Film review – Drunken Master (Yuen Woo-ping, 1978)

Two decades before Jackie Chan broke into Hollywood with box office smash Rush Hour, he was making another significant breakthrough in his career. Snake in the Eagles Shadow and Drunken Master were both released in 1978 by Seasonal Film Corporation. They marked Chan’s first mainstream success as a lead actor and showed him to be a realistic option to fill the gap in the market left by Bruce Lee following his unexpected death in 1973.

Chan had worked as a stuntman on two of Lee’s biggest films: Fist of Fury and Enter the Dragon. But it took the two action comedy films in 1978 for him to rise to prominence and make the world pay attention to just how entertaining he is on screen.

Drunken Master, which has recently been remastered and issued in HD on Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label, tells the story of Wong Fei-hung (Chan), a young martial arts trainee with more confidence than ability. A couple of incidents in his local town lead him to be disowned by his father – a martial arts master – and he is forced to train with the great but harsh Beggar So (Yuen Siu-tien). Beggar So is a master of the secret martial arts techniques of the Eight Drunken Immortals, and Wong must train with him to master the techniques to defeat the notorious killer Yim Tit-sam (Hwang Jang Lee).

Once Chan appears on screen for the first time, his charisma and charm are there in plain sight. He commands the screen and plays everything for laughs. It feels entirely effortless and he inevitably carries the entire film.

The plot and delivery border on the ridiculous. There are comedic sound effects added to every single move in every fight, which may take some getting used to for newcomers to the genre, although why they would start here is beyond me.

The martial arts on display is exemplary, with Chan clearly an expert in his art to the point of making his character look completely believable as a poor student. Also notable are Hwang Jang Lee’s Taekwondo displays, which are utilised to great effect.

Inevitably, if you’re seeking out this film you’re probably doing so to see the origins of Jackie Chan’s career. On that level, you won’t be disappointed as it shows a young actor having fun finding his feet in a lead role. An underrated gem.

Drunken Master can be purchased on Blu-ray now. It is also available on U.K. Netflix.

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Film review – Wings (William A. Wellman, 1927)

For all its technological achievements and successes as a great tale, William A. Wellman’s 1927 cinematic epic is remembered for one thing – it’s the first film to win the Best Picture Academy Award.

The ceremony was far removed from what we know today. The winners were announced three months before the ceremony and it was a much smaller affair than the modern interpretation, with the awarding of prizes taking around fifteen minutes to complete. Wings actually won a prize called “Outstanding Picture”, later renamed to Best Film, making it famous at the expense of F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise. The latter won the similarly-named “Unique and Artistic Picture” on the same night, though on the night it is unlikely this was treated as a runner-up prize.

Wings concerns two love rivals – Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) – who are fighting for the attention and affection of Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston). Jack’s persistence is so committed that he fails to notice his tomboyish next-door neighbour Mary Preston (Clara Bow), despite her continuous effort to get him to notice her. They enlist in the Air Service as trainee fighter pilots. It covers their time in World War I as they complete training, launch into their first battles and become close friends.

It is perhaps a simple plot by today’s standards, but it’s often not the premise that makes a film great but the delivery. This is close to perfection.

Films like this may have been wonders when they were released, but few stand the test of time and allow enjoyment and excitement for the viewers today. Indeed, we are now 90 years further on in cinematic technological advancements and there isn’t a single person involved with the film that is alive today.

The world of cinema should be eternally grateful that Paramount decided to invest £900,000 in restoring this picture. The results are worth considering so you know exactly what you’re seeing and hearing.

On the positive, the picture is absolutely crystal clear. Many segments of the film were unseen for years by the general public, and whenever Wings did surface it was in a severely compromised form. A duplicate negative was found in Paramount’s archives, though this too suffered from significant damage baked into the print. However, digitising the original negatives and painstakingly restoring the film has done wonders for the visual experience. Credit must be given to Executive Director of Restoration Tom Burton and the team at Technicolor Creative Services for such a wonderful result, utilising tinting techniques of the era for added authenticity.

This has been matched up with a new recording of J. S. Zamecnik’s original score by Dominik Häuser and Michael Aarvold. The score was for a 14 reel version of the film that was edited down to 13 reels for the theatrical and roadshow release. Therefore there was a portion of freedom given to the scoring pair, but it is clear the right decisions have been made at each step, as evidenced by the moving results contained on the restored masterpiece. 

Controversially, the sound features sound effects that match to the visual image. Will McKinley has written a fantastic article about the positives and negatives of this, arguing both sides of the toss in a far more eloquent way than I could manage. It’s well worth a read. For me, these additional sounds are 100% in the score and I can see the restoration team’s predicament. If they omitted them it would sound more “authentic”, but only in as much as it’s what a modern audience expects from a 1920s sound film. This score was steeped in innovation and, like the technological risks taken in shooting the visuals, was way ahead of its time. I’m happy the music sticks to the original score, and if you don’t like it you can try an alternative option on the disc (provided by Gaylord Carter), or even mute the whole thing!

Utilising the trainee pilot angle, director Wellman was able to draw on his experience as a First World War pilot to create some absolutely astonishing sequences. They were all filmed on brilliantly blue but cloudy days, which gives the planes some scale and improves the dynamic nature of the dogfights. 

There is also a cinematic first in the film, with the first onscreen man-to-man kiss. It comes in one of the most heartbreaking scenes I’ve ever seen in a film. David has become stranded behind enemy lines and steals a plane to return home. Jack, already believing his friend has died, is on a suicide mission to take down as many enemy pilots as possible to help the war efforts, in careless abandonment of his own safety. Miraculously he survives his plan, shooting down innumerable enemy aircrafts. On returning, he spots one last pilot heading towards the Allied base. He goes in for the kill, without knowing that it is in fact his best friend David. When he lands and seeks the enemy to seal his victory, he realises what he has done. As David dies in Jack’s arms, the complex emotions get the better of them and there on screen is the first same-sex kiss, albeit perhaps accidental. It simply couldn’t have been cut or reshot – it’s integral to the plot and seals their respective positions in their friends’ lives.

The Masters of Cinema team are the perfect choice to take control of such a historic release. There are three bonus features on the Blu-ray disc: one covering the restoration, one that puts the flight aspects of the film into context and one that covers the legacy of the film. The accompanying booklet is full of additional information and essays on the film and director. It just fits the gravitas deserved of the film.

That we can now sit in our front rooms and see a film of this importance in such high quality is a wonderful feeling. The history of cinema is too important to simply let go. It’s fantastic that an entire new generation have the opportunity to see where cinema started and Wings certainly represents a significant piece of the puzzle.

Film review – Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957)

If you’re a casual fan of the history of cinema, you may be forgiven for thinking that Stanley Kubrick has only released eight films. 

The reason for this misunderstanding? I blame the brilliant but consistently re-released boxset of films that features every feature he directed from Lolita onwards, along with a documentary on his career titled “A Life In Pictures”. It’s so prominent and features so many classic films that his early output is often forgotten.

The biggest casualty of this is Spartacus, the 1960 epic that starred Kirk Douglas. It seems obvious, but there’s a whole generation of film fans that are well aware of the film and the director but are surprised that Kubrick was at the helm.

It’s a shame that his early output is so criminally overlooked, but it’s also a problem that Masters of Cinema and Arrow have put a lot of effort into correcting. First came 1953’s Fear and Desire, a film steeped in rumours that Kubrick himself wanted to destroy all known copies of. It is far from his best work, but has an audience. It was bundled with three Kubrick-directed short films: Day of the Fight (1951), Flying Padre (1951) and The Seafarers (1953). These aren’t essential viewing for anyone other than the most ardent Kubrickian, but plot a path to his genius-level filmmaking that was revealed shortly after.

Arrow’s release of 1956’s The Killing is similarly detailed. The Sterling Hayden-starrer was a critical success on its release but commercially didn’t really make it out of the starting blocks, serving second fiddle to a now-hard-to-find film called Bandido! and eventually losing $130,000.

So where does Paths of Glory fit into this? It was Kubrick’s final film before his epic box office smash Spartacus in 1960, which was also critically praised and thus provided him much more leeway when it came to choosing his next project, which was Lolita.

Arguably, the reason he was offered Spartacus was in part due to his success with Paths of Glory. Indeed, the original director (Anthony Mann) was sacked after just one week of filming and it was this that led to Kubrick being hired, not least for the fact that Kirk Douglas was the star of both and his production company – Bryna Productions – was behind Spartacus and vicariously the hiring of a replacement director.

The short reason for Douglas’s affinity to Kubrick is quite simple – the film is absolutely brilliant. Douglas is allowed to explore a complicated character with no compromise to the artistic integrity, despite the fact that the film was banned in several countries for content deemed controversial at the time of release. It is a really powerful display of his acting ability.

Set entirely in French army bases during World War II, the basic premise of the film is that Colonel Dax (Douglas) is ordered by his superior General Mireau (George Macreary) to attack the “Anthill”, a well-defended German stronghold. Mireau’s reasoning behind his decision is entirely selfish as he has been offered a promotion for a successful attack on the Germans. Douglas attempts the manoeuvre despite knowing it is essentially a suicide mission for his men, but they all quickly realise it is doomed to failure and they retreat. They are subsequently accused of cowardice and three men are selected for trial and face the death penalty, with only their own accounts and Dax’s legal background to save them.

The film was banned by several countries on its original release, deemed as anti-military. Subsequently, cinema-goers in France, Germany, Switzerland and Spain were unable to see it until decades after its release. It is understandable, given the portrayal of the hierarchy and corrupt decision making. The integrity of the film is also maintained with a wholly miserable ending to the film, an early sign that Kubrick wasn’t one to conform to normalities.

Watching it now, it feels way ahead of its time. There is no happy ending. The characters are fully formed and Kubrick is confident enough to let the brilliant Kirk Douglas engulf the entire frame with close-ups and lingering shots.

The action sequences as the troops push over the top into no man’s land are engrossing and brutal, giving a reality to their predicament. Without getting this right, the whole picture would have fallen flat.

This is absolutely a film that needs to be watched and shouldn’t be seen as just a point of interest for die-hard Kubrick aficionados. If you can find a copy and want to see beyond The Chosen Eight, you really need to invest.

Der Letzte Mann / The Last Laugh (F. W. Murnau, 1924)

Alfred Hitchcock once described Murnau’s The Last Laugh as an “almost perfect film”. Watching it now it’s hard to disagree with him.

The film stars Emil Jannings as a nameless aging doorman at a well-respected hotel in Germany. The manager of the hotel notices him and decides he is too old to perform his job properly and is reflecting poorly on the hotel. He decides to demote him to the position of attendant in the washroom. Feeling demeaned and now without his uniform, the man slips into depression. 

It’s an astonishing and gripping performance from Jannings, and one that is rightly celebrated even ninety years on. The ability to fully engross the audience is formidable, with many long periods of the film simply focused on his facial expressions. It’s a one-man-show, and a film played out with just one intertitle. The basics of the plot can be explained briefly (see the second paragraph), but the meat of the story that makes it so special is acted out entirely facially through his animated grief.

Fortunately, the Masters of Cinema release includes the original 1924 Giuseppe Becce score, orchestrated and performed by Detlev Glanert. This single option takes out the uncertainty that often surrounds these classic films rereleased and the score is a perfect match for the visuals.

The epilogue following the only intertitle seems a little fanciful and at odds with the rest of the film. The intertitle even offers a disclaimer for it, almost apologising for not following through on the overly-realistic story it had played out in the previous sixty minutes. It provides a happy ending to the audience but feels a little like a studio executive has forced the ending on Murnau.

At the heart of it, it is a film that challenges the viewer to think about how we allow people to lose their confidence and treat older people with less respect than they deserve. It was, at the time, an unusual film with an extraordinary plot. Its success gave confidence to other directors to believe that a film could be whatever they wanted it to be. In that sense, it is one of the most important films of the silent era and one you should seek out as soon as you can.

[1] Bade, James, N. Murnau’s ‘The Last Laugh’ and Hitchcocks subjective camera. Quarterly Review of Film and Video. Volume 23 (2006).

Film review – Varieté (Ewald André Dupont, 1925)

Recently remastered and re-released by Eureka on their Masters of Cinema label, Ewald André Dupont’s Varieté is a wonderful film that’s well-deserving of a bit more attention, even 90 years after its original release.

It follows Boss Huller (Emil Jannings), the owner of a touring circus and former trapeze artist. Now retired with his wife (Maly Delschaft) and trapeze partner, their relationship is functional but stagnant. However, when  a mysterious woman called Berta-Marie (Lya De Putti) appears and joins his entourage, he becomes besotted with her and this marks the end of his marriage. Shortly after this a celebrated younger male trapeze artist named Artinelli (Warwick Ward) joins to turn their duo into a trio. Frictions rise between the two men as they begin to vie for the interest of Berta whilst remaining professional on stage.

Brit Ward and love rival German Jannings

Modern cinema fans may know lead actor Jannings, though they may not realise it. He was portrayed in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2007) by Hilmer Eichhorn in the tensely played-out film premier scene. During the Second World War, Liebich was an outspoken supporter of the Nazi party and was taking lead roles in many of the biggest Weimar-era films. By the end of the war, with the Nazi party defeated, he was left unable to work in the restructured Germany keen to forget the pervious decade, eventually retiring to a farm in Austria before dying at the start of the 1950s.

Before this, however, he was a much-celebrated film star, both in Germany and America. He was the first actor to receive the Oscar for Best Actor (for roles in two films: The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh), which happens to also be the first ever Oscar statue given out at the first ceremony, putting Jannings in a unique part of film history. Perhaps his greatest performance came in Die Letzte Mann, released a year before Varieté. He would surely have won more Best Actor Oscars if only the Academy Awards had started ten years previously.

The way the film plays out may leave viewers feeling somewhat bemused about how we are supposed to feel for the lead actor. Firstly, he leaves his wife at the drop of a hat for a woman he knows almost nothing about other than that she has arrived on a seemingly cursed ship. Then, when his new lover essentially does the same back to him, he plots a jealousy-fuelled revenge, murdering both her and her lover. It seems too that the judge in charge of hearing his plight forgives him and allows him to leave prison. It doesn’t leave much room for any kind of compassion for the character. Indeed, when it was released in America the entire introduction was cut from the release, leaving a much more moral character for the viewers [1].

You may also need to suspend your belief that Jannings could possibly pull off the stunts involved. Whilst they are beautifully and innovatively shot, I couldn’t help but feel like Jannings – 40 at the time of the shoot – was a tad too portly to follow the trajectories required of a trapeze artist. Inevitably an unconvincing stunt double was used, but it’s only a minor blemish on a series of quite fascinating scenes.

Whilst the restoration is absolutely perfect, a note should be made about the variety of soundtrack options available. The unusual default option is supplied by The Tiger Lillies. I attempted to watch this version but changed it after about ten minutes. It didn’t seem to fit very well at all – much more modern than it should have been and not really matching the tone of what was happening on the screen. Much better is the Johannes Contag version, listed as third on the main menu. There’s also the aforementioned complete American version, though I didn’t venture this far.

This is well worth investing in for fans of German silent cinema, and it’s great to see it being given so much attention so long after its initial release. 

[1] http://www.silentsaregolden.com/debartoloreviews/rdbvariete.html

Film review – 偽りの隣人 / Creepy (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2016)

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s latest release Creepy received its U.K. premiere tonight as part of the London Film Festival. It blends elements of police drama, suspense and mild horror to create an intriguing film that achieves much but ultimately falls down due to a lack of ruthlessness in editing that would have helped the pacing.

Set in approximately 2009, it tells the story of a retired policeman Takakura (Hidetoshi Nishijima) who has changed careers to work as a criminology professor at a local university. Having moved to a new part of town with his wife Yasuko (Yūko Takeuchi) and dog Max, they begin to become suspicious of the titular creepy neighbour Nishino (Teruyuki Kagawa) and his daughter Mio (Ryoko Fujino), whilst Takakura attempts to solve an old case that has come out of the woodwork.

Creepy Nishino

The casting of the genuinely creepy Kagawa is a solid choice. Director Kurosawa is on familiar ground, having worked with him on 2009’s Tokyo Sonata, though this role is very much a departure from the jobless family man we saw previously. When the results are this good there’s no need to change.

Kurosawa, working again with cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa, achieves a lot with natural lighting to create darkness for the lead characters as they delve into their inner-most thoughts. This was an effective technique used previously by the pair in Journey To The Shore and is mined more subtly here to arguably better effect, especially in one particular witness interrogation scene.

However, there are flaws. The ending could genuinely have happened about twenty minutes prior to when it finally occurs, and when the story is finally resolved the relief I felt wasn’t for any of the particular characters but more for the fact it signalled the end was in sight. It’s unfortunate that the ending is so shocking and powerful with some great acting that was undermined by the preceding needless plot extension.

There were a few ideas throughout the film that seemed to fizzle out. Saki (Haruna Kawaguchi) was really prominent for a good portion of the film but was clumsily written out before the resolution of her storyline; her family went missing but she doesn’t seem to care why in the end. A police chief is written into the key part of the story to get Takakura out of a dead end in the plot. There’s a mind control element to the story that isn’t ever fully explained, instead expecting the viewer to just go with it. 

After a long setup, this film is genuinely exhilarating for about an hour. With a shorter ending and a little more clarity, it could have been much better than the final result. For me, it is a missed opportunity.

Film review – A New Leaf (Elaine May, 1971)

A New Leaf, the 1971 debut feature film from Elaine May, tells the story of Henry Graham (Walter Matthau), a wealthy man who finds himself broke through misfortune and bad money management. Striking a deal with his rich uncle Harry, he borrows $50,000 to help facilitate a temporary extension to his rich lifestyle, with the hope that in the time he has to pay Harry back he can find a rich single woman to marry and regain financial security. He happens upon Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May), a shy and clumsy botanical professor who may well provide the solution to his problems.

The film is definitely a black comedy, even though its light on the latter. Much of the humour here is based on Matthau being in situations of discomfort or unfamiliarity. Initially suicidal after realising he has now money, then more so at having to say farewell to his favourite upper class haunts, his pain is worsened by having to act like he has feelings of affection and compassion for a woman he has little interest in. Driven solely by money, he is shocked at how poorly her finances are managed, sacking her entire house staff team in one memorable scene.

The film plays out like an extended and scripted episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. It’s hard to think that Larry David hasn’t seen this and been influenced by it in some way, though admittedly the comedy in David’s work is much more realised.

However, as a one-trick pony the joke tends to wear thin as we progress towards the inevitable climax of the film. According to the extensive liner notes – a gift we come to expect with the Masters of Cinema releases – there was a much extended version of A New Leaf (running at a whopping 180 minutes) that never saw the light of day, and probably never will. Whilst it’s always a shame to think a director’s vision hasn’t been fully realised, and the normal response from film enthusiasts is that the director’s cut is the ultimate version of a film, it appears that what we do have access to is probably as good as it gets. Indeed, Matthau preferred the shortened version, which cuts out a murder subplot and provides a happy resolution at the end.

That’s not to say that May’s vision is unworthy of viewing. Certainly, as a writer-director-star she succeeded in creating a solid picture. Her character in the film is by far the most interesting. She is a scientific professor, despite seemingly not needing to work (having inherited her wealth). She is essentially a philanthropist if we look at the way she treats her overpaid and underworked house staff. She is a loving and dedicated wife to her new husband, despite getting nothing in return for her devotion. In many ways, despite her introverted geekiness and inherent clumsy nature, she is a strong female role model. Subtly, the plot of the film is a slight on men in general, which was unusual for the era.

Unfortunately, however, it’s a little known film for a reason. It’s not groundbreaking or unique enough to warrant any kind of extensive praise. It has its fans and at times we are watching vintage Matthau, but the pacing, lack of a cutting script and predictable plotline undermine what could have been a much better end product.