Sunday, April 18, 2021

Hong Kong Comic-Book Adventures: The Storm Riders & The Storm Warriors

One of the places I didn't get to see when I went to Hong Kong a couple of years ago - it had apparently moved back to a new-old location after my guidebook saw print and my phone wasn't giving me much help - was the comics museum, Comix Home Base. You see kids reading comic books a lot in period Hong Kong movies, with no suggestion that they're imports or translations, but HK comics aren't in the top five of countries you'll find at the local comic shop, and I was curious to get a look at it. From the description, it sounds like that's in part because they wouldn't travel well, because like a lot of Hong Kong pop culture, it's very specific to those 400 square miles, with a lot of what was on exhibit satiric or political.

Which is not to say that there aren't big adventure comics to be had:
I stumbled upon this statue of Cloud while walking around Golden Bauhinia Square, maybe the same day I was looking for Comix Home Base, and as much as I was intrigued by the fact that it was one of thirty-six statues… Well, like I mentioned above, my phone wasn't doing that great with the internet that day, so I didn't find the map to follow. Still, I had to take this picture quickly, because there were a bunch of folks who wanted to pose with the antihero.

Anyway, I remembered that when I saw both of these movies in the "cheap sale" section at DDDHouse, picked them up, and picked them up for a double feature last week. A bit longer than I expected - I read the 86 minutes of special features as the length of the movie, but it's actually 25 minutes longer - but it's not like I had to catch a bus the next morning. I'm glad I did the double feature, though, because it shows what a difference ten years made at this particular point in movie history, and the way the filmmakers handled it.

Because while ten years is a lot of time at the turn of the century - the difference between everything being shot on 35mm and digitally, but it's a stark difference in style, as Andrew Lau Wai-Keung is pretty traditional - for something released in 1998, it feels like something from ten years earlier - while the Pang Brothers dive into building a whole world digitally, with the hyper-detailed armor you see in more current mainland productions. There's not exactly strong continuity between them, but it's odd that they retain the same two leads rather than relaunching when so much else is different. They both feel like movies where the audience is expected to know what they're in for, but in different ways - Riders feels like it's covering a lot of issues but working its way through the origin, while Warriors just picks up like it's in the middle of a TV series and the audience just needs a slight refresh. It's probably totally fair in Hong Kong, and I never actually felt lost.

There have been occasional rumors of a third movie, maybe by the Pangs again, but I don't know if Aaron Kwok and Ekin Cheng are up for that. I'd love to see some more Hong Kong films based on their comics, though, and more translations of those comics into English (a number by Storm Riders creator Ma Wing Shing were published by ComicsOne, but they've been defunct since 2005. I don't know that there's a lot of pent-up demand for this stuff in English - most of the potential audience knows Cantonese and either lives in Hong Kong or has folks there to mail it to them - but it seems like an interesting thing to have on Comixology.

Fung wan: Hung ba tin ha (The Storm Riders)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 April 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

Even without watching its 2009 sequel for comparison, The Storm Riders has a throwback air to it, like the Hong Kong film industry long defined by knowing how to squeeze a lot out of what they had for a one-city market was playing a bit of catch-up before advances in technology and a drastic increase in their potential audience changed everything. It's a lot of things that hadn't often been put together in quite the same way before and wouldn't be since, but probably a real kick for fans of Ma Wing-Shing's comics at the time.

As it opens, Lord Conquer (Shin'ichi "Sonny" Chiba) is consolidating his hold over the martial-arts world, aching for a battle with the Sword Saint (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang), but his geomancer, the Mud Buddha (Lai Yiu-Cheung) says it may not take place for ten years, and acquiring apprentices with certain birth-charts will help the process. Conquer is ruthless in how he finds and "recruits" ten-year-old Whispering Wind and Striding Cloud, raising them with daughter Charity and the already-adopted Frost. A decade later, Cloud (Aaron Kwok Fu-Sing), Wind (Ekin Cheng Yee-Kin), and Frost (Michael Tse Tin-Wah) all have supernaturally-augmented martial arts skills, but cracks are starting to form, especially around the young men's feeling toward Charity (Kristy Yeung Kung-Yu) and their growing discomfort with Conquer's lust for power.

Never having read Ma's comics, or Hong Kong manhua in general, I'm not sure how faithful an adaptation this is, but it in many ways resembles the live-action adaptations of Japanese manga which compact several volumes of action into one two-hour feature, keenly aware that much of their audience will be upset if anything gets left out. As a result, it often has the feel of a greatest-hits album, including all of the most popular tracks that it has to have in the proper order but not having the interesting side tracks and discoveries. Characters are introduced and never given a lot to do, such as Muse, who would be a fun supporting character in an ongoing series but is kind of a waste of Shu Qi here, and there's an outright bananas detour toward the end that never seems to amount to anything. Screenwriter Manfred Wong Man-Chun kept all the pieces, but pared everything that held them together to the absolute minimum.

Fortunately, long-running comics don't exactly live or die on the intricacies of plot, but by how much the audience wants to come back to a certain setting and characters, and the cast seems to have a grand time with these larger-than-life figures. Aaron Kwok especially plays the blue-haired Cloud as all smoldering passion and rage ready to explode, whether he's striking a cool pose or snarling at a supposed friend. Fellow Canto-pop star Ekin Cheng has his work cut out for him in not making the kinder-hearted Wind seem kind of drab in comparison, but manages; he's a complement when he could easily be relegated to sidekick status. There's a solid group up and down the supporting parts, from Lawrence Cheng Tan-Shui as an obsequious Jester to Anthony Wong as a (semi) final boss worth shrouding in mystery. But mostly, there's Sonny Chiba - his Cantonese may be dubbed by actor Wong Wai, and the make-up to give him a more youthful appearance in the opening scenes may not be quite convincing, but he strides through every scene in a way that tells everybody that Conquer deserves to be on top, with an striking combination of icily pure ambition and personal nastiness. He's the sort of villain heroes are measured against because Chiba knows just how much movie-star charisma to hold back and let out.

He was a bit past his action-star prime at that point, but he can still handle a sword, and the film spends a lot of time showcasing powers and weapons as opposed to straight hand-to-hand. They don't always have the effects budget to pull it off as slickly as places would in a couple of years, although I do wonder if an early bit of green-screen work not being great helps sell the more elaborate and better-executed effects that come later. There's a vibe to it that's somewhere between Shaw Brothers and 1980s fantasy, and that sense of unreality is a good match for the comic-book fantasy material. It holds together even if there are areas where it could be tighter.

Ten years later, the Pang brothers would have more money and resources for a sequel, and it would be a fundamentally different thing - slicker and more stylish, but for all that an episode rather than something balancing epic ambitions and a tactile world the way this one does. Seen back-to-back, they're an eye-opening look at just how genre filmmaking changed in the the 2000s.

Also at eFilmCritic

Fung wan II (The Storm Warriors)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 April 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

It's probably not a great sign that I completely forgot that I had seen The Storm Warriors before - almost eleven years ago, at my second trip to the New York Asian Film Festival - when I (1) ordered these two discs, (2) watched both movies, and (3) started writing the review, not discovering my previous review until I was checking to see whether I needed to add something to the eFilmCritic database or not. You'd think something working so hard to be stylish would have stuck in my head more!

That's not saying it's a bad movie, but it's strangely disconnected as a sequel. Aaron Kwok and Ekin Cheng are playing the same characters but they've had ten years to mellow, and it's kind of amusing that, because Tiffany Tang Yan's character was subtitled as "Chu Chu" here rather than "Muse", it never occurred to me that Tang was playing the same part Shu Qi was in the other movie, although I can kind of see it now that I've seen the HKMDB entries for them. There are a number of new supporting characters who get no introduction; I guess you're supposed to know them from the comics. And yet, it ends on what could be a literal cliffhanger, as if anticipating a third entry that thus far hasn't materialized.

What's kind of fascinating to me is how, where most sequels often tend to follow their predecessor's lead in terms of general style, the Pang brothers opt not to do that here; where The Storm Riders was epic but not too fancy, this is full of slow-mo, the charcoal color scheme that more earnestly cool-but-serious at the time (Aaron Kwok barely has any blue in his hair as Cloud!), and the sort of detailing on the armor that seems impractical but looks better in HD than the more functional (and colorful) costuming seen elsewhere. And while the film was shot in Cantonese, it seems to have a bit of an eye on what it takes to succeed on the Mainland; where the first seems to take place in a fantasy world rather than any specific time or place (albeit one with Shaolin monks), this one frames the battle as foreigners attempting to invade and destroy China. It's doubly amusing because Shin'ichi Chiba's Conquer didn't seem to be explicitly played as an outsider in 1998, at least to my North American eyes, but SImon Yam's Lord Godless is described as such but doesn't seem particularly Japanese.

I didn't find this movie "exhausting" the way I did back in 2010, but even with the added background of watching them back-to-back,, it's still kind of middling, the sort of blockbuster-style movie that doesn't quite have what it takes to thoroughly hook the audience once it's no longer state of the art.

Original eFilmCritic review from 2010

Friday, April 16, 2021

Next Week in [Virtual] Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 16 April 2021 - 22 April 2021

I thought Regal Fenway was re-opening this weekend, but apparently it's still at least a week away. On top of that, it looks like ShowPlace Icon in the Seaport has shut down (not entirely surprising, as it was never really busy even before All This) and the parent company of ArcLight is talking like they're shutting the whole chain down, including the only-open-a-couple-of-months location on Causeway Street, though some speculate that this is hardball renegotiation of their leases. I don't expect either to stay closed forever - cinemas are a thing the folks who own the real estate will want, and even if the operators pull their equipment and furniture out, it takes more doing to make ten rooms of stadium seating into something else than to move another chain in there - but even with everybody able to get vaccinated starting next week, it looks like it's going to be some time before the Boston area is back up to the number of screens it was at before all this, even before you take into account the theater in Revere closing down (although, happily, it looks like CinemaSalem will re-open under new management).
  • Happily, it looks like the local institutions are going to make it through, with The Brattle Theatre teaming with Grrl Haus Cinema for program "Let's Have a Party", 11 short films centered around the party scene, available through Thursday. They also open Hope, a film from Norway starring Stellan Skarsgård and Andrea Bræin Hovig as a married couple with several kids from previous relationships that has grown apart, only to find they need each other when the wife is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Those join Małni – Towards the Ocean, Towards the Shore, This Is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection, Center Stage, The Fever, The Inheritance, and Keep an Eye Out . Take-out concessions are available for pick-up through the weekend for those looking to make the experience a little more complete.
  • Hope also opens at The Coolidge Corner Theatre, alongside The Room, , Eric Rohmer's "The Tales of the Four Seasons", the three Oscar Nominated Shorts programs (Animated, Live-Action, and Documentary, Wojnarowicz, Stray, and City Hall. If you stream The Room this afternoon (Friday), you can join a conversation with co-star Greg Sestero at 8pm.

    Coolidge Education seminars return this week with critic Vikram Murthi discussing Jonathan Demme's I>Something Wild. Register, listen to the intro, find a stream, and circle back for a Zoom discussion at 8pm on Thursday. The Coolidge and Goethe-Institut also open next weekend's limited engagement a day early, with The Hidden Life of Trees starting on Thursday, the documentary focusing on forester Peter Wohlleben and play8ing through Sunday the 25th.
  • Add The ICA to the places that have virtual cinemas, with a three-pack of the Oscar-Nominated Short Films and a school vacation program curated by the Boston International kids Film Festival.
  • Wicked Queer has 22 features streaming through the 18th and 17 short film packages available through the 30th. The features don't entirely disappear after Sunday, as they start streaming Wojnarowicz for a week and a half starting Monday.

    As usual, Belmont World Film finishes one and starts another, with French cult-family drama The Dazzled running through Monday , when BU's David Frankfurter will lead a post-film discussion. Tuesday brings Sun Children, Iran's Oscar submission, with four kids who scrape by on petty street crime winding up going undercover in a school in hopes of finding a hidden treasure. As yet, no speaker has been announced for its Monday-night talk, although the website says there will be one.

    And don't forget, IFFBoston will be hosting its 2021 edition online in May. No films announced yet; but no harm in checking your membership and renewing if need be ahead of time, or at least signing up for updates.
  • ArtsEmerson's film program has the third and final weekend of the Boston Baltic Film Festival with Lithuanian romance I Want to Live playing Friday through Sunday, including a pre-recorded Q&A with filmmaker Justinas Krisiunas and cast member Deividas Breive afterward. They also have Shared Story presentation Eating Up Easter, a documentary from Rapanui filmmaker Sergio Mata'u Rapu that examines how his island home is being transformed by tourism. It plays with short film "Sky Aelans", which refers to the Sky Islanders of the Solomon Islands, who live in disappearing woodlands. It comes online Wednesday, with post-film discussion involving Rapu, "Sky Aelans" producer Dan Lin, and others "The Return of the Dragon" also continues on-demand, through the 27th.
  • The Regent Theatre is still streaming Long Live Rock: Celebrate the Chaos.
  • Landmark Theatres Kendall Square picks up Monday, which features Sebastian Stan and Denise Gough as two tourists who meet on vacation in Greece and impulsively change their lives to try and be together. They also re-open The Father (as does Boston Common)
  • After that fancy Netflix Rebecca remake last year, Ben Wheatley has gone back to his roots, whipping horror movie In the Earth out during a couple weeks of quarantine, with things getting freaky in the woods as a scientist and park ranger find something strange. It's at Boston Common. Over in Watertown, the theater at Arsenal picks up Malayalam thriller Nizhal.

    South Bay and Watertown have TCM/Fathom screenings of La Bamba on Sunday, Wednesday (South Bay only), and Thursday. Boston Common, South Bay, and Chestnut Hill will be picking up anime hit Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train next weekend, but it gets a big, splashy premiere on Thursday night, including subtitled shows on Imax, Dolby, and regular screens (plus dubbed times) before shifting down to a smaller regular release.
  • The West Newton Cinema is open through Sunday, with Godzilla vs Kong, The Father (Saturday/Sunday only), Raya and the Last Dragon, Tom & Jerry (Saturday/Sunday only), and Nomadland all playing reasonably full schedules. They're also open for private rentals.
  • The Somerville Theatre and The Capitol are still not showing movies, though the Capitol has their ice cream shop and concession stand open.
  • Theater rentals are available at the Coolidge, the Brattle, Kendall Square, West Newton, the Capitol, The Lexington Venue, and the AMC/Majestic/Showcase multiplexes. The Coolidge has extended the slots available to reserve online through the end of April now offers early and late evening chances to rent Moviehouse II, the screening room, and the GoldScreen, with "Premium Programming" including Promising Young Woman, The Trial of the Chicago 7, The Father, Mank, Judas and the Black Messiah, Nomadland, Minari, In the Mood for Love, and Sound of Metal; the AMC app lists some "sold out" showtimes that are probably just meant to show the movies are available as part of rentals. The independent theaters also have other fund-raising offers worth checking out, and Apple Fresh Pond has plans to re-open in May..
I am down for In The Earth, and want to catch up with The Father, French Exit, the Oscar shorts, Center Stage, Stray, and Keep an Eye Out, and the metric crap-ton of discs I've been ordering lately.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Álex de la Iglesia in 4K: Perdita Durango & The Day of the Beast

I jest in the review of The Day of the Beast that Severin probably got a nice boost for these 4K disc releases from HBO showing a pretty damn great horror series from Álex de la Iglesia early in the year, but the two discs with the same release date that I ordered at the same time shipped separately, with Day arriving a few days after Perdita Durango, and it doesn't seem to be too much of a stretch to suppose that the TV show about a rogue priest trying to thwart an evil plot with biblical roots might get some interested in looking up the film that has the same description (in very broad strokes).

It's an interesting and exciting swing for those of us who have liked de la Iglesia for a long time and noticed that he's kind of disappeared from American screens in recent years - I didn't realize that The Bar existed until it showed up on Blu-ray in Hong Kong (I gather it's a Netflix exclusive in the USA), and his remake of Perfect Strangers hasn't made it to the USA at all (the Spanish-language version available here is the Mexican version). One of the fun things to happen in early 2021 was having 30 Coins sprung upon us and then having it be really great, then having these two UltraHD versions of his early movies drop. It's a nice, splashy return to visibility for a cult filmmaker whose slide into the mainstream has not always actually made his stuff easier to find for either old or new fans.

The discs in question are kind of pricey - $50 SRP down to $35 on Amazon, although I saw them for $30 at Hamilton Book when looking for some other things there - but a lot of these 4K UltraHD releases are niche items, and there's not a whole lot of 4K replication now that physical media is on the wane. They are, however, pretty terrific-looking, although I suspect I may struggle to explain the extent of how great they are. Less so than usual - watching a lot of streaming over the past year, I've become painfully aware of what compression does to even HD-quality video, and you just don't see that here, with terrific detail and great color - but I've noted before that a lot of people didn't quite see the jump in quality between DVD and BD. From the first shot of The Day of the Beast, I saw that it looked great, and pointing out bitrates and the like doesn't help if you aren't impressed on a "just look at this!" level.

I was impressed, and liked the movies quite a bit too. I hadn't seen either, despite having sought out de la Iglesia's stuff in the wake of them playing the Brattle, both on their own and as a series, so this was more about going back to the beginning than seeing them with new eyes, but it made for a fun couple of evenings.

Perdita Durango (aka Dance with the Devil)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 March 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

I thought I'd seen Perdita Durango as part of an Álex de la Iglesia series at the Brattle Theatre (or possibly their all-too-brief Boston Fantastic Film Festival), possibly under the title "Dance with the Devil", but I must have been up to something else that evening, because I surely would have remembered this bit of madness, right? Maybe not; it's well-made stream-of-consciousness madness, but maybe not quite haunting or horrifying in the way that the best movies of that variety can be.

Perdita (Rosie Perez) is already not one to mess around with at the start, scaring off the men trying to pick her up as she hangs around the border until she meets up with Romeo (Javier Bardem), who has recently robbed both a bank and a grave and knows he's less likely to get searched with a partner in the passenger seat. He's got a lucrative job coming up, driving a semi full of human embryos to a cosmetics lab, but figures he should boost his power beforehand with a Santeria ritual sacrifice; Perdita picks out lily-white American couple Duance (Harley Cross) and Estelle (Aimee Graham) as likely candidates. And while FBI agent Dumas (James Gandolfini) is already on their tail, they're just as likely to get caught up in their own combustibility as run afoul of the law.

Though the film takes its name from its female lead (as does Barry Gifford's original novel 59 Degrees and Raining: The Story of Perdita Durango), it's not unfair to say that, story-wise, she's passing through Romeo's narrative - the plan comes to him, most of the supporting characters come from his backstory, much happens on his ranch, etc. It's a tribute to how strong Rosie Perez's work is that she never seems like a supporting character, even before the film tilts a bit more in her direction during the later stretches; she gives a forceful performance that suggests a fully-defined character with only the bare minimum of description of what got her to this point. This could be either a movie about her as a force of chaos that pushes Romeo to new depths or how her being a mess at this moment has her being pulled into his orbit, but it's built so that she can be both and neither.

So much of the story running through Romeo nevertheless makes the movie a feast for Javier Bardem as well, and he's a blast, the sort of charismatic monster who has given a fair amount of thought to the symbolism of his rituals but absolutely wings an armed robbery. You can see he's fallen hard for Perdita and is generally romantic about his outlaw nature without ever softening how psychopathic he is in other areas. In some ways, Romeo is Perdita's counterpart, an apparent protagonist that's actually a supporting character. There's a deep bench around them, too, with James Gandolfini playing some absurdity straight and appearing fully-formed as Dumas, Aimee Graham & Harley Cross making a hostage arc work much better than it usually does, and Demian Bichir a treat in his one scene.

The thing about having such a good cast so completely invested is that one can wind up with the sort of movie that is so into its own weird, nasty world that it's hard to tell right away whether it will linger or just not be able to form any connections with other synapses at all. It certainly establishes right away that de la Iglesia is a natural at this sort of nasty pulp; he jumps right in, and keeps heaping more on even though he started pretty much over the top, and is able to cruise for a couple hours without exhausting the viewer by getting too far out or triumphantly linking back to something familiar. It's a tricky balance to manage; the story is built around nihilism and envelope-pushing, but the filmmakers never seem self-satisfied about how cruel they're being. De la Iglesia and his co-writers (including original novelist Gifford and regular collaborator Jorge Guerricaechevarría) inject a certain amount of pop-cultural self-awareness into the film, but there's usually a clear point to the references, not just a list of favorites. It's nifty-looking without ever seeming too slick or too deliberately shaggy.

The new 4K disc of the original cut, BTW, looks terrific without being ostentatious about it, as is fitting - it's weird but surprisingly digestible for how twisted parts are. It makes for an entertaining movie that sometimes feels like it should be more unsettling - no bad thing, but not exactly the cult classic that the film is sometimes presented as.

Also at eFilmCritic

El día de la bestia (The Day of the Beast)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 April 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

I don't know how many extra sales of their new 4K The Day of the Beast disc Severin got from folks who just discovered Alex de la Iglesia with 30 Coins and wanted more in the same vein, but it's the sort of happy coincidence that many labels re-releasing cult cult classics must dream of, even if it does make it hard to view the movie from 1995 outside the context of the recent TV series. It's a very different thing, of course, and not just because it's the work of someone young and rebellious as opposed to a seasoned veteran.

As it opens on 23 December 1995, Jesuit theology professor Cura (Álex Angulo) has made a horrifying discovery - the hidden numerology in Revelations that the Antichrist will be born on Christmas Eve, in Madrid. He sees only one way to forestall the Apocalypse - renounce God, commit enough sins to be accepted by the area's Satanists, and prevent the rise of evil from within. How to do so? Maybe José María (Santiago Segura), the metalhead he meets at a record store, can provide some leads; there's also "Professor Cavan" (Armando De Razza), a bestselling author and television personality who is the area's foremost expert on the occult.

De la Iglesia and writing partner Jorge Guerricaechevarría start the film with dark slapstick, and while they seem to figure that material wouldn't be able to actually sustain an entire movie and move on, there's something almost wholesome in the way the opening scenes play out, because despite his deciding that sin is the only way to greater salvation, Cura doesn't come by cruelty naturally, and it highlights the absurdity of his quest while giving Álex Angulo a chance to establish his lower-key personality before bringing the broader characters and performers in. There's something both very funny and slyly satirical about this un-worldly man comically trying to transgress and how he goes looking for sin in heavy metal music because the idea is only theoretical to him and that's what he's heard is evil.

Eventually, there's got to be some sort of story, and it's the sort that can feel kind of like a mess 25 years later and an ocean away - I found myself wondering if the building that plays a large part in the last act was considered noteworthy or controversial at the time - with the satire often seeming scattershot, especially when combined with some misdirection and ambiguity. What to make of how José María only seems to take the blasphemous imagery in his "heavy" music seriously when Cura validates it, or the irony of how the film seems to revel in this transgression while also mocking the media that sees it as merely "something different". There's sometimes a sense that they've hedged their bets - the spree-killers who are coded as monsters with money attacking the lower classes are probably more horrifying if they're just selfishly evil as opposed to being in league with the devil, and de la Iglesia seems aware of that, playing much of the movie's back half as if it could be genuinely supernatural or a delusion brought on by the psychedelics used in a ritual. The filmmakers seem to have some strong ideas about how violence and selfishness have become mainstreamed but sometimes struggle making a story out of it that involves Cura searching for the literal devil.

That the writing gets messy often highlights that there's more to a movie than just the script, because de la Iglesia and company get things to move, mixing stone-faced absurdity with amusing slapstick, making hard turns into and out of darker material as the central trio is pulled in deeper. In addition to Angulo's good work, Armando De Razza and Santiago Segura have entertaining and complementary comic personae here (though it's a bit of a shame that out of the three main women in the cast, only Terele Pávez gets to be active, and that's as a fairly stock pushy-landlord character). The film manages to make its class distinctions sharp enough to be important but also able to bounce between them without a stop to resent, and de la Iglesia's team does a nice job when the time comes to shift into bigger and more elaborate action.

There's a scene or two at the end where the new 4K transfer winds up highlighting the messiness of the original effects work, but that's fitting - it reveals the film's age and rough edges, but also how well it's put together despite that. It's otherwise a very nice package, and an interesting one to catch after 30 Coins (though more flippant in their younger days, the team always took the idea of the battle between Heaven and Hell seriously); 25 years on, it's still got the ability to shock, thrill, and even surprise.

Also at eFilmCritic

Friday, April 09, 2021

Next Week in [Virtual] Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 9 April 2021 - 15 April 2021

Oof, I've just seen a couple more festivals planning to go virtual, one in November. Looks like the "virtual" section is staying at the top for a while.
  • The new virtual entry The Brattle Theatre is Małni – Towards the Ocean, Towards the Shore, an experimental film built around the Chinookian death myth and anything connected to it. It joins This Is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection, Center Stage, The Fever, The Inheritance, Keep an Eye Out, and F.T.A. in their "Brattlite" section. Take-out concessions are available for pick-up through the weekend for those looking to make the experience a little more complete.
  • Their friends at The DocYard also have one that sounds like it's on the experimental side, with Shared Resources having filmmaker Jordan Lord turn the camera on his own family as he chronicles his parents' bankruptcy, although much would appear to be captioned audio from the description. The film plays through Thursday, with Lord joining curator Abbey Sun for a discussion on Wednesday evening.
  • Every once in a while, I get the impression that folks at The Coolidge Corner Theatre don't really enjoy playing The Room, but if people are going to repeatedly give a non-profit theater ten bucks to watch a bad movie every couple of months, that theater would be foolish not to let them do it. Anyway, that's what's opening in the Coolidge's virtual room this week, apparently not streaming anywhere else, and your ticket gets you a Zoom discussion with co-star Greg Sestero next Friday evening. Looks a bit out of place next to Eric Rohmer's "The Tales of the Four Seasons", the three Oscar Nominated Shorts programs (Animated, Live-Action, and Documentary, Wojnarowicz, Stray, and City Hall.

    There are also two "Stage & Screen" discussions this week - folks from the Huntington Thatre Company will be talking about Ma Rainey's Black Bottom on Monday, while the month's Shakespeare Reimagined presentation has set/costume designer David Zinn and folks from the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company talking about Sally Potter's Orlando. Find the movies yourself, and join in!
  • Wicked Queer is in its main stretch this week, with 21 features streaming from the 8th to the 18th, with Kiss Me Kosher coming online Wednesday and 17 short film packages also available.

    Belmont World Film is back on the regular schedule this week, with France's Gloria Mundi online through Monday evening, culminating in a discussion with Suffolk University's Michèle Plott at 7:30pm that night. They stick around France for The Dazzled, which begins streaming on Tuesday with folks having a week to take in its story of growing up with one's family in a cult before a talk with BU's David Frankfurter on the 19th.
  • The Regent Theatre is still streaming Long Live Rock: Celebrate the Chaos.
  • ArtsEmerson's film program continues "Projecting Connections: Chinese American Experiences" presentation Far East Deep South through Sunday, including discussion with director Larissa Lam, producer Baldwin Chiu. They also have their second weekend of the Boston Baltic Film Festival, featuring A to B Rollerski, which features Latvian-American biathlete Raimonds Dombrovskis, who rollerskied from Inuvik to Baja California when his Olympic dreams were stymied in 1988 and recreated it 26 years later, hoping to meet some of the same people. It plays through Sunday, with a pre-recorded Q&A featuring Dombrovskis and director Arnis Aspers. There's also a presentation that's more in line with their theatrical side, "The Return of the Dragon", a shot-in-quarantine look behind the scenes of Chilean dramatist Guillermo Calderón's play Dragón. It streams with live Q&As on Saturday and Sunday evenings, with the 23-minute short streaming on demand starting on Tuesday.

    The week's Bright Lights at Home entry "Generation Green New Deal" is also a short, 45 minutes long, about the Sunrise Movement and others pushing for bold action on the climate crisis. It's available Wednesday to Thursday evening (free but capped at 175 total viewers), with director Sam Eilertsen and several activists participating in a Zoom discussion at 8pm Thursday evening.
  • Landmark Theatres Kendall Square has weird churn going on, with some things sticking around quite a while and some exiting pretty fast for how they've been built up. So, even though you may have seen posters and trailers for documentary The Truffle Hunters for a while, there's no guarantee that it won't be gone in a week if too many screenings are one or two people. It follows the old men of Piedmont, Italy, who (with their dogs) have the knack for finding the rare Alba truffle, which has thus far resisted farming. They also open South African film Moffie, which follows a young man completing his compulsory military service in 1981, when not only is there the thread of war with Angola while apartheid has made the country a powderkeg, but the army can become even more cruel if they find out one is gay.
  • Voyagers feels like the sort of thing I once would have been aware of before seeing a preview a couple weeks ago - slick-looking movie with Tye Sheridan, Lily-Rose Depp, and some others as the crew of a generation ship medicated to be mission-focused until they discover sex, Colin Farrell as their handler, a director in Neil Burger who's done some interesting stuff in the genre - but it feels like it came out of nowhere, and it's not even based on some Young Adult series that usually forms my blind spot. Weird, right? It's at Boston Common, South Bay, Watertown (through Sunday).

    That's right, the Majestic in Arsenal Yards is re-opening this weekend, and they are the ones with the new Telugu-language film opening with "Power Star" Pawan Kalyan returning to the screen in Vakeel Saab, a remake of Hindi-language hit Pink, playing the title character in an action-thriller about a lawyer who steps in to defend three young women and apparently get involved in dangers beyond the courtroom.
  • The West Newton Cinema is open through Sunday, with Godzilla vs Kong, The Father, Raya and the Last Dragon, and Nomadland all playing reasonably full schedules. They're also open for private rentals.
  • The Somerville Theatre and The Capitol are still not showing movies, though latter has their ice cream shop and concession stand open.
  • Theater rentals are available at the Coolidge, the Brattle, Kendall Square, West Newton, the Capitol, The Lexington Venue, and the AMC/Majestic/Showcase multiplexes. The Coolidge has extended the slots available to reserve online through the end of April now offers early and late evening chances to rent Moviehouse II, the screening room, and the GoldScreen, with "Premium Programming" including Promising Young Woman, The Trial of the Chicago 7, The Father, Mank, Judas and the Black Messiah, Nomadland, Minari, In the Mood for Love, and Sound of Metal; the AMC app lists some "sold out" showtimes that are probably just meant to show the movies are available as part of rentals. The independent theaters also have other fund-raising offers worth checking out. Regal Fenway is expected to re-open next weekend, but no word yet on either the ArcLight at the Garden or the ShowPlace Icon in the Seaport, the latter of which has disappeared from its company's website entirely, which is concerning.
No plans this weekend; I've ordered a bunch of discs (which is silly) and have plenty I want to get through before the Oscars, but when are those, anyway?

Saturday, April 03, 2021

Chow Yun-Fat Reluctantly Returns to His Triad Roots (with a Wong Kar-Wai side-trip): Flaming Brothers & Triads: The Inside Story

Here's how choosing movies goes for me right now: I was going to watch the 2017 Godzilla on Wednesday night, but since it was 3-D and I didn't want to try and eat with the glasses on, I figured I'd watch something short-ish before hand, and the 95-minute Flaming Brothers seemed to be a good choice. By the time it was over, though, it was too late to start a two-hour-plus back half, so I looked through the "unwatched Hong Kong" shelf, figured Triads would make a good double feature, and there you go.

Maybe I should have grabbed Haunted Cop Shop and done a "yes, Wong Kar-Wai wrote these things" pairing instead, since I wasn't terribly fond of Triads. I joked about getting that and Eagle Shooting Heroes out when the Coolidge was playing WKW's movies virtually back in December, because sometimes I love digging the stuff people did before they became auteurs out and reminding folks that they weren't fully formed, even though one of the perks of becoming a big name is that you get to put those behind you. John Sayles is the guy who made Lone Star, not the guy who wrote killer-animal movies for Roger Corman.

And yet, as you see in the review, you don't have to stretch Flaming Brothers too far to see it as a WKW film. He'd soon favor introversion over bullets in his expressions of affection, but the passion is familiar and there's a story about unrequited love to be found here if you're inclined to look. Jeff Lau - who is credited as a co-writer on IMDB but shares executive producer credit with Wong on HKMDB - would produce Wong's first few directorial efforts, and later have fruitful partnerships with Stephen Chow and Corey Yuen.

Anyway, now I'm sad that Wong never re-teamed with Chow Yun-Fat after this, so far as I can see, because I'd love to see what that movie looks like. I'm also adding See You Tomorrow/The Ferryman to my next HK disc order, because the fact that he co-wrote a flashy comedy/drama for someone else to direct in the middle of what seems like a long idle period and it didn't travel kind of fascinates me.

Gong woo lung foo dau (Flaming Brothers)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 31 March 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

The Hong Kong film industry is not, I suppose, that much wilder than any other. There is high and low art wherever people make movies, and a lot of people famed for the former cut their teeth on the latter; those early movies just don't always travel like the others. Still, it's nevertheless kind of odd to see Wong Kar-Wai's name show up as the writer of something like Flaming Brothers, the sort of bombastic "heroic bloodshed" movie that star Chow Yun-Fat is best known for but which seems to be the antithesis of the romances full of longing which made Wong an arthouse favorite around the world.

Fifteen, twenty years ago, Tien got caught stealing rice from a Catholic orphanage in Macao by Ka-Hsi, but the kind-hearted girl hides him and starts bringing him food, although when she is adopted by a Hong Kong family, Tien and his brother Alan are soon backsliding. Now, they're up-and-comers in the underworld - and canny about how to rise - although they don't offer drugs in their clubs and brothels. As local godfather Kao (Patrick Tse Yin) recruits Alan (Alan Tang Kwong-Wing) to negotiate with an arms dealer in Thailand (Fong Yau), Tien (Chow Yun-Fat) learns that one of the teachers of his friend Richard's son is Ka-Hsi (Pat Ha Man-Jik), at the school housed in her old orphanage, no less. As Tien is inspired to go straight, Alan is setting his criminal ambitions higher, on a collision course with Kao.

The subtitles didn't make it entirely clear whether Tien and Alan are literal brothers or brothers-in-arms, and truth be told, I hadn't considered that it might not be the former until someone started making cracks about the other criminals thinking they were gay until Tien started dating Ka-Hsi. The filmmakers don't necessarily lean into it, and certainly don't confirm it, but it's interesting to watch the film through that lens, from how performatively Alan responds to "Uncle Pui" plying him with women to his relationship with girlfriend Jenny (Jenny Tseng) to how the pair are tied together even after one marries. A lot of operatic crime movies will elicit laughs as the sworn brothers' devotion, underscored with Cantopop ballads, plays as campy, but putting the idea out there gives Alan an extra layer or two, and lets the final shootout play a little more earnestly than it might have otherwise.

And that last bit of gunplay is wonderfully over-the-top; for all that Alan comments earlier in the movie that he's just doing crime, not a coup, a lot of people catch a lot of bullets. There are only three or four big action set-pieces, but director Joe Cheung Tung-Cho and the action teams led by Stephen Tung Wai design some nifty set-pieces: The ones in Macao are impressive for just how many people are crammed in a tight space with guns without it becoming completely incoherent, while the chase in Thailand takes advantage of having more room to play to get a better look at what's going through Alan's mind as it's going on. Enough bullets are spit out that it's no surprise that the finale is eventually about everyone scrambling for the gun that has one shot left, but it never feels like overkill. It's always underlining some sort of emotional peak.

It's always fun to watch the brothers themselves, who each have a different sort of charisma. Alan Tang's eponymous character may not be as closeted or in denial as one might speculate, but Tang is terrific at giving the impression that he's pouring an excess amount of passion into whatever he's doing, for better or often for worse. Chow Yun-Fat, was still kind of baby-faced when this came out in 1987, and it lets him play Tien as often being kind of an earnest dork while still being effortlessly cool. Chow captures how this guy looks equally appropriate with a gun in his hand or managing a 7-11, in large part because there's no doubt how much he loves the people who have brought him to either situation.

Knowing what the writer would go on to do afterward, it's tempting to maybe see a little more artistry in the melodrama of Flaming Brothers to elevate it over its pulpy contemporaries, or perhaps ascribe Wong's later successes to his genre roots, and it's not exactly wrong to do so, even if he was mostly just trying to earn a living in the movie business at the time. It doesn't really matter, as the end result is that Flaming Brothers is a better-than-average movie of its type, although I must admit that Wong never having Chow Yun-Fat appear in one of his later movies now seems like quite the missed opportunity.

Also at eFilmCritic

Ngoh joi hak se wooi dik yat ji (Triads: The Inside Story)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 31 March 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

There is, somewhere inside Triads: An Inside Story, a pretty good black comedy wanting to come out, but which never does. I kind of wonder what happened here - did things just fizzle? Did casting a star like Chow Yun-Fat in the lead skew the producers toward playing it straight? Or did they just not realize that the gold here was in just what sort of fish out of water his character was, seeing it as just one element of the crime story?

There is, after all, something really striking about the visuals in the opening, when the bright green lawn surrounding Lee Man-Ho's house in the suburbs when his father calls from a boat on its way to a dock-side meeting house on a Hong Kong island emphasizes just how Americanized the expatriate son is, and how utterly useless he and his fancy business degree will be when the father's triad lieutenants want him to take over the organization. Lee (Chow) wants no part of it and even beyond that has no real feel for it, but there seldom seems to be a real twist of the knife as he stumbles through awkward reunions with people he last saw 15 years ago and a turf war, or a real horror that entrusting this enterprise to Ho, as tradition requires, might be more destructive than just dissolving or fighting over it. It seems like there are sharp satirical points to be made about the exodus of Hong Kong's best and brightest (and most well-connected) that was going on before the handover, and how those who left wouldn't be Hong Kongers any more, but it eventually becomes little more than just a gang-honor movie.

(At least, that's how it plays for me; maybe HK folks see nuances I can't help but miss.)

It's a bit of a bummer, because watching it as a double feature with Flaming Brothers highlights what a slick, well-produced movie it is, with Chow leading a cast of fine character actors who know that they've got to play it a bit larger-than-life but never tipping over into obvious parody or camp. It looks great, with future directorial workhorse Herman Yau Lai-To shooting it without a lot of fuss but making it look very nice, and both he and director Taylor Wong Tai-Loi seem to share a great eye for the character(s) of the city. The action is nicely done.

I can't help but wonder what this movie would have looked like had screenwriter Nam Yin's brother Ringo Lam directed it. Wong made a handful of modest hits, but this feels like the sort of movie where Lam could have gotten belly-laughs from the absurdity and put something fierce underneath when lesser filmmakers are only seeing what's on the page.

Friday, April 02, 2021

Next Week in [Virtual] Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 2 April 2021 - 8 April 2021

Last weekend was pretty quiet. This one, not so much.
  • At The Coolidge Corner Theatre, they're picking things up in bulk. The "Small Screen Classics" series returns with the The Tales of the Four Seasons, Eric Rohmer's anthology series of romances that, I'm presuming, track the phases of life as well as the year. They also pick up all three Oscar Nominated Shorts - Animated, Live-Action, and Documentary - the latter of which is, for the first time I can remember, presented as a single program that fits snugly in just under two hours: They also continue The Mole Agent, Another Round, Collective, Wojnarowicz, Stray, and City Hall.
  • The Brattle Theatre picks up the Foreign Language Film nominee from Lesotho, This Is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection, with Mary Twala Mhlongo as an 80-year-old woman who loses her son and then sees her entire village demanded to relocated to make way for a dam. They also pick up the reissue of Stanley Kwan's Center Stage, which features Maggie Cheung as one of China's first screen stars, Ruan Lingyu. They also continue to show The Fever, The Inheritance, Keep an Eye Out, Truth or Consequences, and F.T.A.. A24's streaming run of Minari has also been further extended to Sunday, and take-out concessions over the weekend.
  • They also team up with Wicked Queer to present Bound from Friday to Sunday. The main WQ festival will get underway on Thursday, with 21 features streaming from the 8th to the 18th, but they've already made their 17 short film packages available, and they'll be streamable all the way through the end of "#Gaypril".

    Belmont World Film was only able to make Tunisian drama A Son available from 7pm Friday to 9pm Monday this weekend (74 hours total), with the last couple hours overlapping with a discussion with Wellesley College Professor Anjali Prabhu. Prabhu will also be doing similar duties a week later for France's Gloria Mundi, which comes online Tuesday afternoon.
  • The Harvard Film Archive and their Eventive page continue to offer the second part of "Cities of Love and Sadness: Rediscovering the Taiwanese-Dialect CInema of the 1960s", featuring Early Train from Taipei, Dangerous Youth, and a series of lectures and conversations about the film and Taiwanese cinema featuring Dr. Chun-chi Wang and Dr. Evelyn Shih through Monday.
  • The Regent Theatre continues to stream Long Live Rock: Celebrate the Chaos, along with a free stream of and "Easter Passion" presentation led by Max McLean and a number of Broadway performers through Sunday.
  • ArtsEmerson's film program is busier in April than I can recall it being since they first re-opened the Paramount, with their streaming platform playing host to the Boston Baltic Film Festival for three weekends. The first entry is Self Made Cameraman, a comedy about Estonian filmmaker Johannes Pääsuke, whose 1912 commission to document the countryside resulted in only seven minutes of usable footage, which director Hardi Volmer proposes is the result of a number of surreal adventures. It's available through Sunday evening, and a Q&A with Volmer follows the stream. They start another program on Wednesday, with Far East Deep South being the first (I think) in the "Projecting Connections: Chinese American Experiences" series, which tells the tale of Chinese people in the American South during the Exclusion era through the search for a a long-lost relative. It plays through the 11th, including a discussion with director Larissa Lam, producer Baldwin Chiu, and a number of others.

    That overlaps the week's Bright Lights at Home presentation, with Her Socialist Smile available from noon on Wednesday to Thursday evening (free but capped at 175 total viewers). Director and professor John Gianvito will be there to discuss his film taken from Helen Keller's advocacy of progressive causes.
  • If you want to see the Oscar Shorts in person, Landmark Theatres Kendall Square has you covered for Animation and Live Action (unless you go Monday or Tuesday, when they're closed), with those two packages also playing Boston Common. It's worth noting that the listing at Kendall Square lists a few "Highly Commended" animated shorts to get the runtime up to 75 or 80 minutes, but the description on the Coolidge does not (though the running time seems to be about the same).

    The Kendall also pick up two comedies that they have been pushing for a while: In French Exit Michelle Pfeiffer stars as a woman who has spent her inheritance and moves into a friend's unused Paris apartment with her son (ah, to have such friends!); it also plays Boston Common. Shiva Baby has its protagonist staying in New York, but running into a number of folks she would otherwise try to avoid at the title ritual.

    They also seem to be doing fairly well with the Indian films, as Tamil actioner Sulthan opens this weekend.
  • In case you missed it, Godzilla vs Kong opens on Wednesday, big enough to bring back 3D glasses, 9pm showings, and even crowd out private rentals in some theaters. It's at West Newton, the Kendall, Boston Common (including Imax, Dolby Cinema, and 3D), South Bay (including Dolby Cinema & Imax), Chestnut Hill, and on HBO Max.

    Boston Common and South Bay also open The Unholy, which comes from Sam Raimi's company and digs into a young girl whose miracles seem to be connected to more sinister events. South Bay also has The Ten Commandments again for Easter Sunday.
  • The West Newton Cinema is open through Saturday, with Godzilla vs Kong, The Father, and Raya and the Last Dragon playing full schedules and Nomadland showing Saturday morning only; stuff lingering for weekend matinees suggests things may be getting somewhat back to normal there! They're also open for private rentals.
  • The Somerville Theatre and The Capitol are still not showing movies, though latter has their ice cream shop and concession stand open.
  • Theater rentals are available at the Coolidge, the Brattle, Kendall Square, West Newton, the Capitol, The Lexington Venue, and the AMC & Showcase multiplexes. The Coolidge has extended the slots available to reserve online through the end of April now offers early and late evening chances to rent Moviehouse II, the screening room, and the GoldScreen, with "Premium Programming" including Judas and the Black Messiah, Nomadland, Minari, In the Mood for Love, and Sound of Metal; the AMC app lists some "sold out" showtimes that are probably just meant to show the movies are available as part of rentals. The independent theaters also have other fund-raising offers worth checking out, and The Majestic 7 in Watertown intends to open next weekend with rentals also available.
Planning to hit Godzilla vs Kong, French Exit, and a few others. Not sure what I'll do with the shorts, and may go for Self Made Cameraman. Plus, the first baseball of the year!