1987 / Richard Donner > They don’t make ‘em like this anymore: An 80′s buddy cop actioner with an underlying sense of humor that pervades even the most serious of moments. As such, while Lethal Weapon is damn violent, it’s also damn charming to watch Mel Gibson and Danny Glover interact and build their relationship against a backdrop of family ties, Los Angeles prostitutes and bad Christmas turkeys. We also get to witness Gary Busey’s Mr. Joshua, a villainous caricature who finds ways to progress the plot due to a dire need to impress his big, bad boss. It doesn’t always make much sense, but it works—even if it’s pretty thin.
2014 / Joe & Anthony Russo > You’ve done it, Marvel: You’ve finally taken your audience for granted. In the post-The Dark Knight world of comic superhero films, we, as an audience, have become increasingly forgiving in the hopes that the major studios will continue to follow through in their promise to actually build plausible storylines, that we won’t be insulted by constant deus ex machina plot progressions and 180° character transformations. While The Avengers did quite a bit to strengthen our hope, Captain America: The Winter Soldier has ripped the concrete off that foundation.
At this point in time, Marvel has the global audience by its neck. It cannot fail because we’ve been brainwashed to believe they can do no wrong. The positivity surrounding this film is shocking as it’s a veiled attempt at capitalizing on a generic storyline utilizing tropes that would shame Steve Rogers. After nine films, the formula is not only getting stale but regressing. The thought of the The Winter Soldier’s plot co-existing with The Avengers feels absolutely ridiculous. And the pattern has become obvious: Hero finds devious plan much bigger than previous film and succeeds in taking care of the issue—but with one lingering problem that leads to the subsequent sequel. So, knowing that the third Captain America film is due in two years, couldn’t we get more of an emotional bridge? All we got were bread crumbs and no finalities. In this universe, everything seems to have a way of resurrecting—and while this may be a common theme in comics, it becomes a rather lame exercise at the cinema.
2013 / Brian Helgeland > There’s nothing worse in sports than mismanaging a prized asset. You can’t force positions on a player he’s physically not fit for, though some managers and coaches will outsmart themselves into thinking so. Once in a while, it may end up working, but statistically, success is an uncommon outcome. Therefore prized assets, especially those with significant potential, should be handled with care by the gentlest and more sophisticated of persons.
Jackie Robinson was a prized asset, a great ballplayer and an equally great man who struck one of the strongest chords in the fight for racial equality in American history. To think that he entered the big leagues over 15 years before Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech is to gain perspective on the importance of Robinson’s act. As such, his story, to be told for a wide audience, should have been handed to someone more capable than a director whose best effort was a Mel Gibson revenge flick.1 It’s painful to witness a story of such gravity butchered with generic characterization and amateur manipulation tactics. Too many by-the-line good vs. bad guy scenes undermine Robinson’s actual achievements for a feel good time, one that can be had only if you can force yourself to turn a blind eye to such shenanigans. In an era of heightened racism due to anti-Obama rhetoric and the wide net cast by social media, it’s important to remain objective about race relations rather than pigeonhole them into buckets to serve superficial purposes. Sadly, 42 sends Robinson back to the minors and loses out on an opportunity to educate contemporary youth about race history.
- Helgeland won an Oscar for writing L.A. Confidential, but surely Curtis Hanson’s tight directing is what ultimately kept it together. ↩
2012 / Gao Qunshu > Beijing vs. Shanghai is always a fascinating study. It’s as if the higher ups in the government decided to draw a line between fun and no fun, between smiling and being a square, between the West and the East. And no matter how adventurous the barrage of insects on a stick outside Tiananmen Square is compared to The Bund, Beijing still comes off as the cold, bitter and smoggy brother of its brethren.
Maybe that’s why Beijing Blues is so incising: the city that holds itself like a cold, locked down safe is cut in half. It shows its weaknesses through the eyes of a police captain like anyone and everyone. Sure, he has a certain conviction to do good, but that doesn’t keep him from telling his wife to stay in the kitchen. That’s not surprising, though: People excel in some areas and are weak in others, balancing out their humanness. And Beijing is, regardless of the attempts by its government superiors, a city of such humans.
Beijing Blues is a character study, both of the police captain Zhang as well as the city in question. In their humanity, there are details of self-preservation instilled: certain thieves, for example, only chase after non-Beijingers. And justice, it is said, should not come at the expense of breaking the law. The film undfolds as a police procedural though without the glamour of Johnnie To’s crime epics. Mood-wise, it’s hard to pinpoint it as a comedy or drama as some scenes are just plain ridiculous. Then again, a city as big as Beijing surely has such moments. With its near-sterile, calculative approach to storytelling, one could argue that this is a Jia Zhangke film with cops and robbers. It could even be dubbed an “action contemplative” film filled with long shots of the capital’s streets against the backdrop of local pop music, including a particularly gorgeous scene where Zhang is followed through the night by a man of mystery. Why is he chasing Zhang? He’s not violent, but he’s obsessive. It’s one of the film’s small mysteries that gets answered at just the right time.
Unique to the film is the cast list: When the credits roll, not only do we find out the names of the actors, but also their real-life professions. Our police captain is played by Zhang Lixian, a “well-known publisher.” Others include “a security guard in Shuangyushu Police Station in Beijing,” a “well-known TV presenter” and a “director and playwright of experimental modern drama.” In short, a cast of non-professionals filling out the roles of characters in the city they inhabit. Is this simply a love letter to Beijing? Maybe, but one thing’s for sure: Its victory at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards for Best Picture was both shocking and impressive. Though one would hope Beijing Blues was rewarded for its filmmaking, there’s undoubtedly a foundation of respect for getting the mainland capital to tear down its facade, showing its people to be like you and me, getting its humanity out in the open.
2012 / Johnnie To > Remember the self-righteous Hays Code1 that plagued American cinema for over thirty years from the mid-30s into the late 60s? It’s alive and well now in Hong Kong thanks to the Chinese censors. With a population of only 8 million, the island depends on the earnings from a vast mainland audience, but in order to get there, it needs to appease the bodies that control their morality. And after Felix Chong and Alan Mak of Infernal Affairs fame (the film that The Departed was based on) failed at the task with their corporate thriller Overheard, one had hopes that the great Johnnie To would succeed.
In following up Life Without Principle, his most mediocre crime film in years, there’s ample evidence in Drug War to show that he was hamstrung by fear of censorship and general working conditions in the mainland. Gone is the tragic beauty of his Election duology and The Mission, films that are gritty, bleak but fantastic cinema due to their absurd realism—films that also could not be made with Chinese funding.
Fear not, though, Drug War is still a To film, which means it’s better than most cinema out there. The master pumps out a film a year with ease at a quality that’s unheard of. Even at its weakest points, the film is enjoyable—just not great or relatively memorable. The worst may be that we only get a couple of complex set pieces, for which To is known and much admired, and the simpler of which stands out for its efficiency and impact. But don’t compare this to the incredibly curated Exiled or the cinematic extravagance of Vengeance. In its effort to keep the story streamlined for a wider audience, Drug War misses out on too many of To’s staples and ends up brazenly two-dimensional.
The best part is Sun Honglei playing a shape shifting police captain who charms multiple sides of the coin. It’s a common plot tactic made great by his acting. Sadly, it’s the kind of performance you’d wish to see in a more memorable film. Add in the fact that nearly every other character in the film feels absurdly stock, it also devalues the performance of the seemingly overachieving Louis Koo, who still hasn’t matched his coolness factor from Accident. Again, it’s hard to not wonder if the flatness of the characters is to match the black and white moral codes of the censors. It’s frustrating to see the work of a heralded director pushed to the edge for potentially commercial purposes, but if it’s going to lead to Election 3, biting the bullet may end up being a worthy venture.
- It ruined the ending of many great films, including the otherwise perfect Witness for the Prosecution from the incomparable Billy Wilder. ↩
2012 / Yoshida Daihachi > In many ways, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant is the best satirical parable about teenage high school life ever put on film. It worked because it was intensely believable even when it went overboard because the tiny details surrounding the giant “laughs” were real, based on experience. However, the fact that it had to utilize the Columbine Massacre was an unfortunate side effect of what it took to get the point across.1
In The Kirishima Thing, winner of the Japanese Academy Award for Best Picture, it seems a lot simpler: The captain of the high school’s volleyball team suddenly decides to quit. And all hell ensues.
It may strike the average viewer as an event of irrelevance, but in the microcosm of a small school, consider them losing LeBron James to not even free agency but boredom. Cleveland burned jerseys, but these kids are about to chow down on effigies. Someone symbolic to the culture of a world so miniature leaves and a hole is discovered inside that needs to be filled. But can it be filled? Who will fill it? And how will it affect the balance of that world?
People who follow a person like this, regardless of form and function—are they worthy of one’s attention? Are they, maybe, possibly, the contemporary definition of a zombie? Interestingly enough, that’s what our director is getting at. It may ultimately be a fairly shallow statement, but the so-called losers of this world know one simple thing: This is the world they have to live in. Talented people, such as our MacGuffin Kirishima, believe there is a way out of whatever hellhole they are stuck in. But others need to accept and move on. And often, it just so happens, that comes in the form of fiction—through literature or film or song—a solution outside reality that people insist on.
Those who feel predestined due to their beauty, athletics or traditional intelligence are the ones who are stuck. Those who know no other path are content in finding a way under the radar. It works not only as an analysis of high school social hierarchies but also class subcultures throughout the world. Like the boys and girls of mumblecore who whine about their middle class existence2 while still succeeding in life beyond the average Joe, it’s always the people who have options to rise up or fall who find themselves in states of jealousy or at odds with their paths. Those who have nowhere to go but up know the direction they must take.
2012 / Lou Ye > Nowhere do we struggle with the nature of good and evil more than when it comes to money. And in an ever-expanding Chinese economy, such dilemmas fly in the face at breakneck speed. So, it’s of little surprise that at the center of Lou Ye’s return to mainland filmmaking1 is the changing subculture of China where corruption and lust intersect to ruin lives, loves and families.
At its core, Mystery is a solid thriller about infidelity, with twists that are genuinely unexpected and satisfying as long as the viewer doesn’t venture into spoiler-filled reviews. What’s impressive—as noted by the film winning best screenplay as well as best picture at the latest Asian Film Awards—is its ability to subtly shift its emphasis from a blatant and obvious (if entertaining) genre film into a social statement.
The beautiful Hao Lei (of Summer Palace fame) stars as a well-off housewife who discovers that all is not proper in her seemingly ideal household, and that her husband may or may not be playing hooky with a girl of bountiful youth. And then the wheels fall off, resulting in an analysis of a curiously amoralistic character who is so not due to nature but rather her circumstances. Surrounding her are pawns of the landscape: A mother with an adorable son whose father seems perpetually absent. A spoiled, rich boy who believes that money buys apartments, fast cars, freedom and innocence. A mother who’s lost her daughter and wants someone to pay for the crime—maybe even literally. And a husband who, sitting next to his wonderful and loving wife, can look deep into her eyes and lie. But why does he lie? Because by all counts, he seems like a good man.
All is not what it seems in this new world of fancy coffee shops and haute shopping malls. But then again, one has to wonder how much of this is China, how much of this is globalization or capitalism, how much of this is the world changing around us. Isn’t this just human nature? Will we always find a way to please that part of us that wants to act on instinct and wantonness, ravaging an otherwise content life?
This is Lou Ye’s first film to premiere in China since he received a five year ban2 for screening the sexually explicit Summer Palace, capturing a dreamlike love affair against the backdrop of Tiananmen Square, at Cannes without the government’s permission. Here, his commentary isn’t focused on the government that has become a shell of itself. Instead, it’s about the country’s progression towards a market economy where an individual’s sense of freedom comes at the expense of a widening wealth gap. It’s a world where the rich sneak past the one-child policy and daughters are buried in cash—sometimes just to keep a little face.
2011 / Sion Sono > With Suicide Club and its mass schoolgirl suicides1, Sono exploded onto the international scene. But the problem that plagued that film has continued to persist: A potentially grand concept that don’t translate into a satisfactory cinematic experience. It’s not surprising that Cold Fish, my favorite of Sono’s, is less conceptual and more focused while still taking advantage of his directorial prowess. In contrast, Guilty of Romance is a desert of mediocrity with some oases of wonders sprinkled about.
At its gut, the film is trying to tell us something about the private nature of sexuality, and it starts off spectacularly with detectives discovering a murder victim whose body parts have alternatively been replaced by those of a life-size doll. Setting into motion character studies of three women, Guilty shines the most when we follow the path of a quiet housewife of a respected poet as she begins her road to self-discovery. Played by the gorgeous Megumi Kagurazaka2, her transformation is what will resonate the most with most viewers. The details of her everyday routine, its minor shifts followed by a scene of masterwork in front of a mirror sadly shows the film peaking in the first act. As often happens in Sono’s films, things derail in a manner that some would consider abstractly brilliant while others like myself just find frustrating to no end. Guilty of Romance’s triptych of female sexuality descends into a kind of madness that makes the analysis moot at the expense of a near-rudimentary thriller finale.
2012 / Derek Cianfrance > A generational crime saga back-ended by a coming-of-age story of discovery and loss, The Place Beyond the Pines is a confluence of genres that don’t often see each other at the cinema. And if you take into effect its headliners—current A-listers Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper—you’re in for a bigger shock considering the pace at which the film plays out. Unlike Cianfrance’s last effort, the painful-to-watch but ultimately impressive Blue Valentine1, Pines flows fairly smoothly, but it’s also not as snazzy as mainstream filmgoers would expect. It’s a slow burn (clocking in at almost 2.5 hours) that’s heavily dependent on meditating upon the past. The nature of forgiveness, a topic the Dardennes2 have nearly perfected, is at the forefront as we see fathers and sons come to terms with who they are. In fact, the film sets forth a “manly” proposition in defining the roles of sons through their paternal spirit at the expense of loving but ignored mothers. Whether you buy that premise or not, one thing that’ll stay with you is the performance of Dane DeHaan3, whose turn as a fatherless teenager will pour sympathy out of your guts.
2012 / Tigmanshu Dhulia > Bollywood continues to baffle: How can such amateur filmmaking be a critical darling? The fundamental problems of Paan Singh Tomar, a loose biopic of an army-athlete-turned-bandit, exist regardless of nationality or historical context. The barrage of constant, heavy musical cues, awkward cuts with rough pacing and obsessive use of shots that have no relevance all take away from the central story. On top of these, a solid performance by a miscast Irffan Khan is negated by shoddy character development that lacks consistent direction. (Do we ever really care about him?) And all of this is made worse by downright terrible performances by minor actors. Neither budgetary constraints nor lack of technical expertise are excuses for such a subpar production.
India has done well not to select Paan Singh Tomar as their entry into the Oscars for 2013. (Barfi! deserves it considerably more, and the quality difference between the two films are day and night.) The problem, however, persists: Bollywood moviegoers are too easily amazed by “new” cinema their country produces, even if similar cinema has been done before better elsewhere. And while being derivative isn’t necessarily a negative as long as proper due is given and quality is controlled, praising mediocrity devalues the perception of the whole industry.