Sunday, April 26, 2015

Film Review: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"
**** (out of ****)

Fifteen years after Ang Lee's martial arts film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000) was released it still manages to tell an amazing story and dazzle us with its choreography.

When I first saw "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" in theaters I was seventeen years old. At the time I was very impressed with the movie. I remembered it being an epic love story. Yes, the fighting scenes were the best I had ever seen, at that point in my life, but, it was the human emotion which really struck me at the time.

I had not seen Ang Lee's film since that time. One day, after buying the movie on DVD, I decided to sit down and watch it again. Would the movie still be able to hold up after a second viewing? Was my memory playing tricks on me? Was "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" worthy of all the critical and box-office attention it received upon initial release?

As I watched the movie again I enjoyed it but for some reason I was no longer impressed by the choreography. The sword fights, which had garnered so much praise back in 2000, did little for me. It now seemed clumsily put together. I wasn't as involved in the drama of the story. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" no longer seemed to be a great movie. Maybe because I was young and was not familiar with martial art movies it struck me. Could be. For whatever reason though, I wasn't content to leave it at that. How could I have loved this movie so much when I first saw it and now, granted, fifteen years later, feel so ho-hum about it? So, I watched it a third time and a fourth time.

I'm glad I did. I'm glad I was willing to give this film a fighting chance.

What had prevented me from enjoying the movie as I once did as a teenager, I believe, was I was expecting one type of movie and was disappointed it wasn't what I remembered. I wasn't responding to the movie as I thought I should. I wasn't, in a way, capable of reliving my youth. In short, I wasn't willing to accept the movie for what it is not what I wanted it to be.

Most people who watch this movie describe it as a love story, as I also did. Having seen it again I don't think of it that way. Two very specific things caught my attention a fourth time around. One - we are dealing with a story of tradition vs a new world. Some of the characters in the movie are bound by tradition and honor. They understand their place in the world and what is expected of them. Tradition my prevent them from living the life they want but you must respect tradition. These characters represent the older generation. They are contrasted by the younger generation. They represent a "new world". They do not want to be chained down by tradition. They want to live their lives as they see fit. They will love who they want to love. Marry whom they want not who their family has chosen for them. Each side has its virtues. Each side its faults.

The second element of the story which caught my attention - the role of women. Female characters dominate this story. The female characters are the aggressors. The best choreographed sword fights in the movie involve the women. The women are driven by lust, love, tradition and revenge. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is their story. The female characters live in a world where they are not seen as equals to men. They are forbidden to learn the martial arts. They are forbidden to love whomever they want. Society has certain expectations for and of women. These characters struggle with the idea of accepting their place in the world and living by the standards society expects of them.

The main character in the movie is Master Li Mu Bai (Yun-Fat Chow). He is an old warrior, who now in the September of his years, has gained a conscience. The memory of all the people he has killed by the blade of his sword distresses him. It is no different than the gunfighter in a western facing death regretting all the lives he as taken. Think of Clint Eastwood in "Unforgiven" (1992). Master Bai wants to give up his sword. Besides all the lives he has taken he also regrets he has never told the woman he loves, Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), how he feels about her. He was a blood brother to the man Lien planned on marrying. He died and Bai and Lien would forever have to remain in a state of mourning and honor the memory of the man. Despite the fact Lien also loves Bai.

Secretly they each know how the other feels. But, until the words are spoken, no action can be taken.One of them must end the unspoken code between them and break the past. Break away from tradition.

These characters are contrasted by Jen Yu (Ziyi Zhang), the daughter of a Govenor, and a bandit known as Dark Cloud (Chen Chang). Jen is soon to be married to a man she does not love. It is an arranged marriage. Jen wants to "live". She wants to be her own person. He wants to learn the martial arts and possibly marry the bandit Dark Cloud, which would cause disgrace to her family.

In order to add an element of excitement to the story there is some non-sense involving Bai's sword, Green Destiny, which has gone missing, after Bai gave it to an old friend. Could the Jade Fox, a mysterious criminal, have stolen it? Jade Fox is the one who killed Bai's master and Bai has sworn revenge ever since.

I call it "nonsense" because it is the largely the social themes which now make the story interesting to me. The plot serves the function of presenting a story for those not interesting in "message" movies and provided a way for the studio to market the movie for release. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" could and was promoted as a "martial arts" movie which would give it the potential to reach a wider audience instead of being seen as a foreign film about emotions.

The choreography in the movie was expertly done by Yuen Woo-ping, who also worked with Jackie Chan and on American movies such as "The Matrix" (1999) and "Kill Bill" (2003) and is a director in his own right, having directed the wonderful "Iron Monkey" (1993, though released in the U.S. in 2001). The choreography is very fast moving and intense. The cinematography by Peter Pau equally adds to the effect along with the rapid edits which make the characters appear to be fighting at lightening speed, which create a level of suspense. Each move serves a purpose and is not unlike a dance. Everything is done for a reason.

The two best fight scenes are between Jen and Lien, as they fly on roof tops and climb up walls and counter each thrust of the sword. The only poorly done fight scene is between Bai and Jen as they fight on top of bamboo trees. The setting is awkward at best and the sequence is more about facial expressions than swordplay. It lacks the excitement and intensity of every other fight sequence in the movie.

Going back to the gender of the characters it is very interesting the leading male character is the most passive. He doesn't want to fight. He wants to be a mentor. He does not want more blood on his hands while every female character is fuel by anger, make nearly all of their decisions based on emotion and are driven by revenge. Two of the female characters openly resent the male dominated world they live in and feel because they were born women are not able to live up to their full potential. Society cannot and will not accept them in the roles they most want to achieve.

"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" was a box-office success, grossing more than $100 million in the United States alone and more than $200 million world-wide, making it, at the time of release, the highest grossing foreign language movie at the U.S. box-office. The movie went on to earn 10 Academy Award nominations including best picture, best director, best foreign language film (which it won, representing Twain) and best cinematography, which it also won and film critics, like Roger Ebert, placed it on their annual top ten list.

The movie helped the actors gain international fame. Michelle Yeoh would go on to star in "The Lady" (2011), lend her voice to "Kung Fu Panda 2" (2011) and "Memoirs of a Geisha" (2005), as would Ziyi Zhang, who would also star in "Rush Hour 2" (2001).

The movie also helped pave the way for the films of Zhang Yimou to be released such as "Hero" (2004), "House of Flying Daggers" (2004) and "The Curse of the Golden Flower" (2006) as well as John Woo's "Red Cliff" (2009).

Ang Lee would also see a boost in his career due to this movie. Prior to its release, Lee had directed American films such as "The Ice Storm" (1997) and "Sense & Sensibility" (1995). After this movie he would direct diverse movies such as "Hulk" (2003), "Brokeback Mountain" (2005) and "Life of Pi" (2012), for which he would win an Academy Award for his directing.

"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is a smart movie. It is about more than its fight scenes. There is a social commentary being made here, but, don't let that scare you away.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Film Review: The Errand Boy

"The Errand Boy"  *** (out of ****)

It has been staring me in the face all this time. Why has it taken me so long to notice it? It has been right there in front of me. I have finally figured out what the films of Jerry Lewis are about or at least I have come to my own interpretation and feel I have a better understanding of Mr. Lewis' work as a filmmaker. And it is because of "The Errand Boy" (1961) I have come to my conclusions.

In "The Errand Boy", Lewis' third film as director, he plays Morty Tashman, a paperhanger who works at Paramutual Pictures, clearly a reference to Paramount Studios, where Mr. Lewis made the majority of his films, who is hired by one of the studio executives, T.P. Paramutual (Brian Donlevy) to act as a spy in order to discover where the studio's money is going. To avoid suspicion Morty is hired to work in the mail department as an errand boy.

At first "The Errand Boy" establishes itself as a satire on the movie industry, showing us how movies are really made and what goes on behind the scenes on the studio lot.

These moments are the most enjoyable in the movie. Mr. Lewis makes sharp observations and creates several humorous set pieces. When "The Errand Boy" is dishing the dirt on Hollywood the audience feels they are in good hands. You suspect Mr. Lewis and "The Errand Boy" know what they are talking about.

But "The Errand Boy" doesn't really follow through on its premise. While Morty is hired as a spy, we never see him report to anyone. The viewer never sees him investigate. The idea of discovering where the lost money is going is abandon. What "The Errand Boy" eventually becomes is two things. One, it is a movie not unlike Lewis' "The Bellboy" (1960), an episodic comedy built around comedic situations the Lewis character finds himself in. There is no story arc or character development to speak of.

The second thing the movie becomes is a movie about learning to become comfortable with who you are. And that is what I discovered is the major theme throughout the work of Jerry Lewis. Lewis consistently makes movies which tell us accept who you are. Don't try to become someone different. The other characters in the movie learn they must accept the Lewis character as he is because he is genuine. And that makes him not only a rare person but a rare talent. The Hollywood system should not change him but learn to embrace him.

When we look at the movie in this light, the viewer begins to feel "The Errand Boy" and Lewis' other movies serve as a defense of the Lewis persona. During the time of release of Mr. Lewis' movies, the sheep (movie critics) often sharply attacked his movies. Many find his man-child character annoying. His pratfall humor childish. It is as if Mr. Lewis is rebutting all his critics by saying, "I'm real"! "I'm a genuine person"! "You don't want to change me. Appreciate my talent. I'm funny. Can't you see that"?

The larger question however becomes, what does any of this have to do with the story initially presented in "The Errand Boy"? The answer is nothing. "The Errand Boy" just simply becomes this movie by the end of the picture. It feels terribly out of place. Mr. Lewis would go back to a very similar concept for the movie "The Patsy" (1964), which was about trying to make a star. That movie also told us, talent cannot be created. It is ingrained in the individual. Talent is natural. Not everyone has it. That is the same message "The Errand Boy" leaves us with. But, it is not the movie "The Errand Boy" started off as. That bothers me. The theme is better suited for "The Patsy" because that is what the movie was about from the beginning.

It doesn't mean "The Errand Boy" isn't funny. It is. One good comedy sequence involves Morty working behind a cash register when three children show up asking for jelly beans. A jar of jelly beans is on the very top shelf of the store, where Morty has to climb a ladder to get to them. Another good sequence has Morty walking into an elevator. As soon as he does a mob of passengers get in. Now Morty is stuck facing a man with a toothpick in his mouth, which he keeps aiming at Morty. When Morty turns to his other side there is a man smoking a cigar.

Although the most famous moment in the movie may be a pantomime routine Mr. Lewis does as he sits at the head of a board room while the Count Basie orchestra plays "Blues in Hoss Flat" and Mr. Lewis mimes a meeting, speaking to the other executives. If you pay close enough attention you'll notice Lewis is slightly off in his timing.

Regardless, this speaks to another element of Mr. Lewis' comedy. It is musical. Remember the sequence in "The Ladies Man" (1961) when we see the boarding house for women? There is music playing in the background as the camera dollies pass each woman's room. Their movement matches the music. Remember Mr. Lewis' typewriter routine? He mimes typing a letter to a piece of music. And let us not forget Mr. Lewis actually fashioned himself a singer and released an album.

There is a sequence that does confuse me. Morty is to take a convertible for a car wash. Unfortunately it forgets to put the hood up. Mel Brooks, who did briefly write for Jerry Lewis, says he wrote that gag. Mr. Brooks though is not given any writing credit. The only person to share writing credit with Mr. Lewis is Bill Richmond, who made cameos in several of Mr. Lewis' comedies, including this one, as a man who gets gum popped in his face. This makes me wonder however if Jerry Lewis, like Bob Hope, had a gang of comedy writers working for him but never received writing credit for the movies.

"The Errand Boy" really has me conflicted. Should I give it two-and-a-half stars or three? Two-and-a-half because of the story structure. It doesn't stay true to its original premise. Or three because I laughed and realized something about Mr. Lewis' movies and the prevalent themes in his work. It is a toss up. But I will decide on the three stars. Among the other movies Mr. Lewis has directed "The Errand Boy" should be considered one of his best even with its faults.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

ChicagoTalks - EU Film Festival

Here is a link to an article I wrote for ChicagoTalks on Eastern European Films playing at the 18th annual European Union Film Festival.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Film Review: The Cotton Club

"The Cotton Club"  ** (out of ****)

The joint is jumpin' in Francis Ford Coppola's "The Cotton Club" (1984).

On paper, someone who knows me, would think to themself, gosh, "The Cotton Club" sure seems like the kind of movie Alex Udvary would enjoy watching. I originally thought the same thing myself. I have now seen "The Cotton Club" twice and unfortunately the movie never works for me.

"The Cotton Club" was the name of a famed nightclub in Harlem in the 1920s and 30s where all the major African American jazz musicians, such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway, would perform for wealthy white audiences. As a jazz lover myself, especially jazz from the 1920s - 40s, which I grew up listening to, I was well aware of the Cotton Club and the fine musicians associated with it.

In Francis Ford Coppola's movie the nightclub serves as a reoccurring meeting spot for several of the characters. For other characters, mostly the African American characters, the Cotton Club served as their opportunity to reach fame and a better life, a chance to get out of the slums, even though African Americans were not allowed as guest in the club.

Coppola and his co-screenwriter, William Kennedy, have some fun with the mythology of the club and having characters play fictional versions of real performers, just as Coppola did in "The Godfather" (1972) and its sequels, where characters are suppose to be based on Frank Sinatra, Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lanksy though never referred to by name. In "The Cotton Club", I have a hunch Coppola and Kennedy created characters meant to be Lena Horne (who did perform at the Cotton Club) and the Nicholas Brothers (who also performed at the club). And there is a character called Dutch Schultz, who was a real gangster in the 1920s and 30s. Many of the aspects surrounding this character are based on fact, including pressure from prosecutor Thomas Dewey for tax evasion and threats from "Lucky" Luciano.

This may all add a level of "fun" for some viewers, this balancing act between fact and fiction, the ultimate question I found myself asking is, what is Francis Ford Coppola up to? What is this story ultimately suppose to be about? I never could think of an answer for that question.

There is a lot going on, story wise, in "The Cotton Club", which is the movie's main failure. There is not a single focal point narrative. That approach could work if the movie had intersecting characters whose actions influence other characters. But, I never came away with that feeling.

Coppola seems most interested in a story about racial dividing lines with in the Cotton Club. Two black performers, a tap dancer (Gregory Hines) and a singer (Lonette McKee), a light skinned black woman who can pass for white, and a white couple, a jazz musician (Richard Gere) and an ambitious flirt (Diane Lane) who becomes Schultz's girlfriend.

But, for me, that wasn't the most interesting aspect of the material Coppola was working with. Why not just make a story about two tap dancing brothers (Hines and Maurice Hines) called the Williams Brothers, who want to make it at the Cotton Club. When they do get their chance, "Sandman" Williams falls in love with a light skinned black singer, Lila (McKee) and endure hardship with in their relationship with her finding it easily to mingle among whites and find jobs.

The Cotton Club would still be that place where dreams can come true and represent a better life for African Americans and also represent all the hardships black performers must endure of not being treated equally. Only being able to perform for white audiences and blacks not being allowed into the Cotton Club as guest.

The viewer would also still get that mythology of the Cotton Club and the rich jazz history associated with it and we would get to hear some great music in the back round of the movie.

But Coppola complicates his story and throws in other sub-plots. Characters are created which don't seem fully developed and are unnecessary to the overall story of the movie.

One such story involves the younger brother of Dixie Dwyer (Gere), Vincent (Nicolas Cage). Outside of being Francis Ford Coppola's nephew there is no reason for Nicolas Cage to appear in this movie. It is nice that Coppola wanted to be a good uncle and put his nephew to work, but, it is a shame Coppola allows family ties to interfere with his movies.

Vincent ends up getting a job in Schultz's mob but soon feels he has outgrown his position working for Schultz and wants to become his own boss.

Once again, this type of story line could have served as its own narrative. The story of two brothers in Harlem. One wants to become a famous jazz musician and the other gets mixed up with the mob. The connection? It is the story of two men seeking a better life. And once again, the Cotton Club could serve as a place where dreams come true. Dixie could dream of one day being able to play along side the talent black musicians in the Cotton Club. In those days white musicians and perform with black musicians.

Coppola even throws in a love triangle story, because it is the only thing missing in the movie, besides more of Coppola's relatives. The triangle involves Dixie falling in love with a young whore, Vera (Lane) who finds Dixie attractive however Schultz makes Vera his girl and promises her one day she will have her own nightclub. While Vera may have feelings for Dixie, what difference does it make. Dixie is poor and can't offer Vera financial security the way Schultz is able to. But Dixie doesn't want to lose the woman he loves.

And finally we meet Owney Madden (Bob Hoskins), who is the owner of The Cotton Club and his right hand man "Frenchy" Demange (Fred Gwynne). These two character provide an unnecessary element of comic relief and almost seem to have a homosexual relationship, which is never directly implied but subtly suggested as the two men argue like lovers.

Some have suggested comparing "The Cotton Club" to "The Godfather". "The Godfather" had ambition, clearly defined characters, a consistent narrative, "The Cotton Club" on the other hand lacks all those things.

"The Cotton Club" was made at a difficult time in the life of director Coppola. He lost a fortune after he released "One From the Heart" (1981). After "Apocalypse Now" (1979) it became "fashionable" to criticize his work and declare he had lost his touch. Nearly everything he made in the 1980s was a box-office flop. "The Cotton Club" was not a success either and was plagued with problens during production and pre-production.

None of that matter now of course. Enough time has passed where audiences today will not be concerned with these stories. Now the movie can be judged purely on its own merits and not compete with its own headlines and controversies.

On a technical level "The Cotton Club" has a lot going for it. I enjoy the cinematography by Stephen Goldblatt, I especially like the music, consisting of songs such as Duke Ellington's "The Mooche", "Crazy Rhythm", "Minnie the Moocher", "Ill Wind" and "Mood Indigo". The costume and production design nicely capture the time period as well. These are the great assets of the movie. But Coppola couldn't properly create an appropriate screenplay to fit the music and costumes.

Friday, April 3, 2015

In Memory: Manoel de Oliveira

On April 2nd in Oporto, Portugal, the legendary filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira passed away at the age of 106. He was considered by many to be the oldest living filmmaker.

Sadly news of Mr. de Oliveira'a death has not traveled fast in the film world. The big name movie critics were/ are silent. Too bad. Oh sure the New York Times published an obituary but where was film critic A.O. Scott's column on the director's work? Where was Manohla Dargis? What happened to Michael Wilmington's column on moviecitynews?

Of course these critics or their defenders would say, Alex, no one cares if Manoel de Oliveira died. Why would these critics waste their time writing about him? My reply is, they should "waste their time" writing about him because he made movies. He was an important filmmaker with a vast body of work which sadly has not been properly distributed in America. And as for people not caring, that is probably true. But, why doesn't the public care? Because movie critics don't spend time talking or writing about him. Maybe the critics aren't familiar with his work either, who knows. The media creates the interest and diverts the attention of the public to the issue they want to. Whether or not if the issue is important.

Oliveira was born in Oporto, Portugal in 1908 and even in his old age the master found the time to make one movie a year.

He started his career making documentaries. His first was in 1931, "Working on the Douro River". Eventually this lead to a career in feature length films. "Aniki-Bobo" (1942) was his debut.

On this blog I have reviewed a few of his movies. Here are the links.

Belle Toujours
The Convent
I'm Going Home
The Strange Case of Angelica