David’s Movie Journal 8/26/11

I haven’t done one of these in a while but I have been watching movies, at least a little bit. I’m not gonna try to cram everything I’ve watched into one post. I’ll just try to do these more regularly and see if I can catch up.

True Legend

It’s been a long and very gradual process, my learning to appreciate martial arts movies. I’ve never outright disliked them but as a younger film watcher who was, in retrospect, trying way too hard to be a “serious” appreciator of art, I had a difficult time understanding quite how to approach it. The genre is, at times, quite silly by the standards we’re accustomed to and the devotion and exuberance it inspired in people was hard for me to grasp. I’ve come to interpret it in the same way I do heavy metal, as something that is simultaneously completely self-aware and completely earnest.

I’m glad I arrived at that point before I saw True Legend, Yuen Woo-ping’s new film because, for most of its running time, it’s one of my favorite entries in the genre. It’s the story of a retired general named Su Can forced back into action when his father is killed and his son kidnapped by his evil adopted brother Yuan Lie. At the same time, it’s an origin story for a character type that has shown up in these types of films for a long time, the drunken beggar who can kick ass when called for.

The latter story is the movie’s weakness, though. For most of the movie, Su Can’s exile, recovery and retraining after his first battle with Yuan Lie is exciting, whimsical, visceral and deeply felt. Meanwhile, Yuan Lie is just the kind of inventively crazy villain a movie like this needs. When he absorbs the venom of scorpions, snakes and spiders so that he can poison his foe just by grabbing him, the correct reaction is, “Awesome.” Also delightful are Jay Chou and Gordon Liu as the magical beings who train Su Can. This all culminates in an exciting climactic battle that is as gonzo as it is sad. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t end there. There’s an extended epilogue of sorts that connects to the rest of the film in only the most tenuous way. Really, it’s like you’ve watched a really good movie and then its short and lame sequel. It’s a frustrating and disappointed ending but True Legend is still worthy of your time if you like the genre.

The Hangover Part II

A lot of people have been hard on Todd Phillips’ follow-up to 2009’s The Hangover and they’re pretty much right. The screenplay is lazy in the ways it just tries to mimic the original. The characters are far more exaggerated versions of their previous selves. And, most importantly, it’s just not funny. That’s not to say that it’s unfunny in the way of movies like the recent The Change-Up that are straining way too hard. It’s just that, for long stretches, The Hangover Part II just isn’t even trying to be funny.

All that said, I think the movie is actually a sign of growth for Phillips as an auteur. His sense of mischief and misanthropy is more focused and pronounced here. Aesthetically, the movie is grimier and even less polished than The Hangover. He tells a straightforward story (even if it’s the same story) with more economy and momentum than he ever has before. In these and other ways, the sensibilities of the punk guy who underwent fraternity hazing and lionized GG Allin in his early documentaries are given free reign. Phillips doesn’t splatter a dead pig across a car and Ed Helms’ face just because he wants to shock you. He does it because he actually thinks it’s cool. That antagonistic joy is what makes The Hangover Part II better than people say it is, even if they’re dead on about all the reasons it’s bad.

The Makioka Sisters

Kon Ichikawa’s The Makioka Sisters was made in 1983, a fact you can surmise pretty easily just from watching it. There was a time when I would have thought that was a bad thing. That would be the same time when the score in Michael Mann’s Manhunter really bothered me. Since then, I’ve come to realize that almost every film is, in ways big or small, dated. In fact, the ways in which a film is tied to its era are part of what makes art so great and fascinating, not to mention so educational. So I found the sumptuous look and synthetic sound of The Makioka Sisters to be a delight, part of the tapestry that makes up this enjoyable movie.

The film is a languid portrait of pre-war life among Japan’s wealthy class. But it’s also an exploration of marriage seen nearly exclusively from the woman’s point of view. There are four sisters. The elder two are already married and are in various and fluctuating stages of happiness and unhappiness. The youngest, pretty and possessing a rambunctious streak, is popular with young men and would like to marry someday soon. However, the third sister, intelligent but very shy and reserved, has not been wed yet. According to tradition, the sisters must marry in order. In the hands of a hack writer, that’s the set-up for a very bad romantic comedy starring the Japanese version of Kate Hudson. This film, though, is not bound to the narrative temptations of that conflict. Instead, it observes these women and their lives and problems from a distance. Its scope allows us to see more and yet its clarity allows us to see deeply. With its gorgeous sets, costumes and photography, The Makioka Sisters is a film that passes the time so pleasantly that you may not even notice you’re seeing something transformative and true.

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