More Asian Cinema, a.k.a. Tony Leung Chiu-Wai is superhuman (minor spoilers)

So I’ve been watching lots of Asian cinema recently. Not sure why it’s been such a heavy concentration lately. But there you go.  Here’s a quick run down:

Hard Boiled. Always heard it was an action masterpiece, so I decided I better watch it. The film is directed by John Woo and stars Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. Chow Yun-Fat’s character is a trigger happy cop nick-named Tequila whose parter gets killed during the investigation of Triad gun runners. In the course of the film he hooks up with Tony Leung Chiu-Wai’s character, an undercover cop named Alan, who’s in deep with the gun-running underground. That’s the setup, and I don’t plan to give another single thing away, because if you like action films, you have to watch this movie. John Woo demonstrates how it’s done. But kick-butt action scenes aside, what really works about this movie is Alan. Undercover work hasn’t been kind to him. He’s a guy who’s had to compromise everything he stands for to sell his cover. And it isn’t pretty. Hard Boiled is an action extravaganza with a substantial body count. But it’s also the story of a guy who got in deeper than he would have liked, and the toll it takes on him.

Hey, it's Tony Leung Chiu-Wai again!

In the Mood for Love. Not an action film. Quite the reverse. Directed by Wong Kar-wai and starring Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai (yes) this film is set in Hong Kong in the 1960’s. The movie follows a romance that blooms awkwardly and a bit painfully after the two main characters discover their spouses are having an affair. Together. They vow never to behave like their cheating spouses, and even as they fall in love with each other, keep their relationship chaste. What I loved most about this movie was how it’s shot. Kar-wai shoots the film so that we end up being voyeurs, peering at them from inside a closet, or through a door. I felt as if I was viewing something personal and private, and it connected me to the characters, while at the same time heightening my discomfort over their awkward situation. The actors contribute an achingly subtle and understated performance, which combined with a stunning soundtrack amount to a beautiful film that explores the often complicated and dissonant relationship between the emotion of love and the social institution of marriage.

Lust, Caution. I meant to see this film when it came out, because I heart Ang Lee. But I was, frankly, stupid, and I decided to wait to get the DVD because I got wind of some less than stellar reviews. Pish Posh. That usually does not stop me, and I don’t know why it did in this instance. At any rate, I watched it recently and was bowled over by how completely entranced I was watching this film. Set in China during the Japanese occupation, the larger plot of the film follows a resistance cell as they plot to assassinate a high-ranking official in the collaborationist government. We follow this story through Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei), a young college student who becomes involved with the resistance. She is to lure the target, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, surprise!) to an unguarded location where the resistance can kill him. Easier said then done. In the course of infiltrating Mr. Yee’s home, we watch Chia Chi (now posing as “Mrs. Mak) descend deeper and deeper into a troubling relationship with Mr. Yee. And while Lust, Caution is, on the surface, a film about espionage and resistance, it is also about the transformation? destruction? liberation? of Chia Chi. Which is it? Is it all three? I will be adding this film to my DVD collection. I hardly noticed the long running time (although most negative reviews gripe about it) and highly recommend the film.

Grave of the Fireflies. This film is Japanese, and does not star Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. But that’s okay! All I have to say about this film is: Just see this movie. Show it to your kids. It’s heartbreakingly sad, but its intensely personal portrayal of the horrors of war make it a film everyone should watch. Written and directed by Isao Takahata, adapted from the semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, Grave of the Fireflies is an animated tale about a young boy and his sister who are left to fend for themselves after their town is firebombed in a WWII air raid. The animation is not as stylized as most anime, favoring more realistic renditions of people and the environment. The animation adds a strange realism to depictions of bombers flying overhead, dropping incendiaries on various towns. Perhaps it’s because seeing that kind of thing for the first time must seem a bit unreal. So the animation capitalizes on that fact, and every time I saw a shot of the bombers flying over head, I felt fear, and even found myself wondering what it would feel like to see bombers flying over Salem. That’s not something a film has ever made me stop and think about. This film is kind of a kick in the chest. On the one hand you watch this young boy (Seita) looking after his little sister (Setsuko) and you get what love is. The film is a tear-jerker for sure, but there are a lot of moments where the film will make you feel genuine happiness and overwhelming joy. On the other hand it takes place during a war. A nasty one. And on a large scale, we all know why war sucks. But it’s the small scale consequences of war that are easy to forget, and sometimes, when faced with them, the hardest to bear. Because on a small scale war isn’t about the ideologies that that nations fight over. It’s about the people who are trying to survive. So add this film to your Netflix queue. You’ll blow through a lot of tissues watching the film, but in the end you’ll probably be glad you did.

And finally, we don’t talk about television on this blog as a rule, but since this is a post about all the Asian stuff I’ve been watching lately, I might as well give a short mention to Samurai Champloo (roughly meaning Samurai Mash-up). It’s a 26 episode anime series written and directed by Shinichiro Watanabe, who also directed the anime hit Cowboy Bebop. It follows a young woman who, after saving a reserved ronin (Jin) and a extroverted loose cannon (Mugen) from execution, presses them into helping her find a samurai who smells of sunflowers. So far it’s pretty hilarious and has had some great fight scenes. Although I usually recommend Cowboy Bebop or Wolf’s Rain to people who want to try a little anime, I think Samurai Champloo would be a good starting point as well. Like Cowboy Bebop, the characters are fun and the soundtrack is always great!

Coming up: 2046, a sequel to In the Mood for Love.  I hear it features time travel, which I would normally be into, but find strange since In the Mood for Love did not feature any such sci-fi mainstays. But Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, that stud of Chinese film, reprises his role. He is pretty dreamy. And a damn fine actor. So that’s a big plus. We’ll see how it goes. ;-) Until next time!

Star Wars: The Clone Wars = Big FUN!! **minor spoilers**

Official Clone Wars 1-sheet

Official Clone Wars 1-sheet

I’m a bit of a Star Wars nerd. To illustrate this point, I’m going to share a picture of myself with you. It’s clear at the end of this post. Enjoy.

I was, therefore, delighted that a Star Wars film was coming out this summer. Now, I need to characterize myself, because Star Wars fans fall into a lot of different camps re: all Star Wars material outside the original trilogy. Prequels. Overall, they were completely terrible. The scripts were bad, the acting was bad. They were a complete train wreck. But I still enjoyed them quite a bit, despite all the flaws. The only one I really don’t care for is Attack of the Clones, but even in that film I enjoy the fight scenes and if it’s on, I will watch it. So I have a love/hate relationship with them. I very much enjoyed the CN animated shorts. I loved the stories and the animation style. So when I heard we were going to get a full-length film that would launch a TV series, I was pretty stoked.

I was a touch nervous about it, because I wasn’t completely sold on the animation style, probably because I so unreservedly loved the style of the first CN cartoons. Also, the first trailer didn’t wow me. Still, I had

Perfect! Right?

Perfect! Right?

hopes that we’d get a good Star Wars movie this summer.

And you know what? We did. It’s freakin’ awesome! The thing I love the most about this movie is that it’s just unadulterated fun. It’s not particularly mature. In fact, I think a lot of people are going to absolutely hate this film for exactly that reason. There’s plenty of slapstick humor, which I guess maybe would be annoying except for the fact that it’s really funny. But if you look at Star Wars as a whole, we started out with this trilogy about a farm boy from nowhere who realizes his destiny and saves the galaxy from the oppressive empire all while redeeming his evil father. It’s a beautiful story about one person making a difference, about taking a stand, about redemption. The next trilogy is not beautiful. We go back in time to see an innocent child grow up and be corrupted and destroyed. Not very light hearted. Not hopeful. Bleak. Depressing. Ugly.

And that’s why I love this film. Because I know what happens to Anakin Skywalker. And the prequels didn’t do much to make me feel for him or sympathize with him. But in this film he’s just a Jedi Knight doing his job. He doesn’t spend the entire film tortured by his demons and we don’t see him being horribly manipulated. He’s the Jedi Knight his son heard tales of. He’s the hero who was “killed” by Darth Vader. And you can have hope for him and be happy for him even though you know how it ends. And it’s about time, because in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith it was pretty hard to get behind this kid. He was petulant and whiny, and entitled, and not someone you’d be all that sad or surprised to see fall. For me, this movie’s success is that while I was enjoying the fight scenes and laughing at the slapstick humor, and for once, really enjoying Anakin Skywalker as a Jedi, in the back of my mind I know how it all ends. Sure, most of the jokes are targeted at 10 year olds and the newest addition to the Star Wars universe is a kid. Somehow it worked. It lightened the darkness of what came before and what is to follow.

A few plot and character spoilers here, so if you want to remain spoiler free, skip to the next paragraph. Plotwise, it’s pretty straightforward Star Wars. Basically the Jedi need to help Jabba the Hutt recover his kidnapped son, a favor he’ll repay by granting the Republic’s war and supply ships safe passage through the outer rim. But there’s always more than meets the eye when Palpatine’s in the mix. And I’ll leave it at that. It’s a simple plot overall. But the story was such that we got to see some of our favorite Star Wars characters in action, such as Jabba, and some of our favorite clone commanders. Commander Cody is present throughout. And while I enjoyed every second with Jabba and his disgusting, yet cute offspring, we meet a new Hutt who I really just couldn’t stand at all. He’s basically Jabba’s stereotypically flamboyant, gay, drag-queen uncle who sounds a lot like Eric Cartman. I guess I have to acknowledge that Cartman is a touch Huttesque. At least when it comes to chins. But I’m wondering what we’re going for here with this effeminate dandy of a Hutt who lives in decadence on Coruscant. He wasn’t particularly funny. Just irritating. Maybe they just wanted to give Jabba a creepy drag-queen uncle? Because he is creepy. And not entirely because of his make-up and feathers.  Also, he spoke English. LAME! Totally LAME. I have no idea where such a ridiculous character could have come from. I mean, seriously. You’re going to take a set of stereotypes that are usually applied (not always kindly) to gay men, and put them on a Hutt? Really? Thoughts on this topic welcome.

Note the curved body and additional chin

Note the curved body and additional chin

There were a few things that made me scratch my head a little. The first was when we got the traditional “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” after which one expects John Williams’ Star Wars theme to come blaring through the speakers. Well that didn’t quite happen the way it was supposed to. Sigh. And there was no crawl. Maybe I’m being an old fart about that, but to me, that’s how a Star Wars film starts. And it was jarring to say the least. Also, the score overall gave me pause. It’s not Star Wars music. Which is fine, I guess. I think for the most part, while some of it was jarring at first, it grew on me, and I could see that maybe the music was appropriate, just not what I’m accustomed to when watching Jedi Knights kick butt. In one case, however, I thought it didn’t fit at all. I’m interested to see what others think of the score.

Also, I thought the dialog was a little bit forced in the beginning, for two characters in particular. The problem seemed to vanish, but it seemed like Henry Gilroy might have been pushing the characters a little bit too hard instead of letting us get to know them a little more organically. Although some of that could have been a function of the story–that these characters are uncomfortable with each other and hence trying too hard. Either way, as I watched that part of the film, I felt the writer’s presence saying, “THIS CHARACTER IS IMPULSIVE AND DOES NOT RESPOND WELL TO AUTHORITY.” But that problem did not last through the whole film, so it’s not a huge gripe.

A word about the animation. I thought it really served the battle scenes where you’re looking at droids battle clones, but the lightsaber scenes were not as fluid as they should have been. The characters seemed to have stiff joints or something. Also, when the characters were standing still, they looked like they were carved from wood, or maybe made of clay. That really bugged me at first, but by the end I’d gotten to kind of like it. My one hope is that for the TV show, the lightsaber battles will be improved upon.

So, to sum up, by no means is the film perfect. There’s a lot in it that will actually grate on Star Wars fans. But like I said, after all the doom and gloom of the prequels, I connected with the lightness of it all. You kind of have to have seen all the prequels to get the most out of what’s going on, but I think the film will still be enjoyable on its own for most non-Star Wars folks. It’s a great family flick–the kids will love it. And even if you’re old and cranky (like me) it’s a refreshing, fun Star Wars film, well worth the $8. Despite its flaws, I will probably see it multiple times, and I’m looking forward to the TV show. So even if you thought about seeing it but decided not to, for whatever reason, think again! Great action, lots of laughs, and a rare glimpse at some of our favorite Star Wars characters.

Oh. As promised. A picture of me:

Hoth Snowtrooper sporting shotgun. Vader's finest. Oh yeah.

Hoth Snowtrooper sporting shotgun.

Bonus points to anyone who can spot the two serious errors in my costume. Other than carrying a shotgun.

I Heart Robots

**This post contains minor spoilers**

I have been excited about the newest installment in the Disney/Pixar juggernaut for about a year. Last June, my theater opened Ratatouille, Brad Bird’s masterpiece about a rat who wants to be a chef. A preview of WALL-E came attached to Reel 1 of that film, and because Ratatouille played at the theater for seven weeks, I saw it at least 100 times. Now, as the title of this post suggests, I go gaga for all things robotic, cybernetic, artificially intelligent and so on. This might explain my undying affection for Darth Vader and Cylons…although not Commander Data for some reason. Too pasty perhaps? I digress.

So, I spent the whole year more or less wound up about WALL-E. I mean, he’s too cute right? This robot’s got personality, and even though he’s a big hunk of metal, he’s easy to love.

Which, for a movie like this, is a must. There isn’t much dialogue, so connecting with these robotic characters relies heavily the audience interpreting their body language. Which brings me to point number one about this film. The animation is mind-blowing. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but the wide shots of the abandoned Earth are breathtaking, both visually and emotionally. And the details of WALL-E’s life on Earth are so meticulously crafted in the script and executed in the animation, that it’s impossible not to feel like this more or less mute robot is an individual with a personality. Enter EVE, the love interest of the story. EVE is sleek, rounded, and, well…deadly. Of course, it’s love at first sight.

Which brings me to my only gripe about the film, which is actually pretty similar to my main gripe over one of Pixar’s other films, Monsters, Inc. Why so heterosexist? I didn’t notice this at first, but my wife mentioned it, and she’s right. This is a story about robots. Do they have to be a boy and a girl? Could they not be a touch more androgynous? Robots, in the WALL-E universe anyway, don’t need to exchange genetic material to reproduce. Why do they need a sex? I suppose that a lot of humans are only in their comfort zone when boys and girls are in love, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing. I’m not suggesting a film about blatantly gay robots (although that would be awesome!) but perhaps in a film about robots in love, it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing to suggest that love comes in more than one variety. Monster’s, Inc. presented a similar quandry–maybe not heterosexism so much as just sexism. In a film in which the male main characters are a giant technicolor yeti and a green walking eyeball, the female monster is a svelte, busty, sex pot. So even female monsters are subjected to impossible standards of beauty. Remember that Boo. Remember that.

Moving on.

The strength of this movie is that it’s way more than eye candy. I think most viewers have come to expect this of Pixar. And I should note here that some of my favorite films are from Pixar, but I don’t love everything they’ve done. Cars was pretty limp for me. And I wasn’t as bowled over by Toy Story as the rest of the world seemed to be. Finding Nemo was a good film, but didn’t resonate with me they way Brad Bird’s contributions to Pixar’s oeuvre have. So I don’t go into a Pixar film expecting greatness. Because while the animation is always outstanding, not all of the stories have been. And they set the bar pretty high with last year’s smash hit Ratatouille. So WALL-E was poised to take quite a fall if it wasn’t a grand slam.

But it is. At it’s heart, this film about robots is about making human connections, and how existence is vacant without them. Of course the film examines this on an individual scale through the characters of WALL-E and EVE, but it also expands outwards and looks at the remainder of humanity, whose connections to one another have vanished as robots tend their every need and whose connection to home, to Earth, has been severed as well. So the film asks us, what happens when we lose our connection to our home? What happens when we are no longer able to engage with our fellow human beings? What happens when we absolve ourselves of our responsibilities to our planet and to one another? The answer in the film is extreme, but it’s worth thinking about.

And while the movie makes you think, it also acknowledges its space opera heritage usually in hilarious fashion. Sigourney Weaver voices the ship’s computer as a shout out to Alien and Aliens (two of the best films ever made), and AUTO, the ship’s auto pilot celebrates everyone’s favorite overbearing AI, HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. I don’t want to give too much away, but every sci-fi fan should see this film. Sci-fi imagines our future, specifically influenced by science and technology, and even though WALL-E is a G rated cartoon, it’s also excellent sci-fi.

A few people I’ve talked to have said that they didn’t think kids would enjoy this film–that it was too adult, too hard to follow–that without dialogue, kids wouldn’t get it. But the whole point of WALL-E is that connecting with other people and with the world at large is about paying attention–being engaged. And if viewers are engaged, regardless of their age, they’ll get it. Because the language of this film is the primal and universally understood language of physical expression. And kids get that. And I’m not just speculating here. Nearly 1000 kids have seen WALL-E since it opened at my theater. And judging by their smiling faces and frequent promises to return for a second viewing, they’re loving it!