Friday, January 10, 2020

This Week in Tickets: 30 December 2019 - 5 January 2020

Seven discs of unwatched movies arrived from Hong Kong, four movies from Hong Kong watched. This closely resembles progress in the Seaver apartment. There was also one disc of a movie I've already seen, Karaoke Terror, purchased under the "try and kick some money to movies you liked at a festival" plan, although that was a weird one - I saw that South Korean movie at BUFF two years ago and it's apparently now just starting to hit disc. Film distribution is a strange thing.

This Week in Tickets

New year, new day planner, and though it looked like the same model I had last year, this one is perfect-bound/glued rather than having a spiral spine and I'm guessing that this stuff is going to look weird for a few weeks as a result. I pre-ordered a book scanner on Indiegogo because assembling these things has been a nuisance for a while, but it looks like a really prescient move now!

Anyway, I was going to end the year with Jackie Chan, only to wind up zonking out midway through, so apparently my last movie of 2019 was The Maze. That made Armor of God the first movie of the year, and it's not great. It's got some fun action, but some bad screwball comedy, and a few bits of really bad taste.

First time at the theater for the year came Thursday night when I went for The Grudge, which turns out to be more of a sequel/spin-off than a reboot, but which is surprisingly not bad at all. Sam Raimi et al hired an interesting director in Nicolas Pesce and he did all right.

Friday night wound up being another "movies at home" night - there is never a whole lot in the way of new releases the first weekend of the new year - so I got more Hong Kong discs off the shelf. I'd hemmed and hawed a couple months ago about ordering the two Shaw Brothers horror pieces that got released on Blu-ray but figured they were prime material for not being available to stream when I wanted them, so why not? It turned out they make a good double feature, as both Mighty Peking Man and Oily Maniac share a director and star. They're good cheese, as 1970s Hong Kong exploitation goes, with Mighty Peking Man in particular being a much better King Kong knockoff than I expected.

Saturday was spent at AMC Boston Common for Shortlisted Documentary Features, and though I didn't see as much of the program as I wanted to, what I saw - Honeyland, Aquarela, The Great Hack, and Apollo 11, was a pretty good group. Odds that I've seen the five out of fifteen (between them and One Child Nation) that wind up being nominated are slim, but I'm still a bit ahead of the game.

After a day of errands and other entertainment on Sunday, I didn't make it to the Somerville in time for what I wanted to see, so I figured I'd make this post a little tidier by finishing the week with Jackie Chan's sequel to Armor of God, Operation Condor. Better than its predecessor, but it must be said that Sammo Hung made a much better movie with "Condor" in the English title that climaxes on the destruction of a secret underground base.

More to come. My Letterboxd page is still here, and I recommend springing for Pro so you get stats on your own page. They're fun!

ung hing foo dai (Armor of God)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 1 January 2020 in Jay's Living Room (watching discs, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

I'm not sure how this became a big enough hit for Jackie Chan to spawn sequels (including one decades later); maybe the European locations and individual moments that looked like they could be pulled from higher-quality pulp were a big draw. Maybe everyone just loved Raiders of the Lost Ark so much during the 1980s that they'd go for whatever gave them a bit of that rush again. It's quite stupid and spends a lot of time that seems like it should be filled with intrigue with really terrible farce, which is probably the easiest thing to stretch out and fill time of the three or four things the movie tries to do.

(I also wouldn't be shocked if the whole opening gambit was cut for its dubbed U.S. release, because, yikes, how are you still doing "savage African tribes" material in 1986?)

The cast is bland, with Alan Tam just annoying, and Jackie being in "supposedly cocky and charming but actually just kind of a jackass" mode doesn't give them much room to work, and that's when the writers have any idea what to do with their characters. The action is more car chases than anything else, fun for how they throw motorcycles and Jackie's flimsy-looking sports car in the air but not a whole lot else.

He at least ends things on a high note, with a couple big melees and a fairly insane final stunt. Overall, though, it falls far short of what one would hope for from a movie where Jackie Chan is Indiana Jones and also James Bond.

Xing xing wang (Mighty Peking Man)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 3 January 2020 in Jay's Living Room (watching discs, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

I kind of love the way that the first half of Mighty Peking Man is the kind of B-movie that walks a crazy high wire between being tremendously impressive and kind of laughable. It's the sort of thing where they'll shoot one thing in a well-dressed back lot and another on location, have them both look good individually, and then just have a disaster occur when they are matted together. It's impressive and quaint and sometimes kind of off-putting, like when they do a closeup of the giant gorilla and you can see the human mouth underneath the mask, but it's fast-paced and pulp and exciting.

That'd make it a fun, campy little movie, but the second half kind of embraces the ugly side of that sort of pulp. Evelyn Kraft's work here won't go down as one of cinema's great performances - it's tough to get that when the part involves running around in a tiny leather bikini and speaking in broken Cantonese - but she seems legitimately traumatized at seeing her giant ape buddy chained and brought to Hong Kong for a second half that really doesn't spare the cruelty and sleaze. It never crosses the line where it wants the viewer to feel bad for having enjoyed it, but for a dumb bit of pulp adventure, it kind of wrestles with its issues much more than you'd expect from a 70s Shaw Brothers flick.

You gui zi (The Oily Maniac)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 3 January 2020 in Jay's Living Room (watching discs, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

The Oily Maniac is a Corman-esque bit of exploitation from the Shaw Brothers (and many of the same folks who would make Mighty Peking Man the next year) that probably inspired or influenced a lot of later "dark avenger" pictures. For the most part, it's not very good; it blows right past male-gaze to male-leering-stare and never does much to make its villains more than just another creep to be dispatched because he's oily in a different sense of the word. The plot is thin as heck even if it feels like the sort of made up as they went along that at least has some sense of how stories should work.

Still, there's something here; Danny Lee Hsiu-Hsien isn't subtle as the disabled legal secretary delighted by his newfound ability to wreak physical havoc (by dousing himself in coconut oil and having it cling to him as a sort of exoskeleton that also allows him to ooze like a puddle), and the big fights at the end are both good Shaw Brothers melees and examples of the filmmakers doing a better job of realizing all the comic-book potential of their anti-hero with the budget and resources available at the time that a lot of movies that came afterward. Once it gets into the superpowers and other insanity, there's a surprisingly good blend of mad inspiration and knowing what they can do as filmmakers.

Part of me would be curious what a modern big-budget adaptation would look like, even though I know it would probably lose all of the disreputable bits - and this particular character kind of needs to be in a fairly scuzzy movie. Dial any of it back to a PG-13 rating and it would just feel uncommitted.

Fei ying gai wak (Armor of God 2: Operation Condor)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 January 2020 in Jay's Living Room (watching discs, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

Probably the best of the three Armor of God movies, which isn't necessarily a terrifically high bar to clear - they're the sort of Jackie Chan movies where his supposedly-charming character is sort of a jerk and he's really only got the vaguest notion of how to connect one bit of action to another. It at least jettisons the bad buddy-comedy stuff from the first for a pretty constant string of action for the first half. There may not be more than the tiniest bit of a story, but Jackie's moving and tossing people around and that's fun.

Eventually, though, he acquires more sidekicks who are pretty and likable but not really as bright as they should be than the movie can really support, adversaries whose aims are unclear start showing up, and the film starts wandering around the desert as aimlessly as its supporting characters. Eventually, Jackie and company are stumbling around a forgotten Nazi base, and for a while the movie picks up a good pulpy atmosphere even if it never actually committed to the themes that make pulp tick because Jackie is too much the entertainer in these movies to actually give his characters a genuine dark side that he must overcome. And it's not just him; the last big stunt sees a woman frantically trying to grab as much gold as she can even though she's never seemed particularly greedy.

It's a mess, but it's a mess where Jackie Chan jumps around and often takes on half a dozen people at once. There's worse ways to spend that time.

Armor of God
The Grudge '20
Mighty Peking Man
The Oily Maniac
The Great Hack
Apollo 11
Operation Condor

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