Friday, March 28, 2014

Running Out of Karma: Two by Woo

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.

Here are reviews of a couple of lesser, but worthwhile nonetheless, John Woo movies.

Heroes Shed No Tears (1986)

Sharing a title and nothing else with Chor Yuen's 1980 wuxia epic, this was John Woo's project immediately preceding his breakthrough A Better Tomorrow and only released after that film's success. It's easy to see why Woo had initially decided to leave this unreleased. It's probably the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen from him, the kind of movie people who don't like Hong Kong movies think all Hong Kong movies are like. That said, it's still a ton of goofy fun.

Eddy Ko leads a small commando squad of Chinese mercenaries into the Golden Triangle (the nebulous border region between Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam that is the source of much of the world's heroin, or at least was in movies from the 1980s) to arrest a drug kingpin and bring him to justice. They get the guy and escape, chased by his heavily-armed men. At the Vietnamese border, they arouse the ire of the local army outpost (led by the great Lam Ching-ying, probably most well-known as the star of the Mr. Vampire series), who join the chase. The Army then forcibly enlists the assistance of the local hunter-gatherer/ninja tribe. Of course, for some reason Ko has brought on this mission into the most dangerous place on Earth his young son, generally useless sister(?) and elderly father, who must of course be protected (the father doesn't last long, spoiler!), along with a whiny French woman they rescue from the Army along the way.

So what we have is the makings of a pure chase-through-harsh-terrain movie, along the lines of Cornell Wilde's The Naked Prey, Powell & Pressburger's Ill Met By Moonlight or Rambo: First Blood Part II. For better and worse, this is more in the class of that last one than either of the first two. There's a lot of guys standing around with really heavy machine guns mowing down bad guys who can't shoot straight and a lot of poorly motivated plot turns. Only the most obvious is the unanswered question of why this guy brought his family along. Did that bit of exposition get cut out and no one noticed or cared? Is it somewhere in the 11 minutes that were in the Hong Kong version that aren't in the 82 minute international cut, or did Golden Harvest cut it out even before releasing it locally? IMDB says those 11 minutes have an expository scene between Ko's character and his "sister-in-law", so I guess that's how she's related and maybe that explains it? Who knows.

Beyond that is a truly bizarre idyll near the end of the chase. Ko has led his motley crew to a hut  located on stilts in a clearing in the jungle, occupied by a spacey American. The American is an old friend of Ko's (they saved each others' lives in the War), and lives in this hut, surrounded by explosives, trip wires and bombs of all kinds, with three women in flowery dresses that never seem to speak. Now, I don't know what's stranger: that with three armed bands of killers bearing down on them, our heroes decide that a straw hut packed to the rafters with high explosives is an ideal defensive position, or that on the eve of said attack, rather than preparing for their defense, the American and his lady friends partake in some R-Rated drugs and group sex debauchery. I mean, sure, you don't have to shed tears, but how about a little common sense?

Once a Thief (1991)

If Cherie Chung hadn't retired after making this movie, and maybe had gone on to star in some Wong Kar-wai movies, would she be better known today? She was one of the key Hong Kong actresses of the 1980s, beginning with Johnnie To and her debut The Enigmatic Case and including classics like Winners and Sinners, The Story of Woo Viet, The Dead and the Deadly, An Autumn's Tale, The Eighth Happiness and Peking Opera Blues. Patrick Tam even built a whole movie around her and named it after her (Cherie of course, a bizarre romantic comedy in which lust for the star inspires the men around her (the other Tony Leung and longtime Shaw Brothers director Chor Yuen) to increasingly dangerous and ill-advised behavior). She retired because she got married (something of a trend at the time, this kind of thing also cost us some prime Michelle Yeoh years), but she's still only 54 years old. Someone should bring her out of retirement (her husband, sadly, died several years ago).

Anyway, she has almost nothing to do in this screwball heist movie, wherein she's the love object for both Chow Yun-fat (in full-mug comedy mode) and Leslie Cheung. The three of them, orphans, grew up under the tutelage of an evil thief, Fagin-style, and now they're using their powers against him, sort of. The plot doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Basically they steal European paintings from elaborately designed defense systems (like the one that hangs in the wine cellar of a castle, behind a secret door in a fog-enshrouded room, because that's where you want to display your favorite and most valuable oil paintings: in a damp basement behind a rock wall) and the father guy is a jerk. Cheung and Chow do all the thieving, leaving Chung at home (where she belongs!) to worry and do the cooking or something. And pass from one lead to the other (there's an apparent death, followed by an apparent paralysis), Cherie generally lands with the healthiest hero.

The heists are fun, the action is great (a neat car chase, someone inexplicably featuring a variety of evil security guards driving French station wagons), the comedy occasionally funny and the 1991 fashions exceptional, and did I mention that one of the final villains is a magician who shoots fire out of his hands and throws playing cards to deadly effect?, but this premise is one Woo would revisit a few more times, I think because he never really got it right (he directed a Canadian TV movie remake that was later spun into a series that lasted one season in that country after the Fox network didn't pick it up in the US.) Compare it to Johnnie To's caper heist/romantic comedy Yesterday Once More, which is faster, funnier, and cleverer with more emotional depth and visual panache.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Some Notes on George Sidney's Bye Bye Birdie

You can follow 30 years of the evolution of youth culture and its relation to show business just by following musicals from years that end in '3'.

1933: Gold Diggers of 1933, 42nd Street
1943: The Gang's All Here
1953: The Affairs of Dobie Gillis, Give a Girl a Break
1963: Bye Bye Birdie

As the years go on, the youth get younger: early 20s in the 30s and 40s, college in the 50s, high school in the 60s. At the same time, the performance dream gets more remote: the 30s and 40s stars are performers, albeit not particularly successful ones (yet), with the war in 1943 making everyone seem more adult than they are (and the musical itself breaking down that facade, Busby Berkeley's masterpiece ultimately reducing everyone to colored light and singing heads). In the 50s they're just starting out, in the 60s the stars seem to occupy another planet (Birdie is an object of worship/jealousy rather than an aspirational figure).

The next decades take that estrangement even further, as not only are the characters in the musicals no longer performers, even aspirationally, with their soundtracks (usually) removed from the filmic space to the non-diegetic ether, but the movies themselves are no longer even set in the present. Rather than engage with the youth culture of today, their directors revisit their own youth (either lived or experienced on-screen).

1973: American Graffitti
1983: The Outsiders
1993: Dazed and Confused
2003: Down with Love
2013: Inside Llewyn Davis

(This is partly a result of the arbitrary year-end choice. Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Pump Up the Volume, Clueless and Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench would be examples of attempts to document contemporary youth culture within the musical form, albeit still with the music removed from the performances on-screen. See also studio-era films that celebrated the filmmakers' youths, like Meet Me in St. Louis or The Strawberry Blonde). Still I think the general trend toward nostalgia is worth noting.)

Anyway, Bye Bye Birdie seems to me to be an inflection point, a last gasp of the lower-budget studio musical (big budget musicals were increasingly dominant, before they too would crash, dragging the whole system with them by the end of the decade) before The Beatles arrived the next year and blew everything to hell. As an attempt for studios to grapple with the rock and roll phenomenon it's a lesser version of Frank Tashlin's The Girl Can't Help It, and as a film it could have used more Tashlin-style surrealism. As it is, the director, George Sidney, was always at his best a more conventional Tashlin anyway, a steady hand with adaptations like Show Boat or Kiss Me Kate with a tendency to vulgar excess when let loose with Esther Williams in films like Jupiter's Darling. His patience and skill in utilizing the full-length of the Cinemascope frame with long, lengthy shots in the big group dance sequences goes to show that if they stick around long enough, even the weirdest directors become classicists.

As for the stars, well, Ann-Margaret. To go back to where I started, take a look at the evolution of the female heroes of those films: Ruby Keeler, Alice Faye and Debbie Reynolds are all of a type: cute, girls next door, pretty but unthreatening. Ann-Margaret though sings a whole song about how awesome it is to be young and hot. The film isn't about her becoming a star (though it is certainly a star-making performance), but rather about her learning to take control of her own life. As the film begins she's obsessed with Elvis-clone Conrad Birdie (whose sexual charisma is such that he inspires every woman in town to either faint or have a seizure in the film's first big group number) and in love with local boy Hugo (gladly submitting to future wife-hood through the pin-placement (pointedly not pin-exchange) ceremony). Through various plot machinations, she learns to take control of her own desires, break Birdie's spell and reunite with Hugo on her own terms. Though she's still aspiring to wifeliness, at least its because that's what she's decided she wants. Viewed another way, the film can be seen as a tragedy in that this poor girl can't really imagine any other role for herself: either sexual object or homemaker.

Janet Leigh's story somewhat parallel's Ann-Margaret's, in that ultimately she has to use her sexuality to inspire some jealousy in Dick Van Dyke's songwriter/scientist. That she does so at a Shriner's convention, and has to work really hard to get those men to notice her is kind of hilarious. 36 year old Janet Leigh still looks fantastic, and once the men finally see that they become a tidal wave. Leigh seems shocked by what she's unleashed in them, as though it was mere social mores that kept them from pawing after her, but once pushed so far they could no longer be restrained. Thus are the dangers of rampant female sexuality: better keep it locked down in wifehood!

And then there's the fact that Dick Van Dyke really wants to be a chemist, and his big career move in conjunction with Ann-Margaret's father, Paul Lynde(!) is to start selling amphetamines to animals (they dope a turtle) and humans (they dope a ballet conductor). I have no idea what to do with that.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

This Week in Rankings

Over the last few weeks, as I've been preparing for an upcoming episode (or two) of They Shot Pictures on Vincente Minnelli, I've been watching a lot of musicals. I wrote about Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Oklahoma!, along with a couple more Tsui Hark movies for Running Out of Karma (which at this point has more about Tsui's movies than Johnnie To's but whatever), Seven Swords and The Blade. I also wrote about a couple of excellent 2014 films: Tsai Ming-liang's Journey to the West and Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel.

In podcast news, we've had two episodes of The George Sanders Show since the last update, on Paul WS Anderson's The Three Musketeers and the Ray Harreyhausen Jason and the Argonauts and a baseball episode on Pride of the Yankees and The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings. Also there's our super-sized They Shot Pictures episode covering Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and Studio Ghibli. And I handed out the Endy Awards for 2006.

These are the movies I've watched and rewatched over the last few weeks, and where they place on my year-by-year rankings. You can find short reviews of most of them on my letterboxd page.

You Were Never Lovelier (William A. Seiter) - 22, 1942
The Pride of the Yankees (Sam Wood) - 27, 1942
The Gang's All Here (Busby Berkeley) - 3, 1943
Cabin in the Sky (Vincente Minnelli) - 9, 1943
Thousands Cheer (George Sidney) - 21, 1943

Cover Girl (Charles Vidor) - 18, 1944
The Clock (Vincente Minnelli) - 9, 1945
Ziegfeld Follies (Vincente Minnelli) - 30, 1945
Easter Parade (Charles Walters) - 15, 1948
Take Me Out to the Ballgame (Busby Berkeley) - 30, 1949

Lovely to Look At (Mervyn LeRoy) - 28, 1952
A Star is Born (George Cukor) - 8, 1954
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Stanley Donen) - 16, 1954
Oklahoma! (Fred Zinnemann) - 48, 1955
Jason and the Argonauts (Don Chaffey) - 15, 1963

The Thomas Crown Affair (Norman Jewison) - 18, 1968
The Sugarland Express (Steven Spielberg) - 29, 1974
The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings (John Badham) - 6, 1976
Bugsy Malone (Alan Parker) - 31, 1976
Sorcerer (William Friedkin) - 7, 1977

Caddyshack (Harold Ramis) - 10, 1980
Boy Meets Girl (Leos Carax) - 11, 1984
They Live (John Carpenter) - 4, 1988
The Blade (Tsui Hark) - 6, 1995
Seven Swords (Tsui Hark) - 16, 2005

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Nicholas Stoller) - 34, 2008
The Three Musketeers (Paul WS Anderson) - 17, 2011
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson) - 1, 2014
Journey to the West (Tsai Ming-liang) - 2, 2014
Veronica Mars (Rob Thomas) - 4, 2014