One of the great joys of watching movies from countries and cultures with which I have maybe, at best, a passing familiarity is discovering their language of film — both in their mainstream as well as their fringes. There is a thrill in discovering how differently one country, one region, one filmmaker can interpret how to employ this medium we love so dearly. How something familiar — a movie — can become something enigmatic, how the concept of what constitutes a narrative and for what purpose it should be employed varies so greatly. They draw on local customs and theatrical styles, local folklore and legends, and of course local tastes. How to frame a shot, how to deliver a line, how to interact with the camera, how to make a set or film on location, what constitutes a cinematic narrative — it’s amazing how many different ways these things can be done.
“Demobilized officer, finding peace unbearably tedious, would welcome any excitement. Legitimate, if possible, but crime of humorous description, no objection.” — Bulldog Drummond, 1929
Basil Dearden’s 1960 caper film League of Gentlemen is a little bit like if, instead of ending up solving crimes for a living, Bulldog Drummond ended up committing them; as if his humorous classified ad was answered by a fellow demobilized officer putting together a crew for a heist. Surely the overly complicated ladder theft that results would appeal to Drummond’s sense of humor. Unlike the old Bulldog Drummond movies however, beneath the breezy, dryly comical veneer of League of Gentlemen is the sort of political and social unrest that characterized much of Dearden’s work in the late 1950s and into the 1960s. The man was a master at making mainstream, commercial films that packed powerful, at times very pro-counter culture messages.
Frolicking Afield over at the Gentlemen’s Blog to Midnite Cinema again, the official companion to the Gentlemen’s Guide to Midnite Cinema podcast. And this time I’m talking Antonio Margheriti, James Bond rip-off Eurospy films, and Lightning Bolt, a thriller in which the hero tries to avoid conflict by offering to pay his nemesis off, then asks if it’s OK if he pays by personal check.
Referring to anything that happens in a Lupin III cartoon as “realistic” is folly, but the teleivsion special Lupin III: Elusiveness of the Fog pushes the boundaries even for the Lupin universe, where purple midgets in leisure suits threaten the world and Fiats somehow can drive up castle walls. I’ve always preferred Lupin’s slightly more grounded in reality exploits. Granted, we’re talking relative frames of reference here, but at the core of things, I like Lupin and his crew matching wits against their foes and pulling heists in a world that seems at least vaguely familiar. Elusiveness of the Fog, however, puts an entirely scifi/fantasy twist on the Lupin formula and gives us a goofy, breezy time travel adventure that manages to be disposably entertaining without being all that good.
People who are not familiar with the character of Lupin the Third are still likely to have heard of and perhaps even seen this movie thanks entirely to its being the directorial debut of Hayao Miyazaki in the world of feature film. Even many non-anime, non-animation moviegoers know Miyazaki’s name thanks to the man having single-handedly directing more “timeless classics” than the entirety of the Disney animation studios. These films include My Neighbor Totoro, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle. Several of his films (most notable Nausicaa) rank among my top films of all time, and I’ve never let a friend have a little kid without me sending them a copy of My Neighbor Totoro as a gift (usually accompanied by a copy of Godzilla’s Revenge, as both should be required viewing for any wide-eyed and adventurous kid who needs to be brought up proper).
Created by Japanese artist Monkey Punch (surprisingly, not his real name) in the 1960s, Lupin the Third was a mixture of James Bond, Matt Helm, Cary Grant from To Catch a Thief, and whatever guy you can think of who grabs boobs a lot. Bill Clinton, I guess. Lupin the Third was meant to be the jet-setting super-thief great grandson of Arsene Lupin, a beloved French pulp character who was very much the “gentleman thief.” Lupin the Third jettisons the gentleman part most of the time but excels in the thievery department. Quite in contrast to his famous relative, Lupin the Third is a crass, horny, occasionally sleazy, always smart-alec guy with a weakness for beautiful girls. Together with his parters in crime Jigen (a former yakuza hitman and reportedly the greatest crack shot in the world) and Goemon (a guy who identifies a little too heavily with the romantic ideal of the mysterious, wandering samurai), Lupin trots the globe in search of treasure to be found, banks to be robbed, chicks to be nailed, and smug rich guys to be kicked in the jaw. Complicating Lupin’s life are two more characters: dogged Interpol inspector Zenigata, whose entire life revolves around finally arresting the wily Lupin; and Fujiko (whose name means “peaks”), a big-breasted flirt who is sometimes Lupin’s partner, sometimes his rival, and usually both.
At first — and even second — glance, Last Tycoon is a movie that seems custom-made for me and based entirely on some of my favorite obsessions: Shanghai during the 20s and 30s, old-time fashion, Jazz Age decadence, shidaiqu (that unique Shanghai brand of jazz that combined American swing with traditional Chinese music), a title stolen from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, and Chow Yun-fat in a cool suit blowing suckers away. Pretty perfect set of ingredients, right? Unfortunately, the chef is the frequent butt of jokes here at Teleport City, Wong Jing. Under his stewardship as director, all these wonderful elements almost come together into something great. There are moments of brilliance in this film, and moments of stunning beauty and excitement. But there are also some moments that are just terrible, and many that are just sort of stumbling. The whole thing is a bit awkward. In other words, it’s a pretty typical Wong Jing directorial effort, with more good than bad but not as much great as I was hoping for.
In the spirit of sleazy old “true confessions” magazines, here’s my confession: I am a life-long easterner, raised in Kentucky, schooled in Florida, happily living the rest of my life in New York City. All three locations are awash in hardboiled, noirish, and/or Southern Gothic credibility. And while I have no intention of leaving New York, and even less intention of moving to the West Coast, I never the less have a strange fascination with Los Angeles. Granted, this fascination is built entirely on assumptions I know to be wholly inaccurate — that L.A. is or ever was the L.A. of Philip Marlowe, seedy detective magazines, and faded Hollywood glory. Residents of Los Angeles, feel free to do the same with New York. I would love to, but I deal with the city on a daily basis so my image of Gotham as Gotham, full of Prohibition-era suits and Weegee crime scenes is too often undercut by the reality of pleated Dockers and people wearing sweatpants. In my misconception of L.A., there is no room for what Los Angeles actually is. And since there is an entire country between it and me, I am going to ignorantly cling to my illusion of a city designed entirely by Raymond Chandler and David Lynch, safe in the knowledge that it makes no difference to me what L.A. “is really like.”
In 1982, cult film fave Tobe Hooper got his shot at the big time. He was already an infamous character and major figure in the horror film world thanks to his first film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He enjoyed some mainstream success as the director of the original made for television Salem’s Lot, a movie that made a whole generation of children afraid to look out a second story bedroom window. A year after Salem’s Lot, Hooper got a plum job directing a big-budget horror film to be produced by Steven Spielberg. Fans were excited to see what the king of survival horror could do with a Spielberg size budget. Unfortunately, whatever it was he was going to do never came to be.
If there’s one lesson to take away from this lavish Thai swashbuckler, it is this: if you are a dick to whales, don’t go to war against a guy who is nice to whales and can also ask them for favors.
These days, when folks like us think of Thai cinema, we think mostly of Tony Jaa and Jeeja Yanin, but mostly Tony Jaa. We might think of Panna Rittikrai, but his name is harder for casual fans to remember. And occasionally, some of us may think of Fireball, since, you know, full contact muay thai basketball to the death. Whatever the case may be, we’re thinking about bone-crunching martial arts fights and outrageous stunts. But the movie that really put Thailand on the international action movie map and started making people outside Thailand think maybe they should be paying closer attention to the country’s output was the mustache-heavy period piece Bang Rajan. It was the story of a group of burly men with burly facial hair and burly war hammers beating the shit out of the Burmese. Although based on history, the movie was really just a more muscular, shirtless remake of The Seven Samurai — if there’s one thing Thai epics hate, it’s shirts. By the numbers spectacle film making, yeah, but that didn’t really matter to a lot of viewers; it certainly didn’t matter to me. I loved Bang Rajan and, in fact, saw it before I’d ever heard of Ong Bak or Tony Jaa. Those two films together, though, with maybe an assist from The Eye, drew a lot of attention to Thailand, especially from Hong Kong film fans, who were still shivering, cold and alone in the wilderness the collapse of their favorite film industry had left them to die in.