What's on tap? Kung-fu queens, femme fatales, and a 100-year-old tramp
Netflix unveiled its third original feature film last week (not counting documentaries and TV) with the long-awaited sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The response so far has not been great, but that’s because Ang Lee’s original tried hard to transcend the martial arts genre, and the sequel simply is a terrific martial arts film (it doesn’t try to be grandiose). True kung-fu fans will get it. For a Michelle Yeoh double-feature, I’ve also included her appearance as a Bond girl in this week’s list.
And in the tradition of Bond, I have selected a batch of other worthy English films, as well as one from Germany (featuring the beautiful and deadly 1930s equivalent of a Bond girl). There’s also an indie, a creepy animated feature, a forgotten crime film, and the original version of a long tinkered-with sci-fi classic.
Finally, we have one of the best films of 2015, and yet another film that turns 100 years old in 2016, but remains timelessly funny.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (Netflix)
Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) was aimed at art houses. The Netflix sequel Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016) is leaner, scrappier, and intended for true martial arts fans. Michelle Yeoh returns 16 years later as Yu Shu Lien, helping to guard the legendary sword, the Green Destiny. Two thieves try to steal it on the same night; Wei-Fang (Harry Shum, Jr.) is caught and imprisoned, while Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) becomes Shu Lien’s pupil. Meanwhile, Shu Lien sends for help and gets it in the form of Silent Wolf (Donnie Yen) and five misfit warriors.
The great Yuen Woo-Ping, who choreographed the first film, directs, and with things like Drunken Master and Iron Monkey on his resume, he’s not as prestigious as Lee, but the man knows his kung-fu. The story throws in some intrigue: Silent Wolf was once in love with Shu Lien, and Snow Vase and Wei-Fang seem to have some kind of connection, but instead of glacially dwelling on these things, Yuen keeps them moving, inventing ever-more startling and beautiful stunts and fights, especially the climax on the edge of a rooftop. So, yes, it doesn’t compare to the original, but that might be a good thing. Sword of Destiny was actually shot, and is presented, in English, though other language tracks and subtitles are available.
Tomorrow Never Dies (Hulu)
If you’re a Michelle Yeoh fan, then you’ll probably remember she was a Bond girl in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997); it’s not considered one of the better James Bond films, but I like it quite a bit. For me, Pierce Brosnan had a strong combination of toughness and charm, and despite some silliness here and there, he had a solid run as 007. In this, the second of his four films, he faces off against an evil, powerful media baron Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce), who wishes to start a war to boost his own ratings (this sounds even more plausible now than it did then). Bond also tangles with Carver’s beautiful trophy wife Paris (Teri Hatcher).
Yeoh plays Chinese spy Wai Lin, and she gets the chance to use her martial arts skills, except for every now and then when Bond rescues her (it seems that Yeoh had to hold back a little bit for this one; it just wouldn’t do if she were more badass than Bond). Magician Ricky Jay co-stars as a techno-terrorist, with Judi Dench as “M,” Joe Don Baker as CIA man Jack Wade, Desmond Llewelyn as “Q,” and Samantha Bond as Miss Moneypenny. Look for Gerard Butler in a small role. Roger Spottiswoode directs, and Sheryl Crow sings the theme song.
Corpse Bride (Netflix)
After his Charlie and the Chocolate Factory redo, fans wondered if Tim Burton had anything left in him. They didn’t have to wonder long; just a few months later came this stop-motion animated craziness that felt like it had emerged straight from Burton’s warped subconscious. Corpse Bride (2005) is rated a kid-friendly PG, but it’s such a gothic treat that it feels as if Edward Gorey and Charles Addams may have risen from their graves to lend a hand to it.
Johnny Depp provides the voice of slender, nervous Victor Van Dort, who is betrothed to Victoria Everglot (voiced by Emily Watson). When he messes up a wedding rehearsal, he retreats to the woods to practice his vows; there the “corpse bride” (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter) hears him and snatches him up, drawing him into the underworld. He must escape before his flesh-and-blood bride marries a nasty gold-digger (voiced by Richard E. Grant). Burton co-directed with Mike Johnson, an animator on The Nightmare Before Christmas, and the result is smooth, fluid, and cheerfully creepy. Danny Elfman contributes songs and Albert Finney and Christopher Lee also provide voices, but especially memorable is Stephan Ballantyne as the voice of a maggot, who sounds exactly like Peter Lorre, living in the corpse bride’s brain.
Blade Runner: Theatrical Cut (Netflix)
Fans know that Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) has appeared in many different versions. There was the 1982 U.S. theatrical cut, and a 1982 international cut with a bit more violence left in. Then in 1991 a pre-release cut was released in a few art houses and was extremely popular, leading to the 1992 “director’s cut.” But Scott was still not happy with that version, and a fifth, “The Final Cut,” appeared in 2007. Netflix now offers the first of these, complete with Harrison Ford’s private-dick-type narration and the bizarre happy ending; it was this version that I and many others first fell in love with.
Ford plays Rick Deckard, a futuristic “blade runner” charged with finding and dispatching four “replicants” (Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah, Joanna Cassidy, and Brion James). The mind-boggling set design, drenched in darkness and rain, still feels groundbreaking (and far more vivid than any computer-generated stuff), and the film noir-inspired storytelling contains many layers and treasures, all of which fans have debated endlessly. Sean Young plays another replicant who catches Deckard off-guard. Edward James Olmos, M. Emmet Walsh, William Sanderson, and James Hong co-star. Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples adapted Philip K. Dick’s novel, and Vangelis contributed the spookily lovely, tingly music score.
William Friedkin’s Jade (1995) suffered from bad timing. It was written by the notorious Joe Eszterhas, who had grabbed headlines with his enormous Hollywood paychecks and by angering various women’s groups with his works. His Showgirls had just been released less than a month earlier, again raking up angry reviews and diatribes. So no one was in the mood for another of his screenplays, despite the fact that it was directed by the legendary Friedkin. In the early 1970s, no one was as powerful as Friedkin; he had won Oscars with The French Connection and broke box office records with The Exorcist. But by the 1990s, his name barely registered a blip, or else viewers simply dismissed everything he did.
In Jade, Eszterhas’s pulpy writing can be pretty godawful, but Friedkin makes up for it. David Caruso plays a San Francisco DA who investigates the murder of a high-profile art collector. The last person to see him alive was Trina Gavin (Linda Fiorentino), whom he’s in love with. The case leads to a prostitution ring, and one clue—a blurry photograph—indicates that Trina could be a high-class prostitute known as “Jade.” Aside from Eszterhas’s preoccupation with women using sex as power, Friedkin makes brilliant use of San Francisco, turning it into a perfect, snaky, elusive film noir town, complete with a nail-biting chase through Chinatown.
Attack the Block (Crackle)
One of the smarter alien-invasion movies of recent years, this English film isn’t concerned with visual effects or explosions so much as it is ideas. Attack the Block (2011) is actually about what happens to the humans. Walking home through South London while chatting on her phone, white nurse Sam (Jodie Whittaker) walks down the wrong street and is accosted by a gang of black thugs, led by Moses (John Boyega). The mugging is interrupted when something falls from the sky: It’s an alien, and the criminals decide to find the invader and kill it. Soon, an all-out war is being waged, with Sam, Moses, and a couple of oddball pot dealers defending the world against the extra-terrestrials.
This one came during a year filled with bottom-of-the-barrel, idiotic alien-invasion movies (Skyline, Battle: Los Angeles, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, et al), and it was remarkably refreshing. Cleverly, the movie is really about perception, and how snap judgments may not always be accurate, whether they involve aliens or humans. Writer/director Joe Cornish made his feature writing and directing debut here, aided by producer Edgar Wright and co-star Nick Frost. After this, Cornish contributed to the screenplays for The Adventures of Tintin and Ant-Man. His directorial follow-up is still forthcoming.
The Guard (Crackle)
John Michael McDonagh’s younger brother Martin is a celebrated playwright who won an Oscar for Best Live Action short film, and his feature film In Bruges (2008) was kind of a big deal; thus, he gets all the attention in the family. Conversely, when John Michael made his writing and directing debut with the excellent, funny The Guard (2011), barely anyone noticed. This mismatched buddy-cop movie has rarely been done as well as this: Brendan Gleeson is at his very best as Sergeant Gerry Boyle, a “guard” (i.e. cop) in a rural part of Galway. The opening scene nails down just who he is: a car full of partying punks speeds by him, and he waits nonchalantly as it crashes. He saunters up to the wreckage, spies a tab of acid, drops it, and remarks on the beauty of the day.
Boyle’s world is upset when an American FBI man, Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle), comes to town looking for drug smugglers. Everett does things by the book and assumes that Boyle is a hayseed, and Boyle has fun not letting Everett know just how smart he really is. But he’s also laid-back; in the middle of an investigation, he takes a half-day off to cavort with a pair of prostitutes. Even the smugglers in this one are smart, waxing philosophic while waiting for deliveries.
Bloody Sunday (TubiTV)
Director Paul Greengrass established his reputation with this strikingly vivid re-creation of the events of January 30, 1972 in Derry, Northern Ireland, where soldiers opened fire upon unarmed Irish protesters. The story of Bloody Sunday (2002) is told through the eyes of Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt), a member of Parliament, who was on the scene. Greengrass perfected a style of shooting with handheld cameras, creating a kind of realism without rendering the footage chaotic or unwatchable. He remains conscious of spatial relationships and timing. The effect is sometimes disorienting, but in a good way. After a while, the feeling is replaced by the sensation of having been actually, magically teleported to that place on that day. It’s a difficult, powerful, but rewarding experience.
Greengrass went on to take over the Bourne series, helming the acclaimed second and third films (The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum) and earned an Oscar nomination for his United 93. U2’s great song “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (from War) is also about this event and is appropriately used during the credits.
The Blue Angel (Amazon Prime)
Few relationships in the history of film were as fascinating as that of director Josef von Sternberg and star Marlene Dietrich. According to some accounts, he was in love with her, while she was not in love with him; but creatively, they brought out the very best in each other. They made seven incredible films together, and this first one, The Blue Angel (1930), was made in Germany (the rest were made in Hollywood). The film’s plot revolves around the shabby, but upright, professor Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings), who blows a gasket when he catches his students passing photos of a nightclub singer, Lola-Lola (Dietrich), in class.
He goes to the club, hoping for justice, but instead finds himself smitten with the sultry performer. He marries her, ends up demeaning himself in order to try to win her favor, and is eventually forced to work as a clown to pay the bills. Jannings was considered one of the greatest actors of his era, and though his histrionics will appear a bit over the top to today’s viewers (he was a veteran of the silent era), the emotions are clear enough. The movie was conceived as a vehicle for him, but it’s Dietrich who really shines, singing her famous “Falling in Love Again,” constantly desirable, but unattainable. This is the restored version from Kino, in its original German language with English subtitles.
One A.M. (Fandor)
I’ve been talking about movies that are turning 100 years old in 2016, and here’s another, a short masterpiece by Charlie Chaplin, made five years before he directed his first feature film. One A.M. (1916) was an anomaly for Chaplin, since his two-reelers usually revolved around a girl and a bully, or at least a story that somehow involved other people. But this one is a one-man show, with the exception of Chaplin stock player Albert Austin as a stoic cab driver—with a huge mustache—who drops a drunken Charlie at home after midnight and waits patiently for his fare. Running about 34 minutes, the entire film simply tracks the poor soused Tramp trying to get upstairs and into bed.
His home is a ludicrous setup of traps, with slippery rugs, tricky staircases, a clock with an absurdly long pendulum, a tiger rug, and a spinning table. Then, once upstairs, he must deal with a good old-fashioned Murphy bed. The uniqueness of One A.M. is part of its charm, but as an uncluttered, simple film, it’s quite easy to see Chaplin’s balletic genius, his effortless, perfect movements and rhythms. Fandor presents the recently restored HD version, with a beautiful Carl Davis orchestral score.
One of my top ten favorite movies of 2015, Ryan Coogler’s Creed (2015) did fairly well at the box office; it broke $100 million and ended up in the year’s top 30. But it only earned one measly Oscar nomination, for Supporting Actor Sylvester Stallone, and while he heartily deserved to win for his superb performance, he did not. Plus, in a year of controversy over the lack of diversity in the categories, Michael B. Jordan in the title role of Adonis Creed (the illegitimate son of Rocky’s former foe Apollo Creed) was most deserving of recognition. And, so, all that’s left is for time to elevate the movie to classic status, as time has done for the original Rocky (1976).
Yes, Creed is technically the seventh film in the Rocky series, but it’s something much more. As Coogler did with his remarkable debut feature Fruitvale Station (2013), he brings layers of compassion and understanding to his characters, concerned with how they see the past, present, and future. For example, Adonis’s love interest, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), is a singer who is losing her hearing. She knows she can’t sing forever, so she lives in the present. In addition to character intricacies like these, Coogler stages each fight scene with its own distinct personality, its own visual style, and delivers a knockout entertainment that’s both entertaining and profound.
Short Term 12 (Hoopla)
Finally, one more mention of this year’s Oscars. Brie Larson won a Best Actress award for Room, a film that, while admirable, was not especially watchable or rewarding (I never want to see it again). I would have complained less if she had won for this excellent indie, playing the supervisor of a group home for troubled teens called Short Term 12. Like Room, Short Term 12 (2013) sounded like it was going to be a heavy, weighty, self-important slog, but it’s surprisingly funny, warm, and subtle (very much worth seeing again). It actually opens with a counselor telling the story of how he once pooped his pants on the job. Larson plays Grace, who is having some trust issues with her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.). She is also drawn to a new girl, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), and sees possible signs of abuse, which, unfortunately, Grace knows about first hand. But the movie is more than just a simple plot; it intertwines around all the characters, major and minor, counselors and teens. In two moving sequences, we get a sample of the teens using creativity to overcome their troubles; they’re shattering, but they could make you grateful to be alive.
Writer and director Destin Cretton based his feature on his own 2008 short film, which was, in turn, based on his own experiences working with troubled teens. This movie is available via Hoopla (https://www.hoopladigital.com/title/11165552), which is totally free and requires nothing more than being a member of your local library (check to see if yours uses this service). Once you log in, users can check out or stream 20 titles per month (eBooks, audiobooks, music, comics, TV, and movies); everything has a different “due” date, movies last 72 hours before disappearing back into the void.
In case you missed them, here are our recommendations from last week.