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.

Film review – Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford, 2016)

Whilst Nocturnal Animals may be one of the most stylish and effecting pieces of cinematic art released in 2016, it may also suffer from being the second biggest Amy Adams film released in the month of November (Arrival is set to hit cinemas later this month). The films are targeted at a completely different audience, and if you’re interested in seeing Tom Ford’s latest then you need to know what you’re getting yourself in for. It’s a veritable misery-fest. And it’s absolutely breathtaking.

The film stars Adams as Susan Morrow, a hugely successful art gallery curator married to a handsome but unrelatable husband (Armie Hammer). Feeling like her life is unfulfilled, she unexpectedly receives a manuscript for a novel through the post from her ex-husband Eddie Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). The book, titled ‘Nocturnal Animals’, is dedicated to her. As she delves deeper into the grippingly horrific story – which plays out for the viewers with fabulous turns from Gyllenhaal, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Michael Shannon – we come to discover the history between Susan and Eddie and the inspiration for the story.

There were long periods of the film where I was so absolutely gripped by the fictional tale Gyllenhaal’s character was spinning – the film within a film – that I almost dated to forget that we were reading it with Adams’s Susan as she struggles with her insomnia. The meta-tale is brutally horrific, with the male central character experiencing the some of the worst experiences imaginable in life. It takes until quite near the end of the film to realise why he has written this story, and at this point we also remember the times Susan has thrown the book down in disgust. It’s easy enough to play out a story and leave a reveal until the very end. It’s quite something else to leave the audience so gripped in the journey.

Tom Ford executes every moment of the film with an unrivalled stylishness that was evident in his debut feature ‘A Single Man’. It is in the L.A. art scene that we see the characters inhabit the sort of regal living spaces most people can only dream of, despite their thin veneers here only acting as a cover for a desperately hollow existence.

The resoundingly successful final scene is an absolutely devestating act by Eddie. Susan is left emotionally drained following the reading of the manuscript that finally reveals his potential as a brilliant writer. It is also laced with accusations at Susan. She is left with no resolution. This is a clearly a reflection of how he felt after their relationship originally broke down. The answer is never clearly spelled out, with the audience left as smartly frustrated as Susan. This is a really intelligent move that epitomises the ability of Ford to sit the viewers firmly in the position of the people on the screen and ask themselves how they really feel.

It is a wonderful piece of cinema that I’ll be recommending to anyone who will listen.

Halloween Quiz – Answers!

In case you missed it, I posted a quick just-for-fun Halloween quiz earlier today. 

The answers are below. Look away if you don’t want to have it spoiled for you!

Picture Round

1. The Shining

2. Don’t Breathe

3. A Clockwork Orange

4. It

5. Final Destination 

6. Halloween

7. The Human Centipede 

8. The Birds

9. 10 Cloverfield Lane

10. The Babadook

11. A Nightmare on Elm Street

12. What We Do In The Shadows

13. Carrie

14. The Woman In Black

15. Dracula 

16. It Follows

17. Scream

18. Aliens

Hitchcock’s Missing Letters

1. North By Northwest

2. Rear Window

3. The Birds

4. Vertigo

5. Topaz

6. Rebecca

7. Rope 

8. Psycho

9. To Catch A Thief

10. Dial M For Murder

Trivia Answers

1. Lucille

2. Jennifer Aniston

3. Pennywise 

4. Tales From The Crypt

5. Night of the Living Dead

6. Resident Evil

7. They’ve all portrayed movie ghosts

8. Goosebumps 

9. Barbara Streisand

10. Vincent Price

Tie Breaker

207

Film review – Frantz (François Ozon, 2016)

Set primarily in Germany in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, François Ozon’s latest film is an emotional story portrayed almost entirely in black and white. It revolves around Anna (Paula Beer), a woman who is living with the parents of her lost lover and supporting each other in their collective grief. That man is the titular Frantz (Anton von Lucke), who we learn has lost his life in battle during the war. When a Frenchman by the name of Adrien (Pierre Niney) shows up at Frantz’s grave to give his respects, he tells them of his close friendship to their mutually lost friend.

Adrien (Niney) and Anna (Beer)

Ozon is something of a prolific filmmaker on almost the same level as Woody Allen. Since his celebrated debut feature length film Sitcom in 1998, he has written and directed sixteen films, amongst them the critically acclaimed Swimming Pool and the highly successful Potiche. Yet Frantz is, by all accounts, a departure in style for him and sees him in relatively unfamiliar territory with a historical war drama.

It is based on the play ‘L’homme que j’ai tué’ by Maurice Rostand. Before writing his script, Ozon was unaware that the play had already been adapted by legendary filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch as the film Broken Lullaby in 1931, though when he watched the film he realised that it was a completely different treatment to the direction he wanted to go with Frantz. He wanted to give the focus of the film to Anna, who was on the losing side of the war, providing more empathy to her as the central character.

There is an interesting chemistry between Beer and Niney, both of whom are playing extremely complex characters. They share this individual that has had a huge affect on their respective lives and begin to grow closer. Providing convincing characterisations of such  conflicting emotions is a challenge both rise to and it is this that elevates the film above being a wartime drama.

It was amazing to learn that this was Beer’s first performance acting as a French-language character. Many successful actresses couldn’t achieve what she has here in their first language let alone their second one. She revealed in a post-screening discussion that she had to learn and develop the script twice. Initially she developed the emotional responses to the words in her native German, before relearning the entire segments in French to ensure her delivery wasn’t lacklustre.

This is a truly moving film that gives an interesting point of view to the fallout from war that hasn’t often been explored before. Superb delivery from the two complex central characters means this comes highly recommended.

Film review – Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi, 2016)

SPOILER ALERT – There’s a spoiler pretty much immediately in the first paragraph of this review. Sorry, it just turned out that way. Come back when you’ve seen the film and rejoice in its excellence with me. General  and spoile-free review: it’s excellent and well worth watching.

Here we go…

There is a moment, about twenty minutes into Hunt for the Wilderpeople, where the laughs start rolling in and the set up falls into place, proving that very good things come to those who wait. That this happens in the middle of the funeral of one of the lead characters, who is unexpectedly killed-off in the middle of the opening act, proves the point that comedy doesn’t have to be routine to be absolutely hilarious.

Indeed, looking at the two lead actors, there is nothing to suspect they would work on a comedy duo level. Sam Neill has been doing fantastic work for years, delivering memorably serious performances in the likes of The Hunt for Red October, Dead Calm, The Piano and Jurassic Park. His partner in crime in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Julian Dennison, is pretty much a newcomer to the industry, having starred in 2015’s Paper Planes and not much else (at least not much that has troubled the international market).

It’s strange then that they have formed a bizarre chemistry around which this film’s many successes hang, taking turns to be the straight man when the time is right. It’s a successful combination and one that takes what could have been a simple live-action remake of Pixar’s Up and turns it into an enjoyable romp through the New Zealand countryside.

Dennison is, ultimately, the real find of the film. As the rebellious youth that nobody wants, he is privy to some of the best lines in the film. His delivery is natural and faultless.

Taika Waititi may be in the process of directing the upcoming next instalment of the Thor film series (set for release in late 2017), but he is staying rooted to what he knows best for as long as possible. One can only hope that Marvel allow him to finish his journey with the film rather than lose faith at the eleventh hour as they did with the last quirky comedy director they went with: Edgar Wright.

On this evidence, they would be wise to not make the same mistake twice.

Hunt for the WIlderpeople is available now on DVD.

Film review – Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2016)

There are obvious paths to go down to tell a story about victims of child abuse. This film eschews the story of the individuals who have suffered the abuse, instead concentrating on the journalistic team that fought hard to uncovered the abuse. It deliberately attempts to portray just how difficult it was to reveal the truth about something when nobody wants to listen and everybody involved is trying to cover up what has happened. It is an effective but devastating success.

The title of the film is taken from an investigative journalistic unit that tackles stories it deems of necessary interest to the readers of The Boston Globe. In 2002 it published an exposé on Roman Catholic priests in the Boston area, offering evidence of not only child molestation and rape, but also of the systemic cover-up of the evidence by the church. The truths they found were horrific in both nature and magnitude.

Whilst the movie is truly an ensemble piece, there are three wonderfully nuanced performances that help make this film so effective.

The first comes from Stanley Tucci as the attorney Mitchell Garabedian. Tucci is a really special actor and he’s in fine form here. Garabedian has represented innumerable victims of the abuse and each time has been unable to affect change, with critical documents being suppressed by the church. Reminiscent of his role in Margin Call as Eric Dale, he is a man with knowledge of the wider secret dying for those around him to find out what’s truly going on.

A smaller but memorable turn comes from Neal Huff as Phil Saviano, head of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Based on a real person going by the same name, he makes the most of his limited screen time when he provides a harrowing monologue the first time he meets the Spotlight team. A frustrated picture of a man that likely represents the emotions felt by each and every survivor.

The finest performance, however, is from Michael Keaton as the Chief Editor of Spotlight, Walter “Bobby” Robinson. Throughout the story Bobby is a man wrestling with his conscience. He knows that to make the story as effective as possible he needs to wait for all the facts to be in place and make a thorough, damning article that cannot be ignored. However, doing this means sitting on the information whilst the abuse continues in the city. Late in the picture when he finds out he was actually tipped off about the scandal twenty years previously, he must conclude that he is finally bringing justice to the city despite potentially having the power to prevent generations of systemic abuse. Keaton nails it, reminding us all once again how great it is to have him back on the big screen in a role of substance.

I’m surprised Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams have been selected for an Oscar nomination ahead of those they share the screen with. Fine actors though they are, it must have been a tough call to select two from a long list of solid performances. Ruffalo seemed to be holding back slightly, though that was perhaps a deliberate choice I didn’t pick up on fully.

It is rare that a whole audience is left in absolute silence at the end of a screening, but even on a busy Saturday afternoon there didn’t seem to be anyone that felt anything other than stunned. The reason for this was a devastating list of all the locations they have uncovered scandals in since the publishing of the initial article in 2002, firstly in the USA, then globally.

For this reason the film is now serving the same purpose as the original article: to shine a spotlight on a diabolical scandal that should have been eradicated decades ago. It is possibly the most important film you will see this year.

浪華悲歌 / Osaka Elegy (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1936)

浪華悲歌 / Osaka Elegy, now eighty years old, came midway into director Kenji Mizoguchi’s career. Despite this, it is one of the earliest examples of Kenji Mizoguchi’s work readily available to view by the general public and has just been restored and released by Artificial Eye as part of a boxset titles The Mizoguchi Collection.

By today’s standards, it has a strange narrative that seemingly unravels itself from a reasonably happy place to a completely unhappy place for everyone unlucky enough to be wound up in the story. It is built around telephone operator Ayako (Isuzu Yamada), a girl who uses manipulation out of desperation for her own family. Her father is struggling to keep afloat financially after finding himself unemployed and owing 300 JPY. Her brother is also in desperate need of money to pay for his tuition fees or he will be thrown off his course. A solution presents itself in the form of Sumiko Asai (Yoko Umemura), the owner of a successful drugs company who has taken a shine to Ayako. Agreeing to be his mistress to solve the financial issues, she soon realises that the solution isn’t quite as simple as she had hoped.

The topics covered by the film are explored and exploited. It’s a clever technique as the initial story seems quite bland. As the reality is revealed to those involved Ayako comes out as the only person to be perceived to be in the wrong. Several men have had an affair with a girl under half their age, effectively buying her time, but they are above the law due to their standing in society. Since she is perceived to be of a lower class, it is on her that the blame is left.

She was in fact trying to live by her giri morals – the duty to do right by ones family. Whilst her methods may be unorthadox, she never sways far from these morals. The most upsetting part is her final line in the film, revealing that she believes herself to be a delinquent.

The quality of the film is lost slightly by the poor condition of the remaining footage. Throughout the film there are issues with sound – the constant background hiss is quite off-putting, there’s the odd loud pop and the dialogue can feel muffled. It’s not inaudible, but a far cry from perfect.

Similarly, the picture quality is poor, particularly in the darkened interiors of the traditional Osakan houses where the blacks appear muddy. This, like the sound, is not the fault of Artificial Eye. They’ve clearly made a decent job of some imperfect source material. It’s a shame, but realistically this is a business venture and spending the money to restore relatively obscure Mizoguchi films would be hard to justify.

As I understand, the other three films in this box set (The Story of the Last Chrysthanthemum, Utamaro and His Five Women, Sisters of the Gion) are all in the same boat, with imperfections in both audio and visuals (I haven’t watched them yet). That these films have surfaced at all is enough to be grateful for and those looking for more Mizoguchi after enjoying the Master of Cinema releases will be well served. As such, despite the flaws this box set is a recommended purchase.

 

 

Sisters (Jason Moore, 2015)

Sometimes cinematic events so huge occur that they transcend cinema and infiltrate the wider global conversation. To not see a film, occasionally, is to almost deliberately stand out from the crowd and, in some cases, refuse to be a sheep. Because everyone else is in love with a film but perhaps didn’t get it at first, the desire to take a stand gets in the way of allowing yourself to be interested.

If you’re in that boat and have taken a stance against Star Wars: The Force Awakens, then perhaps Sisters is the film for you. It is in so many ways the antithesis of an epic and excellent space opera. Yes, it isn’t very good. Yes, it vastly underused its two lead stars. But someone had to take the hit and be THAT film that was released the same week as the film that looks set to be the most successful in box office terms since Avatar.

The story is as banal as the majority of the jokes. Sisters Maura (Amy Poehler) and Kate (Tina Fey) find out that their parents are selling their childhood home and have to go home to clear out their rooms. They do just that, but in the process decide to throw a huge house party. Things get out of hand and they wreck the house, though in doing so learn some valuable lessons.

It isn’t without merit. Some jokes are downright hilarious. However, these appear to be the ones that were ad libbed by the two leads. There are a few examples of this is when they are trying on dresses ahead of the party. Additionally, the scenes with Maya Rudolph are all highlights and almost give a feeling of a rewarding experience. Most of the remainder, however, falls disappointingly flat.

A truly entertaining time was had by all. Just not in this screen.

After about half-an-hour I found myself in such deflated amazement that I started to enjoy it out of disbelief that it was such a waste of their talent. This twisted enjoyment sustained until the final section when it started to feel protracted – the party kept going slightly too long and the joke was wearing thin.

The final segment, which awkwardly ties it to Christmas and thus tried to justify it as a festive film doesn’t really convince with conviction. This was clearly an afterthought to a film that was obviously intended for a summer market but that the studios didn’t dare release into clear air when excuses would have been harder to come by than the Star Wars card.

Sisters is on general release worldwide now.

Film review -トウキョウ トライブ / Tokyo Tribe (Sion Sono, 2014)

Movies should aspire to be the best in their genre. There’s no point existing as a movie unless you can at least be better than everything that has gone before in your genre. If you can’t do that, then why not mold yourself a new genre completely?

With that in mind, I am proud to announce that Tokyo Tribe is the best Japanese-language rap-musical in the tribal gang realm.

The story is pretty hard to explain. To summarise, we are let into a highly stylised version of modern Tokyo, where tribal gangs vie to rule the city. Set over one night, we see the heightening tensions as ganglord Buppa (Riki Takeuchi), his henchman Mera (Ryuhei Suzuki) and son Nkoi (Yosuke Kubozuka) declare war on all other tribes in Tokyo, announcing as much by killing the popular peace advocate Tera (Ryuta Sato). The uprising against their power trip is led by central heroine Sunmi (Nana Seino), and multiple stylised battles culminate in a dawn all-out-war.

Sunmi beat the living daylights out of another bunch of extras

Sunmi beat the living daylights out of another bunch of extras


Amazingly, the intertwining of multiple storylines and characters is reminiscent of Love Actually, though the comparisons inevitably end there. In fact, at times it’s simply hard to follow just who the central characters are. About 90% of the dialogue is delivered as rapping, so as an English native who barely speaks any Japanese it is hard to follow what are clearly some very fast and rhythmical lyrics. On this occasion, it really pays to speak the language.
Another issue is the excessive number of characters that are continuously being introduced into the mix. It felt at times like several characters were frivolously being added in too late for us to care about who they are, often getting only a handful of lines to describe who they are, what tribe they represent and a little about themselves before disappearing for the rest of the film.

That said, there is a memorable turn from Cyborg Kaori as a beatboxing servant, which is worth watching out for. She does things with her voice that seem completely unnatural. The results are fascinating and her various YouTube videos are worth checking out. This is an example of a distinct character being given the chance to shine; it’s a shame that the cast wasn’t smaller so more focus could be given to each of the talented artists involved.

Many of the featured actors and actresses, however, are new to the hip hop world and the intriguing on-disc Making Of documentary reveals a lot of the insecurities of the stars, particularly with standout performer Nana Seino. She’s clearly a talented actress but it’s sad she was the focus of such a lot of “fan-service” throughout the film.

Stylisitically, the film is top notch. From start to finish there is no break in the feeling that the characters inhabit this entirely alternate reality and in that sense it is a great success.

The same cannot be said for the storyline.

At times it’s a brilliantly unique film that threatens instant cult-classic status. Often it’s just a complete mess that loses itself in style over storyline. If you know of Sono Shion and liked his previous efforts then you know you’ll enjoy this. If not, then approach with caution.

Tokyo Tribe can be purchased on Blu-Ray in the UK now and was released by Eureka films.