Sunday, June 17, 2007

Chop Socky: Cinema Hong Kong

Since this was co-produced by IFC and released on DVD by Docudrama I'd expected something more, even despite the condescending title. And it is very mildly interesting though so sloppy and poorly researched that it really can't be recommended to anybody. Some points:

* Claim that first martial arts star was Wong Fei Hung but they don't make it clear this was a character and not an actor. (The clip is from a 1949 Kwan Tak Hing film.) Later the narrator says something about fighting style unchanged since the days of Wong as if it was a reference to a specific time - the best known Wong films were after the time he mentions.

* The section about HK films being edited in camera has clearly confused actual editing in camera with something else. Basically what they're talking about is shooting only specific shots instead of a lengthy one that's later edited but this is not editing in camera which clearly couldn't have been the technique for most of the scenes shown.

* The chronology is confused and the jumps in time periods means that, for instance, the impact of King Hu isn't as clear as it should be. Also, far too many clips from Hollywood films as if they're afraid the subject itself doesn't really deserve the attention. I think even a viewer who knew pretty much nothing about martial arts films would have picked up that Kill Bill Vol. 2 was a tribute.

* For some inexplicable reason they launch into a detailed plot synopsis of One-Armed Swordsman even though there aren't such descriptions for most other films and this one isn't such a landmark to deserve such a treatment. Just a further indication that the filmmakers didn't really absorb their material enough.

* John Woo credits some of his style to working in wuxia but the clip is from The Replacement Killers which can't really show his style since he was only one of four executive producers.

* Even though the film came out in 2003 it more or less stops in the 80s despite references to films later.

Monday, June 4, 2007

The Dregs of Surrealism

I hadn’t really intended to have a double feature of Arrabal’s J’irai Comme un Cheval Fou (1972) and Jodoworsky’s The Holy Mountain (1973) but I can’t claim it’s entirely an accident since after all I manage my own Netflix queue. My four-word review is the title of the post and it wasn’t until later that the connection of the two directors in the short-lived Panic Movement came up. (Actually “short-lived” seems generous since Panic was apparently just a name they applied to their activities for a year or two and was never any kind of actual movement.) Surrealism itself quickly became another ism and easily copied—there are people today still devoted to automatic writing, a technique with a period of usefulness that barely outlived a mayfly—but many of its deeper impulses have informed a century of art in all media. Arrabal and Jodoworsky probably don’t think of themselves as surrealist and that’s true enough though determining such designations is always a fool’s game. Both directors pulled from surrealism but also from a superficial understanding of Artaud and a typically 60s idea of epater le bourgeois that mostly consisted of nudity, body fluids, half-baked esoterica and hurting animals. I’m all for unmotivated weirdness but their work generally leaves just a bad aftertaste with nothing else to compensate.

I had seen all of Jodoworsky’s features except The Holy Mountain and Tusk but the latter still hasn’t appeared on DVD so I had to give the first a shot. The nicest thing that can be said of Jodoworsky is that he’s a complete and inhuman charlatan (see the documentary The Jodoworsky Constellation for proof and then wonder at the sad little fans he attracts). The surprise is that The Holy Mountain is partly entertaining though in the manner of a laughable heavy metal video; I half expected to hear Beavis and Butthead on the soundtrack. Portentous meaning piled upon meaning packed with the expected blasphemy, “shocking” events and misogyny means that the first half isn’t dull even though it’s almost completely free of any substance. And that’s at least merciful because in the second half when Jodoworsky starts trying to build some social critique based on the Tarot, alchemy and astrology, well, just stop snickering. Really, unless you’re somebody who thinks Genesis P-Orridge is a genius (and I have met such people) there’s nothing of the remotest interest in The Holy Mountain.

J’irai Comme un Cheval Fou manages the neat trick of being even less interesting. It does have a story of sorts: man suspected of murdering his mother hides in the desert, meets Nature Boy, has wild adventures that point out how Society represses our true selves. The message is hammered home over and over. It’s always interesting that people who make statements like this tend to be comfortable city dwellers (as you can see in the video interview with Arrabal). They’re sorta like Python characters: “Apart from sanitation, medicine, food, safer streets, art, shelter and stability, what has Society ever done for us?” Still, it’s less misogynist than Jodoworsky’s film and has noticably fewer animals harmed. Small victories, it's true.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Spider-Man 3

Spider-Man 3 echoes the same overkill and by-the-numbers action that we saw in X-Men 3. While we can blame Ratner for that latter, it’s harder to see what happened to Raimi. Too much studio interference? Incorrectly felt he needed to top fight sequences? Wanted to get everything into what’s reportedly his last Spider-Man film? Just lost interest? While Spider-Man 3 is easily the weakest of the three films I still enjoyed it and will watch again at some point though I thought the same about the others and still have yet to do so. But until then:

* Did somebody think more villains were better? The Osborne/Goblin stuff needed to be wrapped up after all the plot threads in the first two films (not that those threads needed to be there though I was out when Raimi called) but Sandman was an odd choice and Venom seems mainly due to fan requests, which didn’t include mine since I never really “got” the whole Venom-mania thing.

* One of the most threatening aspects of Venom is that due to the symbiosis he knows everything about Parker, something completely omitted here. (Though since Venom is saved for the final showdown there really isn’t much other chance to show this.) Also, the shifting aspect where the black costume became regular street clothes made sense for keeping it originally but also ignored. And why not use the Ultimate Spider-Man version of an experiment-gone-wrong instead of some random space crash?

* For that matter, why all the coincidences? The symbiote just happened to crash near Parker and nobody else (unless Spider-Man 4 is going to be about fighting an invasion of Venoms). It didn’t react with Parker until the most story-appropriate moment. Spider-Man goes to the crane accident which just happens to have his lab partner Gwen who just happens to be the girlfriend of his rival at work which said rival just happens to appear next to her father. She just happens to later be at the very expensive restaurant (on a lieutenant’s pay?).

* One of the worst miscalculations is the Goblin showing up to help Spider-Man at the finale. This is completely set-up and then ignored until just the “right” moment for the Goblin to appear except what’s the point? We all know he’s coming. Raimi, my man, are you listening? We all know he’s coming. Either have him on site from the start or do some Griffith-ian cross-cutting as he tries to reach the scene. Yeah, Goblin II as the Klan, that’s the way to America’s heart.

* And for that matter why did the butler choose that particular moment to come clean? It would only take a short shot of him overhearing the conversation with Spider-Man to motivate this.

* When Parker removes the black costume and it falls on Brock did he not go to look for it? The scene ends with Brock screaming and jumping at the camera but what was Parker doing? Shaking his hands together and wondering whether he wanted pizza or a burger?

* What happened to the Sandman? OK, he’s robbing to get money for his daughter (who I guess really gets nothing in the end) but there’s no explanation for why he becomes a more aggressive bad guy. Did Venom sweet talk him? Momentary insanity? What? In the comics he’s even an honorary Avenger (or was anyway).

* Speaking of Sandman, what’s up with that dangerous experimental technology completely open and apparently guarded only by a regular chainlink fence? Did the police just think Marko was dead and didn’t bother to seal off the area? Just think of the possibility for a CSI: NY cameo.

* The whole forgiveness/redemption thing is out of place (not to mention that it’d be darn near impossible to top Babylon 5 if only because B5 questioned the entire concept of forgiveness). It comes across as the screenwriters not being able to think of any way to defeat Sandman--here’s a hint: four decades of comic books--or just a continuation of the otherwise quickly forgotten attempt to make him “sympathetic”.