Monthly Archives: May 2014

#287 The Magnificent Ambersons

(1942, Orson Welles)

“The magnificence of the Ambersons was as conspicuous as a brass band at a funeral.”

Although history sometimes like to suggest otherwise, Orson Welles did more than just convince America that Earth was being invaded by Martians and direct the Greatest Movie Ever Made™ (also known as Citizen Kane). He also sometimes directed other movies, movies that he personally didn’t star in at that. And this is one of them – The Magnificent Ambersons.

It should come as no surprise that The Magnificent Ambersons is a movie about a wealthy family called the Ambersons, and that many people consider them to be rather magnificent. Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten), a young man who has his eyes on building strange contraptions known as “automobiles”, certainly thinks so, as he attempts to woo the family’s daughter, Isabel (Dolores Costello). She rejects him, and marries a wealthy but passionless man, and bears a child, George (Tim Holt).

Twenty years later, George returns from college, and the Amberson family throw him a huge reception. Eugene returns to the town for the first time in years, and is now surprisingly successful with his “automobiles” (who knew they’d take off?). George takes an instant dislike to Eugene but finds himself rather smitten with his daughter, Lucy (Anne Baxter). Shenanigans ensue.

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#286 Peking Opera Blues

(1986, Tsui Hark)
刀馬旦

A while ago, I reviewed Once Upon A Time In China, a movie which was frequently presented to me as a serious film about Chinese history, and then it turned out to be a chop-socky kung fu flick. Well, Peking Opera Blues, from the same director, appears to have the same issue. Presented as a serious drama surrounding Peking opera, it’s actually a slightly silly action film. But is it any good?

Peking Opera Blues is set in 1913 Peking, centred on a rebellion against the government of the time. The story features three female leads who form an unlikely team: Tsao Wan (Brigitte Lin), a general’s daughter secretly plotting against her father, Bai Niu (Sally Yeh), the daughter of a Peking opera impresario, and Sheung Hung (Cherie Chung), a young musician searching for a box of stolen jewels.

Peking Opera Blues starts by throwing everything at us. Here’s a general’s daughter who likes to dress like a man! Here’s a musician trying to steal some jewels! Here’s some Peking opera! Here’s a huge rebellion! HERE ARE ALL THE THINGS!

The problem is, this initially leads to the viewer being horrendously overwhelmed by the sheer number of characters and plot points and general goings-on, and it isn’t really a good way to start. For probably the first half-hour of the movie, I was lost. Too much was happening and too little was being explained and I was all set to hate everything.

But then the movie started getting somewhat silly. Over-the-top action sequences exploded onto the screen and the movie started chucking jokes around constantly, and my opinion dramatically changed. These action sequences are consistently excellent, with excellent choreography blending with expert comic timing, and it made the movie a lot of fun to watch.

It’s all basically what you’d expect from a heavily choreographed Hong Kong movie. We get crazy martial arts mixing into traditional Peking opera performances, tons of wire-work and fist fights, and some dramatic escape sequences too. Of course, I still don’t know why the film is presented as a serious drama about opera, because it really isn’t.

Also around this time, the movie starts being clearer about who our protagonists are, especially when they form their alliances, and the plot starts falling into place. Even better, once the confusion clears up, it becomes apparent that all of the leads are charming and likeable.

What’s more, this enhances the action. As the movie progresses, we start caring more and more about our protagonists and we want them to succeed. As I watched them flail around and generally kick ass, I felt myself cheering them on, wanting everything to turn out well. Silly scenes mixed in with all this, such as a series of scenes where the trio get drunk and then try and hide from Bai Niu’s father in her bedroom, add to the fun immensely.

Of course, it isn’t perfect. There is a desire to tell a serious story in here, and sometimes things can be a bit jarring at times. As an example, after lots of silly over-the-top action sequences and buddy comedy jokes, there’s a genuinely gruesome torture scene that threw me completely. It felt so out of place in such a fun movie that I began to wonder if I was beginning to watch a completely different movie.

It also still never consistently explains its central plot. Sure, we care about our characters and we know that the generals are bad people and we should be rooting for the rebels, but…there’s no backstory. Stuff just happens and we’re expected to understand. It’s a little bit disappointing, really.

But overall, Peking Opera Blues isn’t a disappointment. It’s a blast to watch, and hilarious to boot. Definitely recommended for fans of Hong Kong cinema.

Starring Brigitte Lin, Cherie Chung, Sally Yeh, Paul Chun, Wu Ma & Kenneth Tsang
Written by Raymond To
Produced by Claudia Chung Jan & Hark Tsui
Music by James Wong
Cinematography by Hang-Sang Poon
Edited by David Wu

Favourite Scene: The drunken hang-out scene and the following bedroom scene with about four people hiding under a blanket.
Scene That Bugged Me: That torture scene really doesn’t fit at all.

Watch it if: You enjoy Hong Kong cinema
Avoid it if: You’re expecting a serious movie about the history of Peking opera

#284 Down By Law

(1986, Jim Jarmusch)

“America’s the big melting pot. You bring it to a boil and all the scum rises to the top.”

The last time I reviewed a Jim Jarmusch movie it was a Western, which probably wasn’t the best way to get introduced to him considering my track record with the genre. So maybe this movie will be better, since it’s a prison drama, and “prison drama” tends to evoke things like Shawshank Redemption and A Man Escaped, which I highly enjoyed.

Oh, the lead role is occupied by gravel-voiced blues singer Tom Waits? Well, um…I guess that’s not automatically going to make this bad, right? I mean, Björk was good in Dancer In The Dark, so being a singer doesn’t automatically make you a bad actor, surely…

Down By Law is about three men who meet in prison. Zack (Tom Waits), a radio DJ, and Jack (John Lurie), a pimp, have been set up, while Bob (Roberto Bengini) was arrested for manslaughter. The three men attempt to break out of prison and form an unlikely friendship.

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#283 Talk To Her

(2002, Pedro Almodovar)
Hable con ella

“Love is the saddest thing when it goes away”

Based on this week and last week, it seems that Thursday is now Spanish movie day, so expect Spanish movies both this week and last week, and then never see another Spanish movie for months. Hurraaaaay!

Anyway, Talk To Her is a movie from arguably the most critically-acclaimed director from the nation, Pedro Almodovar. It focuses on two intertwining relationships, one about a reporter, Marco (Dario Grandinetti), and his relationship with bullfighter, Lydia (Rosario Flores), and the other about a nurse, Benigno (Javier Camara), and his comatose patient Alicia (Leonor Watling). The two men cross paths after Lydia is hospitalised, and Marco gradually learns of the unusual relationship between Benigno and Alicia. Read the rest of this entry

#282 Blue Velvet

(1986, David Lynch)

“Don’t you fucking look at me!”

David Lynch is well-known for making some very odd movies, but not all of his movies are dreamlike drug trips where character names change and mutant alien babies cry for eternity. Sometimes he’ll make a movie like Blue Velvet, which is actually a pretty standard mystery movie. Mostly.

Returning from college to visit his hospitalised father, Special Agent Dale Cooper eccentric student Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) discovers a severed ear and decides to investigate. Using information given to him by a local detective’s daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern), Jeffrey discovers a dark underbelly to his hometown occupied by mysterious nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and violent sadomasochist criminal Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper).

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#281 Open Your Eyes

(1997, Alejandro Amenabar)
Abre los ojos

“Open your eyes”

In 2002, Cameron Crowe made a movie called Vanilla Sky, starring Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz and Penelope Cruz. It got mixed reviews, and it did reasonably well, telling a very strange tale of romance with a bit of good old-fashioned mindfuckery thrown in for good measure.

It was also a remake, which not many people know. You see, Cameron Crowe took the entire storyline from a Spanish movie from the nineties called Abre los Ojos, aka Open Your Eyes. He also swiped one of its main cast members (Cruz) and put her in the same role as the original. Today, we’re looking at that movie, and ignoring Vanilla Sky entirely because that’s not on the list. Sorry about that.

Open Your Eyes is a hard film to describe. It’s about a man named Cesar (Eduardo Noriega) who is a rich, good-looking kid living in Madrid. He’s known for womanising and generally being a bit of a smug bastard about how good-looking he is. We switch between him going about his day and enjoying his life to him sitting in prison and talking to a psychiatrist (Chete Lera) while wearing a prosthetic mask.

During the course of the movie, Cesar flirts with a woman named Sofia (Cruz), who happens to be the girlfriend of his best friend Pelayo (Fele Martinez), while simultaneously trying to avoid a crazy, jealous former fling named Nuria (Najwa Nimri). During the course of the movie, Cesar climbs into a car with Nuria, who then immediately crashes the car, horribly disfiguring him. And then things kinda go a little bit haywire…

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