Archive for the ‘Foreign’ Category
Monday, September 21st, 2009
“She’s my mother.”
Australian director Cate Shortland does some impressive things in The Silence, out September 22nd from Alliance Films. She gets solid performances out of her actors, she maintains a tense atmosphere throughout, and she has some stylistic flourishes which are pretty cool. This means that The Silence is a very well made movie. It does not mean that it is a good one. Because it’s not. The biggest problem is the script, which is all over the place and has some major holes.
There are two big problems with the movie. First, there is a reliance on coincidence that really strains credulilty. Richard (Richard Roxburgh) is a cop who has been involved in a frightening incident where an informant was murdered. He has been re-assigned, for some reason, to a police museum where he is now in charge of preparing photos for a display on true crime. He notices the same woman appearing in several of the photos. And he decides to investigate. We eventually figure out (although it’s never pointed out) that her appearance in these photos is nothing but an enormous coincidence. So is her identity, and the mystery that ensues.
The second big problem is the ending. For a movie that has been so taut, and tense, and suspenseful, the ending is sadly obvious. And it wraps the entire plot up into a neat little package, where everyone bad gets what’s coming to them, and everyone good lives happily ever after, and all the questions are answered easily, and Richard doesn’t have to make a difficult decision between his girlfriend and the woman he’s now all about. The movie has been gritty and challenging up until this point. But it lets us off way too easily.
Monday, September 7th, 2009
There is precious little dialogue in Hunger. Those seeking action, or talking, will have to look elsewhere for their fix. Those seeking phenomenal movie making, however, need look no further than this story about the final days of Bobby Sands. Sands, for those of you (like me) who were not around for his story, was an IRA prisoner in a British prison who led a hunger strike in the early 80s, leading to the death of ten inmates, including himself. Although this is the central story in the docudrama, we don’t even meet Bobby Sands until the movie is about halfway done.
In the meantime, director Steve McQueen (who really ought to have changed his name before getting into film, if he was going to do films this good – I mean really, that would be a fine name for the director of Buxom Bitches of the Badlands or something, but Hunger is no B-movie) sets the tone with a look inside the prison. The utter chaos of the “troubles”, the almost incomprehensible actions of both the IRA prisoners and their British captors, and the general tone of confusion that surrounded the whole thing. We meet a prison guard who is constantly in fear of assassination. We meet two IRA prisoners who join with their brethren in a “no wash” strike, where they refuse to bathe or shave and they pour their urine into the hall and smear the walls with their feces and do other disgusting things. For some reason.
The only real dialogue in the film comes soon after Sands (Michael Fassbender) is introduced for the first time, as he sits down with a priest (Liam Cunningham) for a long, incredible, powerful talk about his impending hunger strike (among other things). This is some of the best acting I have seen on film in a long time, as Fassbender and Cunningham sit across from each other, in one extremely long take, discussing the reasons to go on a hunger strike and the reasons not to go on a hunger strike. The camera doesn’t move, the actors move very little, and the only action in the scene is the pair of them smoking. And it’s one of the most riveting scenes I can remember.
The best thing about that scene, and the movie as a whole, is that it perfectly captures the questionable motivation behind Sands’ actions. He is certainly willing to die for his cause, and his beliefs, but he is also willing to take his fellow soldiers down with him, and I could never really understand exactly what he wanted to accomplish with the strike. I suspect that to this day, nobody really knows. Or at least, no one really understands. But I believed Michael Fassbender understood, when he was sitting in that room with Liam Cunningham, and that is the best reason to watch the film.
I watch movies in my living room, and in my living room there is a clock that ticks. It’s not terribly loud, so I never notice it when I’m watching a movie in full surround sound cranked up to eleven. But I certainly noticed that tick-tock while watching Hunger. The movie is almost silent much of the time, as people sit around in prison. I was about to take the batteries out of the clock, but I realized that it added a little something extra to the film. It was the perfect companion to prison, and made it feel even more so like time was passing incredibly slowly. The movie appears to be going incredibly slowly as well. But in fact, it isn’t. It’s slow, but it’s just incredible.
Friday, August 21st, 2009
“Ah! The toad style!”
Country: Hong Kong
Language: Mandarin w/ English subtitles, English dubbing
Starring: Kuo Chue, Chiang Sheng, Sun Chien, Chiang Sheng, Lo Meng, Lu Feng
Director: Chang Cheh
Run time: 101 minutes
DVD distributor: Alliance Films
It’s a tough call when it comes to deciding whether to watch The 5 Deadly Venoms, out August 25th from Alliance Films, in Mandarin with English subtitles or with the English dubbing. There is a third audio track, also in English, which is a commentary track by Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan, and I recommend that one also. But mostly, I recommend watching this movie dubbed. Yes, it is better with subtitles. But this movie is not about being good. It’s about being awesome. And the dubbing is cheesy and in some cases nonsensical and that just adds to the bonkers tone of the whole film.
I actually watched the movie with the dubbing on and the subtitles, just to see how well they matched up. It turns out they barely match at all, and in some cases the English dubbing and the English words mean two completely different things, which means that depending on how you watch, The 5 Deadly Venoms is two different movies. Maybe you should watch it twice. I’d be curious to know whether the dubbing or the subtitles are closer to the actual words spoken in Mandarin, but that’s where the commentary track comes in handy.
This is one of those kung-fu classics that will seem vaguely familiar to people who do certain things. I understand that the film is referenced in that online game World of Warcraft. And that there is a comic book based on the five styles of kung-fu presented here. For me, I recognized some of the lines in the movie because they are used as drops in albums by the Wu-Tang Clan. This movie has become the very definition of a hard-to-find cult classic, referenced throughout pop culture in a very subtle and hard-to-spot way.
Well, it isn’t hard to find any more. As part of the Shaw Brothers collection from Dragon Dynasty, distributed in Canada by Alliance Films, The 5 Deadly Venoms is (finally) available easily on DVD. Much like earlier Shaw Brothers releases Heroes of the East and Come Drink With Me, this movie is a cheesy, silly, but absolutely awesome kung-fu movie that is still influential today. I think it’s fantastic that these films are being released on DVD now, because until this time I had to make do with the grainy, cheaply-made, terribly dubbed $1.12 kung-fu DVDs from the Wu-Tang collection that were being sold in bulk at Wal-Mart.
Anyway, on to the movie. The old master of the “Poison Clan”, a notoriously evil clan of warriors, is about to die. He entrusts his very last student with a mission – track down the other five students that have left the clan, and kill them. If they are good men living good lives, then they may be spared. But if they are evil, he must take them down. The big problem is that no one from the Poison Clan can use their kung-fu style in the open, because it is forbidden. And notorious. Which means it will be very difficult to identify them. Each one has their own particular style-specialty – the lizard, the snake, the centipede, the scorpion and the toad.
The coolest character in the film is the toad, which is too bad because he’s the only one who doesn’t make it to the end of the movie. We learn early on the identities of the snake, the centipede, the toad and the lizard. The big question throughout the film is “who is the scorpion?” When we do finally learn his identity, it doesn’t come as a huge surprise, but it’s still well done and there is a pretty badass revelation toward the finale of the film. A finale which, by the way, comes with a totally awesome five-way fight scene as the lizard and the young student take on the snake, the centipede and the scorpion.
In the meantime, there are murders, arrests, police corruption, judicial corruption, the silencing of informants and the despicable murders of innocent prisoners in their cells. Some of it is a little shocking – like one scene where a young man has a steel barb on a pole jammed down his throat. But for the most part it’s intrigue, and it’s a mystery, and it’s badass kung-fu guys doing badass things. And what more do you want in a movie?
Wednesday, August 19th, 2009
“What kind of bastard would break a dog’s back?”
It may surprise you to hear that the best movie ever made about a man and a baby does NOT involve Tom Selleck. I know, I was shocked too. OK, OK. The best movie about a man and a baby does involve Tom Selleck. Three Men And a Baby remains a cinematic classic.
With apologies to Steve Gutenberg and Ted Danson, the SECOND best movie ever made about a man and a baby is Tsotsi, a movie from South Africa that received limited release here in Canada. The 2005 Oscar winner for best foreign film is exactly that. The best foreign film of that year and the best overall since City of God. Tsotsi is a nickname given the main character, a South African word meaning thug. And that’s what he is. The movie opens with him killing a man for his wallet, then shooting a woman and stealing her car. But when he looks in the back seat and finds her baby, it might be the one thing that can turn around his downward spiral.
Presley Chweneyagae plays Tsotsi. He’s South African and I can’t come close to pronouncing his name. But he is one of the best young actors in the world. This actor puts everything he has into this role the way Jimi Hendrix put everything he had into his live performances. Tsotsi is his The Wind Cries Mary.
Monday, August 17th, 2009
“I’m on strike.”
Countries: Germany, Azerbaijan, France
Language: Russian w/ English subtitles
Starring: Maximilian Mauff, Kristyna Malerova
Director: Veit Helmer
Run time: 88 minutes
DVD distributor: First Run Features
Absurdistan is a wonderful, light-hearted romantic comedy from director Veit Helmer (sort of a nice, absurdist touch to have a director named “Helmer”, isn’t it?). It’s out August 18th from First Run Features, and it’s just terrific. A small town in the mountains relies on a big pipe for all their water, and when it fails the town has some serious problems. Bathing being one of them. The men are concerned only with sex, and as such are too lazy to fix the pipe.
The women of the village come up with an ingenious idea. They will go on strike. No more sex for the men until the pipe is fixed and the water returns. Of course, this being a bonkers and silly and totally fun movie, the men decide not to fix the pipe, but rather to show the women that they can get sex elsewhere. This involves calls to phone sex lines, the hiring of a traveling prostitute show, and a man dressing up as a woman with watermelons for breasts to infiltrate the enemy camp. All with hilarious results, of course.
Soon, the town is divided by barbed wire and the women have armed themselves to keep the men out of their side of town. This is all wreaking havoc on two young lovers, who have been told by the stars that they have only a small window in which to have sex for the first time. They have waited four years for this time, and the stars will be aligned for only five or six days. Of course, young Temelko (Maximilian Mauff) will do just about anything to get that sex, so he sets out on a one-man quest to get the pipe repaired in time.
He also straps his girlfriend Aya (Kristyna Malerova) to a rocket and sends her shooting up into the sky, seemingly against her will. Which is just another bonkers moment in an utterly bonkers movie. Bonkers. The movie is great just for the strange and unexpected touches, like one scene with a donkey and a carrot that can’t really be described. It’s also great because the village women are not a bunch of incredibly beauties, but rather they are regular-looking, sometimes almost ugly women who still manage to appear terrifically sexy.
Absurdistan is a movie about love, and lust above all else. It’s a battle of the sdexes film and a flight of fancy, but no words I can use in a review can convey the simple, wonderful joy contained in every frame and every face in this film. There is virtually no dialogue at all, so even those of you who hate subtitles can watch the movie and understand absolutely everything. I really hope you do.
Monday, August 17th, 2009
“When your spirit is happy, that is true religion.”
There was once a guy named Gendun Choephel. He was a Tibetan buddhist monk who criticized the conservative religious culture and government of his home country. An intellectual heavyweight, Choephel traveled all over seeking a deeper understanding of the world and of his own country. Any buddhist monk who has sex with women and goes on drinking binges is not just a philosopher and a man of the world, he is also on the short list of real-life Most Interesting Men In The World.
“Drinking beer and sleeping with women can be very instructive”
Choephel was also a painter and a writer, and his writings have become terrifically important to Tibetan people and expatriates in the years since his death. Still a controversial figure, his legacy remains a powerful one. Filmmaker Luc Schaedler goes on a trip through India and Tibet to trace the history of this man who is almost completely forgotten in the world outside Tibet. Schaedler interviews people who knew Choephel, and people who have been influenced by his writing and his philosophy.
That being said, as a film Angry Monk tends to drag. Certainly, this man was a terrifically interesting figure, and this movie is one of the few documents in the world that really traces his life and deals with his ideas. There is a terrific website for the movie, you can click on that here. The content on the website is just about the same as the special features on the movie - a written interview with the director and some written excerpts from Choephel’s writing form the bulk of the content. The movie is interesting, and the man is interesting, but it’s on such a small scale that only people truly interested in Tibet, Buddhism and politics would be truly engrossed.
Angry Monk comes out August 18th from First Run Features.
Sunday, August 16th, 2009
“Trout swim upstream.”
The opening titles for The Fish Fall In Love translate the Iranian text as “When Fish Fall In Love“, which actually makes a little more sense. I assume it was a North American distributor that decided to change the title. Or, it’s a poor translation. Either way, I like When Fish Fall In Love better. And either way, I like the movie. It made me frustrated, and it made me happy, and it made me smile. But most of all, it made me hungry. The fish are not just a metaphor, they are also served in delicious looking dishes throughout the film.
There is a lot of cooking in Fish Fall In Love. Atieh (Roya Nonahali) runs a restaurant with several close female companions. Her former lover, Aziz (Reza Kianian, who looks like an Iranian Tony Bennett) shows up at her restaurant after a long, poorly-explained absence. Aziz is still, technically, the owner of the building, and Atieh immediately assumes that Aziz is there to shut her down and kick her out and sell the place. Atieh and her daughter and the other women decide that the way to convince Aziz not to sell the restaurant is to win him over with their delicious food, to make him feel like part of a big happy family, and to see the value in the place. So they cook him all kinds of delicious looking things. In fact, I have been on the net for about half an hour now looking up recipes for Iranian food. I’m going to make some reshteh khoshkar. If I can figure out what it is.
The biggest frustration I had with the film though, is that this is one of those romantic comedies where no one says anything constructive, ever. Aziz doesn’t, in fact, want to shut down the restaurant and sell it. But Atieh assumes that this is the case, and she doesn’t give him a chance to explain otherwise. Aziz is too shy and timid and easily cowed to speak up and explain himself to Atieh. Obviously, both have feelings for each other, but her understanding of his disappearance is based on false information, her attitude when he returns is based on a false assumption, and his reticence to speak is based on a misguided sense of propriety.
All this could be solved, very easily, with a one-minute conversation early in the film. I didn’t run off, I was in prison and my father lied to you. I am not here to shut down your restaurant, but rather to see you. I have been very angry with you, missing all these years. And…done. It’s all out in the open, and we can move on. Well, it would also mean we wouldn’t have a movie, really. The bulk of this movie is just a bunch of people saying the wrong things at the wrong times, not asking the specific question that could clear everything up, and wilfully misunderstanding what should be rather basic and obvious things. And that can get obnoxious.
The movie was made in Iran, and is therefore in Persian, with English subtitles. The subtitles are hit and miss – there are several spelling mistakes and poor translations, but the sense of humour in the words comes through. The women in the movie tend to overact, except for Nonahali who is superb. Kianian is wonderful too, and between them they for the heart of a very sweet, tender and good-natured movie. It isn’t flawless, but it’s fun, and it’s good, and it made me smile. It also made me very hungry. I’m off to cook now. The (When) Fish Fall In Love comes out August 18th from First Run Features.
Thursday, August 13th, 2009
“By the power of Greyskull!”
Language: Russian w/ English subtitles, English dubbing
Starring: Aleksandr Bukharov, Igor Petrenko
Eye candy: Oksana Akinshina, Natalya Varley
Director: Nikolai Lebedev
Run time: 142 minutes
DVD distributor: Alliance Films
Okay, so I’m not sure that quote actually came from Wolfhound. It may well have come from a He-Man cartoon I once watched as a child. The two blurred together for me during a dream I had during a nap I had toward the middle of the film. The DVD box, out August 18th from Alliance Films, says that Wolfhound is like “Conan The Barbarian meets Lord of the Rings“. Well. Not just the DVD box, but the Hollywood Reporter as well. Which is quoted on the DVD box. This is partially true. Wolfhound is a lot like a really crappy Lord of the Rings meets a slightly worse version of Conan.
If we take the premise voiced in Clerks II that Lord of the Rings is nothing but a lot of walking, then I can see the comparison. There is a lot of walking in Wolfhound. And I can see the comparison to Conan, in that there is a fair amount of flexing and growling and not very much dialogue. Oh, and there’s magic and witches and such. But really, I feel that Wolfhound is a little more like Beowulf meets Outlander. In that it’s pretty darn ridiculous, and it involves Viking types and people yelling the name of the hero a lot.
The hero’s name, you see, is Wolfhound. It doesn’t mean anything, it’s not some kind of mystical title bestowed upon him by some religious icon or god-like figure. It’s just his name. Try it out. Even as a nickname, try it out. Call your oldest kid “Wolfhound” all through dinner tonight. Or dub your best friend “Wolfhound” all night the next time you’re out having beers and watching football. Try it right now. Call someone and refer to them as “Wolfhound”. Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it? Kinda sounds ridiculous every time you use it as a name? Yep.
The name “Wolfhound” is both cutesy and badass, it’s vaguely redundant, and it sounds idiotic every time it is used in the movie. “Save me, Wolfhound!” Uh…haha. I choose to laugh. And I do. I giggled every time I heard the name used. And on some level, I think that is the intent of the movie. More on that in a second. You see, as a very young child, Wolfhound (Aleksandr Bukharov) saw his father and mother murdered in front of his eyes, along with the rest of this village. He saw the sword of one assassin, and the hand tattoo of the other.
Wolfhound, as a small child, was taken as a slave and thrown into “the mines” – who knows what they are mining for? I don’t think it matters. The point is, it’s hard labour with slave drivers and sweating and creepy stone walls. Wolfhound becomes the first and only slave ever to escape the mines, apparently learns how to fight somewhere (a Pai Mei style Kill Bill training montage would have been nice there) and seeks vengeance on those who murdered his family. He encounters a slave girl, a princess, a blind healer, a slave with some book-learnin’, and a big fat forest priestess or something. And some assassins.
As I said, I am willing to give Wolfhound the benefit of the doubt. I am willing to believe that it is over the top on purpose, and that I was meant to laugh most of the time during the film. Just like with Beowulf, I am assuming (and hoping) that this movie had its tongue in its cheek. The moment in Beowulf when he takes off all his clothes to fight the beast, under the pretense that the beast, too, is naked, and that this will even things up, is the moment where the movie jumps the shark and becomes ironically amusing.
That point in Wolfhound comes fairly early, about 20 minutes in, when Wolfhound slices the hand off a vicious masked assailant, only to discover a few minutes later that the dismembered hand has a wolf tattoo on it – it’s the guy who murdered his mother! Now he has his target in his sights, and the movie should likely end quickly. But it goes on for two more hours. There are constant flashbacks, to scenes we have just seen, that hammer home the things that are already obvious to us. When I saw the princess for the first time, I had already seen a few flashbacks that made it clear she was the same woman Wolfhound saved in the woods. But there are more and more flashbacks to ensure that the point is beaten to death. I get it! Move on! But still, I’m laughing…
“He is battling destiny. And destiny is a cunning foe.”
The other characters have funny names too. “Maneater”, and “Golly-Rod” and “Castle Mountain”. There had been some pointless battles, and there had been a lot of walking, and a few more unnecessary characters added to the traveling brigade, when I slipped into nap mode. That’s when “Castle Mountain” was being brought up again and again. Which might explain why I had all those He-Man dreams. But it wasn’t just the names and the silly flashback overkill that made me giggle.
Also funny is Wolfhound’s habit of tying his hair back behind his head when he is about to throw down. Wolfhound has a pony-tail now! Look out…it’s meant to be badass, like Clint Eastwood spitting before he blew everyone away in The Outlaw Josey Wales. “Get ready, little lady. Hell is coming to breakfast.” But really, it’s a guy tying a pony-tail. There is a guy who gets burned in the face by Wolfhound in the very first scene. He shows up, again and again, during the movie. They make sure we know (hammering it home, like everything else) that this guy with the burnt face is the same guy whose face was burnt. And then…nothing. Nothing ever comes of it, there is no reason for the guy even to exist.
Wolfhound is a Russian movie, in the Russian language, and comes with English subtitles. This is a decent option, but to get the full comedic value of the movie, you have to hear people call the hero “Wolfhound”. And the dubbing is pretty darn good, as far as dubbing goes. Also, many people in the movie have thick beards, so you can’t see their mouths moving anyway, and a lot of people do a lot of their talking off the screen. Not that there’s much talking in the film. Most of the dialogue is mystical, fantastic mumbo-jumbo and people yelling “Wolfhound!” which is totally hilarious even the fortieth time.
I mentioned Outlander and Beowulf in this review, because I think they are similar in that all three have tongues in cheeks and a flexing, posturing, testosterone-infused sense of fun. I gave both of those films marginal recommendations, because I wanted to believe that they knew they were ridiculous, and they made me laugh despite massive plot holes and idiotic plot twists and totally unnecessary characters and scenes and battles. I feel the same about Wolfhound. It can be a lot of fun, as long as you don’t, in any way, take it seriously.
Sunday, August 9th, 2009
“On my command, unleash hell.”
Starring: Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, Russell Brand, Toby Jones, Talulah Riley
Eye candy: Gemma Arterton, Caternia Murino, Mischa Barton, and a bunch of high school girls. I know that makes me creepy.
Directors: Barnaby Thompson, Oliver Parker
Run time: 101 minutes
DVD distributor: Alliance Films
“Houston, we have a problem.”
There are an awful lot of lines in St. Trinians that come from other movies and seem trite. Or silly. Or even awful. There is virtually nothing in the film that we haven’t seen in other movies. And the movie is sadly and painfully PG-rated. However, it is good. Very good. It’s a teen movie, and it’s a girly movie, but it is an awful lot of fun and I was surprisingly and thoroughly entertained. St. Trinians comes out August 11th from Alliance Films, available in a single-disc edition or packaged together with 17 Again. Please don’t get the two-movie package. 17 Again is nowhere near the caliber of this clever and surprising British film.
“Be afraid, sir. Be very afraid.”
Annabelle (Talulah Riley) is a young girl whose father drops her off at St. Trinians, an all-girls boarding school with a bad and dangerous reputation. Apparently St. Trinians is an old film series in Britain leading back to the 50s, and these characters should be familiar to certain British folk in the audience. Not me though, and I found them to be fresh and fun and just badass enough. As Annabelle gets acquainted with the school, we see girls being dragged behind tractors, others being hung over bannisters, and general craziness and misbehaviour that would not be out of place at a prison riot.
St. Trinian’s never takes itself seriously, so the violence and bad behaviour and possible murders are always dealt with extremely lightly and for comedic effect. The school has the standard cliques – the hot chicks, the goth chicks, the jocks and the nerds and the so on and so forth. Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace, Rocknrolla) provides the main eye candy in the film, as the smoking hot, harsh and sexy Head Girl. In fact, there are a lot of hotties in this film, which is vaguely creepy for a high-school-girls movie, but also extremely standard.
Rupert Everett, who also produced the film, appears as two different characters – Annabelle’s effete, callous and awful father, and the scatter-brained, boorish headmistress of the school. Yes, Everett is in drag. Also memorable is Russell Brand, who shows up at the school several times, as the girls are all involved in his seemingly extensive criminal enterprise. They distill vodka for him, and make other products, which he then sells. His occasional appearances are the best part of the movie. And Colin Firth is pretty good as the Ministry of Education man intent on shutting down the school.
“You can so see why Colin Firth wanted to shag her.”
But it’s the girls who carry the film, even though the script and plot are pretty standard and tired. Arterton is a fantastic ice queen as the head girl, there are two hilarious little girls, twins, who are demolitions experts, and every girl is memorable in her own way. The bank wants to shut down St. Trinian’s, and the girls must come up with 500,000 pounds to pay the bank to save the school. They decide to steal the famous painting Girl With A Pearl Earring which will be on display at a nearby museum. And in order to get into the museum, they must win a series of scholastic trivia contests.
All of this sounds pretty boring, and pretty usual, and pretty cliched. And it is. But thanks to the girls and a genuine sense of silly devil-may-care film making, St. Trinian’s rises above the dreck from which it sprang. It isn’t revolutionary. It isn’t, really, politically incorrect either. It doesn’t really push any buttons or break any boundaries. But it did make me smile. And sometimes that’s all I want from a movie. St. Trinian’s delivers.
Wednesday, August 5th, 2009
“There will be no fighting in the Hall of Swords!”
Countries: China, Hong Kong
Language: Mandarin w/ English subtitles
Starring: Donnie Yen, Kelly Chen, Leon Lai, Guo Xiaodong
Director: Ching Siu Tung
Run time: 94 minutes
DVD distributor: Alliance Films
Ching Siu Tung is a remarkably accomplished action director. With movies like Hero, Curse of the Golden Flower, and Shaolin Soccer under his belt recently, he is a big name in the action world. Then again, his name is also attached to In The Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (as a fights choreographer) and the Steven Seagal vehicle Belly of the Beast. Now, to be fair, Uwe Boll directed A Dungeon Siege Tale, and no matter how good the fight choreography was the movie was going to be atrocious. And, to be fair, Belly of The Beast, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that it’s utterly bonkers and makes no sense, is just about the best of the Seagal direct-to-DVD era.
The biggest problem with An Empress And The Warriors is not the direction. And the best part is not the action choreography, although it is quite good. No, the biggest problem with the movie is that, for its genre, it’s pretty darn ordinary. Romantic, epic martial arts and swords and costumed war-themed period pieces are, to Hong Kong cinema, the equivalent of romantic comedies in Hollywood. In that they are made every year, given a lot of marketing and budget, and every director seems to try his or her hand at it at some point.
And, like romantic comedies in Hollywood, the war-themed sword and martial arts epics in Hong Kong are pretty formulaic. In this case, they are almost all Shakespearean, in that there is usually betrayal, and someone who appears to be something they are not, and the desire for peace battles with the manliness of war, and honour is paramount, and usually everyone important dies in the end. I have come to expect this.
The films, also like Hollywood rom-coms, are hit and miss. It’s what you do within that formulaic framework that matters. House of Flying Daggers, Hero, and Curse of the Golden Flower are all examples of the formula done exceptionally well. Legend Of Black Scorpion is an example of the same formula being phoned in. So is An Empress And The Warriors. I really like Kelly Chen, Donnie Yen and Leon Lai. But they are just pieces in the paint-by-numbers picture.
Now, there are a few inspired and exciting scenes. The scene where Kelly Chen is being chased through a forest by ninjas is reminiscent of a scene out of Return of the Jedi (really), and there are scenes later on that are interesting takes on action scenes from Gladiator and Ben-Hur. And the relationship between Chen and Lai, as he nurses her back to health in his idyllic wilderness retreat, is compelling and realistic.
But the stuff I’ve come to expect from these movies feels like it’s there because it has to be, and there is little inspiration. As the traitorous, ambitious would-be king, Guo Xiaodong is a one-not character, and all he seems to do is look devious or look offended. I think he belived that as long as he looked like he was plotting to overthrow the Empress, he was doing his job. And that’s about all he does.
Also there is a love triangle hinted at a few times between Yen, Chen and Lai. But it never really rears its head, because honour trumps intrigue and romance and everyone does the absolute right moral thing at every moment. Well, except for the one or two Cartoon Bad Guys. And one more annoying but entirely expected quirk – when the Empress falls in love with the isolated country doctor, it’s not enough for him to just be a doctor. He has to, secretly, be one of the greatest warriors in history. It’s thrown in, seemingly, because a princess or Empress could only fall in love with someone who can kill people with his pinkie and a doctor just isn’t badass enough for a hot chick’s love.
Now, all these complaints aside, I did in fact enjoy An Empress And The Warriors. For the most part, I like the cast, and frankly I like the formula. Hong Kong does two types of films consistently – police corruption movies and these epics. And I would rather watch a formulaic, average sword and war and honour epic from Hong Kong than a good romantic comedy from Hollywood.
Monday, July 27th, 2009
“The voice of the true Muslim will be the one that matters.”
Countries: Pakistan, Germany, France
Language: Punjabi w/ English subtitles
Starring: Kirron Kher, Aamir Malik, Arshad Mahmud
Director: Sabiha Sumar
Run time: 99 minutes
DVD distributor: First Run Features
There have been many movies recently that dealt with the conversion of regular young people to radical Islam. The young folks go from decent and hard working young people to rabid, bloodthirsty jihadists in what seems like a matter of hours. Some of these films have been very good, (Syriana), and others have been absolutely awful. Treating the radical Islamic movement as though it were the weed in Reefer Madness. Silent Waters treads some middle ground here. When young Saleem (Aamir Malik) is approached by some fundamentalist bullies, he is at first skeptical, and in fact laughs outright and calls them ridiculous. And it’s fairly clear in Silent Waters that these jihadists are, in fact ridiculous and that any reasonable Muslim in the area can see through them and their bilious rhetoric.
But they show Saleem some pictures, you see. And within about four minutes, he goes from the reasonable position (these people are ridiculous) to the inexplicable one (these people speak the truth and this is the life for me). It’s a bit much. What photos could someone show you that would make you renounce all reason and join a group of maniacs? I would argue there is no such photo that could accomplish the job in four minutes. Which means Saleem is instantly a bit of a cartoonish character. The weak-minded offspring of a strong-minded mother. Except that Saleem is not a man with a weak mind. He shouldn’t be this easily persuaded.
Then again, more than most films with a similar character, Silent Waters rings true in the case of Saleem, because you can tell the director (Sabiha Sumar) and the actors all understand what they’re doing and what they’re talking about. Saleem’s transformation into a radical may be badly written, but it is superbly acted and ultimately entirely convincing. Aamir Malik is one of the best things about this movie. But then, it isn’t really a movie about Saleem. It is a movie about Saleem’s mother, Ayesha, played by Kirron Kher, who is the best thing about the film, without a doubt.
The movie is based on real-life tensions between the Muslim community and the Sikh community that stem from some serious brutality several years ago. Sikh men slaughtered Muslims, Muslims slaughtered Sikhs, and in order to dishonour their enemies as much as possible, they abducted each others’ women. This led to a number of dreadful ”honour killings”, where men on both sides murdered their wives and sisters rather than have them fall into the hands of their foes. Ayesha is one of the women who escaped. As a young Sikh, she escaped murder at the hands of her own father only to fall victim to an abduction by Muslims. But she was (and still is) tough. And she adapted. And eventually found a young Muslim man, fell in love and got married.
Now her husband is dead, and Ayesha teaches the Koran to local children. But when her son comes under the spell of the extremist Muslim reactionaries, and sets off with them to make war on the Sikhs, everything in Ayesha’s life and history threatens to come apart. Silent Waters is not a perfect film. Some of it is trite, some of it is silly, and occasionally it can be a tad ham-handed. But it works. It works because of the actors, especially Kher and Malik, and it works because it is telling a story it knows. There is real tragedy still lurking under the surface in Pakistan and other parts of the world, and the current climate is more likely to bring it to the surface than any before.
Silent Waters is a part of the Human Rights Watch DVD box set, out July 21st from First Run Features.
Monday, July 27th, 2009
“Until now, has anyone said this past action was wrong – that two million dead among the Khmer people was wrong? Has anyone begged forgiveness?”
One thing that bothers me about the Holocaust in Germany is when people use the phrase “never again”. It seems like such an empty phrase when, since 1944, it has happened again. Many times, in many countries. And perhaps never worse than in Cambodia in the late 1970s, when more than two million people lost their lives to the Khmer Rouge in the worst genocide since World War II.
S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine is a unique and powerful movie that seeks to explain the genocide, the torture, and the brutal actions of the Angkar (the party in control of Cambodia at the time). Rithy Panh, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge atrocities, brings several people together at one of the most infamous sites, the S21 Security Bureau, in the heart of Phnom Penh. There, 17,000 people were tortured and executed between 1975 and 1979.
Three prisoners survived S21 and are alive today. Panh brings those three survivors back to the Security Bureau, where they endured some of the most horrific things men have ever done to other men. The building is now a genocide museum, but it clearly carries devastating emotional significance to these men. Joining them for this pilgrammage are some of those who were on the other side – the torturers themselves.
It isn’t really about clearing their conscience, or receiving forgiveness for their sins. These men are, in their own way, as broken as those they tortured. They try to repeat the mantra “I was just following orders”, but faced with those they brutalized, they seem to realize that those words are terribly empty. The idea behind this movie is simply to recreate the conditions and the terror that went on in the S21 Bureau. And it certainly succeeds.
One of the most chilling aspects of the movie is the ease with which the former torturers fall back into their routine of the time. One of them, who was all of 12 or 13 years old when he began “working” at S21, goes through the motions in a rote sort of way, checking imaginary handcuffs and locks, blindfolding prisoners, beating other prisoners, taking water away from others, and threatening the imaginary “enemy” as though he has never left this place.
I can’t help but feel for that particular guy, because he was really a child soldier, asked to do some horrendous things. The others explain their involvement by citing their families, or a fear of the Angkar, or the idea that if they didn’t kill the “enemies” of the state, then they would be branded as “enemies” themselves. It’s probably all true, but other phrases are more telling.
“I had power over the enemy…I never thought of his life.”
Female prisoners were raped and tortured with their kids in the room. When hospitals needed blood, four bags worth were taken out of prisoners until they collapsed and died. All the prisoners were forced to sign a declaration of the things they had done to make them prisoners, even though none of them ever appeared to know why they were there. They were tortured until they made something up, and then eventually executed for the crime they had invented.
I have been complaining for a while about the scope of certain documentaries, many on the same box set as this one. They are either too narrow and I don’t learn enough about the story surrounding a particular event, or they are too broad and I don’t care about any one person. And S21 doesn’t really tell the story of the rise to power of the Khmer Rouge, or any Cambodian history leading up to the event. They mention, briefly, the Vietnam war and the American bombing of their country, and that’s about it.
But S21 is a movie that works really well because of it’s narrow scope. Just these men, in this place, is all we really need to know. We know they were detained for no reason. We know these beatings and torture sessions took place for no reason. And we know that these actions were suffered by human beings and performed by human beings. Seeing them together, the tortured and their tormentors, is moving and devastating and S21 becomes transcendant.
Not just a documentary about a bunch of bad stuff that happened, S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine is a dark, frightening look at human nature, and about the things ordinary men can do to other ordinary men. Panh, much like he does with paintings that crop up every now and then in the film, has created a masterpiece out of an outrage. S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine is part of the Human Rights Watch DVD box set, out July 21st from First Run Features.
Monday, July 27th, 2009
“Only if the devil’s generous will he give us a good vein of silver and let us get out alive.”
Country: Germany, U.S., Bolivia
Language: Spanish w/ English subtitles
Starring: Basilio Vargas, Bernardino Vargas
Director: Kief Davidson
Run time: 82 minutes
DVD distributor: First Run Features
If you were going to be spending a large portion of each day in hell, you would want the protection of the devil, wouldn’t you? And the best way to get the devil’s protection is to give him offerings and pray to him every day, right? Even the most fervent Christian believers in the mines of Potosi leave their faith at the door to the mines, bringing offerings to “Tio”, the devil, and stopping by his effigy before going to work.
Every day is another day closer to death for the miners in “the mountain that eats men”. The dust from the mines gets into their lungs, and kills them quickly – few of them live past their 40th birthday. But that is an accepted fact of life for those who mine for silver in the mountains of Bolivia. Tio will not save them from that agonizing slow death. Really, all Tio can do, they believe, is protect them from explosions, and maybe let them hit a rich silver vein. Of course, he doesn’t always do that.
The Devil’s Miner tells the story of two of those miners. Fourteen-year-old Basilio has been working in the mines for four years. You read that right. He has been working in the mines since he was ten years old. Now, his brother Bernardino, at age 12, is old enough to join him in this incredibly dangerous and back-breaking work. The Devil’s Miner follows these two young boys as they put on their hard hats and trudge down into the sweltering depths in search of silver.
That search is an important one. For them, moreso than for anyone else. You see, if the miners don’t find a vein of silver, they don’t get paid. And Basilio needs to get paid, so he can get his family out of the mountains and quit working at the mine. He goes to school when he is not working, in the hopes of gaining an education so he can make a better life for his brother, his sister and his mother. Their father is dead, which is why Basilio now has to be the primary bread-winner for the family.
The rest of the family have jobs as well. His mother and sister (one of the cutest little girls imaginable – about six years old) provide security at the mines, making sure the valuable mining equipment isn’t stolen. Although they all work, in their own way, Basilio is now clearly the leader of the family. It’s sweet, and also heartbreaking, when his little sister plays with him, hugs him, and then calls him “Papa”. He’s fourteen. He’s just a kid too. I have a fourteen-year-old stepson. He can’t boil water on his own.
The biggest problem in the mines though, is that they are pretty much tapped out. Once, the Cerro Rico silver mines were the the largest cache of silver in the entire hemisphere. When the Spanish conquistadors invaded, they named this particular mountain “The Rich Pinnacle” (Cerro Rico). The mine produced two-thirds of the world’s silver, and Potosi was one of the richest cities in the world. But that was several hundred years ago. Now, there is little silver left in those mountains, and the miners are desperate.
Basilio and Bernardino are not the only children working in the mines. There are many others, and it’s tragic to see kids spending their childhood in this way. It’s easy to forget how young these two really are, until they stop by the effigy of Tio and Bernardino won’t go by it without his brother because it scares him. Or when they show us the wall upon which they occasionally stop to draw and doodle. However, it’s certainly indicative of their situation when they are too scared of the devil to doodle anything except for images and the name of Tio.
When the mining gets really slow, the miners sacrifice a llama to the devil underground. The local catholic priests watch helplessly as the hard working miners worship God one day and Satan the next. Sometimes both in the same day. At the end of the movie we get to see the Bolivian Carnival in Potosi, where the miners dress up and do the dance of the devil in a parade down from the mountain, through the streets and into the church, where they get blessed by a priest and begin mass.
The best thing about the DVD of The Devil’s Miner, other than the terrific movie itself, is that it comes with some good special features. Most are just text, about the film and about the ways in which you can help the children of the Cerro Rico mines, but there is also a featurette that catches up with the subjects of the documentary one year later, as they watch the film premiere and react. Basilio no longer thinks girls are icky, and he has managed to get a girlfriend.
Of course, he doesn’t really want his girlfriend to see the movie, because then she would know he worked in the mines and might not like him any more. But that’s the best thing about this update. Basilio no longer works in the mines (thanks in large part to this movie). Movies can make a difference, and The Devil’s Miner is one that does. It’s terrific, and available on the Human Rights Watch DVD box set, out July 21st from First Run Features.
Monday, July 27th, 2009
“If he [The Dalai Lama] returns, the political situation will change…and the day of happiness will dawn on Tibet.”
Countries: India, UK
Language: Tibetan w/ English subtitles, English
Starring: Tenzin Chokyi Gyatso, Jampa Kalsang, Tenzin Jigme
Directors: Ritu Sarin, Tenzing Sonam
Run time: 90 minutes
DVD distributor: First Run Features
The Dalai Lama was forced to flee Tibet 40 years ago, in 1959. Since then, many other Tibetans have joined him in exile, many of them moving to India. Dharamsala, in Northern India, is the headquarters of the Dalai Lama in exile, and that is where Dreaming Lhasa takes place. Tenzin Chokyi Gyatso stars as Karma, a gorgeous young woman who travels to Dharamsala to make a film about former political prisoners living in exile and to reconnect with her Tibetan roots. She meets Dhondup (Jampa Kalsang), an ex-monk who has come from Tibet to India to search for a missing resistance fighter named Loga to fulfill his mother’s dying wish.
Karma joins up with Dhondup to take part in his quest, and their journey becomes a powerful story of Tibetans living in exile, of their connection to their homeland, and of their extremely complicated interaction with the outside world. The actors in the movie have stories just about as interesting as the story in the movie itself. Tenzin Chokyi Gyatso is an American citizen who works for Chevy Chase bank. When the movie was finished, she went back to her bank job. Jampa Kalsang is from Kathmandu, Nepal and seems to be the only experienced actor in the cast.
Also interesting is Tenzin Jigme, who plays…appropriately…a character named Jigme. In a way, he appears to be playing himself. Jigme is a career musician, with his two brothers, in the band JJI Exile Brothers in Dharamsala. Throughout the movie, a band (maybe the same one) plays Tibetan freedom songs. I couldn’t decide whether those songs were cheesy and misguided or powerful and strong. By the end of the film, I still couldn’t decide. I think the songs are supposed to be a little of both. True words, real concepts, but there is a Quixotic feel to a lot of the music and sentiment that in a way comes across as cheesy.
Dreaming Lhasa is populated largely by non-actors, but this really works in its favour. For a film that touches at least briefly on such a long list of historical events and subjects, the stars bring their own life experiences to the screen. Karma is American, seeing Dharamsala for the first time and learning about her Tibetan roots. And so is the actress who plays her. Jigme is a Tibetan born in Dharamsala and knowing nothing but exile in his life. And so too is the actor playing him. The movie touches on the involvement of the CIA in the Tibetan resistance, and the subsequent violent Chinese crackdown. It touches on the attitudes of the exiled Tibetans toward the Dalai Lama and his stance toward the Chinese government. And of course dozens of other subjects.
Dreaming Lhasa a terrific look at an exiled people and their tenuous and awkward existence vis-a-vis the outside world. But it isn’t a documentary, and it’s more than just a list of facts and figures. It’s also a really interesting, really moving film. The relationship between Dhondup and Karma, as they travel together and develop feelings for one another, is genuine and unforced. The interaction between Jigme and Karma is charming. And the end of the film, when they finally find Loga, provides an unexpected yet powerful moment. I would suggest the aftermath of that meeting is a little easy and not as challenging as the rest of the movie, but that’s a pretty small complaint.
Dreaming Lhasa is a wonderful movie about a group of people who don’t make a lot of headlines. It works as a statement film, and as a feature. There are a few special features on the disc, including a short film called rights…and wrongs that is just pictures and video of people and the Tibetan resistance. It works, and it’s strong. There is also a “making of” featurette which doesn’t say much, and an interview with the director and the composer about the soundtrack (which is mostly Tibetan freedom songs and dub reggae). Altogether a very good DVD, Dreaming Lhasa came out July 21st as part of the Human Rights Watch DVD box set from First Run Features.
Friday, July 17th, 2009
“The victim could be anyone.”
Actors: Harvey Keitel, Emmanuelle Beart, Norman Reedus
Director: Manuel Pradal
Run time: 98 minutes
DVD distributor: Alliance Films
In just about every way, A Crime is Emmanuelle Beart’s movie. Thankfully, she is the best thing about the movie, which is why it works. Beart is one of the best French actresses of the past twenty years, but she is known to North American audiences mostly as the pointless eye candy in Mission: Impossible. There will never be a movie made, anywhere, where Emmanuelle Beart does not function as eye candy. Making a movie with her, without calling attention to the fact that she is sensationally beautiful, would be like making a movie starring Stephen Hawking without calling attention to the fact that he is in a wheelchair. In other words, impossible. And I say this movie will never be made because if Beart looks like this at age 41, I can only assume she will still be a goddess at age 81.
Which makes it odd when, at the beginning of A Crime, young Norman Reedus appears to not only reject her advances, but in fact to be irritated and put-upon by her desire to sleep with him. You know that old saying – no matter how hot she looks, there is a guy somewhere in the world who is sick of her crap? That may be true, but that guy has been with that ridiculously hot woman for a while before he is sick of her. We (I think I speak for all men here) would put up with just about any level of psycho insane BS if it meant that we could hold hands with this woman. Who cares how nuts she is? At first, anyway. We could get sick of it later.
However, Reedus has a reason. You see, his wife was recently murdered. And he is a broken man with such a deep pain inside him that he can’t even look at another woman the same way until he achieves closure. Even one as alluring as Beart. Somehow, she devines that the only way he can move on, into a relationship with her, is to find the man who murdered his wife and kill him. She reaches this conclusion in a strange way, taking out of context some comments from a police officer and formulating her own plan to give him the closure he so desperately seeks. That way, he can be with her, and she is obsessed enough to make that happen on her own.
What’s sick about the whole thing is that it works. Beart sets up a patsy – Harvey Keitel, a hard-working cab driver who seems to be selected almost at random by this seductress. Keitel is not immune to her charms, because he is human and not driven by an inner obsession of his own. He’s harsh, and crude, and extremely rough around the edges, but he is basically a decent man who happens to be easy to set up. He’s pretty much a loner, he works all the time, and he becomes as obsessed with Beart as she is with Reedus. So now all she has to do is get him into a red vest, put the right ring on his finger, and dent his cab such that he matches the description of the cab driver who killed Reedus’ wife.
Now, we have to believe that Reedus’ obsession is such that he would kill, without questioning, the first man who fit the description of his wife’s killer. Even several years after that murder took place. And that, having finished off this supposed killer, that he would instantly be at peace to the extent that he would fall into the arms of his stalker. None of this really rings true. There are three obsessions going on in the movie, and Keitel’s is understandable. Here is a woman clearly out of his league and obviously hotter than any other woman he could get, throwing herself at him. Who cares if she is a psycho with an alterior motive? She’s Emmanuelle Beart!
And because Beart is such a magnificent actress, her obsession with Reedus, although never fully explained, rings true as well. She is a convincing manipulator, a total maniac, and she is willing to do whatever it takes, including seducing this dirty cab driver and setting up his murder, in order to get what she wants. But Reedus’ obsession with findin his wife’s killer just doesn’t ring true. He would have to completely ignore any common sense in order to do what he does when he finally falls into Beart’s trap and meets Keitel. And one would think that he would at least take comfort, in the meantime, in the willing arms of such a spectacular woman.
In the end, this could have been a much better picture had Beart’s growing affection for Keitel been better explored. Or if we had some inkling of why Beart was so obsessed with Reedus. It might have been interesting had her obsession stemmed entirely from an admiration of his obsession with his dead wife, and when her plan was enacted, she no longer found herself as attracted to him. Or something. In the end, it’s the Keitel obsession with Beart that has the biggest impact in the story, and it leads to a pretty obvious, pretty weak ending.
I won’t give away the ending here because I think this movie is very much worth watching, for the performance of Beart alone. Keitel is good too, but he appears to be playing a dialed-down tough guy version of the characters he has played so many times before in movies like Bad Lieutenant and Corrupt. And Reedus is good enough, but I didn’t get a sense of what made him tick, and therefore I had trouble understanding his crazed one-track persona. But please pick up this movie. Beart is an actress who needs to find a wider audience than just the French. She is great, and of course smoking hot. And yes, she does get naked in this movie. Pretty often.