Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Fantasia Daily for 20 July 2009: The Warlords, Coweb, and Life is Hot in Cracktown

The day was going to start with La Marque; my comments at the end of yesterday's posting, I do look forward to seeing the locally-made stuff. I just wound up over-committed to a plan made before actually seeing the 20th Century Boys movies, wanting to get their reviews done quickly, before they became blurred in my mind. Now, of course, I see that the two films are pretty darn distinct, what with the jump in time between them, but it got me hung up just long enough to arrive at the theater at 1:05.

Still, that did give me a little more time to walk around St. Catherine Street and the general area. I poked around three comic shops hoping to find things to fill some recent gaps in (2000AD #1625, Star Trek Countdown #3, and Judge Dredd Megazine #282), but no luck in any of them.

Tau ming chong (Warlords)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival - Hong Kong Cinema: 100 Years)

At certain points, the fact that Warlords licked around for a while without a U.S. distributor despite being an epic with high production values and a star in Jet Li who is still relatively bankable was taken as the final sign that any remaining interesting in Asian cinema on this side of the Pacific had dried up. There's likely a depressing amount of truth to that, but it may also be because Jet Li does still sell as an action star, and studios may not want to counter that image with such an ambiguous role.

Li plays Pang Qing-yan, and as we open the film he is crawling out from under the corpses of his men, the only survivor of a battle against rebel forces in which his supposed ally, General Ho, abandoned rather than assisted them. He briefly abandons the army, sharing a single night with Lian (Xu Jing-lei), although he soon encounters her again in a bandit village - along with her husband, village chief Zhao Er-hu (Andy Lau), and his second in command, Jiang Wa-zhoa (Takeshi Kaneshiro). When finding out how poor they are, he suggest the army as offering regular pay and support for their families. It sounds like a good deal - until they find out that General Pang is as ruthless as any bandit.

Last week, I opened a review by mentioning that Jet Li wasn't getting any younger, and that's never been more true - nor used to better effect - than in this film. It's no so much that he's slowing down; he's still a force of nature on the battlefield. He looks middle-aged, though - Pang has graying, thinning hair, and we see wrinkles in his face other than laugh lines when the filmmakers go in for a close-up. There's a bit of a rasp to his voice, too, the sort that indicates that the authority there hasn't just come from confidence or skills, but more experience than any man need accumulate in real or metaphorical battlegrounds. Jet Li may not be as young as he once was, but he's not this old, either; he's giving one of his best performances as an actor, as opposed to just as a martial artist.

Full review at EFC.

Zhang wu shuang (Coweb)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival - Hong Kong Cinema: 100 Years)

Jiang Lu Xia has, arguably, come full circle very quickly - not long ago, she was demonstrating her martial arts skills on internet videos and competing on Jackie Chan's The Disciple TV series (a program looking for the next big Hong Kong martial arts star). Now, she's starring in a movie which involves her character being sucked into a martial arts competition being streamed online.

That character, Nie Yiyi, is a skilled martial artist working as a security guard after her father's death. A childhood friend, Zhong Tien (Sam Lee), now works as a personal assistant to a local billionaire, Mr He (Eddie Cheung), and when he needs a bodyguard for his wife, Tien convinces them to hire Yiyi. The Hes are kidnapped anyway, though, and Yiyi blames herself - there were only seven of them, with one a running-through-walls giant, after all! A cell phone left at the scene leads her to a nightclub, where she's thrown into the first fight in a gauntlet.

As silly and hackneyed as that story sounds, the reality is, amazingly, actually far stupider, with final act revelations that really don't make a lick of sense, characters who act suspicious for no apparent reason, and ways of getting Yiyi into fights that only get more ridiculous as they go along; the story also largely depends on Yiyi not really being terribly bright. In a genre where screenplays are often the merest wisp of reasons to get from one fight scene to another, what "Sunny" Chan Wing-sun does here is especially transparent.

Full review at EFC.

Life is Hot in Cracktown

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival - Hell on Earth: The Films of Buddy Giovinazzo)

There's a line in Buddy Giovinazzo's adaptation of his 1993 book of short stories that encapsulates the lives of its characters to a tragic extent; it's a man berating his girlfriend on her priorities: Food, then fix, then rent. I may have the first two in the wrong order. Combine that with how nobody in the movie really ever talks about getting clean, and you see the direction Giovinazzo is going: In some places, addiction is just a fact of life, as natural as breathing.

Not everybody in the film is an addict; one of the main characters, Victor Rasuk's Manny, seems to be living pretty clean, though he's at times as strung out as anybody by working two jobs to support a wife (Shannyn Sossamon) who is going stir-crazy with a baby that just will not stop crying. Elsewhere, pre-op transsexual Marybeth (Kerry Washington) and her husband Benny (Desmond Harrington) try to support fellow TS Ridley (Mark Webber) in coming out; ten-year-old Willy (Ridge Canipe) tries to protect his sister Susie (Ariel Winter) from the neglect of their addict mother (Illeana Douglas) while nursing a crush on not-much-older Melody (Elena Franklin), whose mother has brought her into prostitution; and Romeo (Evan Ross) works the streets with a ferocity that belies his sixteen years.

Crack is pervasive in this movie and this world, a supporting character in the same way the term is often applied to distinctive locations, but the film is not about drugs. Marybeth could drink, Willy's mother could gamble, and so on, and their stories wouldn't be acutely different. It's about people who, despite their circumstances and activities that most would disapprove of, still manage to interest us. They may not be heroes, but they are trying to survive as best they can, and Giovinazzo interweaves their stories in such a way to remind us that everybody is their own protagonist, even if they only exist on the periphery of our notice.

Full review at EFC.

Tuesday: Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl, Canary, and 8th Wonderland (with having to miss The Canyon reallly hurting). Portrait of a Beauty and Tactical Unit, again, are both pretty good.

Wednesday: Reel Zombies, Divine Weapon, Black, and Orphan. Hells (and hopefully Canary) very much recommended.

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