2013 First-Time Viewings: May Week 3

Red CliffRed Cliff

After making his name with a string of brilliant Hong Kong action thrillers in the 1980s and 1990s, John Woo went stateside to try his hand at Hollywood filmmaking. His last Hollywood film was the Ben Affleck vehicle Paycheck; watching that film was a fairly depressing experience, so it’s not that hard to imagine what it must have been like to make it. Woo left Hollywood shortly after and returned to China and, much like what happened with Paul Verhoeven and Black Book, the return back home has given him a new spark of filmmaking energy. Based off the real historical Battle of Red Cliffs in 208-209 AD, the film opens with a power-hungry chancellor announcing his plans to attack neighboring warlords and gain control of the lands in the name of the emperor. Realizing that their only chance to survive is to band together against the common threat, the leaders of two rival factions agree to an uneasy alliance. The rest of the film is about the lengthy preparations the two leaders embark upon to get ready for the final battle, although these preparations are occasionally interrupted by brief skirmishes and gamesmanship. There’s also an element of poignancy in the interactions between the two temporarily-allied warlords. The time spent together results in several new friendships, but their set-in-stone allegiances means that sometime down the road they could find themselves on the opposite sides of the battlefield.

Woo isn’t really interested in a by-the-book historical recreation, choosing instead to make an epic film in every sense of the word, by focusing his attention on the staging of the massive battle sequences and developing a handful of key characters that the viewer follows throughout the action. At times, the film recalls the best moments of other modern epics like Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy, although Woo’s film manages to be more consistent throughout. Even with its long running length of around 4 1/2 hours, surprisingly little of it ever feels sluggish or unnecessary. It helps when you have actors like Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro, two of the more commanding screen presences in Chinese cinema, guiding you through it all, and they’re ably backed up by a terrific supported cast. But still, the biggest draw of the film is action. The battle scenes are incredible, with Woo taking full advantage of the film’s $80 million budget, the largest ever for a Chinese production. Only some spotty CGI work sticks out as a weakness. This is easy to overlook though, because while the film does employ a good amount of digital effects, it is not reliant on them. The film was originally released outside of China in a severely-truncated version running two hours shorter. My recommendation for anyone interested would be to track down the full version; it’s a big investment, but it’s amazing how quickly time flies by when you’re in the company of a filmmaker at the top of his game. 9/10.

Star Trek Into DarknessStar Trek Into Darkness

As someone who has a strongly positive view of J.J. Abrams’ polarizing 2009 reboot of the Star Trek franchise, I was looking forward to this sequel perhaps more than any other summer blockbuster this year (which isn’t saying much; this might be the only summer blockbuster this year that sparks even a small amount of interest in me). My reaction to this new film is positive but also reserved; there are areas where it’s an improvement over the first reboot, but it also takes some key steps backward. Contrary to what the title suggests, this isn’t the film where Star Trek makes the jump into Nolan Batman territory.  Just like the first film, things are never allowed to get too serious, even when the script is addressing issues of terrorism and military overreach.  A big part of this has to do with the chemistry between the cast members, which is continuing to develop nicely (although some of them are relegated mostly to background status and are only given one or two moments to shine individually). That sense of fun and joviality was one of the big selling points of the 2009 film, and really the fact that that energy is replicated here is itself almost reason enough to recommend it.

There are certain areas though where the film really stumbles. Some of this is just minor problems with pacing (the opening sequence is way too loud and chaotic, while the conclusion is incredibly abrupt and underwhelming), but there’s one issue that is much more serious. For this film, there is an attempt to reincorporate some classic elements of Trek history in a way that is more than just simple fan service, but in a couple key areas this really fails, particularly with the unnecessary reintroduction of an iconic Trek villain and a completely misjudged restaging of perhaps the most revered moment in Trek history. Where that original moment before felt truly meaningful, here it passes by with essentially no consequence, and its seemingly-irresolvable impact to the plot ends up being reversed in only 15 minutes time.

Abrams pulled a similar thing with his approach to Super 8, which I remember not having much of a problem with at the time (maybe because I’m more sympathetic to 1970s “Spielbergian” filmmaking than anything related to Star Trek) but now it’s starting to bother me more and more. I think Abrams has talent, but like George Lucas he seems more at home as a producer than as a director. As the latter, he relies too often on the audience’s knowledge of past influences to generate emotion instead of taking the time to find a more natural and original way to generate the same effect. He’s perfectly capable of better too, which is what makes it a little baffling; I would point to the opening sequence of the first Star Trek reboot as proof that he can create an emotional, spine-tingling sequence without excessive plundering of the past. The good news is that Star Trek Into Darkness retains the same fun energy that was so prevalent in the first film, and it remains an incredibly energetic and enjoyable experience overall. It is incredibly disappointing through to see the filmmakers dipping back into the well of the past so quickly and so clumsily, especially since the 2009 film seemed to signal a journey into more uncharted territory. 6/10.

Three TimesThree Times

This 2006 film from Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien is actually made up of three separate stories, each occurring during a different time period in Taiwan and each featuring the same pairing of Chen Chang and Qi Shu. In the first story, which is set in the 1960s, a soldier meets a pool hall hostess and promises to write to her when he is away. When he eventually returns, he finds that the hostess has moved on elsewhere, and he attempts to track down where she went. This story at times recalls the style of Kar Wai Wong, especially in the way it uses pop music to soundtrack the emotions of the characters,  although Hou’s style is much more reserved, preferring to keep the camera back at a distance  and simply observe, Altman style. In the second story, set in the 1910s, a young man makes frequent visits to a brothel, and one of the courtesans there falls in love with him. The feeling seems mostly unreciprocated though, as he is more interested in his own exploits and cannot get past the client/prostitute relationship. This story is told in a peculiar way, with spoken dialogue not heard but placed on title cards instead, like old silent films. In the third story, set in the 2000s, a photographer and a pop singer engage in a tumultuous relationship, while living in a disconnected world increasingly reliant on technology. This is the bleakest of the three segments, at least in terms of tone, and it’s apparent that Hou doesn’t much care for the evolution of modern society and how people interact with each other.

The common link between the three stories is love, although how it’s presented in each of them is different. The first story embraces the idea of two people finding each other, even if it’s only for a brief moment before separating again. The second story prevents the two people from truly connecting because of their standings in society. The third story presents a more pessimistic overview of the modern world where the concept of love is essentially without meaning. It makes for fascinating viewing, if only to watch the actors inhabit their multiple roles and to see how the varied approaches in the three stories complement each other. Admittedly, its slower-than-slow pacing does make it a little patience-testing at certain points, but for someone who has never seen a film by Hou Hsiao-hsien before, it definitely makes me want to track down more of the director’s work. 8/10.



About Andrew Alan Ramseyer

I am a Phoenix resident and I graduated from Arizona State University in 2011 with a Bachelors degree in Film and Media Studies, and from Northern Arizona University in 2013 with an English Masters degree and an emphasis on Professional Writing. The real world made sure that I would need to continue schooling in other areas, but I still love watching films and writing about films. Maybe someday I'll be able to do something film-related on a professional level, but for now I'm content with writing for myself and for others, who hopefully find my thoughts worthwhile.
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