Dec 28, 2020

Martial Arts Monday: Armour of God 2: Operation Condor

Dir: Jackie Chan
Jackie Chan has never shied away from using other filmmakers work as inspiration, indeed his entire persona is heavily influenced by silent comedians, to the degree that he has paid direct homage to stunts by Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, among others. The Armour of God series is his riff on Indiana Jones. This second entry (confusingly released in the US simply as Operation Condor, with Armour of God later released as Operation Condor 2), whether by design or accident, sticks most closely to the template laid out by Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

In typical Indy fashion, the film begins with what feels like the end of an adventure we didn’t see. In this case, Jackie (as the character is called in the restored extended version I watched for this) is taking gems from a cave but is attacked by the tribe that lives there when he drinks the holy water. It’s all a lot of nonsense to lead into a pretty spectacular sequence of the character zorbing down a cliff and sets the tone pretty well.

At 117 minutes in this cut (extended from 107 in the original Hong Kong release, and just 80 minutes in its US version), Operation Condor takes a while to set up its story, which eventually finds Jackie sent to locate Nazi gold buried in the Sahara desert with three women (Eva Cobo, Carol ‘DoDo’ Cheng and Shôko Ikeda) in tow, who all have some connection either to the hunt or to the people who stole the gold. Aside from the set pieces (an exceptional car and bike chase and a slapstick break in and fight at Cobo’s house), the first hour of the film is a slog, especially because Chan and co-writer Edward Tang, in their cribbing from Spielberg, have decided to give all three of the female co-stars the Willie Scott role. This means that rather than just one perma-screaming damsel in endless distress we have an entire chorus of them. Along with the several times that their (mostly implied) nudity is used as a distraction in fights and the amount of times each of them gets hit, it all feels pretty retrograde, as do the racial politics, with a bunch of white stuntmen playing mujahideen fighters (better that though than putting them in brownface).

What keeps the whole thing afloat during the first two acts is twofold. First, there are just about enough setpieces to paper over the cracks and secondly, when those moments come, Chan attacks them with all his customary energy and precision. Operation Condor took 18 months to make and was the most expensive film made in Hong Kong up to that time and Jackie and co-director Frankie Chan put it all up on screen. The mid-film set piece that ranges all across the desert hotel where Jackie and the women are staying is a highlight, with agile and funny martial arts mixing with stunt work and an epic amount of squibs laying waste to the set when Eva Cobo fires a machine gun she can’t control.

As a fan of martial arts cinema, I always know broadly that what we’re waiting for is the last act of the movie. The action beats up until then are all well and good, but it’s all prologue. This being a long film, Jackie and his stunt team have a lot saved up for what is a roughly half-hour finale that moves from fight to fight, from overblown set to overblown set, and from stunt to stunt with breathless energy. Once we get to the base where the gold is held, the film is on rails (much like Temple of Doom when it finally gets to its own underground finale). Happily, he finally throws his leading ladies (all of whom, annoying though their characters can be, are very game and look like they’re having a great time), allowing them some inventiveness in a great little comic action beat. 

Operation Condor came in the middle of an all but unprecedented 18 year run between The Young Master and Who Am I in which, at least in the Hong Kong films he was top-billed in, Jackie barely put a foot wrong—figuratively speaking. It’s in this last half hour that this film finally kicks fully into gear to stand alongside exalted company like the Police Story and Project A films. The fight that runs through the first room in the base, with Jackie winding his way through railings and into and out of vents as he fights, is reminiscent, at a time when they had fallen out, of Sammo Hung’s masterful Eastern Condors. Jackie, if never as hard-hitting as his bigger brother, inevitably goes bigger. First there is a fight across two massive seesawing platforms, and then the grand finale in a wind tunnel. This sequence is everything Jackie Chan does well: it is grandiose in its silliness, but also allows him to play to all of his physical comedy strengths as well as achieve some unique action beats. 

This sequence, along with the end of first act chase and the last half hour as a whole, are where Operation Condor best captures the sheer joy of watching Jackie Chan work at his best. The film as a whole may be inconsistent, but in its best moments it soars like Jackie as he uses the turbine to fly at an opponent, gleefully yelling “Superman”.
★★★½

Dec 8, 2020

2020 Catch Up: Vol 2

Madness in the Method
Dir: Jason Mewes
It’s probably fair to say that Jason Mewes largely lucked into his 25-year career as an actor. When Kevin Smith made
Clerks, he cast his friend as Jay simply because Mewes made him laugh. While Mewes has done plenty of other acting work, he’s never really escaped the character of Jay (playing him again in the upcoming Twilight of the Mallrats) and that is the jumping-off point for this, his feature directorial debut.

The screenplay, by Dominic Burns and Chris Anastasi has Mewes playing himself as an actor who wants to break out of playing Jay and other assorted stoner roles by landing the lead role in The Odyssey, an Oscar-tipped production that will be the directorial debut of Clerks actor Brian O’Halloran (just go with it). To that end, he’s introduced to a book on method acting, but as he goes ever more method he descends into madness.

The idea of an actor getting too into a part has been mined for chills before, but Mewes tries to lean into the comedy of the idea. To be fair, he finds a handful of laughs. A scene with former TV Superman Dean Cain is pretty funny; Cain is portrayed as always fearful of fans coming up to him and being disappointed that he’s not actually Superman, there are a few amusing lines here and Cain seems to be on board with poking fun at himself. Unfortunately, the funny moments are few and far between, otherwise largely confined to scenes of loose, possibly improvised, banter between Mewes and Kevin Smith (also playing a version of himself).

The problem is largely that Mewes doesn’t exactly have the A list to choose from in his casting. Vinnie Jones is as charisma-free as ever, even when playing himself; Gina Carano is wasted, not even getting to fight as Mewes’ girlfriend, despite the fact that there’s a scene late on where her doing so could be pretty funny and Blake Harrison is woefully unfunny as a stereotypically gay entertainment reporter. Most of the rest of the cast are restricted to cameos, clearly working just a day or two and seemingly putting in all the effort that would suggest, Teri Hatcher’s scene, for instance, looks like it could have been tossed off in a few minutes in her home office.

Mewes’ direction and performance are both perfunctory. It’s ironic that by playing an actor desperate to break character he ends up showing that he’s a bland presence outside that character. He doesn’t convince in the scenes where he’s going mad. This might have played if he was able to start out that way and then evolve to become more convincing as his character kept reading about the method, but Mewes simply doesn’t appear versatile enough for this. Directorially the film is largely flat looking, with daytime scenes like the Hollywood party he finds Smith at being especially televisual. When Mewes gets more ambitious things hardly improve, with a couple of nonsensical musical fantasy interludes (happily Mewes doesn’t sing) being the nadir, at least until Danny Trejo shows up in a feather boa, perpetrating another awful gay stereotype because he too has gone method. 

Madness in the Method isn’t a terrible idea, but sadly it doesn’t reveal any untapped potential in Jason Mewes and without doing that it should lean much harder into the essential ludicrousness of its central premise for most of its gags to land. As it is, this hits neither humour nor chills and fails to point to an interesting directorial career for its star.

Mulan [2020]
Dir: Niki Caro
The Disney renaissance started at the right time for me, I was 8 when The Little Mermaid came out, 10 for Beauty and the Beast, but by the time Mulan rolled around in 1998 I was 17 and probably thought I was too much of a sophisticated cinephile for another Disney princess movie, and I still haven't got around to filling that gap in my viewing. 
Coincidentally, right around the time the animated Mulan was coming out, I was just starting to discover martial arts movies, which remain one of my great loves. It was this that drew me to this live action take on the material, not only because of the trailer, which suggested a definite leaning in to the action side of the story, but also the casting, including legends of martial arts cinema like Donnie Yen, Jet Li and Cheng Pei-pei.

I've not been a great lover of Disney's recent run of live-action versions of their animated classics. Up until now only Pete's Dragon has struck me as much more than a very expensive form of karaoke. For the most part, Mulan squares the circle of being both a traditional Disney fairytale and a martial arts action film well. The first act is focused on building the themes of family, self-belief and exceeding the expectations set out for you. We see Mulan as a little girl being mischevious, energetic and showing promise in martial arts, but her father (Tzi Ma) and Mother (Rosalind Chao) make it clear to her that, as a girl, she is not meant to fight and her role is to find a suitable match (facilitated by a matchmaker played by Cheng Pei-pei). When, years later, the Emperor's army comes looking for recruits, Mulan (now played by Yifei Liu) sneaks away to take the place of her father, disgusing herself as a boy so that she can join the regiment led by Commander Tung (Yen) and fight against the rebellion led by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and his sorceress Xianniang (Gong Li)

The sections with Mulan training and bonding with her fellow recruits are fun, combining a playful sense of growing camaraderie, especially with Chen Honghui (Yoson An) with a real sense of them being prepared for battle in martial arts training montages led by Yen. However, it's when the war starts that the film takes off. Caro and her stunt team marshall some great battle scenes. The large scale sequences are an excellent synthesis of real stunts and high quality CGI, with a strong enough sense of space and flow that we never lose the detail of what's going on. When we zoom in on individual moments, fight coordinators Nuo Sun and Heidi Moneymaker deliver action that can stand comparison with pure martial arts films. The fights may not be as hard-hitting as some, and clearly there is never any blood, but neither do they come off as cartoony. This Mulan, with animal sidekicks and songs stricken from the adaptation, definitely has a somewhat harder edge than I might have expected.

This also comes through in the villains, with Jason Scott Lee forceful as Bori Khan. His story is fairly one-dimensional; he's the bad guy out for revenge on Jet Li's Emperor. A version of this film from another studio might have dug more effectively into the moral ambiguity of the history between the two, but Disney does like its morals painted in black and white. A more effective villain storyline comes from Gong Li and how her attack on Mulan brings out the courage in her to reveal her identity to Tung and the other recruits and step up as a leader in the film's third act. The scenes between Gong Li and Yifei Liu bring out the most nuance we see in Liu's leading performance, which can be a bit flat, as she seems to be the only member of main cast who struggles with her English. These sequences are also some of the most visually impressive, thanks both to the settings and to the striking design of Li's makeup. The message delivered in their last scene together is a little rushed and rather predictable, but it does knit the film's themes together well.

On the whole, Mulan delivers. It serves up some simple but effective morals for the family audience, but it's also visually interesting, with beautiful scenery and design throughout. The action is what marks the film out as different from many other Disney efforts, it wears its influences on its sleeve, nodding especially at the martial arts films of Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou. It may never hit those heights, but Niki Caro and the stunt and fight teams deliver consistently thrilling, good looking, action that flows well both narratively and visually. Along with Pete's Dragon this is, flaws and all, one of the high watermarks of Disney's live action remake era.
★★★½

Dec 1, 2020

2020 Catch up: Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions

Dir: Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift usually works to a relatively regimented schedule; a roughly two-year album cycle with a tour in between records. Coronavirus threw a lot of people’s schedules off in 2020, and Swift responded with an unexpectedly early eighth album so secret before its July launch that even her record company didn’t know about it until a week before.

Of course, touring Folklore isn’t an option in the near term, especially given the size of shows that Swift is now accustomed to playing, so we’ve got this; the first venture in her new deal with Disney+ and her first feature as a director. She had dipped her toe in directing with some early music videos but, unsurprisingly for an artist who has so carefully crafted her image and had hit a few controversies around her Reputation album, she assumed directorial control over all her videos starting with Me!, the first single from 2019’s Lover album.

The Long Pond Studio Sessions isn’t a film that screams directorial vision, rather its use of remote-controlled cameras and simple setups that generally just show the musicians in a couple of solo shots each and occasionally take in a wider angle on the studio seem designed to allow you to slot into the intimate atmosphere of this simple performance of the tracks from Folklore, all played in the order they are presented in on the album.

Between tracks, we have brief behind the scenes chats with Swift and co-writers/producers Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner. The three, in various configurations depending on which of them wrote on each song, discuss Folklore’s lyrical themes, the process of composing while all of them were in lockdown, the pseudonymous contribution of Swift’s partner Joe Alwyn to tracks Exile and Betty, and much more. Perhaps most interesting among it all is the way Swift talks about wanting to move away from writing about things fans can read about in the tabloids and more into storytelling, singing in the voice of different characters, and crafting a three-part teen romance narrative that plays out across the record. It’s a good insight into her process and backs up just how well written the songs on Folklore are.

Stripped back, sometimes with little more than an acoustic guitar and Antonoff on a brushed snare drum, Swift is in fine voice throughout. She clearly loves these songs and the way the collaboration has pulled each track together. When she’s not singing, or when she delivers a few lines that she’s mentioned having in a note on her phone for years, the satisfaction with the process and the result is written all over her.

Of course, your reaction to this film will be the same as your reaction to Folklore. I thoroughly enjoyed the album, and the intimacy of these performances (especially the remote duet with a masked Justin Vernon on Exile) and the stories behind the tracks has only deepened my appreciation of it. If you’re not a Taylor Swift fan, this clearly isn’t for you. The only caveat for fans is that, being on Disney+, there is one compromise. Folklore is the first Taylor Swift record with a Parental Advisory sticker, and the occasional dropping of the F-bomb is muted, which sadly neuters the chorus of Betty (my favourite track). I can only hope we’ll see an uncut version, whether as an album, a Blu Ray or uploaded to Youtube. Otherwise, this is a lovely and often insightful version of a terrific album and a safe but solid directorial debut for Taylor Swift.
★★★★