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Posts Tagged ‘2000s’

Cinema is an international art form, of course, and as such most of its forms are, generally speaking, much of a muchness all around the world. Given that we currently live in a world which is dominated by western and especially American culture, it’s not really surprising that it’s Hollywood movies that influence those from elsewhere in the world, rather than vice versa, and that those rare genres which originated outside the Anglophone world tend not to translate well into the English-speaking idiom. No-one makes giant monster movies in quite the same way they do in Japan, for example (although to be fair this genre had its roots in American B-movies).

I’ve written in the past about the difference between American and Asian martial arts movies, too – although the key difference is really that in American cinema, the martial arts action movie is a (usually fairly disreputable) genre in its own right, largely comprising undistinguished movies starring bad actors. Not all of the Asian action stars are necessarily much better, of course, but what seems to me to be the case is that in Asian movies the martial arts content is just one element of the production – they make martial arts comedies, or martial arts thrillers, or martial arts romances, and so on. Even the martial arts historical bio-pic, as in Ip Man, directed by Wilson Yip, and starring Donnie Yen.

Everyone knows of ‘I liked this band before they were famous’ syndrome, and with Donnie Yen recently coming to prominence to a mass international audience for the first time following his winning turn in the last stellar conflict franchise film (the first man to bring kung fu to a galaxy far, far away), it would obviously be a bit pompous of me to point out that I’ve been singing Donnie Yen’s praises for over ten years – I would’ve sworn I said something nice about his fight choreography and cameo in Blade 2, but apparently not. Needless to say, Yen’s star seems to be waxing at present, and this movie shows why.

Here I suppose we are in the realm of the bio-pic based on the life of someone who is very obscure as far as most people are concerned. Ip Man’s fame rests on his role in the history of martial arts, in particular the Wing Chun style of kung fu. Perhaps more prosaically, he is also notable as the martial arts teacher of Bruce Lee, a fact which the movie draws attention to (even on its own poster). Quite how close to reality the film actually gets is another matter, of course.

The first act of the film is set in Foshan, a noted centre of martial arts culture, in the mid 1930s. Ip Man (Yen) doesn’t run his own school as the story starts, largely (one surmises) because Mrs Ip (Lynn Hung) is rather disapproving, and so he is content to live the life of a relatively affluent gentleman. Needless to say, he is a phenomenally gifted and skilled fighter, and events do keep transpiring that force him to fight. (Other masters insist on sparring with him, something he’s much too polite to refuse, rough out-of-towners must be taught a lesson for the honour of Foshan’s kung fu heritage, and so on.) This is all fairly genteel, as kung fu movies go, and actually genuinely funny in places – ‘Just try not to break anything,’ pouts Mrs Ip, as her husband prepares to do battle with a troublemaking ruffian (Fan Siu-wong) in the front parlour of their lovely home.

Then the story turns darker, as the Japanese invade China and Foshan is occupied by enemy forces. The Ips are forced out of their home and Ip Man has to seek work as a labourer. The general of the occupying Japanese army, Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), is a dedicated karate expert and determined to show the superiority of Japanese martial arts over the local kind. Brutal matches between local kung fu fighters and karate experts from the Japanese army ensue, with bags of rice for any Chinese who win, and a beating (frequently unto death) for any who lose. Needless to say this is not Ip Man’s kind of scene at all, but soon enough he realises that the honour of his city, not to mention China itself, requires he stand up and be counted…

The film is somewhat more thoughtful and less schlocky than it probably sounds, not least because this isn’t just another exercise in hyperkinetic butt-whupping but a film which seems to have things to say about Chinese national identity. I’m not a particular expert on the Chinese kung fu movie, but this isn’t the first film I’ve seen which touches on the subject of a foreign-occupied China in the early part of the 20th century, nor the first which equates the mastery of kung fu with the indomitable Chinese spirit. (Here, perhaps, is the key difference between American and Chinese kung fu movies – in a US film, martial arts are always inevitably something slightly foreign and exotic, whereas in a Chinese movie, they’re an expression of an intrinsic part of the local culture.)

Perhaps as a result, the film has that solemn and slightly over-reverent tone that is usually the enemy of good drama: you just know that Ip Man is going to be portrayed as a paragon of virtue throughout, and the struggle of the Chinese against the occupying Japanese is likewise not much afflicted by shades of grey (that said, Miura is a generally honourable guy – enemy scumbag duties are hived off to his sadistic second-in-command). You would think this wouldn’t leave Yen a lot to work with as an actor, but he actually does a pretty decent job of suggesting Ip Man, the man – always assuming he really was as decent, modest, unassuming, and patriotically honourable as the film suggests.

(To be perfectly honest, it does seem like this movie casts loose of the anchor of historical accuracy fairly early on and sails off into some highly fictitious waters for most of its duration – but if I’m going to watch a kung fu movie, I’d much rather watch one where Donnie Yen takes on ten karate experts simultaneously than one which strictly adheres to what actually happened.)

Needless to say, Yen is stunning in the fight sequences which regularly punctuate the film. Apparently he had to work hard to brush up on his Wing Chun for this particular movie (I understand his background is in Tai Chi and Tae Kwon Do), but – obviously – I can’t possibly comment as to how authentic the fight choreography in the film is (the choreography is courtesy of Sammo Hung). Yen makes it all look very easy, of course –  perhaps a bit too easy, for Ip Man’s legendary status means that he’s never going to be seriously challenged at any point in the story.

As a result the movie is less effective as a drama than it could be, but the fight sequences are superb and there are some decent performances too. I suspect the film-makers’ desire to say something rousing and patriotic about Chinese national identity and the responsibilities of being a good citizen are going to leave most international viewers quite cold, but Ip Man is a well-mounted, reasonably well-written movie, and well worth a look if you like people being kicked in against a vaguely historical backdrop – especially if it’s Donnie Yen doing the kicking.

 

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Christmas means different things to different people. This is practically a truism, of course, but it has been brought home to me in recent weeks by the local art house cinema’s selection for their films for Christmas season. Some of the usual suspects were in there, like Scrooge, but on the whole there was a rather different and unexpected flavour to the proceedings: as regular visitors may recall, things kicked off with a very welcome revival of The Blood on Satan’s Claw, and went on to include Night of the Demon and Under the Shadow, before concluding with Hideo Nakata’s 2002 film Dark Water. A fairly sustained assault by supernatural forces of darkness upon the innocent and unwary, then – in the words of Thea Gilmore, that’ll be Christmas.

I wanted to take my Anglo-Iranian affairs correspondent along to see Under the Shadow again, to see if he could identify any of the cultural subtexts which I suspected had eluded me the first time I saw it. But we couldn’t make that date so we ended up going to see Dark Water instead, which was the first time for both of us.

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The original title of this movie, Honogurai Mizu no soko kara, translates as From the Depths of Dark Water, which is perhaps a bit more florid than the English version but still tells you everything that you need to know – it gets very dark and there’s water by the bucketful. Hitomi Kuroki plays Yoshimi, a Japanese housewife in the midst of very acrimonious divorce proceedings, central to which is the custody settlement for her young daughter Ikuko (Rio Kanno). Things are, frankly, starting to get to Yoshimi, and she is very relieved when she manages to find an apartment for the two of them to live in. The building is old and slightly decrepit, and there’s a bit of a damp patch on the ceiling in Ikuko’s bedroom, but you can’t have everything, can you, and how bad can things actually get?

Well, pretty bad, to be perfectly honest: Ikuko finds a child’s bag on the roof, which absolutely refuses to be thrown away no matter how many times Yoshimi tries to get of it. The damp gets more and more pervasive. Yoshimi begins to glimpse a small, raincoated figure around the building, and it seems to be closing in on the pair of them. Then she hears the story of how a young girl disappeared from the same building a few years earlier and begins to suspect her daughter may be in much greater peril than she previously suspected…

In the end, I confided to my Anglo-Iranian affairs correspondent that missing Under the Shadow in favour of Dark Water was probably for the best, not just because Dark Water is a rather more effective and subtle film, but also because it clearly inspired and had a huge influence upon the more recent movie. Both concern an effectively single mother and her daughter, trapped in an almost derelict and partly deserted residential building, surrounded by useless and unhelpful individuals, with a relentless supernatural force encroaching into their lives. Even one of the key images of Dark Water, the spreading damp, is sort-of replicated in the form of the bomb-damaged ceiling of Under the Shadow.

It’s perfectly understandable that other directors should feel moved to draw upon the work of Hideo Nakata, for he is one the leading exponents of the cinematic ghost story of the modern era – as well as Dark Water, he also originated the seemingly-endless Ringu franchise – and Dark Water is unquestionably a very unsettling film to watch. Well, more than unsettling, in places it’s downright scary.

There’s a slightly odd thing going on here where you know well in advance that Nakata is going to be using certain devices to achieve his effects – you just know there’s going to be some business involving mysterious figures appearing on the antiquated CCTV system of the apartment block, and so it proves, and also some fun and games with the decrepit old lift, and once again this comes to pass – and yet when the moments come you are as rattled as if it was a complete surprise to you. It may just be down to the sheer virtuosity of the director, and perhaps also the way in which he conjures up such an oppressive atmosphere from virtually the first moment of the film. The relentless rain and puddles quickly acquire a greater significance and their own set of associations – by the end of the film a leaky tap has basically become a portent of utter dread.

That said, I feel I have to say that my companion didn’t find the film quite as effective as I did, and we had a lively discussion about the film’s employment of various horror movie and ghost story tropes – was it really necessary, we discussed, for Yoshimi to be quite so psychologically fragile and prone to alarm? In a way it helps to drive the story along, because people who make bad decisions are worth their weight in gold to the writers of horror movies, and perhaps Nakata is also trying to leave a little bit of ambiguity as to what exactly is going on – to paraphrase Peter Bradshaw’s comment when discussing the US remake of this film, just exactly what kind of help does Yoshimi need – a psychiatrist, an exorcist, or a plumber?

Nevertheless, this film does have some properly spooky moments, even if I might also suggest it has a few issues with pacing – having ramped up the tension in the second act, Nakata perhaps lets it slack off just a bit too much before the climax, while the concluding sequence which acts as a coda perhaps goes on just a little too long to be completely effective. Despite all this, I would still say Dark Water is a hugely accomplished and very potent ghost story, with some superbly effective surreal flourishes as it reaches its climax, and just enough depth and ambiguity to linger in the memory once concluded. Certainly a modern classic, and a very influential film.

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It can sometimes be difficult to keep track of where you are in the arcane world of Godzilla continuity – you have to navigate your way around thirty-odd movies set in at least half a dozen different timelines, the connections between which are frequently rather obscure. Of course, most of the time this doesn’t really matter, because it’s not as if there’s some sort of breathtakingly subtle meta-plot unfolding – these are Godzilla movies, after all. But, for the diligent follower, it’s nice to at least try.

The movies made between 1955 and 1975 mostly stuck to the same continuity, as did the ones appearing between 1984 and 1995. The bunch of films which followed took a different approach and are notable for two things: firstly, they mostly stand alone and don’t refer to one another (with the exception of Tokyo SOS, which is a direct sequel to the preceding Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla), and secondly, they feature a Godzilla with ridiculously huge dorsal plates.

Actually, one convention which nearly every Japanese Godzilla continuity adheres to is that the original 1954 Godzilla ‘actually’ happened, they just disregard all the other intervening sequels. The one exception is Masaaki Tezuka’s 2000 movie Godzilla Vs Megaguirus, one of the aforementioned ridiculously-huge-dorsal-plate films, which makes some odd choices generally.

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Things start promisingly enough as the movie outlines the parallel world in which it is set: with Tokyo destroyed by Godzilla in 1954 (the key fact being that the big lizard was not killed by the Oxygen Destroyer in this timeline), the Japanese capital is moved to Osaka and reconstruction begins. Further attacks by Godzilla in the following decades leads to the abandonment of nuclear energy, as the boffins conclude an atomic pile is basically just a help-yourself buffet as far as Godzilla is concerned, and other non-renewable energy sources aren’t much better.

It’s an interesting tack to take, and it does make sense that the existence of giant monsters would inevitably result in a very different world. However, all the stuff about the capital going to Osaka and so on has no bearing on the plot whatsoever. The alt-history angle does not inform the plot in any significant way, and it just feels like the director and scriptwriters getting carried away with their own enthusiasm. Not for the last time.

Anyway, at this point we meet Tsujimori (Misato Tanaka), a hard-as-nails soldier, and laid-back young boffin Kudo (Shosuke Tanihara). Tsujimori recruits Kudo into an elite group of the JSDF, tasked with eliminating Godzilla forever. Again, fine in theory, but what code-name has this task force been assigned? They are… the G-Graspers. Yes, they will seek Godzilla out and firmly grasp him. He will be grasped as he has never been grasped before.

I mean, I suppose there are theoretically worse names to give your Godzilla-hunting task force than ‘the G-Graspers’, I just can’t think of any right now. And beyond this, the whole set-up and look of the… sigh… the G-Graspers, their vehicles, their uniforms, everything – it just feels like something that Gerry Anderson would have come up with if asked to think of an idea for a new series at very short notice while suffering from a heavy cold. A atmosphere of distinct cheesiness persists.

The task force want Kudo to help with their current plan, which is to shoot Godzilla with a satellite-mounted cannon which launches miniature black holes at its target. If you are anything like me, I imagine your imagination has just slammed on the brakes at this point. Giant nuclear-powered dinosaurs I’m on board with, but black hole cannon? Just how outrageously comic-booky, not to mention slightly silly, can you get?

Well, somewhat more, it turns out: the black hole gun is test-fired but briefly leaves a wormhole as an after-effect (the G-squad’s response is ‘oh well, that’s interesting’ before they completely ignore it). However, a giant insect flies through the wormhole and deposits an egg before returning from whence it came, and the egg, through a slightly ridiculous plot contrivance, ends up in the sewers of Tokyo, where it begins to divide and develop.

Before long giant predatory bugs are making the lives of hapless Edoites miserable. Apparently these things are Meganulons, making this a call-back to a bunch of minor monsters in the original Rodan movie, but the connection isn’t highlighted on-screen presumably because Rodan doesn’t exist in this continuity. The Meganulons pupate into giant dragonflies, although not before they somehow cause half of Tokyo to flood – and this isn’t just a get-your-wellies on flood, the streets are submerged to the depth of about thirty feet. How have the bugs managed this? It is never gone into.

Anyway, because they apparently home on energy too, the dragonflies zip off to hassle Godzilla just as the G-squad are getting ready to fill him full of black hole, confusing the issue no end (cue another sequence of a kaiju getting swarmed by a horde of smaller monsters, which was practically a genre staple for a while in the late 90s). However, due to the tech not being properly tested or something, the black hole cannon (apparently code-named ‘Dimension Tide’, which is just more evidence that the Japanese government needs to rethink how it code-names things) just doesn’t shoot Godzilla hard enough and he survives and heads off to Tokyo to complain.

However – and this is perhaps not 100% clear on screen – some of the dragonflies have also survived and zip back to Tokyo too, where they inject some of the juicy goodness they sucked out of Godzilla into a big chrysalis at the bottom of the swamp Shibuya has turned into. Sure enough, out of the chrysalis emerges a giant mutant dragonfly which a passing boffin helpfully names Megaguirus, and which is sure to make Godzilla’s looming visit to Tokyo even more fraught…

Writing about Godzilla 2000 a while back, I said that it wasn’t quite the textbook example of how to make The Bad Godzilla Film, but it was getting there. Well, this was the next film into production and their technique seems to have developed, but only in the sense that this is a much more comprehensively developed Bad Godzilla Film. You may have noticed the multiple ridiculousnesses and redundancies deftly woven into the story; well, I promise you there are a bunch more which lack of space has prevented me from mentioning. I haven’t even touched on how boring and unappealing the human characters are.

And it has to be said that, for a film called Godzilla vs Megaguirus, the fight between the two feels more like a contractual obligation than an essential element of the plot. The realisation of Megaguirus is, well, slightly dodgy, mainly because its wings just don’t beat remotely fast enough to let it hover the way it generally does, and the actual battle between the monsters only lasts as long as it does because Megaguirus somehow keeps managing to sneak up on Godzilla without him noticing. Once Godzilla has disposed of the big bug, your heart sinks when you realise there are still another fifteen minutes to go and that this will inevitably be filled with cheesy machismo from the G-Graspers and another frankly ludicrous plot contrivance (experimental and delicate the black hole gun may be, but it still works while the satellite it’s fixed to is burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere).

In short I would say this was an eminently dismissible Godzilla movie like few others since the early 1970s, but for the fact that the film does mount a certain kind of spectacle with a confidence and ability you would not expect given the quality of the script and direction. There’s a sequence in which Godzilla surfaces beneath a couple of characters in an inflatable dinghy, and one of them ends up clinging to his (ridiculously huge) dorsal plates as he swims along, and this is really well achieved. Some of the battles between the JSDF and Godzilla are also extremely impressive.

Are some good special effects enough reason to watch a movie with a silly script and no sympathetic characters? (Even Godzilla isn’t sympathetic, although that could be because the writers can’t seem to decide what their attitude to him is – if he’s the bad guy, shouldn’t we be cheering for (the otherwise evil) Megaguirus? If he’s the good guy, why should we be rooting for the G-squad in their efforts to blast him into a black hole?) That’s a decision each of us must make for ourselves. All I will say is that while there are many things this film does well – monster suits, special effects, plot insanity – there are many other Godzilla movies which are equally accomplished in these areas, and which don’t have the bizarre deficiencies this film also displays.

 

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It’s that special time of the year when people all over the world settle down into their seats, help themselves to a handful of popcorn, and relax in anticipation of the latest movie to star the one and only Jason Statham. Regular readers will be fully aware of the genuine pleasure I derive from watching Mr S do his thing once or twice a year.

Which is why one of the banes of my life is the fact that the people in charge of booking films at the city centre multiplexes in my town more often than not flatly refuse to show Statham movies at all, at least not ones where he isn’t propping up some past-it action derelict or in some other way sharing the screen. Are Mr Statham’s vowels just not up to scratch for Oxford cinemas? Are straightforward action movies just not good enough for the bookers round here? It makes me want to bellow and run amuck behind the popcorn counter. Still, one must face facts and accept that I am simply unable to bring you a review of Mechanic: Resurrection this week.

So, to hell with it, this week I will be reviewing Death Race, a Jason Statham movie from 2008, not because it is any good or because he is particularly effective in it, but just because I want to review a Statham movie and I’m not going to let the prejudices of film-bookers against a certain kind of film get in my way. Yup, I’m not afraid to stand up and be counted when it comes to a matter of principle.

Anyway, Death Race sees Mr S teaming up with the king of boneheaded action cliches, Paul WS Anderson, in a remake of the classic 1975 film Death Race 2000. Well, sort of a remake, inasmuch as some of the characters have the same names and it features cars. The rest is…

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Well, the first dip into the Big Book of Cliches comes when we get a set of opening captions describing how the US economy imploded in 2012 (slightly ironic given this movie came out near the height of the financial crisis), all prisons were privatised, and gladiatorial combat between convicts became popular mass entertainment – especially Death Race, which involves putting dangerous inmates into heavily armed and armoured high-performance vehicles and letting them battle all the way to the finish line, or to death, whichever comes first.

As is fairly common with a 21st century Paul WS Anderson movie, you are instantly struck with an urgent sense of how utterly implausible all of this is, and how cobbled-together the premise feels. However, things progress and we meet good-guy steelworker Jensen Ames (Mr Statham), whose place of employment is being shut down, leading to a bit of industrial relations tension. This really has nothing to do with the plot, but does allow Mr S to do his ‘I’m incredibly angry and about to go nuts with a big stick’ face while grappling with several cops.

Slightly more relevant to the plot is the brutal murder of Mr S’s lovely wife, for which he is framed and sent to a maximum security prison, run by icy warden Joan Allen. Allen supervises the Death Race events, and she has a proposition for our man: top driver Frankenstein died after the last race, secretly, and she needs someone to carry on the persona and keep the ratings up. If Mr Statham agrees to pretend to be Frankenstein, he will be let out of prison and given custody of his baby daughter should he survive the race. (It transpires that, as well as being a devoted family man and good-guy steelworker, Mr Statham has also got stints as a prison hard man and top racing driver on his CV. Now that’s what I call an eclectic employment history.)

Naturally he agrees, and we are introduced to various other characters, including Frankenstein’s chief mechanic (Ian McShane), his hot navigator (Natalie Martinez) – yes, inmates from the womens’ prison up the road are the navigators, and like female convicts everywhere they all look like supermodels – and his deadly rival Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson). But Mr S is a smart cookie and realises just how lucky the warden is that a man of his special talents should arrive in the prison just at the moment. Could Allen know more about the conspiracy to murder Mr S’s wife than she’s letting on…?

I originally came across the existence of Death Race during the trailers preceding Wanted, when my considered opinion was that it looked like one of the greatest films ever made (I was perhaps somewhat influenced by the knowledge I would not be getting to see it at the cinema). Now, of course, I realise that it is not one of the greatest films ever made. It is not even the best film called Death Race ever made. It is trashy junk, or perhaps junky trash.

It does look good as a trailer, though. All of Paul WS Anderson’s films look pretty good in the trailer, it’s just when it comes to fleshing the trailer out to 90 minutes or more that things tend to get a bit problematical. So it is with Death Race: all of Anderson’s thought seems to have gone into the various action sequences and tableaux of automotive mayhem, and everything else is just dealt with on the most hackneyed, perfunctory level. There’s a trope referred to as ‘fridging’, which basically refers to introducing a female character solely to kill her off and provide the male protagonist with some motivation to avenge her death (so named due to the moment in an issue of Green Lantern when the hero came home to find his girlfriend’s corpse in the refrigerator), and the way in which Statham’s character is introduced in this film is fridging of the most blatant kind – it’s nothing more than connect the dots plotting, with his wife nothing more than some kind of adjunct.

Not that the rest of the film exactly distinguishes itself when it comes to its gender politics. There is perhaps a flicker of self-awareness when someone admits that the only reason the female navigators are included is to keep the audience interested, but the rest of the time… well, every time most of the women characters make an entrance the soundtrack starts playing a song with the lyric (I paraphrase) ‘Look at me, I’m so incredibly sexy’.

There are times when Death Race kind of resembles a messed-up version of one of the Fast and Furious films – it was made at the point at which that franchise seemed to have terminally lost its way, between F&F 3 and 4 – but watching it really does remind you of what makes that franchise a little bit distinctive. Those films may be occasionally dumb and superficial, but they’re not utterly hopeless when it comes to gender politics, nor are they casually murderous. (There’s a – hmm – running joke about the sexual orientation of Gibson’s character that probably wouldn’t be given house-room in a F&F movie, either.)

In fact, the big mystery about this film is just how it managed to snag a serious actress like Joan Allen to appear in it (stranger things have happened, I suppose: Imelda Staunton once did a Steven Seagal film). A fairly pre-fame Jason Clarke appears as a sadistic prison guard, too. Allen was fairly fresh from the Bourne movies at the time, which may have something to do with it, and it is entirely possibly she was expecting something a little less knuckle-dragging, given the Death Race name.

The 1975 version of Death Race is… well, it’s not high art, by any means, but it has a kind of crazy energy and unhinged intelligence about it. It is ridiculous and absurd, but that’s kind of the point and it allows the film to engage in all kinds of OTT satire about American culture and society. The new Death Race is equally ridiculous and absurd, but it’s only interested in hollow carnage and prison movie cliches. Not a highlight of Jason Statham’s career, by any means – he has done many better films since, and I’m sure Mechanic: Resurrection has much more to offer the discerning viewer. But unfortunately I can’t be sure.

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It may well come as a surprise to you to learn this, but someone once took exception to my general principle of referring to the Dungeons & Dragons-loving actor known to his parents by the name of Mark Sinclair as ‘the great Vin Diesel’. Vin Diesel is simply not that great, ran the argument. He is a man of limited range. When he is not doing a Fast & Furious movie or playing Riddick, the chances of you wanting to see what he’s been up to are frankly quite small.

And I suppose there is a case to be answered here. But, as I’ve often said, the Fast & Furious movies are generally pretty entertaining ones that you have a good time watching, and this is surely reflected in the massive success of the last few episodes. And if you should doubt the importance of Vin Diesel to the whole undertaking, all you need to do is watch the only one he makes no appearance whatsoever in, John Singleton’s 2 Fast 2 Furious, from 2003.

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With Diesel off making xXx at the time (possibly not a great career move, Vin), the only major character from the original to make an appearance is Brian O’Conner, played as usual by Paul Walker. O’Conner has left his former career as an undercover cop and is now making a living as a professional street-racer in Miami. Unfortunately his past catches up with him when he is nabbed by the local cops.

Brian is presented with an ultimatum: go undercover working as a driver for local drugs kingpin Verone (Cole Hauser), or go to jail. He agrees, but only on the condition that he can have his old friend Roman (Tyrese Gibson), another boy racer, as his partner on the job. The authorities inevitably agree, and…

Well, here’s the thing. I’ve watched 2 Fast 2 Furious three times, I think, including twice in the last ten days or so. And yet if you asked me what the plot of the film is about, or indeed what happens in the course of the story, I would find myself somewhat stuck. There’s a bit where a car gets crushed by an oil tanker, and a ridiculous CGI bridge jumping stunt, and Eva Mendes in a succession of tight tops (just for a change), and a bit where a guy has a rat trying to burrow into his stomach, and a big chase at the end with some ejector seats and someone crashing a car into the top deck of a yacht. Ludacris, not yet the Q-like techno-wizard his character later becomes, shows up in a couple of frankly startling hairstyles. But it’s almost as if your brain rejects the plot of the movie and refuses to give it headspace.

Or it could be that the film is just a tottering stack of action and racing movie clichés assembled with an eye to slickness and general aestheticism. None of the characters are in any danger of achieving a second dimension, let alone a third. The whole thing is just vapid and feels pointless – there’s never any sense of anything being at stake, the film is just about floating a series of pretty pictures past the viewer.

The most recent time I watched the movie it was in a vain attempt to try and dig into it and find something worth discussing about it – some subtext, intentional or not, some comment on society or the time in which it was made. Somehow I ended up watching it with the director’s commentary switched on, and in the end I decided to go with that as it seemed likely to offer a few insights.

Hmmm. Well, John Singleton earned his place in the history books as the youngest person ever to get Oscar nominated as Best Director (at the age of 23, in case you were wondering). Sadly this seems to have been a classic case of someone peaking too soon, as his work since then has been increasingly undistinguished. The odd thing is that his is the opposite case to that of a successful genre director who tries his hand at making a serious statement and promptly comes a cropper: Singleton started off making socially-conscious dramas about urban life in America, which were generally fairly well-reviewed, only to later switch to making populist fodder which has generally stunk out the theatres it has (briefly) appeared in. However, the commentary on 2 Fast 2 Furious reveals that a startling amount of considered thought seems to have gone into the making of this very generic, rather dumb movie: doubly startling given that Singleton himself declares the film to be all about ‘fast cars and sexy girls’. (Said commentary also regularly features Singleton describing in some detail what’s happening on the screen. This confusion of the ‘director’s commentary’ and ‘audio described for the visually impaired’ functions is generally a sign of a film-maker struggling to find things to say.)

It’s true, the movie is filled with this sort of thing – in places it has an almost cartoony look to it, the result of a Japanese anime influence (it would be nice to think this was a conscious foreshadowing of Tokyo Drift, but I really, really doubt it) – but, as I said, there is nothing underpinning it, at least nothing that Singleton can persuade you to care about.

In fact all you really take away from watching this film is a deeper understanding of Tyrese Gibson’s place in the group dynamic of the other F&F films: here, he’s definitely playing the hero’s sidekick. But in the other movies, the guy who’s the hero here is actually the sidekick. Which means that Gibson has been stuck playing the sidekick’s sidekick for the past three films, which may explain the look of thinly-veiled desperation I’m sure I’ve spotted in his eyes now and then. Maybe he will be able to move up the pecking order a bit in future outings.

What else do I need to say? It’s the one genuinely bad Fast & Furious movie. It really has nothing to commend it beyond the fact it introduces Tej and Roman. It’s one for completists only. We’ve all already wasted too much time discussing it. Let’s move on.

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We have had a few weeks the like of which are such as to make one want to declare a moratorium on death itself. The emperor of maladies has taken a heavy toll, and we are all left saddened and diminished and perhaps a little more conscious of the dark.

One feels obliged to make some gesture of remembrance, but one is horribly spoilt for choice at the moment. I could revisit Galaxy Quest or Toxic Avenger IV with equal justification. But instead I am going to take another look at Christopher Nolan’s 2006 movie The Prestige, which is notable for what turned out to be one of the final acting roles for David Bowie.

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I would be lying if I said I was among the many people left feeling desolated by Bowie’s recent death, but I understand the magnitutde of his achievements and his presence in popular culture, not just as a musician but also as a film actor. Perhaps inevitably, the two seemed to feed into one another – Bowie’s most celebrated screen appearance, playing the alien visitor Thomas Newton in the film I should really be reviewing, Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, surely owes a lot to the Ziggy Stardust persona he had created a few years earlier. Nolan himself said that no-one else could possibly have played Bowie’s role in this film, and from a certain point of view it is easy to understand why.

The Prestige is based on a novel by the underrated British writer Christopher Priest, and – not unusually for a Nolan production – it takes a while for its actual subject matter to become clear. The narrative is complex and oblique, with flashbacks within flashbacks, sections of apparently unreliable narration, and large quantities of smoke and mirrors. But this is only as it should be, for the film is about stage magic and its practitioners, and the differences between them and the makers of genuine wizardry.

Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale play Angier and Borden, two young men at the beginnings of careers as magicians in turn-of-the-nineteenth-century London. Angier is aristocratic and a born showman, but a somewhat indifferent student of the craft – the lower-born Borden is a brilliant instinctive magician, but lacks his rival’s charisma. Tragedy strikes when Angier’s wife dies in an accident on stage, an accident Borden may have been responsible for. And thus begins a terrible feud.

The rivals begin by sabotaging each others’ performances, until Borden premieres an incredible new illusion he calls the Transported Man. Angier’s determination to outdo his enemy leads him to incredible lengths in search of the secret of how the illusion is performed, and his obsession drives away those closest to him – his assistant (Scarlett Johansson) and advisor (Michael Caine). Notes stolen from Borden lead him on a long journey to the heart of America, in search of the reclusive genius Nikola Tesla, whom Angier believes can build a machine that will end the conflict between the two men forever…

Tesla is, of course, played by Bowie, and – somewhat contrary to the great man’s reputation – a rather subdued and understated performance it is too. Nothing wrong with that, of course, for it’s entirely appropriate for the film. Quite how historically accurate a portrait of Tesla this is, is a good question – probably not very, if we’re honest. But Tesla’s role in the film is to be an enigma, an individual on the border between reality and myth, an irresistibly charismatic person who still is not really fully understood – and, as I say, it’s very understandable that Nolan should have wanted to secure David Bowie’s services for the role. It’s a small but crucial part, and one which is essential to the development of The Prestige‘s narrative.

I believe I read a review once which cried foul with regard to this film’s final act, suggesting that by introducing, in the form of Tesla’s miraculous machine, a strong element of SF or fantasy into what had previously been a relatively ‘straight’ drama, Nolan was in some way cheating, moving the goal posts. I can kind of see where this attitude is coming from – this is a film about real-world magic, after all, carefully constructed to show the audience all the facts they need to understand what’s going on, while making equally sure they’re not aware of this until after the end of the story. Introducing an arbitrary and fantastical plot device, as the film does, arguably renders all that work moot.

But on the other hand, the film seems to be entirely aware of this potential pitfall and works extremely hard to circumvent it: the revelation of the machine and just what it does is painstakingly foreshadowed from the very first second of the movie, and the facts are woven into the narrative of the film with the greatest skill. In its ability to construct a confoundingly clever puzzle-box narrative that only yields up all its secrets on the second or third viewing, The Prestige definitely anticipates Inception, although The Prestige may be even subtler and more devious.

It’s certainly an ambiguous film, too: while Angier, as the film goes on, increasingly comes to resemble the villain of the piece, he is never completely unsympathetic no matter what he does. In the same way, there is always a certain distance with Borden, too – this is someone capable of some very harsh actions. Nolan, as usual, secures a first-rate cast for these roles, although the cast list in general does provide evidence for the ‘superheroes are taking over Hollywood’ argument. It’s true that Hugh Jackman doesn’t have quite the same acting clout as Christian Bale, but he still gives one of his best performances here, while Michael Caine of course provides immaculate support. The female characters, if I’m honest, feel a little thin and underserved, but this is not the fault of Johansson or Rebecca Hall.

The Prestige is a film about identity and reality, and the extent to which these things are artificial and can be manipulated – several cast members play multiple versions of themselves, for instance. It suggests that people are delighted by the pretence of magic, but (rightfully) terrified by the real thing – that illusion is more often than not just a comfort. It’s a complex, dense film, full of deceptively subtle ideas, but one that couples them to a compelling story with some unforgettably shocking images and moments. For many years now, Christopher Nolan has seemed incapable of making a film which is anything less than deeply impressive, and while this is not one of his most famous or financially successful ones, it is still head and shoulders above most other movies. Bowie’s role may be small, but it is crucial to the film’s success – perhaps only something of a footnote to an acting career which was itself only a secondary enterprise, but still a very distinguished one.

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When Justin Lin’s The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift first came out in 2006, it did okay for itself, though it didn’t quite cross the double-its-budget box office threshold that apparently is the requirement for a film to be considered a genuine success. Most people dismissed it as a clutching-at-straws third instalment of series which had run out of ideas (not to mention original cast members). Not-quite-ten years on, of course, with the Fast and Furious franchise elevated to world-bestriding colossus status, it has acquired a certain curiosity value – is it the franchise misstep it initially looks like?

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Like I said, the main characters of the series are distinctly thin on the ground this time around, and protagonist duties are left to Texan bad lad and (inevitably) boy racer Sean Boswell (Lucas Black), who at the start of the film is expelled from high school. This is not, as you might have thought, because he is visibly about 25 and much too old to be at school – everyone at high school in Texas seems to be well on the way to their thirties, which is not a great advertisement for the state’s education system when you think about it.

No, Sean gets kicked out for racing, predictably enough, and is packed off to stay with his dad, who is living a slightly sleazy expat lifestyle in Tokyo (which often looks suspiciously like Los Angeles with bits added via special effects). Despite not speaking or reading a word of Japanese, he is nevertheless packed off to the local Japanese school. Here he makes friends with a comic relief sidekick (Bow Wow), who is not Japanese, and sort of starts a bit of a thing with a hot-looking girl (Nathalie Kelley), who is not Japanese either.

All this inevitably leads Sean to the local street racing circuit, where finally a (these days at least) familiar face appears – it’s Han from the Fast and Furious All-Stars (Sung Kang), who isn’t Japanese either. When Hot Girl’s boyfriend Takeshi (Brian Tee), who is actually Japanese, takes exception to Sean putting the moves on her, a race inevitably breaks out – but Sean’s skills at going very fast in a straight line are of limited value in Japan, where one apparently wins races by going very fast round corners in a manner I would describe as fairly unsafe. Having wrecked one of Han’s cars and lost this vehicular combat, Sean finds himself having to do odd jobs for Han. But will he win the heart of Hot Girl? Will the simmering rivalry between Sean and Takeshi ignite again? And will he ever manage to learn how to go around corners properly?

Now, enjoyable as I find the Fast and Furious movies, even I will cheerfully admit they are not exactly highbrow entertainment – but even by the standards of the series, Tokyo Drift is an unusually vacuous piece of work, as you may have noted from the the number of times ‘inevitably’ and ‘predictably’ crop up in the synopsis just above. To say the plot is contrived and more than a bit silly is an understatement, and while all of these films have a glossy sheen, this one has little else.

These days, Asia is such a major market that it’s quite common for films to incorporate Asian characters and even extra scenes just to appeal to crowds over there, but I doubt the decision to set this film in Tokyo was made with an eye on seizing the audience’s yen: if so, they would probably have included a single sympathetic named Japanese character. (There’s kind of a suggestion that Hot Girl may be half-Japanese, but the film virtually admits that she’s just there to be ornamental and doesn’t bother with giving her any depth.) But they don’t – every local whose name we learn is either a local thug or an actual member of the Yakuza. Being – well, calling it ‘heroic’ is pushing it in a movie where the height of moral and personal achievement consists of going round a corner at high speeds while not pointing the right way, but whatever – is left to the expats. Japan is just there because it looks nice and because it presents some interesting cliches to mess around with (Sean gets into a bit of a contretemps with a sumo wrestler at one point, who is very unflatteringly depicted).

I think it’s also probably an issue that most of these films are about various legally-dubious capers, with a little light car racing on the side, whereas in Tokyo Drift the situation is reversed – Han is up to some dodgy deals, but the focus is firmly on going round corners quickly at funny angles. The non-vehicular action quotient is lower here than in any of the other films in the series, which somehow makes the whole thing a bit more of a niche movie – you either have to be really into car racing, or alternatively absurdly misrepresented Japanese pop culture, to find this very engaging stuff. (Although I suppose cultural historians may find the way the film makes a big deal out of people having cameras on their phones interesting, as this clearly still had novelty value back in 2006.)

In short, it’s an eminently dismissible entry in the series, or would be if recent instalments hadn’t tried so heroically to retcon a little significance into it. If you’ve seen the later films in which he appears, Sung Kang’s performance here seems loaded with a kind of soulfulness and significance that probably just wasn’t there at the time the film came out: in any case, as the main link to the rest of the series, he does a sterling job. There is also the pleasure of imagining a surly-looking Jason Statham lurking just out of frame for much of the film, as we must now imagine is the case. It really does tie in with the other movies remarkably well: one has to wonder just how far in advance, and in how much detail, they plan ahead.

Having said that, I suspect they’re just very good at improvising and stitching bits together, because if in 2006 they were planning to make a series of very good films some years down the line, one has to wonder why they didn’t make a better one at the time. Tokyo Adrift would probably be a better subtitle for this one – most of the elements that make this series fun are present and correct here, but it’s even dumber than usual and you really do miss the regular characters. The film is kind of flopping about trying to find a reason to exist and not quite managing it – if the next four films hadn’t gone on to be such massive hits, I doubt anyone would spare it very much thought at all.

 

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