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Saturday, 20 October 2018

The Current Cinema - John Snadden reports on two new Chinese action films PROJECT GUTENBERG (Felix Chong) and SHADOW (Zhang Yimou)

Two recent Asian cinema releases showing around Australia are well worth making an effort to see. They're very different genre movies but which share similar ideas. They are also two of the most visually arresting films I've seen in the cinema this year.But be quick! They won't be around for long!
PROJECT GUTENBERG (2018) is a classy, big budget production featuring some of Hong Kong's best movie-making talent. And it stars Canto screen icon, Chow Yun-Fat (GOD OF GAMBLERS, CITY ON FIRE). In this pic, he's known only as "Painter", a wealthy art dealer and business owner, which is a front for a thriving trade in art forgery and international counterfeiting. In New York, he finds Lee Man (Aaron Kwok0, a failed artist, who under Painter's influence becomes a world class forger.
Both need each other to create the ultimate counterfeit note: a "Superdollar", an American $100- bank bill which is a perfect copy in every detail. Director-writer Felix Chong (co-director of the INFERNAL AFFAIRS movies) shows us the nuts and bolts of the international counterfeiting business.
It's the relationship between Painter and his protégé which is the basis of the movie. The story unfolds in a particularly non-linear fashion and it's here where we begin to see the blending of the characters' lives and personas. 
Project Gutenberg
Chow Yun-Fat looks to have hardly aged a day since THE KILLER in 1989. A gun battle deep in the Golden Triangle is the action highlight of the film, but for long-time HK fans this sequence will be memorable as we watch Chow, a machine gun in each hand, mowing down the criminal minions before him. And thankfully not a dove in sight!
Jason Kwan's cinematography (CHASING THE DRAGON, 29+1) is first class and a joy to experience. Mainland star Zhang Jingchu (AFTERSHOCK, SKY ON FIRE) is believable as a talented artist who hits the big time. Regular screen heavy Jack Kao (FULL ALERT, WILD CITY) is good value as a Thai drug lord.
Project Gutenberg
The film's biggest problem is the final 30 minutes which are overly complicated and just too cute by half. The growing duality between Painter and Lee Man becomes lost in the rush of very dodgy and contrived plotting. Even so, for most of its running time PROJECT GUTENBERG is a pretty good film and worth seeing just for Chow Yun-Fat's performance.

SHADOW (2018) I liked Zhang Yimou's new film and found it to be on par with his 2006 martial-arts drama, CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER, and streets ahead of his 2016 China/Hollywood creature feature THE GREAT WALL. For this new pic Zhang has adapted one of the many narratives from the Chinese historical tome, THE ROMANCE OF THE THREE KINGDOMS.
The Shadow is a person chosen to impersonate a famous figure in times of danger. For years a peasant has assumed the character and life of the celebrated warrior, Commander Yu. The latter stricken by disease refuses to let the public see the real person. At the same time, he is using this anonymity to plot the overthrow of his sworn enemy, the King of Pei.
Unlike the baroque and gaudy CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER, SHADOW has been all-but drained of color. But it works, especially in the outdoor sequences. The kingdom is shrouded in cloud and mist, which only partly clears with the seemingly never ending torrential rainfall. Much of this exposes the stark, brutal landscape. As the river rises, so do the personal and political stakes of this desperate life and death struggle.
Beijing born actor Deng Chao definitely earnt his fee in this film as he takes the roles of Commander Yu and Jing, his doppelganger. He is well supported by Sun Li as his mostly loyal wife. Betty Sun Li is one of China's great acting talents (watch her stunning performance in Ronny Yu's FEARLESS) and it's a pity she doesn't make more films, instead she seems to work most in Chinese TV. Hu Jen (RED CLIFF, THE BODYGUARD) is the go-to actor when looking for a world weary warrior - a part which he plays convincingly.
The film's action choreographer is Ku Huen Chiu (BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS, THE WARLORDS) who learnt his craft from the master, Yuen Wo Ping (THE MATRIX, THE GRANDMASTER). The combat sequences are raw and brutal. But we do get to see the best use of an umbrella since Jet Li in the ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA movies. Director Zhang and Ku have some fun with these lethal parasols and, at times, creating homages to or piss takes of SINGING IN THE RAIN.
The violence and bloodshed of the final hour gives way to a beautifully framed and acted final shot, which has one of the survivors seeking a glimpse of what the future might hold. But he only sees the past. It's a great scene in a very good film.
With a much simpler story-line and an emphasis on action footage, I'm wondering if SHADOW might have been initially aimed at a larger Western audience. This thought is supported by the fact that Village Roadshow was one of the movie's main backers. The sad reality is SHADOW seems to have been dumped in Australian theatres.

Editor's Note: Shadow has also been noted in an earlier post by Peter Hourigan. Click
here to find the review 

Friday, 19 October 2018

On Blu-ray and DVD - Eddie Cockrell reviews THE DEER HUNTER (Michael Cimino, USA, 2018)

Editor's Note: Michael Cimino's still-controversial The Deer Hunter was recently given the full restoration treatment to coincide with the 40th anniversary of its release back in 1978. The magnificent new 4K digital copy had its premiere at Bologna's Il Cinema Ritrovato in June and a screening was also arranged recently for Cinema Reborn  subscribers. These notes were prepared for that screening by Variety critic Eddie Cockrell. Controversy still haunts the film, and Cimino himself,  as can be seen from this piece in Bright Lights, Gary Morris's great online film journal. 
The 40th Anniversary restoration has now been released on Blu-ray and DVD in Australia.
Michael Cimino was scarcely a blip on Hollywood’s radar prior to this film's release. A Yale graduate who made his name directing popular television commercials in New York before moving to Hollywood to write for films, he had but one directorial credit under his belt prior to THE DEER HUNTER, the successful caper film THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT. This break came courtesy of co-star and producer Clint Eastwood, who was so impressed with Cimino he gave him the gig. And whilst it showcased a relaxed banter between Eastwood and Jeff Bridges (who received an Oscar nomination in support), it scarcely anticipated the magnificent ensemble work and probing character studies Cimino drew from his DEER HUNTER cast.
Cimino quickly gained a reputation for meticulous production design, extended shooting schedules and generally difficult behaviour. It culminated with the disastrous 1980 western drama HEAVEN’S GATE, a financial disaster that brought down the United Artists studio and is seen as the end of the director-driven New Hollywood era of the 1970s. It was an experience from which Cimino and his career seemingly never recovered.
Though that film has undergone a critical re-evaluation, it made a pariah of the director, whose increasingly eccentric behaviour and startling physical transformation rendered him the stuff of rumour, insinuation and reclusive legendary status prior to his sudden, lonely and mysterious death (eventually ruled as congestive heart failure) in his Beverly Hills mansion in July 2016.
What do these chequered person details have to do with THE DEER HUNTER? Nothing and everything: in spite of, or maybe due to, the way in which he conducted his career, when all is said and done, Cimino was an artist. A difficult and eccentric artist, to be sure, but his legacy, which began, and some say ended, here, speaks for itself.
In the 1970s, particularly the three-plus years between America’s ignominious retreat from Saigon on April 30, 1975 (and, by extension, the ill-fated war with North Vietnam), and the seismic Los Angeles release of director Michael Cimino’s THE DEER HUNTER on December 8, 1978, Hollywood had sporadically and uncertainly grappled with the question of how to portray the extended, increasingly unpopular Vietnam conflict on film.
Such ventures as ROLLING THUNDER, ZEBRA FORCE, THE BOYS IN COMPANY C and GO TELL THE SPARTANS (look ‘em up, watch ‘em) opted for either exploitation, patriotism or an uneasy combination of the two.
With the passage of time, the best of the bunch seem to be Peter Davis’ 1974 Oscar-winning documentary Hearts and Minds, émigré Karel Reisz’ 1978 drama WHO’LL STOP THE RAIN (which opened four months prior to THE DEER HUNTER), Hal Ashby’s COMING HOME (which opened two months before Cimino’s film and subsequently shared to Oscar stage with it) and, wait for it, Robert Altman’s 1970 war satire M*A*S*H, which used the early 1950s Korean conflict as a thinly-disguised pretext to present some emerging and distinctly 1970s anti-war sentiments.
Given this relatively lacklustre track record, particularly in the context of Americans’ deep age and class divisions over the war, the anticipation in advance of THE DEER HUNTER’s release was keen. Amping up the must-see factor even further was the film’s controversial selection in the competition section at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 1979 and the subsequent Eastern Bloc walkout from the Berlinale in protest. The Soviets accused the film and its makers of “insulting the heroic people of Vietnam.”
The deceptively simple logline for Cimino’s film is this: three working-class friends (played by Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and John Savage) attend one last small-town Russian Orthodox wedding and a sloppy yet joyous wedding reception with their mates before shipping off to Vietnam, where they are captured and tortured, being forced to play rounds of Russian Roulette. Two of the three return to America, with one journeying back to save the third, who has chosen to remain behind in Saigon to play the awful game for what passes for a living.
Though there were pitched battles between the director and screenwriter Deric Washburn over credit, the writer, who had previously collaborated with Cimino and the recently deceased Peter Bochco, subsequent creator of TV’s “Hill Street Blues”, on the script of Douglas Trumbull’s SILENT RUNNING, won sole credit after arbitration.
In the hands of Cimino and his collaborators THE DEER HUNTER is, as more perceptive critics pointed out at the time and which remains true today, a symphony in three movements. The hardscrabble yet tight-knit domestic life of the proud immigrants and their descendants yields to the chaos and horror of war, which in turn gives way to the profound changes in the men, the communities to which they return and to everyone’s lives moving forward. Through it all is the stoic resolve of De Niro’s Mike Vronsky, whose obsessive pursuit of the title endeavour gives the film a rich metaphorical theme.
This 4K restoration of THE DEER HUNTER showcases the gritty yet gorgeous cinematography of the great Vilmos Zsigmond on a variety of locations. Eight towns in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Washington state were used to flesh out the real Clairton, Pennsylvania on the Monongahela River south of Pittsburgh where the domestic scenes are set, with Bangkok and environs filling in for Vietnam. Note the shafts of sunlight during the wedding sequence, the mist-shrouded mountains and the lush Thai jungles (no sets were built in either country).
The Oscar eluded Zsigmond that year, going instead to Nestor Almendros for Terrence Malick’s DAYS OF HEAVEN. Compensating for that, Peter Zinner’s Academy Award for Film Editing underscores the intuitive ways in which Cimino and Zsigmond framed and shot the pivotal scenes of male camaraderie at home and the chaotic press of humanity in the Russian Roulette sequences. Finally, note also how time seems suspended throughout the film, subtly underscoring the selfless dedication to the night-shift nature of their work and the immersive hell of war.
Also winning an Oscar in support for the film was Walken, whose performance as Nikanor “Nick” Chevotarevich embodied the profound ways in which war changes people. The performance cemented his status as the go-to actor of his generation for characters under duress.
On a darker note, the film featured the final performance of the great John Cazale (DOG DAY AFTERNOON, the first two GODFATHER films), who succumbed to the cancer he fought before and during production—his scenes were shot first and Cazale never saw the finished work. (Meryl Streep was living with Cazale at the time, and took the role, which she and Cimino fleshed out to accommodate her, to be closer to him).
Does THE DEER HUNTER have problems exacerbated by the times in which it was made? Yes, but let’s not go there—with this or any film, though that’s another essay altogether (and a long one). What stands the clichéd “test of time” (as George Stevens Jr. used to intone when bestowing an American Film Institute Life Achievement Award) in THE DEER HUNTER is what made Cimino great, and also what began his road to pariah-dom: grand ambition, meticulous attention to detail, a remarkable facility with ensemble male bonding and, at least here, a profound and profoundly conflicted love of what the banner at the wedding reception in the first third of the film somewhat ironically proclaims as “SERVING GOD AN COUNTRY PROUDLY.”
The film also served to break up the logjam of conflicting intentions Hollywood had shown over films about the Vietnam conflict, and they came thick and fast after that: APOCALYPSE NOW, PLATOON, BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY, FULL METAL JACKET and others. THE DEER HUNTER is where it all began, the wellspring of America and its filmed entertainment industry’s engagement with the enemy that was, in the end, perhaps itself.
The fortieth anniversary restoration  screened at AFTRS and presented by Cinema Reborn, premiered at Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato in June of this year is now available on Blu-ray and DVD. Restored in 4K in 2018 by Studio Canal at Silver Salt laboratory from the original 35mm camera negative
Story: Michael Cimino, Deric Washburn, Louis Garfinkle, Quinn K. Redeker. Script: Deric Washburn. Photography.: Vilmos Zsigmond. Editing: Peter Zinner. Music.: Stanley Myers. Cast.: Robert De Niro (Michael Vronsky), John Cazale (Stan), John Savage, (Steven), Meryl Streep (Linda), Christopher Walken (Nick), George Dzundza (John), Shirley Stoler (Steven’s mother), Chuck Aspegren (Axel), Rutanya Alda (Angela), Pierre Segui (Julien). Prod.: Michael Cimino, Michael Deeley, John Peverall, Barry Spikings.  EMI, Universal. DCP. 183’. Colour.

A Tribute to doco maker Curtis Levy - Presented by Ozdox.

Mark the date folks.

Wednesday 14 November 6.00 pm for 6.30 start at the AFTRS Theatre

Curtis Levy
The next OZDOX Australian Documentary Forum event is a special Tribute to Curtis Levy, one of our veteran documentary filmmakers and winner of the 2018 Stanley Hawes Award at AIDC. This will an entertaining and intriguing Masterclass of film clips, stories and special guests to reflect on Curtis's extraordinary range of award winning films. 

Curtis’s films include:  The President versus David Hicks, The Matilda Candidate, Hephzibah, Sons of Namatjira, Breakout, Gillies, High Noon in Jakarta, Riding The Tiger, The Ghan and more.

No need to book but come early to get your seat. Entry by donation.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

On DVD and YouTube - Ernst Lubitsch's wondrous THE SMILING LIEUTENANT (1931)

Miriam Hopkins as Anna (above). 

She tells her father, the King of Flausenthurm, she is smitten with Maurice Chevalier, who plays the title role of Niki, in Ernst Lubitsch’s wondrous The Smiling Lieutenant made during the beloved the pre-code period in 1931. 

Papa, I’m desperate. I’m no longer responsible. I’m capable of anything. If you don’t let me have my lieutenant you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to marry an American!” 

Surely only the great Samson Raphaelson could come up with that one.

The situation is finally resolved when Claudette Colbert, as the far more desirable of Niki’s two love interests gives up her claim and decides to give Anna some tips on erotic behaviour. “Let me see your underwear” …which leads to Jazz up your lingerie

Somebody has decided to assist those who cant afford the Criterion Eclipse box set of Lubitsch musicals by loading the whole film onto YouTube and you can watch it and marvel if you click here.

The next film Lubitsch made with Miriam Hopkins was another masterpiece Trouble In Paradise about which more anon.

Monday, 15 October 2018

The Current Cinema - Peter Hourigan enjoys SHADOW (Zhang Yimou, China, 2018)

It’s about thirty years since Zhang Yimou was the darling of the art-house scene with films like Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern.   When he struck out into the wuxia genre of films about martial heroes, complete with incredible (literally) duels with leaps over buildings and triple somersaults with sword or spear ready, in films like Hero (2002) he started to lose that audience, though still being prolific and diversifying into activities such as directing the opening and closely ceremonies for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
His 2016 film The Great Wall was intended to bring together the Beijing and Hollywood film worlds, but was largely rejected by critics as well as audiences in Asia and other important markets.  Now, he has returned with Shadow.   This was screened at this year’s Venice Film Festival in September, and has now crept into Australian cinemas via the Chinese circuit.
I’m not really a great fan of the wuxia genre. And there are elements of this, as this summary shows:
Deng Chao, Shadow
Pei is ruled by a wild, dangerous king (Zheng Kai). The king's military commander (Deng Chao) has fought bravely on the battlefield, but needs unique strategies to survive treachery in the king's court. He has cultivated a "shadow" (also played by Deng), a look-alike who can fool the king, as well as Pei's enemies, when deception proves necessary. Seeking final victory over a rival kingdom for control of the walled city of Jing, the king and the commander plot a secret attack. In training with his wife (Sun Li), the commander devises unconventional, lethal ways to use Pei's signature weapons and shields. The stage is set for an unprecedented battle.
However, I had a good time with this.  It is not the exotic ethnic or serious historic settings of his earlier film. We have our heroes and our villains and our external enemies.  What’s relevant is that it’s ‘period’ though the period itself doesn’t matter. Perhaps we will later on have intellectual readings of the doubling of the main hero.  It’s a lovely device, for the Commander to have a double who can be there to take any arrows or poison, and by the end we’re perhaps not really sure (or bothered) who is really being the hero, the Commander or his double.
Much of my delight came simply from looking at the film.  You can’t really say it has an overall grey palette, because that could be taken to mean that all colour has been desaturated. But it’s not really that.  It is just that it is a very grey (and white) world, like a piece of fabric woven from different shades of grey and white. 
There are no trees or grass or flowers. The soldiers are all in grey metallic armour. The women wear robes in various greys and whites. There are some spectacular views from the palace up one of the gorges, which we often see with brown cliffs and verdant greens dotting here and there under a bright blue sky. But when we look down the valley of the gorge, it is raining and misty, and everything is swamped by that.
But because it’s not desaturated but rather this rich grey colouring, when we have blood – and we do have blood – the impact is powerful. Early in the film the Commander and his double need to strip to the waist, so that the double can have a wound matching that of the Commander. Their flesh glows a palpable healthy pink in this moment.  Later there are also several wonderful moments (no spoilers here) when splotches of colour impact on us.
Find the trailer on Youtube, Shadow
The climactic battle is not at the film’s end, as we might expect.  And that is a lot of fun, with some wonderful invention. A duel takes place on a large yin and yang emblazoned structure constructed somewhat perilously over the raging torrent between the steep sides of the gorge. Meanwhile, an attack is also taking place elsewhere. Not only do we need to let the women lead, we also have them armed with some wonderful weapons.   You’ll never look at umbrellas in the same way.
And after the battle, all is not settled. Zhang has a couple of delectable twists up his sleeve for us. 
I enjoyed it.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Film Alert in September - The Five Most Popular Posts

Just a reminder folks. Here are the links to the five most popular posts in September on the Film Alert blog. Just click and go through to the page.

The FIVE Provocations

Frances Calvert

Talkie Talk #33 - Adam Bowen lists the week's new releases and draws attention to TV screenings of THE SERVANT, THE BIG COUNTRY and THE SOUND BARRIER


Halloween – slasher sequel with Jamie Lee Curtis

The Cleaners – doco about the secret censorship of the web.

A Star is Born – 4thversion of “backstage” musical (actually 5thversion, if you count What Price Hollywood?(1932), which has the same story: boozy producer, Lowell Sherman, discovers wannabe star, Constance Bennett). In the 2018 iteration it’s country star, Bradley Cooper, and actress-singer, Lady Gaga. In the 1976 version Kris Kristofferson falls for Barbra Streisand. In 1954, James Mason drinks; Judy Garland sings. In 1937, Janet Gaynor is on the rise, Fredric March is on the skids.

Donbass– darkly funny drama of contemporary life in Ukraine.

I Want to Eat Your Pancreas (poster left) – animated romantic drama with the Title of the Week Award.

Westwood– doco about the grande dameof British fashion, Vivien Westwood.

Namaste England– romantic, Bollywood comedy.


Monday 12.00pm 9Gem:The Servant (1963) – creepy story of upper class chap (James Fox) gradually undermined by his manservant (Dirk Bogarde) and sexy sidekick (Sarah Miles). Patchy (Harold Pinter at his silliest), and dated, but with excellent performances, stylish direction (Joseph Losey) and photography (Douglas Slocombe).

Tuesday 8.35pm and Wednesday 11.50am Fox ClassicsThe Big Country(1958) Epic, starry, slightly cool, but expertly made western about a feud over water rights. Gregory Peck unstiffens; Jean Simmons is loveable; Burl Ives is nasty; Franz Planer’s lensing is exquisite, and Jerome Moross’s score is splendid. Record it and speed through the abundance of seniors-centric commercials.

Friday 12.00pm 9GemThe Sound Barrier. Despite its characters, riddled with British upper-middle class restraint (particularly Ann Todd, the director’s wife), David Lean’s The Sound Barrier (1952) is a beautifully shot (Jack Hildyard) portrait of the cost of scientific progress on individuals. Ralph Richardson is chilling as a De Havilland-type patriarch, who must succeed to the detriment of his own flesh and blood.