Jing.

Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough... 

The supporting cast are passable if nothing more.  A lot rides on the chemistry between Wu Jing and Celina Jade, and this is pulled off just about (but it’s a close call).  There are also a couple of moments of slapstick comedy that doesn’t fit in with the dark tone of the rest of the film.  It’s like they wanted to make a dark gritty tale but got nervous and added a couple of laughs along the way.

The film is saved from total loss by the final showdown, which while not Wu Jing at his best, is definitely atmospheric and exciting.  He takes on dozens of mobsters at once in a scene reminiscent of the scene in The Matrix Reloaded where Neo takes on all those Agent Smiths but without the CGI. 

But when the dust settles, this is another disappointment from Wu Jing, and I can’t be alone in starting to feel very frustrated with his output.  He has the potential to be the biggest action star on the planet, but keeps making mediocre films.  I really hope he can pull something out of the bag soon or people are going to give up.

Lam Suet-o-meter: High.  He’s the head of the search party and gets lots of screen time.  Welcome back, big guy, you’ve been gone from these pages too long…

The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001) April 5, 2009

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, Musical, Wacko, 2000s films , 8 comments

Director: Takashi Miike  Main cast: Kenji Sawada; Keiko Matsuzaka; Shinji Takeda; Naomi Nishida; Tamaki Miyazaki; Tetsuro Tanba; Kiyoshiro Imawano  Territory: Japan

The Katakuri family open the White Lovers’ Guesthouse in the middle of nowhere, knowing that a major road will one day be built alongside it to provide a steady stream of custom.  In the meantime, though, the Guesthouse attracts few guests.  And the ones that do check in end up checking out prematurely and permanently, and to avoid a scandal the family resort to burying the bodies on the grounds.

Happiness of the Katakuris starts with a young woman eating soup in a restaurant.  She discovers a winged imp in the soup that steals her uvula.  The imp is eaten by a crow, which in turn is eaten by a stuffed toy (after stealing an eye from the imp, naturally) and one of the crow’s eggs is eaten by a snake, which is then eaten by more crows.  Finally, an egg falls from the crows’ nest and hatches into another winged imp, which is picked up by another crow and carried through the air until it is whacked from the sky by great-grandpa Katakuri while the youngest member of the family solemnly buries her goldfish.  This surreal sequence showing the cycle of life and minor personal tragedy is a startling start to this Japanese remake of the South Korean film The Quiet Family.

Mixing claymation sequences, song and dance routines, black comedy, zombies and messages on the importance of the family unit, Happiness of the Katakuris sounds like a crazy mixed bag of genres that would make a messy, incoherent film.  However, it ends up gelling a lot better than you’d think, and the result is one of the most striking films I’ve ever seen. 

The Happiness of the Katakuris 

The Katakuris are a likeable bunch from the top down, including Masayuki (Shinji Takeda) who has a light-fingered past and Shizue (Naomi Nishida) who tends to fall in love with any man on sight.  The latter falls for Richard Sawada (a scene-stealing Kiyoshiro Imawano), an unconvincing conman pretending to be a British secret agent and member of the Royal family.  All of the scenes with Sawada are pretty hilarious, as he ineptly tries to con the gullible Shizue out of some cash. 

The songs (and there are plenty of them) are scattered through the film and none of them are awful.  One in particular, where Richard woos Shizue, is actually pretty catchy, and the karaoke sequence (complete with on-screen lyrics and chintzy soft-focus performers) is eerily realistic.  The decision to animate key sequences of the film (sometimes when live action would have been impossible) adds to the film’s character as well, and in the end you are left with something noboby but the most brave, adventurous director could have accomplished. 

I’ve seldom seen anything to rival the originality and boldness of Happiness of the Katakuris, but I have to admit that I haven’t seen the Korean film it’s a remake of.  I think I’m going to keep it that way, as I think watching The Quiet Family may lessen the enjoyment of this film, great though I’m sure it is. 

Fortunately, I saw this a year or so before I saw Audition, which has kind of put me off experimenting with Takashi Miike’s films (it disturbed me greatly), but there’s no denying he has a serious talent for making films no one else would even dream of making.  If you haven’t seen it already and want a strangely touching family movie with a few laughs, a few songs, and a few gruesome deaths, there can be no substitute.

Sheer genius.

Top Hollywood classics get advertising makeover April 1, 2009

Posted by Cal in : Articles, Humour , 3 comments

Advertising in film is something that has gone on almost as long as the media has existed.  Product placement, or “embedded marketing” is now something that most viewers are familiar with, and most tolerate it as perhaps a necessary evil in today’s cinema.

However, in a move that is set to alter our viewing experience forever, on-screen advertising is about to get significantly more aggressive.  In a move that will shock and outrage millions of film fans, classic films will be digitally altered, reshot or rescripted to feature advertising.  What’s more, these new versions will replace the originals in theatres and home cinemas alike.  Reports state that all in-movie advertising on home DVDs and Blu-ray discs will not be skippable.  So far, only the largest companies have offered sufficient cash (rumoured to be in the region of tens of millions of US dollars) to the movie companies to feature their product, but if the practice takes off there could be no limit to the amount of advertising we see on screen.

Already altered forever are the classic movies Casablanca, Ben-Hur and The Godfather, with the promise of more to come.  Casablanca will now feature, thanks to digital computer trickery, a scene where Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman eat in a McDonald’s restaurant.  Furthermore, the setting will be recognisably modern (the McDonald company was in its infancy when Casablanca was shot) and in colour.  “We carried out research,” said one McDonald’s executive, “amongst our key demographic of eight to eighteen year olds and discovered that most people enjoyed the updated version and found that they thought the black-and-white sections a big snooze”.  However, McDonald’s insist the advertising is unobtrusive and “fun” and that a few years from now, most people will forget the original version – “like the theatrical versions of the first three Star Wars movies”.

Taking a slightly different approach is the Coca-Cola Company, who have shot new footage for Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 movie The Godfather.  Interspersed into the film will be an entirely new subplot involving the characters attempting, in vain, to extort protection money from a Coca-Cola manufacturing plant.  New actors portray the characters including Don Vito Corleone (played by Marlon Brando in the original footage) but have been shot from behind, masking their faces.  Voices have been provided by winners of a competition run by the Coca-Cola Company last year on the side of special promotional cans of their soft drink.  The winners, selected by the company as having the best vocal resemblance to that of their original counterparts, are set to be immortalised forever in the controversial project.

More bizarrely is the decision of motor-car company Ford, who have paid an estimated $50,000,000 to advertise their Ford Focus car in legendary epic Ben-Hur.  A new sequence has been filmed showing their car, with a CGI Charlton Heston behind the wheel, trouncing the opposition in a chariot race.  The new scene takes the form of a dream sequence, ending in Judah Ben-Hur waking to proclaim in awe: “I’ll give you the keys to my Ford Focus when you pry them out of my cold, dead hands”.  Heston passed away in 2008.

The new versions of these three movies are being rolled out on home video formats from today, with nothing marking them as different from previous editions.  In addition, Hollywood films currently in production will feature more obvious forms of advertising within the scripts of their films, but it remains to be seen if this will be noticed by the general population.

This is only the tip of the iceberg.  Movie makers are finding funding increasingly difficult, and even big companies are discovering that profits are dwindling.  It’s no wonder the industry is taking such bold, controversial steps.  When classic films are changed forever at the whim of a corporate giant, one has to ask: has cinema finally and irretrevably “sold out”?  Is there any integrity left in the industry at any level?

This article is brought to you by Budweiser beer: when you say Budweiser, you’ve said it all.

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