The Martian (2015)

Poster for The Martian

I haven’t read the novel by Andy Weir that this film is adapted from, so I don’t know how good of an adaptation it is. What it made me think of was other films, perhaps most whimsically Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), which as the title implies is also about a man stranded on Mars. This one lacks the aliens, however. It also made me thing of Contagion (2011), which is much different in tone but also valorizes science and international cooperation. It was also hard not to see some similarities to Gravity (2013), which is another tale of an astronaut surviving one life-threatening crisis after another, although Gravity has a much more spiritual tone to it. But The Martian actually seems unique in a number of ways, perhaps most notably in the way it presents itself as a series of puzzles to be solved scientifically and without a lot of melodrama or dramatic or psychological tension. The thing that surprised me a little bit is how emotionally effective it was without some of the standard dramatic suspense.

The story is how one crew member on a manned expedition to Mars is left behind when the mission is aborted due to an unexpected storm. He’s left with minimal supplies, and he has to find a way to survive until a rescue mission can come for him. The bulk of the movie is an exploration of the problems he faces (how to supply himself with food, how to contact Mission Control without a radio, etc) and the solutions he comes up with. One of the ways the film creates an emotional investment in the story is through its evocation of the human ability to solve problems. This probably won’t appeal to everyone, especially since it’s not character-driven and thus is pretty abstract, but it’s safe to say that a lot of science fiction fans find this kind of thing extremely appealing. When it becomes a matter of all the greatest scientific minds on Earth working on the problems in a cooperative way, it’s a very powerful evocation of a kind of internationalist idealism and optimism. That’s the part that reminded me of Contagion, but The Martian is completely lacking the darker acknowledgement of human paranoia and irrationality and selfishness found in Contagion. It may not be as overtly spiritual/redemptive as Gravity, but it’s just as much a feel-good, can-do movie. Although I have to say, on that front, that the wise-cracking sense of humor in The Martian didn’t always work for me. It seemed a little forced at times.

Visually I found it splendid. I saw it in 3D, and I loved the way it used that technology to create a sense of the vast, majestic emptiness of the landscape. There was a curious shot early on in which the camera seemed to be moving slightly sideways and the features of the landscape seemed to be flattened into shifting layers like those of a scientific pop-up book, which I found quite strange and beautiful. What is perhaps most remarkable about the movie visually is that it doesn’t look like any other science fiction film I can think of, possibly because it’s the first film to try to capture the Mars we’ve seen in photographs from various probes. It’s a very realistic look that’s unusual in a science fiction movie, giving it an almost documentary look that seems fitting for the procedural nature of the story. You can almost imagine that it’s a PBS show about growing a garden on Mars.

Because I didn’t always connect with the sense of humor and because of the lack of suspense/thriller tropes, there was a part of me that was surprised by how powerful I found the climax. As I said earlier, I’m not completely sure how Ridley Scott and his merry crew pulled that off. There are some acts of heroism, but for the most part it’s a celebration of ingenuity rather than heroism. That seems unusual, and maybe that’s the secret ingredient that made this one surprisingly appealing.

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Image of the Day

Screencap from Diary of a Lost Girl

Louise Brooks in Diary of a Lost Girl (Tagebuch einer Verlorenen, 1929)

[Via DVDBeaver.]

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Sicario (2015)

Poster for Sicario

I’m not sure what to think of Sicario, and maybe that’s because I identify with the befuddled FBI agent played by Emily Blunt. Blunt’s character, Kate, has been working on trying to bust Mexican drug cartel gangsters who are operating in Arizona, but as the movie begins the atrocity level rises. The violence is getting out of hand. She is recruited to work with a shadowy government operation run by a Matt (Josh Brolin), who offers her the chance to go directly at the leadership of the cartel rather than wasting time on small-timers. As she is whisked off to a raid in Ciudad Juarez, she is introduced to the mysterious Colombian, Alejandro (Benecio del Toro), who works with Matt using methods that are morally questionable.

As a thriller that’s part mystery (in the sense that we don’t understand what Matt and Alejandro are up to), this is a pretty effective film. It looks great, and it moves with great assurance and competence. It reminded me a bit of Zero Dark Thirty in the subject-matter (the moral question of what tactics are allowable when attacking immoral people), the desert locations, and the military-procedural elements. There are several set-pieces that involve tense attacks of heavily armed agents or soldiers on enclosed spaces like houses or tunnels, and these set-pieces are very well handled.

What was less successful for me was Kate’s character and the handling of the moral conundrum of the story. Kate is a largely passive character, who is a kind of stand-in for the audience as she slowly learns what’s really going on. Perhaps she is also intended as a stand-in for an audience that abhors the drug cartels but really have no skin in the game and thus no willingness to do anything about it. As for the moral conundrum, the film is admirably resistant to black-and-white, good-and-bad formulas, but I ended up feeling dissatisfied with how it approached the moral questions. If we are meant to identify with Kate’s passivity and lack of skin in the game, shouldn’t her choices in the end seem more painful? Or shouldn’t that pain be dramatized more concretely? As it is, it feels as though the moral conundrum results in nothing but passive guilt rather than any sense that Emily herself is implicated in the harsh realities. Isn’t that a cop-out?

The other Denis Villeneuve film I’ve seen is Incendies, and looking over my review I see I had a similar problem with that one: the characters who investigate the mystery are basically just passive witnesses who have little impact on the story themselves, just like Kate. That said, Incendies seemed more successful to me dramatically, because the central character of Narwan Marwal embodied the moral conundrums of the story. The cognate character in Sicario is Alejandro, and although he’s a fascinatingly ambivalent figure, he’s very different from Narwan in that his behavior is much, much darker and more cold-blooded than Narwan’s. The climax of his story is also nowhere near as powerful as Narwan’s, perhaps because hers is practically mythological in nature.

I don’t know. I have mixed feelings about Sicario, but I found it riveting as I watched, at least up to the climax, and am still wrestling with it the next day. It definitely strikes a nerve. I’m just not sure whether it channels the resulting pain into a fully effective story.

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Image of the Day

Screencap from Phantom of the OperaPhantom of the Opera (1925)

[Screencap from the new Kino Blu-Ray posted at DVDBeaver.]

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Phoenix (2014)

Poster for Phoenix

This German film has been compared to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and it’s easy to see why. It’s the story of a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp who returns to the ruins of Berlin in 1946, where she looks for her husband. When we first meet Nelly, her head is completely wrapped in bandages, and she soon has reconstructive surgery done on her face. Her husband, Johnny, when she finally finds him, doesn’t recognize her but thinks she looks enough like his (as he thinks) dead wife that he asks her to impersonate the wife in order to help him get his hands on the money his wife inherited when the rest of her family was killed in the camps. He takes it upon himself to train Nelly to look and act like his wife, and thus he is doing pretty much the same thing that Jimmy Stewart does to Kim Novak in the second half of Vertigo.

Of course, one big difference between the two movies is that Phoenix is from the woman’s point of view, and while there’s an element of Nelly wanting to remake Johnny into the dream Johnny whom she believes has always loved her, it’s more a story of how his desire to remake her into a simulacrum of his wife for his own purposes gradually reveals the truth to her. It’s the truth that her friend Lene has been telling her all along, but it’s an inconvenient truth.

It’s also not the whole the story, which is equally about how Nazi Germany treated the Jews and how German gentiles faced or did not face their moral culpability after the war. Lene wants to move to Palestine with Nelly, and she’s looking at apartments in Haifa and Tel Aviv. Nelly, however, has no interest in Palestine but only in finding her gentile husband. So I guess the movie is also about the urge to forgive and forget and forge new bonds with one’s persecutors. It’s about the difficulty of facing the painful truth that those we love and trust can betray us.

This is not a thriller, but more of a psychological study. There is an element of mystery to it, because we don’t fully understand the history of Nelly and Johnny until the end. It’s also a kind of crime story, but the crimes all happened in the past. Mostly it’s about Nelly becoming herself again — or perhaps for the first time — and not the person Johnny wants her to be. The irony of identity in Phoenix is in some ways just as perverse as that in Vertigo, but it isn’t so wrapped in a sense of tragic romanticism. Indeed, what it’s wrapped in is more a tragic nationalism, as a German Jew tries to regain her sense of German identity in the face of Nazi history. That it manages to achieve a feeling of liberation in the end is a small miracle, if only of story.

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Cymbeline (2014)

Michael Almereyda’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline didn’t get a theatrical release in Seattle that I noticed, or at least it has hit DVD before it has gotten a theatrical showing in Seattle. I don’t think it got much of a theatrical distribution at all, for that matter. From what I’ve read, this might be partly because the initial critical reaction was negative, or at least mixed. I’ve seen some enthusiastic reviews on the internet, so I’m not sure how much critical reception really was a factor in the lack of distribution. Perhaps just as important is that it’s a relatively obscure Shakespeare play that most people probably haven’t heard of, let alone read or seen. You would think the name Shakespeare might be enough to get it a showing, but apparently not. Then again, the play has frequently been derided even by lovers of Shakespeare as a tawdry and implausible mishmash of melodramatic elements, and maybe the reaction to film is a reaction to the story itself.

Still from Cymbeline

I’ve read the play, but only once. I’ve also watched the BBC adaptation from 1982 with Helen Mirren playing Imogen, but I confess I remember very little about it other than a snowy landscape. So my familiarity with the play is fairly minimal, although it’s hard to forget the scene where Imogen, who has herself been mistaken for dead, wakes up next to the headless corpse of what she believes is her beloved Posthumus. Cymbeline is full of over-the-top, wildly dramatic scenes like that. Harold Bloom has suggested that it’s a form of self-parody, with Shakespeare mocking his own earlier plays (cf. Juliet waking next to the corpse of Romeo). But it’s also one of the four Shakespeare plays that were retroactively labeled late romances, in the old sense of adventure stories with a heavy dose of fantasy and the supernatural. The god Jupiter makes an appearance in the play, for example, just as the gods make an appearance in the more famous of Shakespeare late romances, The Tempest.

But Jupiter doesn’t appear in Almereyda’s version. As he did with his wonderful adaptation of Hamlet (2000), Almereyda has set Cymbeline in a contemporary, if non-specific, setting of biker gangs (the ancient British tribe of King Cymbeline) and corrupt cops (ancient Rome, seeking tribute from the barbarians). He has stripped the play down to a very spare form, which has led some to complain that there’s very little of Shakespeare’s language left in it. Gone is the appearance of Jupiter, stinking of sulfur, but there’s still a brief scene with the ghost of Posthumus’ father, who quotes a poem by Emily Dickinson, which is something I didn’t discern the first time I watched the film.

One of the things that I don’t think works particularly well is the introduction, which shows us the key characters while telling us with title cards that Cymbeline’s daughter , Imogen, has married the lowly Posthumus rather than her betrothed, Cloten, who is the son of Cymbeline’s evil second wife. The opening exposition feels like an admission that the story is too unwieldy to get started without explanatory footnotes, but maybe it’s the same in the play, where two nameless gentleman give us much of this same exposition at greater length. Once the story proper kicks in, however, Almereyda’s approach works very well for me. Shakespeare’s language may be pared down to a minimum, but Almereyda has found ways to communicate the action visually that seems very appropriate to the medium and true to Shakespeare’s treatment of the frailty of human trust.

In some ways the visual approach here reminds me of what Baz Luhrmann did in Romeo + Juliet, and not just because both films feature John Leguizamo and Vondie Curtis-Hall. Luhrmann found phrases from Shakespeare — and not just from Romeo and Juliet — that he used almost like graffiti in the visual design. Almereyda does something similar, for example, by using the phrase “Keep your head” as an epigraph, which is not a quote from Shakespeare but a wry comment on the story. We also see Posthumus create a woodcut print of Imogen posing with Death, with the caption “Fear no more,” which is a quote from a song in the play sung over Imogen when she is mistakenly thought to be dead. This further rhymes with a shot of two children in Halloween costumes, one dressed as a skeleton, who is looked over by another figure in a skeleton suit, which plays like an eruption of pagan fatalism in the modern dress world of the adaptation.

Even after two viewings I’m not completely sure what song is sung during the burial of Imogen in the film. Almereyda’s use of music is also a bit Luhrmannesque, with bits of Erik Satie (I think from Gymnopédies), a Bob Dylan song sung in a night club by the sultry Queen (played by Mila Jovovich), and the Maytals’ reggae song “Pressure Drop” played on a vinyl album by a character wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt. There’s other music that I didn’t recognize, including the burial song, and for all I know it might be one of the musical arrangements composed for the lyrics from Shakespeare’s play.

Still from Cymbeline

One of the notable things about this adaptation is how low key it is. The actors ( a stellar cast that includes Ed Harris and Ethan Hawke along with those already mentioned) uniformly speak in subdued tones, and there is very little in the way of emotional outburst. It’s almost as if Almereyda wanted to defuse the outrageousness of the play with underplayed acting. There’s also a very dry sense of humor typified by the “Keep your head” motto and in the clever updating when Imogen, in disguise as a boy, is asked what her name is, looks at the Che t-shirt, and says Fidel. It’s Fidelis in the play, which is perhaps too obvious a comment on Imogen’s fidelity to Posthumus, despite his suspicions. Fidel suggests something more radical or subversive, but Almereyda doesn’t make anything of it that I’ve noticed so far, unless he’s implying that her fidelity is a radical stance in a corrupt and treacherous world.

Then there’s the interpolation of Dickinson’s poem, which is a fairly radical move in its own right. Cymbeline has been praised for the general tone of forgiveness and redemption, and the last words of the movie are, “Pardon’s the word to all,” as even the vile Iachimo is forgiven. In the play, the ghost of Posthumus’ father berates Jupiter for the outrageous suffering of his son, whom he argues is worthy of better fortune than the god has granted him. Jupiter replies,

Be not with mortal accidents opprest;
No care of yours it is; you know ’tis ours.
Whom best I love I cross; to make my gift,
The more delay’d, delighted.

Jupiter is basically saying that human suffering is random, or at least not under human control, and only serves to make the gift of good fortune, which is no doubt equally an accident, more pleasurable in contrast. Compare this to Dickinson’s poem, which is quoted by the ghost of the father (played by Bill Pullman) over the sleeping Posthumus.

Of God we ask one favor,
That we may be forgiven—
For what, he is presumed to know—
The Crime, from us, is hidden—
Immured the whole of Life
Within a magic Prison
We reprimand the Happiness
That too competes with Heaven.

This really does strike chords with the Shakespeare, both in the sense that the crimes to be forgiven by God are known only to Him, not to the human seeking forgiveness, but also this strange sense in the final lines that too much happiness is a kind of hubris.

So my sense after two viewings is that this is a pretty smart adaptation of Cymbeline. I’m not sure the ending completely captures the wave of forgiveness that sweeps through the last act of the play, and in the eyes of some bestows one of Shakespeare’s dying benedictions on this suffering world. Perhaps it’s a casualty of the spare, low-key approach, or perhaps it avoids a happiness that too competes with heaven. Over all, however, Almereyda and his cast and crew have done a great job of grappling with the play’s themes, and visually it is very strikingly composed. It looks like a keeper to me.

Still from Cymbeline

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Image of the Day

Screencap from The Tempest

Helen Mirren as Prospera in The Tempest (2010)

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Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)

Still from Dance, Girl, Dance

According to her IMDb credits, Dorothy Arzner’s Hollywood career lasted from 1920 to 1943. She was the only woman to direct a sound picture in Hollywood until Ida Lupino started her directorial career in 1949. Because of her singularity, Arzner has become a figure of great fascination to feminist and queer theorists (Arzner was a lesbian), although as far as I can tell she’s still not particularly highly regarded by auteurists or general film historians or for that matter film buffs. When the DVD of Dance, Girl, Dance was released in 2007, Dave Kehr said of it in his NYTimes review, “It’s not very good.”

I’d say it actually is pretty good, although having only seen this one of Arzner’s films, I have no idea how much she brought to the production. Certainly it had some other interesting people working on it. Producer Erich Pommer had roots in the Weimar film industry, where he produced many films by Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau, not to mention Sternberg’s The Blue Angel. Art director Van Nest Polglase worked on many of RKO most famous films, and director of photography Russell Metty was one of the greats of the studio system. The story the script was based on was by Vicki Baum, who was most famous for writing the play, Grand Hotel. The editing was by Robert Wise, who went on to become an Oscar-winning director after editing such classics as Citizen Kane.

Still from Dance, Girl, Dance

With all this talent involved Dance, Girl, Dance looks great. It has that high studio gloss that you could find in other RKO musicals, like the Astaires/Rogers films. But it’s also an interesting story, even though it it’s also a typical Hollywood story. Two dancers, Judy (Maureen O’Hara) and Bubbles (Lucille Ball), embody two different types: the serious artist and the entertainer. Bubbles, renamed Tiger Lily White, gets a high-paying job in a burlesque show, and when Judy decides she doesn’t have what it takes to make it as a ballet dancer, she accepts a job playing “stooge” to Bubbles: the serious dancer the crowd boos because it wants to see Bubbles take it all off. Meanwhile both women are in love with a rich, dissolute married man (Louis Hayward), while off in the distance nice guy dance producer Steve Adams (Ralph Bellamy) doesn’t know that when he was flirting with Judy in the rain, he was flirting with a dancer of promise.

None of these story elements is original or particularly interesting in themselves, but I liked the way the film worked. It has a couple of big musical numbers that are handled a little bit like a backstage musical, and the big ballet sequence that convinces Judy she isn’t a good enough dancer for ballet is very striking in the way that it’s put together and executed for the camera. It reminded me of the ballet from Singin’ in the Rain, although it’s not as extended as that one. The dancing by Vivien Fay puts all the other dancing in the film to shame. On that score, both Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball are fine at selling their parts as dancers, but in the scene where both dance the hula and I’m supposed to conclude that Ball has more sex appeal, I had to take it as a given. Ball’s big burlesque number is funny and risque, but she sure didn’t have anything on Rita Hayworth in the sizzle department.

Screencap from Dance Girl Dance

But it doesn’t really matter, because the film isn’t strictly a musical and is more about the relationships between the characters. Apparently the feminists have loved the fact that the relationship between Judy and Bubbles is at the center of the script, and the two male love interests are secondary. In fact, the romantic relationship that gets the most attention in the movie is that between Louis Hayward and his estranged wife, played by Virginia Field. They are clearly drawn to each other like moths to a flame, but they’re constantly and unhappily sparring when they’re together. Hayward flirts with Judy and Bubbles, and while Judy innocently thinks he might be the real thing, Bubbles is only interested in him for his money. Maybe it’s that unromantic view of romance that appealed to me the most, along with the oddball structure that basically keeps the supposedly true lovebirds apart until the final two minutes of the film. The one thing that seemed a little underdeveloped to me was the way that Judy suddenly discovered a more pugnacious attitude in the end, climaxing in a hair-pulling, eye-punching fight between her and Bubbles. It seems out of character for the demure mouse she’s played up until then, although it’s prefigured by her surprising tirade (much beloved of feminists) against the men in the audience at the burlesque theater, who “go home when the show’s over, strut before your wives and sweethearts and play at being the stronger sex for a minute.”

The film is full of surprising touches like that. Another one is Maria Ouspenskaya playing a pretty damned butch dance instructor or agent — I was a little unsure what her actual role was. Another RKO film I was reminded of was Gregory La Cava’s great Stage Door (1937), which is also about the struggles of women trying to break into show business, features two sparring female friends (played by Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn), and coincidentally also has a great part for Lucille Ball. Dance, Girl, Dance lacks the witty dialogue of that one, but on the other hand it has even more Lucille Ball, which is no bad thing. I loved the way her gold-digger character gets exactly what she wants, and it ain’t the man. From what I’m reading about Arzner, all of her movies were about strong women, and based on this one I’m curious to see more.

Screencap from Dance, Girl, Dance

Michael Glover Smith has an excellent piece about Dance, Girl, Dance at White City Cinema, as does Louise Cole at Senses of Cinema.

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A Better Tomorrow III: Love and Death in Saigon (Ying hung boon sik III: Zik yeung ji gor, 1989)

Screencap from A Better Tomorrow IIII

This is another of Tsui Hark’s directorial efforts that I hadn’t seen before. I saw the first two A Better Tomorrow films many years ago at the Seattle Art Museum, of all places, with director John Woo in attendance. I don’t remember much about the films, and while I find Woo interesting enough to have seen many of his movies, I’ve never re-watched any of them. It’s possible that I’d like his bullet ballets better now, because I think one difficulty I’ve had with Woo is that he mostly makes male melodramas, especially in his Hong Kong heroic bloodshed phase. I’ve had problems with the melodrama genre in the past, but I’ve learned to appreciate it more as I’ve gotten older, at least when it comes to the classic women’s weepies. That all said, Tsui’s A Better Tomorrow III is very much an action melodrama, and I had some problems with the melodramatic aspect of it too.

Screencap from A Better Tomorrow IIII

Screencap from A Better Tomorrow IIII PDVD_006

ABT3 is largely set in Vietnam starting in 1974 as the Vietcong are about to take over. Tsui was raised in Saigon until age 14, circa 1965, so he has a personal connection to this aspect of the film, and it shows. For an American audience, it’s fascinating to see the Vietnamese war from the perspective of outsiders observing the conflict, without the wounded sense that American film-makers tend to bring. Tsui’s Chinese nationalism pervades the film, and in fact a lot of commentators interpret it as his comment both on the Tienanmen Massacre (lots of scenes of street protests, and a confrontation with a tank at the climax) and on the impending handover of Hong Kong, which is both explicitly discussed by the Chinese characters in the film and hovers over the images of a country taken over by communists. John Woo had apparently intended to set his own version of ABT3 in Vietnam, but after he had a falling out with Tsui, he turned that script into Bullet in the Head, which is possibly his best film and similarly comments on current events in Hong Kong.

Screencap from A Better Tomorrow IIII PDVD_012 PDVD_013

Tsui’s Chinese nationalism also comes out in the way the film examines the Chinese involvement in Vietnam. Mark Gor (Chow Yun Fat) heads to Vietnam to bail his cousin Cheung Chih Mun (Tony Leung Ka Fai) out of prison and help him convince his uncle that it’s time to pull out of the increasingly dangerous Saigon, where he has run a medicine shop for over twenty years, and return to Hong Kong. It’s not easy to convince the uncle to leave, and Mark comments on how Chinese businessmen are so personally invested in their business that they don’t want to give it up even when their lives are at stake. Mark and Mun need to raise cash for the move, and their ability to pull off a black market arms deal depends on the connections of the mysterious Chow Ying Kit (Anita Mui), who has already helped Mark escape the extortionate airport Customs agents for reasons that aren’t clear. When they learn that Kit has connections to the Chinese underworld in Vietnam, they appeal to their shared ethnic identity to convince her to help them out.

Screencap from A Better Tomorrow IIII PDVD_016 PDVD_017

But while Tsui is focused on the Chinese identity, he populates the film with a complex set of conflicting and collaborating factions that’s reminiscent of the chaotic welter of contending forces in Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain or, really, any of his other films. First, we have Mark and his family, but then we also have the other Chinese in Vietnam, who have shared business interests but also don’t want anybody else horning in on their business, even other Chinese.  There are at least two rogue factions of the South Vietnamese military, most predominantly the officer, Bond, with whom the black market deal is first attempted, but also the unnamed officer who comes to rescue Kit when the deal falls apart. There’s also Pat, who is a young Vietnamese man who was separated from his parents and taken in by Mark’s uncle. When his Chinese protector returns to Hong Kong, Pat joins the South Vietnamese army, but when Mark and Mun return to Saigon, Pat helps them against Bond and other members of his corrupt military faction. Then there are the Vietcong, who are mostly only seen in the background, although at various moments in the film their agents intervene in the action, and in the end they swarm the city in an iconic portrayal of the fall of Saigon. Finally there’s Kit’s old gangster boyfriend, Ho Cheung-Ching, who is has been gone for three years when we learn about him, but who returns to Hong Kong in the second half of the film. Ho is more or less a villain, but a typically ambiguous one. In one very powerful scene as he and Kit return to a Saigon as residents are trying to flee the victorious Vietcong, he says it reminds him of 1945 when the Japanese were retreating from Indochina and his Japanese businessman father was killed by Cambodian partisans in Phnom Penh. Almost as an afterthought he says he’s been pretending so long to be Chinese that he’d forgotten he was born Japanese. That little story creates a fascinating resonance with many different aspects of A Better Tomorrow III.

Screencap from A Better Tomorrow IIII PDVD_052 PDVD_063 PDVD_065 PDVD_067

The complexity of this political and social backdrop to the story is unfortunately undermined to some extent by the romantic/melodramatic thread of the story, unless the real problem is the cheesy synth soundtrack. Mark falls for Kit on first sight, which is in the very first scene of the film. It’s implied, but only covertly, that the feeling is mutual and that that’s why Kit rescues Mark from being fleeced and beaten by airport Customs. When Mark’s cousin, Mun, meets Kit, he too falls for her. After the first extended gun battle of the film, in which the three save each others’ lives, we get what felt to me like an egregiously inappropriate romantic shopping montage. The shift in tones, suffice it to say, did not work for me. Quickly the romantic triangle becomes the usual series of misunderstanding, self-sacrifice, pretend-indifference, and betrayal. It feels rote to me, but it could be I just don’t have any interest in these formulas, while the rote action formulas are A-okay. My other thought about why it doesn’t work is that Kit is such a mysterious character that her stakes in the triangle are unclear and thus unconvincing. If she’s being initially aloof because of her history with Ho, that isn’t communicated very well. Things actually get more interesting when Ho shows up and creates antagonism with all three points of the triangle.

Screencap from A Better Tomorrow IIII PDVD_055 PDVD_064

ABT3’s main claim to fame is probably the way Tsui uses Kit’s character to subvert Woo’s code of honorable machismo. It has been a constant theme in the Tsui Hark films I’ve already written about that he is interested in powerful female characters, and Kit is a great addition to the pantheon. Here it’s revealed that the super-macho Mark of the first two films learned everything he knew about being a bad-ass from a woman. Kit shows him how to wear mirror shades, gives him his iconic black trenchcoat, and teaches him how to shoot a gun. She also inspires him to tragic love, which is a feeling that’s reserved for fellow men in Woo’s films. The big problem with Kit’s character, as I mentioned before, is that we really don’t know much about her motives, although  maybe that’s just part of the character type of the enigmatic killer. What seriously weakens any claims this film has to a feminist perspective, however, is that Kit is the only female character of any substance, with only Mark’s other cousin, Ling, and two Vietcong bomb-throwers (whom Mark and Mun innocently flirt with) getting any screen time to speak of. This film is more like Dangerous Encounters – 1st Kind than, say, Peking Opera Blues, that way.

Screencap from A Better Tomorrow IIII PDVD_024 PDVD_025

It took me two viewings to really get a grasp on the main thing that appeals to me about the film, which is the complicated political and social background and the Chinese perspective on the tribulations of Asia. The thing that appealed to me immediately was Tsui’s usual visual stylishness and inventiveness, as he keeps giving us new angles on even the most standard business. He had shown an ability to give the romantic triangle a fresh treatment in Shanghai Blues, so I’m not sure how he flubbed it this time. My initial suspicion was that maybe he tossed this film out to make a quick buck and didn’t spend enough time on it. However, the careful layering of the political situation may indicate that that’s where his true interest was on this project, along with the jab at Woo’s male-oriented perspective.

Screencap from A Better Tomorrow IIII


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Self/less (2015)

Poster for Self/Less

The two reviews I read of Self/less called it mediocre, but so far I’m a Tarsem Singh completest, so I wasn’t going to let that stop me. All four of his previous films have wonderful visual style, and The Fall (2006) is one of my favorite films of recent years. I love the altogether campier Mirror Mirror (2012) too, while The Cell (2000) and Immortals (2011) are too grim for me, despite their undeniable visual splendors.

Self/less looks a lot different than those previous films. Other than the opulence of the Manhattan tower condo where we initially find the protagonist (at that point played by Ben Kingsley) living, the rest of the production design is fairly spare and sleek and lacking in the fanciful. The story, too, is less fanciful, although it’s still a work of fantasy, in the science fiction mode. Kingsley plays a billionaire named Damian who is dying from cancer. He has learned of a new technology, called shedding, that allows a person’s identity to be transferred to a new body and thereby prolongs life. The secretive company that owns the technology claims the new body is a clone, but it soon becomes apparent that Damian’s new body (played by Ryan Reynolds) may have a history of its own.

So Tarsem has abandoned his stylized look for this film, and the film itself is a fairly conventional science fiction thriller. Maybe he was trying to prove that he could do something more mundane than what he’s become known for. It seems to me that he’s done a good enough job of it. While I would agree that this is a pretty average movie, it’s well made as such. It moves along effortlessly, creates characters you can identify with, builds dramatic tension, and handles its action scenes well. (Tarsem proved he could handle action scenes in Immortals, but this film, while occasionally brutal, is thankfully less gory.) Instead of using set and costume design to communicate the story, Tarsem uses old-fashioned montage. There’s a lovely sequence of Damian throwing a series of women into bed that expresses the joys of his new body, and later there’s a sequence in which he teaches a young girl how to swim that conveys the establishment of a connection between the two characters in a brief flow of images and dialogue.

Again, on a plot and character level this isn’t anything more demanding than, say, one of EuropaCorp’s thrillers. I’d certainly agree that it’s the least interesting of Tarsem’s movies so far, but I found it perfectly agreeable for what it was. The biggest weakness, to my mind, was that the conversion of Damian’s character was unconvincing — both in terms of the feeling that Ryan Reynolds is playing the same character that Ben Kingsley was, and in terms of the changes in the character’s motivation. It reminded me at times of the film Limitless, but it doesn’t have the satirical edge or narrative ebullience that made that one so effective. Still, it works through its premise with some able twists and turns, never tarrying too long or trying to be more than a straightforward action melodrama with a happy ending.


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