Friday, 27 April 2018
In terms of the ever-iterative Marvel Cinematic Universe, Avengers: Infinity War is refreshingly messy. Previous instalments in the long-running, never-ending franchise exhibit a specific kind of tidiness, one strangely ill-suited to the kind of long-form storytelling Disney are determined to drip-feed. This neatness is usually expressed in how villain characters are organised. They're one and done by design, typically a fractured mirror of whichever superhero is propping up the episode, spectacularly erased during the finale. The only notable foe to stand outside this trend is Tom Hiddleston's Loki, a threat that has recurred so often he's been massaged into an aggro side-kick for his long-suffering brother. Dilute venom played for laughs.
Previous instalment Black Panther invoked dimensionality by actually giving the feature enemy some serious breathing room. Killmonger was granted an interior perspective that demanded, and received, the film's full focus. He wasn't treated as target, time was apportioned to understanding who he was and why he behaved like he did. Infinity War obviously learned the right lessons from Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole because Thanos goes over. Immediately. From a writing perspective it's easy to see why The Mad Titan, and Killmonger for that matter, demand so much attention. They're the characters with a quest, the ones actually pursuing something. Everyone else is just reacting.
Thanos is sadness and might, a strange Wagnerian lump thrashing around the universe, dominating the competition. Josh Brolin's delivery is grim and determined, a fanatic that acts out of reflex rather than passion. The performance and how the character impacts on the film is reminiscent of Ben Affleck's role in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Another burly, impossibly powerful fuck-up who simply cannot be stopped. It's fascinating how much more exciting that is to watch than another one-mode do-gooder doing good. Both films propose a barrel chest chasing calamity. It's fun to just sit back and watch them achieve it. Thanos even has a positive effect on the general rhythms of your typical Marvel scene. The snide, Whedon brand humour usually employed to ease some wild transitions (thankfully) dries up around Big Purple. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely allowing their monster to prompt fear and desperation rather than ridicule.
Wednesday, 25 April 2018
On paper, Lynne Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here seems plotted to allow for bursts of super-Dad wish-fulfilment. Joaquin Phoenix's Joe has both the credentials and opportunity to wield that kind of power - he's a combat veteran and an ex-domestic intelligence agent currently working as an off-the-books rescue service for trafficked children. This promise of mob satisfaction is stressed again in how Phoenix is presented for the screen. His Joe is depicted as a thick, towering man, equipped with mauling hands and a pitiless hammer, desperate to get at the abusers his job propels him towards.
The film denies the release offered by prolonged bloody violence though, obscuring the act either through CCTV feeds that lag behind Joe's sloping carnage or simply by the decision to focus elsewhere at crucial moments. Ramsay isn't interested in how a tortured man inflicts himself on the world, the events of the film are likewise not proposed or communicated in terms of catharsis either. Joe's already broken. No amount of pulverising will fix him. The writer-director's focus is reflective rather than deflective then. A sharp, elliptical continuity constructed out of a lifetime of internalised trauma and the flawed, inadequate responses Joe has employed to placate himself.
Throughout You Were Never Really Here a nagging buzz pours out of Joe. He is restless and artificially animated, propped up by non-prescription medication and a dwindling sense of duty. His fractured sense of the present recalls Lee Marvin's Walker muddling through his own collapsing reality in John Boorman's Point Blank, while the infrequent sound of crunchy, non-diegetic afterburners brings Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell's Performance to mind. All three films are united in their examination of male identities with symbiotic, big-screen friendly, relationships to violence. You Were Never Really Here depicts a chasm in Joe, an essential incompatibility with life outside of the mission he has imposed upon himself.
Monday, 23 April 2018
Saturday, 21 April 2018
John Woo's last American film (to date) raids a Philip K Dick short story for a hook and precious little else. Paycheck, like basically every other substandard Dick adaptation (and most of the really good ones), is only interested in the his knack for inciting incidents, refusing to press on into the author's realm of compromised people and how they make peace with their dystopias. Paycheck is, above all else, a holiday season action film. Anxiety exists to be conquered rather than accepted.
Ben Affleck plays Michael Jennings, a brilliant engineer who deconstructs bleeding edge gadgets for the purpose of industrial espionage. Since his work is legally suspect, Jennings is subject to futuristic non-disclosure agreements that involve his memories being zapped out of his brain upon completion of a job. Having finished his latest black out assignment, Jennings expects to be sitting on millions. Instead, during a chatty debrief, he discovers his pre-wipe self traded in his stock options for a manila envelope full of cheap knick-knacks and trinkets.
Paycheck's sci-fi stupor allows Woo to scratch his Hitchcock itch, in particular the bewildered chase central to North by Northwest. A well-dressed but low energy Affleck stands in for Cary Grant, the amnesia forced onto his Jennings simulating Roger Thornhill's essential cluelessness. Woo and screenwriter Dean Georgaris pursue a similar kind of uncompromised, inexpert heroism for their lead character too. Paycheck features precious little gunplay, Jennings preferring to scheme his way out of dangerous situations. It's a novel tact for such an accomplished action director but, in practice, it's a compromise too far. By this point Woo had been thoroughly ironed out by la-la land. The overt Christian imagery that characterised films like The Killer had been reduced to a tick involving a dove; likewise an editing style that found poignancy in chaos has here been transformed into a stuttering series of Avid burps.
Friday, 20 April 2018
Thursday, 19 April 2018
Tuesday, 17 April 2018
Following their problems shepherding A Better Tomorrow's tumultuous sequel to the screen, Tsui Hark and John Woo went their separate ways. Despite this inability to cooperate on further entries in their debonair gangster series, both filmmakers remained committed to scrutinising the events that forged their heroes. Woo had pitched a prequel episode that used the Vietnam War as a testing ground that would allow the director to reexamine these characters away from their own, conquered, urban arenas, while simultaneously using a besieged city to illustrate the stresses of the then-impending Hong Kong handover. After the split Woo kept his script but lost his usual gunslingers, landing at Golden Princess before turning in the incredible but financially unsuccessful Bullet in the Head.
Hark raced ahead with his own prelude, beating Woo to a cinema release. The former producer retaining, not only the big ticket branding, but the films' breakout star as well. Rather than stick with New York hardman Ken as a way to keep Chow Yun-Fat in the franchise, inheritor director Hark rewinds the clock for an instalment that takes place before Mark has even had the chance to pall up with Ti Lung's solemn hood. Set in 1974, A Better Tomorrow III follows Mark as he jets back and forth between Hong Kong and Vietnam, attempting to uproot his nearest and dearest before Saigon falls. Since Mark is still wet behind the ears, the role of ice cold badass falls to Anita Mui's Kit, a pleasant twist in a series where women typically get very little to do other than fret.
Kit, a gunrunner with shady government connections, acts as both a love interest and a teacher for Mark, slowly helping him build the persona that will one-day allow him to unite the Sung brothers and vanquish dozens of henchmen. Hazy, idealised interludes depict Kit instructing Mark how to dead-eye glass bottles; she even gifts him his trademark duster. Piece by piece, the Mark Gor we know takes shape. Although the film never explicitly comments on it, it's clear that Kit is building herself a perfect partner - an equal she can have further adventures with. As the film rolls on it is eventually revealed that Kit isn't pulling these traits out of thin air, she is extrapolating and adjusting Mark's new super identity based on her memories of a former lover and present-day threat, played by Saburo Tokito.
For a brief moment hints of Vertigo start to creep into A Better Tomorrow III. Anita Mui as a two-fisted Scottie Ferguson, needling and cajoling a handsome prospect until he fits a pre-established idea of a boyfriend. Unfortunately Hark isn't particularly interested in this note. Mark never confronts Kit about the similarity and Tokito's Tanaka never gloats. The ex is simply an obstacle for our hero to overcome. Hark's film also suffers following the chopped-up, elegiac chaos of Woo's duo. In both of his A Better Tomorrow films, John Woo used slow motion as a way to accentuate the moments in which his characters made decisions or took decisive action. Slow, dreamy movements, often followed by a whiplash snap back to harsh, mutilated reality. By comparison, Hark overcranks simply to show us how cool it is when the barrel of a gun is swept from one side of the frame to the other.
Friday, 6 April 2018
Tuesday, 3 April 2018
Sunday, 1 April 2018
As close as you're going to get to a sweaty, malarial cannibal movie from John Woo. Heroes Shed No Tears follows an all-action squad of well-equipped badasses as they escort a Golden Triangle crime boss out of the jungle to face prosecution. Like the aforementioned man-eater exploitation films, Heroes throbs with a real sense of lawlessness, beyond even the usual intensity associated with the Hong Kong film industry's rough-and-ready approach to health and safety. Civilians are butchered and beheaded by chattering enemy soldiers, partly to establish their strength, but also to puncture the overwhelming boredom of their checkpoint billet. Our heroes just shrug.
When situations (not to mention foliage) allow, Woo exacerbates this unease with low, prowling camera angles that zone in and out on the film's exhausted soldiers like a big cat looking for a meal. Wildly improbable and cursed with a wandering, discursive plot, Heroes was thrown together to complete one of Woo's pre-fame contractual obligations then expected to rot on a shelf due to its lack of bankable star power. Shot as The Sunset Warriors, the film was eventually released packaged with a few scenes of staid nudity added after the fact and a new, romantic title to cash in on the success of the director's chivalrous, stratospheric A Better Tomorrow. Despite Golden Harvest's trepidation, lead action figure Eddy Ko does have a memorable look - blazing, emotionless eyes that shine through oozing trauma and the kind of rigid, frozen features usually seen in a Japanese seizure comic.
Unfortunately Ko just doesn't move like a Chow Yun Fat. Likewise, the film's various weapons do not registers as mechanical extensions of the actor's body. Indeed his marksmanship acting resembles a child playacting as a commando, painting the world with his expulsive, never-ending gunfire. Thankfully Heroes isn't all empty calories, although the film's few diversions are probably best appreciated as nebulous examples of themes and concepts that Woo would explore in his later, better films. Heroes contains both the overt, Christian injury imagery that would define The Killer's climax as well as the idea that war zones act as a catalyst for the kind of selfish, split-second decisions that pulse through Bullet in the Head.