-->

Thursday, 29 October 2015

"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," Ang Lee, Film Review





The best thing about this film is its title. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" has become a household name and the inspiration for a thousand punning headlines. It has the ambiguity and resonance of a good song lyric.

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS



I liked the title but I didn't like the film very much. Two hours of po-faced magic realism was too much for me. The danger of magic realism is that is that it ruins all suspense and makes every situation unbelievable. Who cares about a fight when the loser can simply fly away to escape the beating? Who cares about a warrior when thanks to magic he is basically invincible?

Successful examples of magic realism get around these problems. Jon Favreau's Iron Man for example, has characters with magic powers but it derives humour from the characters using those powers to act like tools and generally express their human frailties through their superpowers.

Angela Carter's novel Nights at the Circus has characters with magic powers but takes a joyful relish in the freedoms this gives them, making its gender politics points with supercharged gusto.


Review continues below...

Inspire your baby with the Visual Baby series of picture ebooks.  Original patterns and art designed for young eyes. Try them today by clicking the covers below.


      

"It's the only thing that stops her crying" Katie Alison
"All three of my children love this book"  Janice Peterson
"Moons, trees, leaves... fabulous!" Linda Matson 


Both Iron Man and Nights at the Circus aren't afraid to make the viewer / reader laugh. The joy and exuberance of the magic spills over into the joy of the characters.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on the other hand doesn't have a single laugh in it from beginning to end. Its magic serves no purpose except to deflate tension.

True there are some stunning landscape shots. True, the three female leads all have mighty screen presence. True, the courtship scene between Jen Yu (Ziyi Zhang) and Lo 'Dark Cloud' (Chen Chang) has its romantic moments. I particularly liked the scene where he finds enough scarce desert water to give her a bath, which he heats with fire rocks. It's a writer's job to create a really memorable and romantic courtship scene in a love story, but in many films it's a missed opportunity.





But it's not enough. If the women are strong, the men are weak. In particular, Li Mu Bai (Yun-Fat Chow) has all the charisma of a used (green) teabag. And I didn't believe in any part of the story. I didn't believe in Li's sad meditation experience. I didn't believe in Li's decision to give away his sword (seemingly only to allow it to be stolen). I didn't believe in Li and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh)'s decision to not become lovers. I didn't believe in Jen's precocious fighting powers. I didn't believe in Jen's abduction by Dark Cloud or her subsequent relationship with him.  

The presence of magic lets you do almost anything but it doesn't relieve you of the requirement to make your story and characters believable if you want to engage the viewer.

Personal Score: 3/10





This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on IMDB Top 250 films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Joseph L. Mankiewicz's "Sleuth" - Not great if you don't like Michael Caine




I can't say I've ever been a great fan of Michael Caine but I do prefer him when he is young and groovy as he undeniably is in Joseph Mankiewicz's 1972 film Sleuth.  In a two-handed all-male cast, he and Lawrence Olivier slug it out for alpha male status.

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS



Despite the somewhat hammy performances from both men, for my money, Olivier (playing aristocratic Andrew Wyke) blows Caine (Milo Tindle) off the screen most of the time, which is unfortunate since Sleuth is clearly intended to be some sort of allegory with Olivier's high-class mansion owner character pitted against Caine's common immigrant chancer – and Caine's character, Milo, has his tent firmly pitched on the moral high ground from beginning to end.

Olivier delights in presenting the slightly camp, delighted-with-himself performance of a man whose wealth and background have meant he's never had to justify his actions to anyone.  Caine has to put across a wide range of emotions from bragging cuckold to terrified victim.  It's only after finishing the film that I reflected that Olivier had just as big a range to play, but underplayed the extremes nicely, unlike Caine who never seems very convincing when he's not playing a cocksure prick (perhaps he's not acting too hard at those times).  All the big plausibility lapses come in his performance – notably when he improbably gets lost in the thrill of dressing up as a clown in the middle of a very adult discussion about robbery and insurance scams.

Review continues below...

Inspire your baby with the Visual Baby series of picture ebooks.  Original patterns and art designed for young eyes. Try them today by clicking the covers below.


      

"It's the only thing that stops her crying" Katie Alison
"All three of my children love this book"  Janice Peterson
"Moons, trees, leaves... fabulous!" Linda Matson 


Perhaps the allegory is for empire vs a new world order, perhaps it is for old-fashioned attitudes vs hip multicultural city life.  Milo makes a pointed comment that Wyle's novels don't contain many blacks and Milo's Italian heritage is mentioned numerous times.  The sheer contrivance of the plot and characters begs the viewer to guess at some underlying meaning, although at one level the contrast between Wyles' detective novels and the realities of police investigation is a good driver for the plot.


The pitting of two characters against each other is made all the more dramatically effective when the characters are opposites, different in background, world-view and class.  To have them love rivals on top creates all the tension you could want.  And of course you need that in a film with just two characters.  (Even if we think there are three for a while.)




I was baffled by one apparent plot hole – Milo's car is seen hidden in shrubs, which unfairly leads us to believe he has been murdered.  I googled it to see if anyone had an explanation and found this post.

Despite the OP's attempts to explain it himself, and the comments of a reader, I was still left with the feeling that this was a genuine plot hole, although perhaps something was lost in the edit.  Anyone who has seen In Bruges will also recognize that a close-up blank cartridge shot would cause considerably more damage than we see in this film.

Overall, I found Sleuth was entertaining but it hit a few too many bum notes.

Personal Score: 5/10





This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on IMDB Top 250 films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Robert Rossen's "The Hustler" Review... Not What I Expected




The Hustler was nothing like what I expected.  I had assumed it would be something similar to George Roy Hill's The Sting:  pool hustling with lots of twists and turns, people who don't turn out how you expected, perhaps some jaunty background music.  It was nothing like that.

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS



Instead of a merry caper film, The Hustler turned out to be a much darker affair that defied dramatic expectations.  For example, Fast Eddie's (Paul Newman) final victorious matches are barely shown, either against the high society punter who likes a bit of rough, or against Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) – and this latter rematch had been cued (so to speak) from the very beginning.  The matches and even their outcomes seem hardly relevant by the end of the film as they have been overtaken by events in Eddie's life.

As though to emphasize the gap between the macho image of Eddie the unbeatable hustler and the reality of a man on the edge, he hooks up with a woman with just as many problems of her own, Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie).  It takes some doing to create a female character as fucked up as Eddie is, but as an alcoholic part-time college student, giving on guilty handouts from her father after childhood polio left her partially crippled, doomed to a series of empty hook-ups with men, the writers did their job and created one.

Review continues below...

Inspire your baby with the Visual Baby series of picture ebooks.  Original patterns and art designed for young eyes. Try them today by clicking the covers below.


      

"It's the only thing that stops her crying" Katie Alison
"All three of my children love this book"  Janice Peterson
"Moons, trees, leaves... fabulous!" Linda Matson 


But again, having such a damaged female lead defies expectations.  When was the last time you saw a character like Sarah in a film?  Her cool, disdainful refusal to be drawn into the shabby glamour of moneyman manager Bert Gordon (George C. Scott – here unrecognizable from his role in Dr Strangelove by virtue of sheer acting firepower), her dead-eyed acceptance of his power, and her lipstick-on-the-mirror summary of "Perverted, Twisted, Crippled" before her suicide are not exactly standard Hollywood tropes.


When Eddie loses his self-control and beats an arrogant poolroom chancer with the full force of his talent (rather than obscuring his pool shark intentions with a game just good enough to win) he is showing both a weakness in his character and the frustration of having to cover up the beauty of his talent – of hiding the cue that becomes an extension of his body, carrying his nerves, as he says.  As a result he is punished and has his thumbs broken by thugs.




The near incompatibility between the desire to do something well, to do something beautiful, and the cruel reality of money-driven city life seems to be the message that we're left with at the end of the film.  Eddie does stand up to the moneyman but must pay the price of being frozen out of the game he loves.  He does find the character to beat Fats but only through experiencing personal tragedy (caused by his own betrayal and determination to win) that he'll never be able to shake off.

Personal Score: 8/10





This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on IMDB Top 250 films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

"Gone with the Wind," Victor Fleming, Film Review



"Gone with the Wind," Victor Fleming, Film Review

The depiction of slavery in Gone with the Wind is less Niggaz Wit Attitudes and more Niggaz Wit Artichokes.  "Boss Wilkerson sure done love them sweet, sweet artichokes, missy."

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS



In fiction there is a fine line between political incorrectness being legitimately expressed by characters and enough common threads appearing to suggest an authorial political incorrectness.  Worse still is political incorrectness expressed by an omnipotent narrator or through directorial choices.

So when Scarlett awakes in Gone with the Wind the morning after her marital rape looking extra cheerful and humming a song, it's the former.  And when the plantation slaves seem so dedicated to their white overlords that they'd serve them for free given half a chance, it starts to seep into the latter.

But just as in Breakfast at Tiffany's (the novel rather than the sanitized film) the characters in Wind are full of moral complexity.  So after abolition, Scarlett takes on convict labour rather than pay for 'darkies' and makes it clear that she's happy for them to be starved and beaten.  For all the cosy on-screen texts about the loss of a gallant and beautiful era of the South, some of the South's citizens are shown acting in a merciless way.

Review continues below...

Inspire your baby with the Visual Baby series of picture ebooks.  Original patterns and art designed for young eyes. Try them today by clicking the covers below.


      

"It's the only thing that stops her crying" Katie Alison
"All three of my children love this book"  Janice Peterson
"Moons, trees, leaves... fabulous!" Linda Matson 


Scarlett (Vivien Leigh) and Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) are explicitly depicted as amoral self-serving individuals – and it is a sign of the film's greatness that although both characters change over the film's (considerable) length they don't necessarily change for the better, or change in ways that make them more compatible with each other.

Rhett's famous dismissal 'Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn' comes after his thoughtful lines:  'No, I'm through with everything here.  I want peace.  I want to see if somewhere there isn't something left in life of charm and grace.'

Both characters end up returning to their homelands.  Rhett 'back to Charleston, where I belong' and Scarlett to her father's beloved red earth.




Having loved her for so long, Rhett isn't prepared to accept that she only stopped loving Ashley on her own terms, not his.  He remains a non-gentleman to the end, but he seems to have discovered along the way what's really important to him.

There are some nice threads developed through the film.  For example, how characters deal with first plenty, then scarcity, nothing and finally regained wealth.  And how society deals with peace, war, defect, humiliation and breakdown of law of order.

And through it all, Scarlett never learns to carry her own handkerchief.

Personal Score: 9/10





This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on IMDB Top 250 films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.

Friday, 2 October 2015

"Hotaru no haka (Grave of the Fireflies)," Isao Takahata, Film Review




"Hotaru no haka (Grave of the Fireflies)," Isao Takahata, Film Review

Spoiler alert, kids – it turns out that war is bad and that those least able to protect themselves from its merciless jaws are civilians, particularly young children.

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS



Hotaru no haka is set in Japan towards the end of the Second World War.  The animation is an artless mix of scenes derived from photographs on the one hand, and clich├ęd stylistic effects (such as facial features) on the other.

Takahata chooses to milk the emotion from the civilian plight by focusing on a young boy and his four-year-old sister and showing their fall from comfortable family life through heartless relatives into vagrancy and death.

Review continues below...

Inspire your baby with the Visual Baby series of picture ebooks.  Original patterns and art designed for young eyes. Try them today by clicking the covers below.


      

"It's the only thing that stops her crying" Katie Alison
"All three of my children love this book"  Janice Peterson
"Moons, trees, leaves... fabulous!" Linda Matson 



This is the film equivalent of those charity publicists who know they'll get the most donations to their cause by sticking their cameras in the faces of dying children.  It doesn't so much play on our heartstrings as pluck them from our still warm chests, string them onto a banjo and strum 'My Old Man's a Dustman'.

In fact, while we're on the subject of banjo playing you'd do worse than listen to Eugene Chadbourne's 'Nazi Punks Fuck Off' instead of watching this film.  You'd still get your WW2 comment and it's a darn sight more enjoyable way of spending your time.







I'll give it an extra mark for making an effort to give a realistic depiction of the evil stepmother (an aunt in this film) character from fairy tales.

Personal Score: 3/10





This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on IMDB Top 250 films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.