Thursday, August 13, 2020

This Week in (Virtual) Tickets: 13 July 2020 - 9 August 2020

This is what you might call an extremely lockdown-inspired chunk of movie-watching, from "I can do this big project" to "I don't want to do anything" to virtual theater streaming to stuff you've always meant to get around to. It's a roller coaster, sort of.

This Week in Tickets

This Week in Tickets

This Week in Tickets

This Week in Tickets

It kind of starts off with the sort of online shopping spree one gets vulnerable to when you're spending so much time inside and on your computer, as I took advantage of a sale to pick up not just the newly released The Rise of Skywalker but most of the movies that came before on 4K. I'd mostly planned to just do the Rise review I'd punted back in December, but instead decided to watch the whole Star Wars saga, one per night. It not only holds up as a whole well enough to not be hurt by a disappointing finale, to the point where I'd like more right now.

In the middle of that, I took a couple of cinematic trips to Hong Kong for a double feature: The Inspector Wears Skirts was the back end of a double feature with The Empire Strikes Back on night #2, and it turned out to be not great. I found myself fairly fond of Denise Ho: Becoming the Song on night #6, though - it's a pretty good starter for folks who would like to know what's going on with the protests there.

I took a night off between the main saga and the "extra" movies, both of which were part of two-movie days with stuff that was playing in the local virtual theaters. Amulet, sad to say, was a pretty disappointing horror movie, the sort where you can see the good pieces but where the whole just doesn't come together. The next night's, Relativity, was one that grew on me as I wrote about it.

Then, after that, it was a pretty sluggish week as I tried to write up the Star Wars stuff and watch baseball and get stuff done for work. There's only so much baseball to watch, but the Red Sox have decided to start the games later, which makes no sense because fewer people are trying to get to the park or even home from work to watch it, and stink and play poorly and not even leave a lot of time for a movie afterward. Bleh.

By the time I was ready to go again, I was looking for 90-minute movies, which led to two early ones by Ann Hui, Zodiac Killers and The Story of Woo Viet. It's an interesting thing to look back after only having seen some of her later, more acclaimed and less genre-infused works - I came in with a lot of different expectations that both were and weren't met.

After that, there was some more time to pull some discs off the shelf - Blood Simple, Legend of the Wolf, and Hopscotch to start the week, and then Memoirs of an Invisible Man at the end. You're never going to believe this, but the two that I got as part of Criterion Collection sales were better than the ones which I bought because they were movies from guys I usually like that maybe aren't big deals like they're classics. Crazy, right? Who'd've thought?

Next one of these will probably be in another month, since I've started watching Fantasia screeners and part of covering them as press is agreeing to embargos, which specifically includes when they can go on one's Letterboxd page. Congrats, ya crazy kiwis, you've built a platform that's a big enough deal for festivals and publicity people to make rules that mention you specifically!

Ba Wong Fa (The Inspector Wears Skirts)

* * (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

They made four of these things, for some reason, shedding characters as they went until only two of the original ensemble cast were left a mere four years later. It must have been a hit, and I suppose that if you come at it looking for a light girl-power take on Police Academy, it does that well enough for its period, and it's partially my fault for expecting more action and sharper wit both times I saw it.

It's tough for the film to not be a let-down after the extremely fun action piece that opens it, with Cynthia Rothrock showing up as a guest star to fight alongside Sibelle Hu, but the film doesn't help itself in a lot of ways: That bit puts the instructor at the center, but she's pushed to the side through the rest of the film, and while the students are fun, there's maybe too many of them with only the slightest story connecting them. The filmmakers position Sandra Ng as "the stocky one", which she's not, really, although she is the one who is putting the most effort into being funny (quote-oddly-unquote, the guy she's paired with, who actually does look sort of heavy, never becomes the butt of jokes for it). It doesn't always work, and maybe wouldn't until filmmakers started putting her into films where everybody was trying as hard. The brief action bits before a messy finale are so formal that they never get to be fun.

The lesson here, I guess, is not to buy movies and have them shipped from the other side of the planet without checking your own blog. I apparently didn't like this much 16 years ago, and while some of that was walking home disappointed after a midnight show, a fair amount wasn't.

What I thought back in 2004

Blood Simple

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 3 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

When I watched the copy of Blood Simple that I got from the latest B&N Criterion sale, I wasn't sure whether I'd seen it before or not, and afterwards I still wasn't sure - it seemed familiar in a general sense, but not in any particular scene. That's not to say it felt generic, just that it's a well-oiled machine of a movie; the Coens made a heck of a modern noir without getting winky or meta and if that means it doesn't have quite the easy hook to file individual bits away that the more obviously self-aware thrillers that they and others would make, it's fine. The movie just works.

That simple, machine-like nature is a big part of why it sucks the audience in; there's a remorseless order to how every step just a little further outside the usual bounds leads to the next, and even as each man further compromises himself, they're not really ready to handle the person who has gone a step further (Frances McDormand's Abby isn't an innocent damsel, but she mostly avoids the sort of descent the men undergo). It's a small enough world that it can handle a few coincidences and near-misses, along with a finale that emphasizes how small steps can explode into something that destroys the whole circle in highly visible fashion.

It's never just low-key and heads-down, though. Dan Hedaya and M. Emmet Walsh are quite enjoyably scummy men, with John Getz the sort of handsome and earnest counterpart that maybe wouldn't take all that much to sink to the others' level. I'm a bit curious about how the Coens (making their first feature) managed to hook up with Barry Sonnenfeld (shooting his first feature); it's a great pairing, especially since the Coens are still coming from the same place as Sam Raimi in how they stage action. You don't necessarily expect to see noteworthy folks on the same project that early, but they're a great match.

It's entirely possible that, the next time a local theater has a Coen Brothers or modern noir series, I'll see "Blood Simple" on the calendar, not be sure whether I've seen it before, and have more or less the same experience I did this time, only with an audience and a bigger screen. It's not yet as idiosyncratic as the Coens would later become famous for, but it's awfully effective genre work.

Chin long chuen suet (Legend of the Wolf)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 4 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

How old is Donnie Yen's character supposed to be in the "present day" segments of Legend of the Wolf? 80-ish? He doesn't look elderly, and rooting him specifically in the mid/late 1990s seems like an odd choice, given how timeless the flashback material that makes up the bulk of the story is. There's fun bits there, to be sure, from the perfectly blue and sleazy look of the city to how the guy looking for "Wolf" is doing so via perfectly realized 1997 computer bullshit, but what happens "now" is never as important as "then" and the winking acknowledgment that the story being flashed back to is maybe embellished doesn't really gain the movie anything.

Of course, one can kind of understand the need; Donnie Yen was a great screen fighter but not yet much of an actor, and the script he and his collaborators come up with makes his character a blank slate. It doesn't make a lot of sense or give the audience a lot of reason to invest in him or hypothetically wonder how he became the mysterious fixer in the 1990s, but his performance doesn't actually clank here, so... fine? It's a set-up that acknowledges Yen's limits and gives him a little chance to get better.

That all that does, eventually, is get the movie to a couple of highly impressive fight scenes, including a creative sort of "running melee" that I really liked: It's one of the few times I can remember a foot chase becoming a fight scene without regularly stopping to plant, putter around a "ring", and then start back up again. Arguably its most memorable bit of bonkers action plays into this, a ridiculous and likely impossible redirection of a knife that keeps the action literally moving.

Eventually, Yen would find the right sort of screen personae and collaborators to actually be a quality leading man between the punching and kicking. Legend of the Wolf doesn't have him there yet, but the action is enough fun to be worth a watch on its own.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 5 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

Has anybody, aside from maybe Peter Falk, benefited more from getting older and having a few wrinkles than Walter Matthau? He was a few years from playing old here - he's more the sort of rumpled and weathered middle-age that later fitness trends would make less visible - but he's got a wry wit that comes from experience that only got better with age.

Hopscotch is all leaning into that, with Matthau playing a senior spy being put out to pasture because he is all too well-aware of how much better he knows his job than the people above him, and while he's got a chance at a soft landing (Glenda Jackson as a former lover who has married a wealthy man and been widowed but not lost any interest in Matthau's Miles Kendig), he can't stop being a spy. It's who he is. Even as he decides to write his memoirs and use their publication to taunt his former masters, he's almost certainly getting more of a kick out of finding a new use for his old skills than causing actual harm.

That's a large part of what makes it so much fun; aside from it being a good 100 minutes of Matthau walking about with a twinkle in his eye, with only Ned Beatty's blustering blunt instrument really opposing him actively (Sam Waterston and Herbert Lom are detached, appreciative pursuers), it's generally light. The secrets in Kendig's book are clearly more embarrassing than dangerous, and his level of pettiness stays more or less exactly where it should. It's an impressive sort of balance throughout, a breezy comedy that never loses sight of both how unproductive and wasteful the Cold War tended to be but also how dangerous the folks who wanted it to to be ruthlessly fought were. It's obviously a product of its time, but the human beings involved are real and likable enough for it to still work 40 years later.

Memoirs of an Invisible Man

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 9 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

Memoirs of an Invisible Man feels like it was an entertaining book whose adaptation got run through too many drafts by too many screenwriters until any sort of satire that might have made studio executives uncomfortable was gone, along with anything they figured the punters wouldn't understand, and what is left is a shell of a movie, a standard story of an ordinary man on the run from an ordinary CIA killer. It looks especially bad when put up against 2020's version of The Invisible Man, which has a pointed idea of what to use invisibility for compared to the half-hearted take on conformity this movie tries to make into a theme.

There is still some fun to be had; Daryl Hannah is in it, and even if she's got kind of a nothing character, she's charming enough to drag Chevy Chase's milquetoast up a notch or two in likability when they play off each other. It never hurts to have Michael McKean and Stephen Tobolowsky around, and while Sam Neill is given a pretty standard-issue villain, it's not hard to spot the moments when he finds something he can work with. He gets to run with one of the shockingly few bits of invisible-man physical comedy as he mimes getting dragged around an office with a gun to his head, and I feel like few people do a much better switch between nastiness and smiling insincerity when called upon. Director John Carpenter would work with him again in his next feature, In the Mouth of Madness, to much better effect, suggesting that none of the talented people here were ever on the same page.

Truth be told, it seems like a strict paycheck job for Carpenter - consider how viciously his previous movie, They Live, went after capitalism and complacency compared to how this one never really has an alternate route for its stock-trading main character - but he still does a solid, professional job as director, though he can't get more out of the script than was put in. He and the folks at Industrial Lights and Magic really seem to get a kick out of creating the various invisibility effects, squeezing the most they can out of the relatively new CGI technology and also putting together some impressive matte painting work. For all the other faults, "Memoirs" has more than a few moments when, even 28 years later, someone might sit up a little straighter and say something is a really cool special effect a few times; it hits the sweet spot where you can see the level of effort and the creativity that led to a striking image as opposed to pure grinding (either virtually or in the real world).

Movies where the best thing is the cutting-edge special effects don't always age well, and this one's no exception. It's still John Carpenter, a good cast, and some striking visuals, and that's worth watching once.

Star Wars
The Empire Strikes Back
The Inspector Wears Skirts
The Phantom Menace
Attack of the Clones
Revenge of the Sith

Denise Ho: Becoming the Song
Return of the Jedi
The Force Awakens
The Last Jedi
The Rise of Skywalker
Solo: A Star Wars Story
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Zodiac Killers
The Story of Woo Viet

Blood Simple
Legend of the Wolf
Memoirs of an Invisible Man

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