Johnny To Report

Last night, the Pacific Film Archive introduced me to Johnnie To. Okay, I didn’t meet the Hong Kong action auteur personally, but the archive introduced me to his work. I liked it.

The occasion: opening night of the PFA’s new series, Hong Kong Nocturne: The Films of Johnnie To. The films: The Mission and Fulltime Killer.

To’s work, at least judging from these two films, falls into the category of wicked pleasures (as opposed to merely guilty pleasures). A wicked pleasure asks you to set aside your basic ideas of right and wrong and root for people who, in the real world, you’d find morally repugnant. My favorite cinematic wicked pleasures include The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Pulp Fiction, and Matador (the Almodóvar one).

The Mission isn’t that wicked. It concerns itself with five gunmen hired as bodyguards to protect an organized crime boss. The boss definitely needs protection; someone with a lot of disposable employees wants him dead. The often-disjointed plot left me confused and irritated, but To handled the individual scenes with so much verve I easily forgave him. First among these were the action sequences, which he built more on suspense than firepower (although there was plenty of that, too). Even when guns were blasting, there was a sense of frustrating quiet.

Speaking of quiet, he handled the calm scenes expertly, as well. In the best tradition of Howard Hawks, this is a study of men of action as people, and as a team. In one very funny sequence, as the five wait in a reception area, they play a form of sitting-down soccer with a crumpled-up piece of paper.

I liked The Mission, but I loved Fulltime Killer–a true wicked pleasure. The story actually concerns two fulltime professional killers. O (Takashi Sorimachi), widely considered the best in Asia, suffers a bit from guilt–but not too much. The up-and-coming Lok (Andy Lau) covets O’s reputation and truly enjoys his work. In fact, you could reasonably call him a psycho. He also loves action movies, uses them for inspiration, and talks about them incessantly.

Despite their dreadful occupation, To makes us like both men. O, after all, has some sense of right and wrong, plus a chivalrous streak, while Lok attacks both life and his targets with a joyful enthusiasm. And they both fall for the same woman, a modest video store clerk (Kelly Lin) who seems positively thrilled with her association with such sexy assassins.

To mixes a dazzling concoction of cinematic tricks–daringly staged and photographed action sequences, movie references, videogame references, flashbacks that may be lies, a killer in a Bill Clinton mask, and first-person narration by a least four characters. You won’t forget this one quickly.

The PFA will screen seven other Johnnie To films over June. The next one up, Running on Karma, screens next Wednesday. It also stars Lau, this time as a Buddhist monk turned male stripper. Several To fans I spoke with last night singled it out as one to catch. Click here for details on the entire series.

This Week’s Movies (Not Much)

There’s astonishingly little for the newsletter. Just one really lousy comedy and two film festivals filled with works I haven’t seen. Things will pick up next week; I promise.

The Black Film Festival opens Wednesday with the British comedy Shoot the Messenger, and runs through June 15. It celebrates its tenth anniversary this year with 100 films made by and about Africans and those of African descent (American and otherwise).

Another Hole in the Head Film Festival (as in, the Bay Area needs another film festival like it needs another hole in the head) opens Thursday. Devoted to horror and sci-fi from around the world, Hole in the Head screens the sort of movies serious cinephiles are required to look down upon with contempt until they’re at least 20 years old; then we can acknowledge them as masterpieces.

Postal, Roxie, Friday through Monday. Uwe Boll attempts to satirize such ripe targets as evil corporations, hippy cults, morbidly obese nymphomaniacs, Arabs, trailer trash, racial minorities, little people, George W. Bush, and our fascination with Nazis. He probably thinks of himself as an equal-opportunity offender, which would be okay if he actually earned some laughs along the way. He also tries to be funny about gun violence in this video game adaptation. Everyone shoots indiscriminately, people die in mass numbers, and none of it has a point. In the end, it’s not the sheer offensiveness of Postal that weighs it down, although that doesn’t help. It’s the almost complete absence of any real humor. Read my full review.

Summer at the Stanford

I just saw the Stanford‘s summer schedule. As usual, it’s the best time of the year to see classic Hollywood films on the Peninsula. Someone has put a lot of thought into the double bills, most of which go together nicely for an evening’s entertainment. And every other Wednesday they screen a silent, most with live organ accompaniment, on a double-bill with an appropriate talkie.

Summer follows the Stanford’s current Early Bette Davis series, so it’s appropriate that they’ve included a number of better-known, classic Davis flicks. These include The Letter and Now, Voyager (June 7-10), Dark Victory and The Little Foxes (June 21-24), and All About Eve (August 2-5, on a double bill with The Bad and the Beautiful). The many James Stewart films scheduled include The Glenn Miller Story (June 26-27), Strategic Air Command (July 10-11), and the western double-bill of The Naked Spur and Broken Arrow (August 7th and 8th).

The folks who program the Stanford are true Marxists in the best sense of the word, and will properly honor Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and even Zeppo. Four of the brothers’ five Paramount movies will bring anarchy to Palo Alto, with a double bill of Duck Soup and Animal Crackers (July 2-4), plus showings of The Cocoanuts (with Safety Last on June 11) and Horse Feathers (with Charlie Chan at the Opera on August 13-15).

I barely scratched the surface. Take a look at the full schedule.


Very broad satire

  • Written by Uwe Boll and Bryan C. Knight; based on the video game
  • Directed by Uwe Boll

Postal starts with a promising scene for an intentionally offensive comedy. Two terrorists in an airliner cockpit (presumably on 9/11) discuss how many virgins they’ll get in the afterlife. It turns out they’ve been given different numbers, and one calls “Osama” on his cell phone for clarification. They’re just about ready to call it quits and reroute the plane to the Bahamas when the passengers break down the cockpit door.

Enjoy the scene while you can. It has more laughs than the rest of the movie.

I don’t know much about video games, and didn’t realize Postal was based on one before screening a review copy. I probably would have skipped it if I’d known. My son, who knows a good deal about video games, is no fan of movies based on them.

The plot involves a desperately unhappy, unemployed man (Zack Ward) who agrees to help a phony religious cult led by his uncle (Dave Foley) rob a truckload of very popular yet unavailable dolls. Complicating matters, the dolls are also the target of a secret Taliban cell led by Osama bin Laden (I’m not sure if the Taliban/Al-Qaeda confusion was intentional).

Within the context of this story, Boll attempts to satirize such ripe targets as evil corporations, hippy cults, morbidly obese nymphomaniacs, Arabs, trailer trash, racial minorities, little people, George W. Bush, and our fascination with Nazis. He probably thinks of himself as an equal-opportunity offender, which would be okay if he actually earned some laughs along the way.

As Postal moves into its second half, he tries mainly to be funny about gun violence. Everyone shoots indiscriminately, people die in mass numbers, and none of it has a point. Boll apparently finds the idea of a little kid blasted away by crossfire to be outrageously funny; one gunfight sequence repeats that “gag” at least three times.

In the end, it’s not the sheer offensiveness of Postal that weighs it down, although that doesn’t help. It’s the almost complete absence of any real humor.

Postal, rated R for everything a film can be rated R for, opens Friday at the Roxie.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Action Adventure

  • Written by David Koepp, from a story by George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson
  • Directed by Steven Spielberg

I dreaded disaster when I first heard that George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Harrison Ford making a fourth Indiana Jones movie. Nearly twenty years after Indie’s latest outing, I felt it was best to let sleeping triumphs lie.

I was wrong.

They pull it off beautifully, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is easily the best entertainment to come out of the once-reliable Lucasfilm since, well, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In fact, it’s one of the best turn-off-the-brain entertainments to come out of Hollywood in that time.

Don’t worry about the plot, which is as implausible as the hero’s luck. Like all Indiana Jones movies, this one is about clever lines, period décor, self-referential jokes, and ridiculously exciting action–especially action. We get Indie, armed with a whip, fighting off armies with machine guns, surviving a nuclear blast, and riding a motorcycle through a university library (a bit that ends with a great gag reminding us that he is, after all, a college professor). There’s dry sand (not quite the same as quick sand), a multi-vehicle chase with characters jumping from one car to another, an attack by monkeys, and another by giant ants. And, of course, there’s a snake.

And every bit of terror and suspense undercut with a delicately-designed laugh. I guess Spielberg learned his lesson from the Temple of Doom fiasco: Indiana Jones is too absurd to be played straight.

He also can’t be played young (although he’s given a young sidekick played by Shia LaBeouf, costumed like Marlon Brando in The Wild One). The filmmakers made the wise decision to set the film in 1957–19 years after the Last Crusade. That way, Ford doesn’t have to play younger than he really is. He even has gray hair here–almost unheard of for an action hero.

Not that anyone is going for realism. Indiana Jones exhibits the same amazing strength, stamina, and reflexes seen in the other films, even if Ford needs more help in achieving them. These movies always used a lot of stunt doubles, but 27 years ago, Ford allowed himself to be dragged behind a truck hanging onto his whip; now he uses a double for long shots of riding a motorcycle. He’s 65–you can’t blame him.

Spielberg and company have a lot of fun with the ’50s setting–especially in the early part set in the United States. We’re treated to Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog,” atomic tests in Arizona, Russians, and McCarthyism. Since the Nazis were gone by 1957, the Commies fill in for them as the sneering bad guys (especially Cate Blanchett enjoying a hearty meal of scenery; talented actors always make the most entertaining hams). But the filmmakers haven’t forgotten the other side of the cold war; Indiana Jones loses his tenured professorship over suspected Communist sympathies.

But don’t expect a political film here. There’s only one lesson to be learned from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: How to make a really entertaining movie.

Noir at the Cerrito

I attended the Film Noir event at the Cerrito last night. Well worth the time and money. It’s repeating tonight at 5:00; I recommend it heartily.

The evening began–after the usual cartoons and Speakeasy Theaters Coming Attractions video, plus a brief onstage appearance by Speakeasy programmer Will Viharo and Noir scholar Eddie Muller–with Muller’s own short film, “The Grand Inquisitor.” Its 20-minute length was just right for building a sense of dread leading up to a shocker of an ending. And classic noir star Marsha Hunt (now 90) can still send chills down your back. I don’t want to give too much away.

Viharo and Muller returned after the short for some Q&A. In response to one question, Muller offered an excellent definition of noir from a content (as opposed to stylistic) point of view: “If the protagonist knows that what he’s doing is wrong, but he does it anyway, it’s noir.” He also explained that when he described the night’s feature, The Killers, as the Citizen Kane of film noir, he was talking about story structure, and not trying to burden it with a “greatest of all time” mantle.

That’s appropriate, because The Killers is no Citizen Kane. Nor is it Sunset Blvd.–the originally-planned feature for the evening (a print of the Billy Wilder classic wasn’t available). But it’s a fun little movie, and it introduced Burt Lancaster to the world as a likeable thug whose murder sets the investigation-driven, flashback-heavy plot in motion. Ava Gardner plays the femme fatale who enjoys and exploits Lancaster’s beefcake lug.

Unfortunately, the print appeared to have gone through a meat grinder on its way to the Cerrito. It was heavily scratched both in the picture and sound. After the film, Muller informed us that the film has recently been restored and a better print should be available in the near future.

No one wanted to leave the theater when the show was over. The near-capacity crowd hung out and talked until theater employees asked us to leave. Then we hung out in the lobby. I asked Muller why he doesn’t do an “Eastside” version of his annual Noir City festival. He seemed to like the idea, and Viharo appeared receptive to hosting it at the Cerrito.

Keep your fingers crossed.

This Week’s Movies

Blade Runner: The Final Cut, Red Vic, Friday through Sunday. Based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Blade Runner remains surprisingly thoughtful for ’80’s sci-fi–especially of the big budget variety. It ponders questions about the nature of humanity, and about our ability to objectify people when it suits our needs. Yet it never preaches. The script’s hazy at times; I never did figure out some of the connections, and a couple of important things happen at ridiculously convenient times. But art direction and music alone would make it a masterpiece. For more, see my write-up.

The Killers & Eddie Muller, Cerrito, Saturday, 6:00; Sunday, 5:00. Film noir expert Muller will screen this typical film noir and early Burt Lancaster picture. After the movie, Muller will submit to a live interview with Will “the Thrll” Viharo. NOTE: “The Killers” replaces “Sunset Boulevard;” originally scheduled for these dates, but unavailable.

Johnnie To Double Bill, Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, 6:30. Okay, technically it’s not a double bill, as each film requires a separate admission. I have never seen a film by Johnnie To, the Hong Kong action director whose been receiving all sorts of praise in the west, lately. But I want to. The PFA will screen nine of his films from May 29 through June 27. The opening night features are The Mission and Fulltime Killer.