Archive for April, 2005

Kung Fu Hustle

Monday, April 25th, 2005

kungfuhustle

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Stephen Chow’s “Kung Fu Hustle” is surely one of contemporary cinema’s finest examples of innovatively and effectively integrated CGI. Unlike Lucas’ soul-crushing “Star Wars” prequel juggernauts, as well as the “Matrix” series, Chow recognizes the vast, nearly untapped comic potential of pixel-bound nonsense. Totally unafraid to attempt any kind of jaw-droppingly goofy sight gag, Chow’s universe is completely comfortable in its ability to channel the kind of gravity defying impossibilities perfected by masters like Tex Avery. “Kung Fu Hustle” announces itself as a parody, but Chow’s skillful storytelling, along with his genuine reverence for past masters, makes the film one of the most entertaining of the year.

Set in a fairy-tale past suggesting the 1940s, Chow’s film kicks things off with a dazzling opening sequence that introduces the audience to the Axe Gang, a legion of dapper, tuxedoed thugs who break into choreographed dance routines upon completion of their grisly business. Two desperate wannabes (director Chow and Lam Tze Chung), posing as members of the Axes, draw the gang’s attention to Pig Sty Alley, a marvelously designed tenement, which also happens to be home to several former kung fu masters who can more than handle themselves in a fight. Pig Sty Alley serves as the primary setting for a heart-stopping run of tasty battles, and Chow stages the numerous clashes with reckless, delirious abandon.

Every clever confrontation in “Kung Fu Hustle” contains as much humor as it does impressive combat, which should satisfy genre fans who like to laugh. Not wanting to skimp on the wow factor, Chow enlisted the brilliant Yuen Wo Ping to design the skirmishes, and the legendary fight director delivers some of the finest displays of his career. Chow’s cast, which includes several legendary performers, is nearly perfect, and Yuen Qiu, as a chain-smoking landlady in curlers, slippers, and a housecoat, steals the movie with her exquisite deadpan expressions and her ability to deliver a serious beating.

Chow’s intertextual stew doesn’t stop with Avery cartoons, as “Kung Fu Hustle” nods in the direction of Sergio Leone, Fred Astaire, “Gangs of New York,” and “The Shining,” just to name a few. Amidst all the pop culture references, Chow still finds time to weave in a dewy romantic subplot involving his character and a mute childhood sweetheart (Huang Sheng Yi) who runs an ice cream cart as a grown-up. Despite being filled in with flashbacks, Chow’s nostalgic reverie needs a little more development to work as a full-fledged component of the movie, but it is hard to deny the charisma of the attractive lovebirds.

Chow leaves no doubt, however, that the visuals are the chief attraction, and his vivid style makes for some memorable imagery: giant palm prints stamp the earth, musical instruments send out hellish banshees that lop off heads and slice cats in two, and bodies stretch and twist like Reed Richards and Eel O’Brian. With so much on display, the most enjoyable aspect of the movie comes from the giddy realization that anything can happen (and often does). With “Kung Fu Hustle,” Chow cements his place as a sensational moviemaker. His admirers will wait eagerly to see what he does next.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/25/05.

Inside Deep Throat

Monday, April 18th, 2005

insidedeepthroat

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Arguably the most notorious porno film in the history of American movie exhibition, “Deep Throat” serves as the subject of Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s latest razzle-dazzle documentary. Often touted as the most profitable movie ever made (a claim that on some level remains unverifiable, as many of the box office receipts were swallowed up – pun intended – by shady mob operators who shook down theater owners for a chunk of every night’s take), “Deep Throat” emerged at a time in which strange cultural forces seem to have aligned: middle America not only acknowledged the movie’s existence, people of all kinds of backgrounds and income levels clamored to see it.

Directed by ex-hairdresser Gerard Damiano, now a Florida-dwelling retiree, “Deep Throat” presented a ridiculous scenario in which a woman whose clitoris exists at the back of her throat finds fulfillment only through performing fellatio. While the male-centric flaw in this conceit is immediately identifiable as a misogynistic fantasy, the notion that a woman’s sense of pleasure even registers as something of importance ended up being a crucial factor in the reception of the movie – especially when it became the target of investigations by the federal government.

Bailey and Barbato rocket through dozens of incredible stock footage shots that give “Inside Deep Throat” a tremendous feel for the era, but the interviews they conduct with the central players in the “Deep Throat” saga are just as entertaining. Along with an oddball gallery of peripheral participants in the movie’s production, director Damiano and actor Harry Reems contribute fascinating anecdotes. “Deep Throat” star Linda Lovelace, who died from injuries sustained in a car accident in 2002, appears in numerous clips that trace her unsettling personal saga from her violent relationship with uber-creepy husband Chuck Traynor to her status as pop culture icon to her role as a symbol of the anti-porn crusade to her untimely death. Lovelace’s ghost haunts “Inside Deep Throat” to the same extent that Reems mind-boggling odyssey provides the film with its most literal depiction of the cycle of sin, punishment, and redemption.

In a series of Kafkaesque decisions that culminated in Reems’ unfathomable conviction, “Inside Deep Throat” recounts the actor’s unlikely trajectory from bit player to cause celebre. In one segment, we see Reems flanked by Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty, two of many celebrities who came to the beleaguered actor’s defense. Yet another clip shows Reems on television debating Roy Cohn, with Cohn shouting down Reems with fire and brimstone pronouncements about the workings of the Bill of Rights. American second and third acts are nothing if not strange: Reems is now a recovered substance abuser who sells real estate in Utah.

Many pundits have suggested that it was the government’s intense scrutiny of “Deep Throat” that generated undeserved interest in the movie, and Damiano cheerfully admits on camera that his most famous film is terrible. “Deep Throat” seemed to reach out across the 70s and beyond, and Bailey and Barbato do their best to figure out why the film transcended its status as public enemy number one during the Nixon years (that Nixon was brought down by an anonymous source called Deep Throat is a delicious irony not lost on the moviemakers). An impressive group of talking heads pops up throughout “Inside Deep Throat,” including John Waters, Camille Paglia, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Hugh Hefner, Erica Jong, and Dick Cavett. No matter how witty and pithy, their recollections never fully account for the popularity of “Deep Throat,” which is undoubtedly part of the notorious movie’s mystique.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/18/05.

Melinda and Melinda

Monday, April 11th, 2005

melinda

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Prolific legend Woody Allen has been fair game of late for releasing a string of films dismissed by critics and ignored by American audiences. Despite a few terrific features (“Deconstructing Harry” and “Sweet and Lowdown” jump to mind), none of Allen’s more recent films have compared to the career achievements of the 1970s and 1980s. Still, one admires Allen for cranking them out at the rate of nearly one per year, and “Melinda and Melinda” is a pleasant enough diversion that shows off a few of Allen’s skillful attributes: colorful casting, exquisite photography and production design, and an almost quaint, old fashioned sense of NYC romance.

Playing out a clever conceit in which two stories featuring the same central character are alternately presented as the faces of tragedy and comedy, “Melinda and Melinda” never ends up going far enough to show just how difficult it is to tell happy and sad apart from one another. It would certainly help if the tragic aspects were poignant and the comic aspects were hilarious, but as it is, “Melinda and Melinda” seems content to show off the considerable skill of Radha Mitchell in the titular role(s). The two-pronged narrative begins with a series of similarities that keeps the audience engaged trying to sort out just how much the stories will have in common (two dentists, two out-of-work actors, two magic lanterns, two dinner parties, etc.).

In both stories, Melinda is an emotional wreck who appears unannounced to insert herself in the lives of some of Allen’s favorite stock types: actors, musicians, and filmmakers. In the tragic thread, Melinda tracks down her old college friend Laurel (Chloe Sevigny), and Laurel’s alcoholic husband Lee (Jonny Lee Miller), convincing them to let her stay at their fabulously appointed apartment. In the comic narrative, Melinda lives in the same building as movie director Susan (Amanda Peet) and Susan’s neglected husband Hobie (Will Ferrell).

Allen makes sure that both Melindas inject plenty of conflict into the lives and marriages of her acquaintances, but the film includes far too few significant revelations or surprises to keep the audience interested beyond the level of curiosity generated by the unique parallelisms of the double story. As an actor, Allen’s own presence is missed, and Will Ferrell’s attempt to play the familiar Woody character meets with mixed results. Only the appearance of Chiwetel Ejiofor, as the elegantly named pianist Ellis Moonsong, injects the proceedings with some overdue sparkle.

The film is so mild mannered, it ends up being neither comedy nor tragedy, and too many of the supporting players are left with little to do. Like all of Allen’s movies, however, the music selections (encompassing the usual array of the director’s favorite pop and jazz standards) are top notch, and greatly contribute to Allen’s fantasy construction of Manhattan. “Melinda and Melinda” lacks the razor sharp bite of Allen’s best writing, and the rapid-fire wit is sorely missed. Allen has balanced the bittersweet happy/sad dynamic more effectively in films like “Annie Hall” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors” – and while those films are great, “Melinda and Melinda” ends up being for hardcore Allen fanatics only.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/11/05.

Sin City

Monday, April 4th, 2005

sincity

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A tour de force of hard-boiled crime fiction clichés and pulpy noir fever dreams, “Sin City” is the first exciting movie to be released in 2005. Tenaciously faithful to comic book deity Frank Miller’s popular series, “Sin City” boasts a volcanic ferocity that will quicken the pulse and tighten the pants of scores of drooling, perspiring, adolescent and post-adolescent fanboys. Helmed by Miller and Robert Rodriguez (with a well-tuned scene by special guest director Quentin Tarantino), “Sin City” succeeds almost solely on the slavishness of its adherence to Miller’s gloriously penciled and inked panels. Seldom has a movie recreated the particular experience of reading comic books.

Reconstructing four of Miller’s stories (only three of which get the full treatment), “Sin City” likes to find a single exposed nerve and poke it over and over. The major protagonists all seem to define themselves as protectors of women – despite the fact that some of the females in Sin City clearly don’t need protecting. Add to that creaky chivalric trope Miller’s never-ending castration and emasculation motif and you have a recipe that seems certain to part America’s teenagers from their allowances (assuming they can sneak past the decidedly R rating).

As usual, violence trumps sex as the socially acceptable graphic engine that drives our voyeuristic lust, and despite the parade of barely-clad hotties in impossibly skimpy bondage-wear, Miller and Rodriguez are much more comfortable when they can focus on the two-fisted sadism that chokes nearly every CGI frame of their visual experiment. The filmmakers revel in the various ways street justice is meted out: arrows thump through chests, necks are chomped, limbs are separated from bodies, heads are stomped into unrecognizable puddles of bone and brain, and so on. Male genitals suffer every indignity: kicked, stabbed, and shot off, nuts are the target du jour.

Despite the casting of a parade of A-list talent, it is the seemingly washed-up Mickey Rourke who delivers the movie’s only really great performance. As the relentless, unstable Marv, Rourke manages something none of his co-stars can muster: he brings his character to vivid, muscular life. Buried under a mask of prosthetics, Rourke infuses Marv with both the brutal despair of a condemned prisoner and the rabid dangerousness of a wounded predator. Cracking spines and crushing skulls like a supernatural killing machine, Rourke seems to have found the role of a lifetime.

While the other major stories deliver their fair share of gut-bucket mayhem, Rodriguez and Miller seem too preoccupied with the stylish production design to bother much with script mechanics. “Sin City,” heavily influenced by “Pulp Fiction,” fails to intertwine its narrative threads as deftly as Tarantino did in his landmark film. One could argue that “Sin City” is meant to play like the comic book all the way down to its episodic structure, but great cinema has its own set of demands. At more than two hours, the movie version nearly wears out its welcome, and it is in large measure due to the lumbering, one-thing-at-a-time approach to the material. Even so, the movie’s eye-popping visuals nearly make up for its deficiencies, and “Sin City” already looks like a cult destination.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/4/05.