Thursday, March 22, 2007

Assorted capsule reviews

I'm hard at it, writing the follow-up volume to Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves, my samurai film book, so I'm behind on my blogging. Here are some films I've seen recently. Bare with me ...

Broken Lance
Edward Dmyrtyk borrows from King Lear, but not nearly enough to make this horse opera rise above the level of, well, horse opera. Spencer Tracy's hot-headed cattle baron and his sons (male versions of Regan, Goneril and Cordelia plus Earl Holliman as a superfluous, dimwitted fourth brother) remain flat western stock characters throughout and the film falls in upon itself from the sheer weight of its mundane MGM melodrama.

The Battle of Algiers
This electrifying cinema verite-style depiction of the struggle against French colonialism in 1950s Algiers is an eye-opening experience for anyone trying to make sense of headlines coming out of Iraq, Afghanistan or Israel -- and it was released 40 years ago! A virtual textbook on revolution, insurrectionary violence, and police state retaliation, Battle of Algiers is shockingly frank in its depiction of shootings, bombings and torture (on both sides), taking a cold, hard look at foreign occupation and what happens when the occupied decide enough is enough.

Modesty Blaise
Monica Vitti, Terrence Stamp, Dirk Bogarde, psychedelic 60s style and decor, exciting European locations and camped-up crime capers -- a home run, right? At first yes, but Joseph Losey is a bit out of his depth here, and the demands of a demented action romp/comic book adaptation begin to seriously tax his abilities in the third act, by which time the energy has all but dissipated and the film limps through what should have been a thrilling climax (a la Danger Diabolik). Perhaps Losey should have stuck to low-key psychodramas and left this one to Mario Bava?

Festival of Swordsmen
Samurai action and melodrama blend in this 1961 Toei offering featuring Ryutaro Otomo and Tomisaburo Wakayama as rivals who compete with swords as well as their hearts -- they're both in love with (and loved by) the same woman. There's also a tough jujitsu babe/cross-dressing princess that's got her eye on Otomo plus a whole slew of martial artists converging on Tokyo for a big competition before the Shogun. Everyone wears a ton of makeup and there's a general MGM feel, compared with the more gritty Daiei chambara of the same period (think Warners). Conventional yet solid samurai entertainment.

G.I. Samurai
It's a sprawling Sonny Chiba/Haruki Kadokawa thing, very big, very epic (142 minutes). Basically you've got The Chiba and his men going up against Sengoku-jidai warlords like Shingen Takeda with a tank, an APC and a bunch of guns, grenades and mortars. Of course he gets his ASS KICKED by his kickass forebears. Not bad, but the whole thing is awash in horrendous 70's sensitive singer-songwriter-type music: Lots of inappropriate ballads pouring like honey over scenes of carnage, that sort of thing. But over all, quite entertaining, and an interesting cultural take on Japan's martial history.

Friday, March 2, 2007

30th Portland Intl. Film Festival Pt. 2

While I enjoyed The Host (2006) for the most part, it was thin on the ground, story-wise. For a film like this, you need more characters, need to get some sub-plots to cross-cut to. Going back and forth between the vigilant family (widowed dad, loser son, estranged son, plucky Olympic archer daughter) and the girl in the monster's lair just got tedious after awhile. Why not add something like, I don't know, an intrepid father and son team on their own mission to save the girl? Old dad is a scientist friend of the other dad, the son a heroic love interest for the girl's archer aunt, played by Bae Doo-na (South Korea's Meg Ryan -- she was in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance). Or you could always have a team of commandos who get picked off one by one in the tunnels; tired, yes, but I bet a Korean director could get a lot more mileage out of such a well-worn trope and find some new and hideous ways to dispatch the obnoxious yet hapless team of macho jerkoffs. Anyway, you see what I'm saying -- the film needed to have more going on. But I read an interview with the director and he said the film was first and foremost a family drama, so I guess he wanted to keep the focus on them. And the monster is fantastic.

Always great to see Song Kang-ho, and he did a great job as usual. His specialty seems to be lovable losers. I just got the DVD and it was better the second time around, so perhaps you should disregard everything I've said ...