Monday, March 29, 2010

The Rules of the Game


Directed by Jean Renoir

Jean Renoir's classic "The Rules of the Game" is one of the sacred cows of world cinema, considered by many to be the greatest French film ever made. Unsurprisingly, it lives up to the hype.

Renoir's film begins with the succesful completion of flying ace André Jurieux's attempt at breaking the speed record for a non-stop, transatlantic flight. When he arrives back in France, however, he is crestfallen to discover that Christine de La Chesnaye, an Austrian woman married to the rich and vapid aristocrat Robert de La Chesnaye, who he is hopelessly infatuated with, is not there to meet him. In hopes of placating the now suicidalJurieux, Christine invites him to her husband's weekend getaway for a hunt with their circle of friends. Once everyone arrives, social customs begin to quickly unravel as the hunt turns into an epic Vaudeville marked by unrequited love, doomed affairs, and passionate hook-ups.

Although it isn't my favorite film, and isn't even one of my favorite films by Renoir, there's absolutely no denying that "The Rules of the Game" is one of a handful of uncontested masterpieces of film, right up there with "Seven Samurai" and "Citizen Kane." Renoir's film is both a landmark achievement in film technique, featuring some of the most famous and admired scenes in film history, as well as in storytelling and satire. Renoir's film, which seems fairly tame to the modern viewer, was the height of controversy uponm its release in 1939 and was roundly banned, booed, and decried as a slap in the face to the French bourgeoisie which, of course, it was. The insults lobbed at the the french upper middle class weren't accidental either, as Renoir relentlessly skewers his character's empty and superficial lives. As Europe began to crumble under Hitler's bootheel, Renoir's characters retreat to the country where they abandon themselves fully to their shared passion, running after one another with reckless passion. Renoir, in an introduction to the Criterion Collection's release of "The Rules of the Game" recalls attending a showing of the film where a man lit a newspaper on fire with, according to the filmmaker, the obvious intent of burning down the theater. Renoir's film was, to say the least, incendiary but it did so without being cheap or facile. Rather, as the great Pietro Germi did with Sicilian society, Renoir simply held up a mirror to the French upper classes and told them to take a look. Suffice it to say, the didn't like what they saw.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

In Bruges


Directed by Martin McDonagh

Martin McDonagh's "In Bruges" takes an interesting premise and talented actors and crafts an overly stylized, talky and for the most part annoying gangster flick.

Irish thugs Ray and Ken are sent to Bruges, Belgium to hide out after Ray accidentally kills a young boy when carrying out a hit for their boss Harry. While in Bruges, Ken decides to sightsee and Ray tries not to lose his mind from boredom. Harry's reasons for sending them to Bruges are soon enough revealed to Ken who is ordered to kill Ray for his transgression.

What could have been an interesting rumination on loyalty, friendship, and guilt is rather turned into a superficial showoff piece for writer/director McDonagh. "In Bruges" strikes me as the type of film that lovers of the horrible "Boondock Saints" probably fawn over. The majority of the scenes in McDonagh's revolve around characters exchanging faux-witty, absurdist dialogue full of pitch black humour in thick Irish accents. The problem is that the dialogue for the most part comes off as awkward, stilted and, most importantly, totally unbelievable while the humour, instead of being dark, is just immature and tasteless. I seriously don't understand who thinks this type of over the top scriptwriting is exciting, edgy, or interesting when done so poorly. To top it all off, what could have been a strong final scene is ruined by some more of McDonagh's prefab dialogue and a telegraphed ending.
"In Bruges" is saved from a total collapse by strong performances from Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes and, yes, even Colin Farrell who does well with the material given to him, giving a taught and energetic performance as Ray.

Happy Funeral


Directed by Barbara Wong

Barbara Wong's sequel to the inexplicably successful "Truth or Dare - 6th Floor Rear Flat", which followed the highs and the lows of a group of young adults sharing a dilapidated flat in Hong Kong, is a pretty terrible follow up to a film that probably should have never been given a sequel in the first place.

As "Happy Funeral" opens, we find a new batch of youths living in the 6th floor rear flat. Like their predecessors, only a few of them have jobs, and most of their time seems to be dedicated to partying, flirting with one another and hatching half baked business plans. After attending the dour funeral of one of the housemate's boyfriend's grandmother, the gang decides that what the world really needs is a service that will celebrate rather than mourn the lives of those who have passed. Thus, the idea for a new, highly profitable business is born-- the "Funeral Party". Suffice it to say, it's a terrible idea.

I love movies and I get personally offended when people claim that watching them is a waste of time, time that could be, according to them, better spent doing something more productive. This haughty belief is usually harbored by grouches who presuppose that doing something enjoyable means it's necessarily frivolous and that we all have productive things we could be doing at all times of the day which certainly isn't the case for me. In the case of "Happy Funeral", however, it truly was a total waste of my time. And my time is really not that valuable, either. Director Barbara Wong seems to have had no game plan whatsoever when setting out to make this film and it certainly shows. It's messy, poorly acted, poorly scripted (if a script was provided at all, which seems doubtful) and full of annoying characters who are impossible to sympathize or connect with. Wong's film doesn't even hint at a serious plot until it's 3/4ths of the way through and by that time I was so thoroughly annoyed with "Happy Funeral", I just wanted it to end.

I guess there's a kernel of intelligent social commentary in here somewhere about the slacker attitude of Generation Y and its chronic refusal to grow up but it gets lost in "Happy Funerals" in your face, high pitched brand of comedy.



Directed by Derek Yee

Director Derek Yee takes a sobering look at drugs in "Protegé", crafting a surprisingly sensitive and thoughtful portrayal of the many destructive consequences of the narcotics trade.

Daniel Wu stars as Nick, a mole working undercover for the Hong Kong police, tasked with infiltrating a heroin trafficking ring headed by kingpin Quin (Andy Lau). Nick has been undercover so long, however, that Quin considers him practically his own son and, despite being commited to his original mission, Nick becomes gradually more entangled with Quin and his family as his time undercover drags on. When he begins a tentative relationship with a drug addicted neighbour named Fan, however, Nick finds his interest in dismantling Quin's drug empire suddenly and powerfully renewed.

"Protegé" eschews easy "drugs are bad" soapboxing to show the malevolence of the drug trade and the consequences to all those involved, both on the supply side and the demand side. Although "Protegé" isn't always a completely three dimensional or believable essay on junkies and those who make their habit possible, it's affecting nonetheless and unvarnished in a way that neither demonizes nor excuses the actions of drug users, demonstrating that even though substance abusers can kick their habit and turn their life around, it's not that easy to do. I think all effective films dealing with drug use are ones that can toe this line and show drug addiction for what it really is--not necessarily a death sentence but still incredibly powerful, life altering, and difficult to get rid of.

Yee should also be commended for using "Protegé" to showcase some of Hong Kong's best known acting talent in surprising and unconventional roles. Louis Koo, who most viewers may remember as the suave and intelligent gangster Jimmy in Johnny To's "Election" series, goes in a totally different direction here, starring as Fan's junkie, morally crapulent ex-husband. Andy Lau is also given a role that differs from his usual fare as a hunky cop/gangster/action hero, and is surprisingly believable as the aging criminal Quin.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

One Nite in Mongkok


Directed by Derek Yee

Derek Yee's "One Nite in Mongkok" is a satisfying and exciting romp through one of Hong Kong's less glamourous neighborhoods as well as a showcase for Yee's considerable talents as a director of intelligent, emotionally resonant action films.

A gang boss in Hong Kong's seedy Mongkok district orders a hit on a rival after the latter's son killed his own son following a bar room brawl. Not finding anyone in HK to do the dirty deed, the boss calls in Lai Fu, a hitman from mainland China. When Lai Fu arrives in HK, he is immediately double crossed by his handler (played by HK regular Lam Suet) who finds himself in hot water with local authorities. To add to his mounting troubles, Lai Fu finds himself unwantingly attached at the hip with a prostitute he accidently saves from a rough trick (I always wanted to use that term in a write-up). As Lai Fu's planned hit becomes more and more bogged down in unforeseen setbacks, the local authorities are hot on his tail trying desperately to nab the assassin before time runs out.

ONIM, without trying to intellectualize the Hong Kong action flick, does infuse the genre with a significant amount of emotional gravitas by putting character development on equal footing with the development of its plot. In this respect, ONIM reminded me of Wong Kar Wai's "Fallen Angels", an action film where the action, instead of being the film's raison d'être, often plays second fiddle to developping three dimensional characters. ONIM also features surprisingly astute commentary on the tensions created by the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China. The societal upheavals created by the massive movements of China's rural poor from farm to city, which has created a whole new class of destitute urban poor throughout the mainland and Hong Kong, is an often overlooked byproduct of China's rapid industrialization. It's to Yee's credit that he tackles the issue in an intelligent and sympathetic manner.

The only gripes I have with Yee's film are the length, which could ahve been shorter, and the acting which, although never bad, didn't enhance the film much either. Cheung in particular tended towards skreekniness in many of her scenes but her performance, although lacking nuance, wasn't so bad that it kept me from enjoying the rest of the film.