23 September 2007

Tony Leung Trio

I was going to recommend the films of Wong Kar-Wai when I had a revelation. I've seen roughly 8 Chinese-language films in my lifetime, and actor Tony Leung (a.k.a. Leung Chiu Wai, if you're of the Asian persuasion) has been in, oh, 7 of them. Whether he's the Kevin Bacon of China or simply an actor whose movies happen to get US distribution, I do not know. What I do know is his presence anchors every film I've seen him in.

The first film I saw Tony Leung in is John Woo's Hard Boiled. Leung plays a cop undercover in a gun dealer's gang who crosses paths with Chow Yun-Fat's hardened (as in a boiled egg) detective on the trail of the very same gun dealer. While that description may sound like an intriguing setup for a gritty drama, keep in mind that this is a John Woo film, which means lots of people shoot lots of guns at lots of other people as they jump and swing and do lots of insane shit, sometimes in slow motion. The opening teahouse shootout sets the kick-ass tone for the rest of the film. Woo has many nameless henchmen kill many nameless civilians, which doesn't really bother Chow Yun-Fat's character so much as when his partner is killed. Angry Chow chases his partner's killer into a backroom, gets covered in flour while dodging bullets, and then blows off the guy's head, thus splattering his flour-white face with blood. Yes, that is the first five minutes. Leung lends some gravity to the proceedings as the morally compromised undercover cop, but it's Woo's bullet-ridden choreography that will forever forgive him his future trespasses, which are called Windtalkers and Paycheck.

In Infernal Affairs, Leung plays another cop undercover as a gangster who is hunted by another cop, who happens to be an undercover gangster. This is the gritty drama take on that premise, and the film is both a clever thriller and an intriguing character study. There is an extended sequence early in the film when the police are waiting for a drug deal to go down and the film details how Leung and his counterpart (played by Andy Lau) are indirectly sabotaging the other's operation. It's a clever, taut, even provocative film that manages to stay focused on the two leads as they slowly but surely lose their grip on their identities. Lau is solid, but Leung stands out as a man who hates himself for what he is only pretending to be, and slowly drowns in desperation because the number of people who know the truth are dwindling. If this all sounds strangely familiar to you, this was the basis for The Departed, so if you want to lord your superior film knowledge above the heads of your Netflix friends, do give it a spin and pretend like it was a secret that the Hollywood Remake Machine let out.

In Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express, Leung gets to stretch his legs and play... a cop. Which is why I will instead be talking about Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love. In it, Leung plays a writer (ha!) who rents a room next door to a lady played by Maggie Cheung. Both are married, and both come to the realization that their spouses are cheating on them with each other. What unfolds is an endearing friendship that threatens to turn into something more, but both vow never to sink to the level of their unfaithful spouses. This is the type of art house fair that I usually dread, but Wong is a romantic through and through. He infuses his films with real heart and, in this case, real melancholy. Loneliness and unrequited love are staples of his work, and what's heartbreaking about Mood is the fact that both emotions are self-inflicted. Both characters repress their true feelings so as not to shame their already broken marriages. Visually, the film is a splendor. Wong is a master at creating atmosphere, and here he recreates a crowded 1960s Hong Kong with rich colors and a penchant for the Nat King Cole song "Quizas, Quizas, Quizas." At first, it is a little odd to hear Cole crooning in Spanish for this Chinese film, but the images are mesmerizing and the repitition of it is sadly evocative... perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. Leung won Best Actor at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival for his work here.

So there you go. If you're in the mood for a fun Friday night doubleheader, go with Infernal Affairs followed by Hard Boiled (and stay far, far away from the Infernal Affairs sequels). If you want heartbreak and romance, give In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express (which is delightfully romantic) a spin. If you want a dash of science-fiction mixed in with your unrequited love, pick up a copy of Wong Kar-Wai's 2046, a quasi-sequel to Mood that also stars Zhang Ziyi and follows Leung's character as he becomes a cold womanizer who writes a pulp sci-fi novel that mirrors his hedonistic exploits. Like what you've read about Leung but want some kung fu? There's Hero with Jet Li, a visually stunning and dreadfully boring film, but hey, whatever your cup of tea. Action? Love? Subtitles? Tony Leung is your man.

20 September 2007

"Only The Brave" & Kouraku

I really, really wanted to like Only The Brave, an independently-financed film about the most highly decorated unit in US military history, the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team comprised of Japanese-Americans, most of whom were sent to internment camps in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack. It's an amazing story, a uniquely American story, and a real shame that it hasn't been told in the mainstream before. Most World War II texts gloss right over it. The fact that Only The Brave is written and directed by a Japanese-American filmmaker, Lane Nishikawa, makes it all the more significant. And all the more disappointing.

The film is actor-writer Nishikawa's directing debut. It shows, especially during the war scenes, as his camera has trouble navigating the chaos of the battlefield. It's hard to criticize him for not having enough money (narrow-minded film executives are to blame there, but that's another topic), but the budget limitations are evident. Visually, there's little urgency to the war stuff. Which soldiers are where, and where they are going, and what's in their way... it's all muddled and flat.

I'd like to say that the battle sequences are ancillary to the story of these brave volunteer soldiers and their journey from the internment camps to the army, but it isn't. The bulk of the picture is focused on the 100th/442nd's rescue of the "Lost Battalion," a unit surrounded by German forces in October 1944. The entire context of the internment of US citizens for no other reason than racist paranoia is relegated to a crawl of text during the opening moments of the film. If you were to walk in late to this film, you might not know at all that it's about soldiers who overcame blatant discrimination to join the army and serve the very country that maligned and repressed them.

Part of the trouble is the driving force of the film is explored with cryptic strokes. Jimmy, the platoon leader played by Nishikawa, is first seen as a veteran haunted by his memories. However, his relationships with his men are cold and conventional. There's little chemistry between the characters because they do little together save for stalk through the forest. There are poignant flashbacks spread intermittently throughout, featuring each of the soldiers saying their goodbyes to their families. One in particular, with one soldier receiving a "1,000 stitch" scarf that carries the well wishes of an entire community, strikes a heartbreaking cord. These share other details and give some shading to what are otherwise faceless soldiers, but they aren't enough to sustain the prolonged battle sequences and serve only to convolute Jimmy's story.

It's evident that Nishikawa wants to honor the veterans of the 100th/442nd by telling their story without melodramatic touches or fifty years of hindsight. The tone of the film is stoic, immediate, and the filmmaker has a fondness and a good ear for the soldiers' banter between battles. However, as a whole, it all feels raw and incomplete. Jimmy's haunted looks are never fully explored, undermining an intriguing absolution. As a historical retelling, Only The Brave misses the mark, and as drama it's convoluted and underdeveloped.

The Los Angeles screening I went to was the kick-off of a national tour promoting the DVD. Visit the film's website for more info.

After the film, Camille and I wandered through J-Town looking for some eats. (Isn't "J-Town" much cooler than "Little Tokyo?" Come on, try it on for size.) We thought the wise thing to do was follow a crowd, so we walked into Kouraku, a quaint place with the menu written in dry erase on the wall and counter seating fronting the kitchen. Of course, the dry erase wall menu was in Japanese, so we had to peruse the surprisingly vast table menus. They seem to specialize in noodles, so we both went for ramen with an appetizer of squid cooked in butter.

Squid can easily become rubbery and gross, but here it was fresh, soft but with a nice bite, and butter-rific. I don't think I can overemphasize how deliciously buttery the butter on the butter squid is. Butter butter butter. So simple and fantastic.

I went for a shrimp omelette ramen in a soy-flavored broth. First and foremost, the broth brings the goodness. Warm, smooth, and a touch sweet and salty. While I'm a tremendous fan of putting a fried egg on pretty much anything, I've never considered making an omelette... and then dropping it onto soup. The shrimp omelette by itself would have done the job, but the plain sweet flavor of the shrimp and egg in the middle of a rich broth, combined with the soft noodles is thoroughly satisfying.

Camille had a more hodgepodge soup that contained an array of proteins in a different kind of broth. I think satisfying is probably the best word for this food. Not fantastic. Not mind blowing. Satisfying. Looking at the menu, it's enticing to see that every soup dish describes the different broth they use. I think we'll be coming back.

314 East Second Street
LA 90012

cash only

04 September 2007

With a name like Swagger...

Sometimes, Taco Bell just does it for you. Maybe you've only got a few bucks on you, or maybe you're drunk -- which is the preferred state for eating a double decker taco -- but sometimes you don't want quality. Not even McDonald's-level quality. You just want a double decker taco.

Shooter is a double decker taco. It's directed by Antoine Fuqua, whose magnificent Training Day is a whopper of a dirty cop thriller (pun intended, thank you). But Shooter, on the other hand, is dull and workman-like. It's not bad, per se, but you've got to be in a specfic mood to really enjoy something as exceedingly mediocre as this. Drunk, for example. Or up late, eyes buzzing with caffeine while channel-surfing madly through infomercials hoping for something decent at 2 am that isn't Law & Order reruns on TNT. You see what I'm getting at here.

One of Mark Wahlberg's criteria for picking out scripts must be really spot-on character names. There exists no better porn star name than Dirk Diggler, and I really can't come up with a better moniker for a sharpshooter than Bob Lee Swagger. Of course, while I like Wahlberg, the last thing I'd say about him is that he oozes charisma. So, in the misnomer department, Swagger is up there with Pussy Galore from Goldfinger. But it's still a cool name. So cool, it should be written with an exclamation point -- Swagger!

Swagger! is depicted as an earnest, loyal, simple man. During an operation, he and his spotter are left behind. Since the spotter just showed a picture of his girl mere moments before, War Movie Doctrine dictates that he tragically die, and so it goes. Swagger! escapes and moves to the mountains to become a sharp-shooting yokel, and there he stays until Danny Glover (whose character name is so bland I cannot recall it) arrives with a job: Figure out how to assassinate the President and, in doing so, track a rogue assassin plotting to do so. Swagger! is set up but escapes, embarrassing a young FBI Agent (Michael Pena) who begins to suspect Swagger! is just a fall guy.

Fuqua is a confident director who's shown real flair in the past, but he doesn't do much to elevate Shooter above it's generic trappings. The writing is strangely concerned with making Swagger! smart and resourceful, which is Screenwriting 101 for creating character, but the end result is a thriller in which there are few thrills since the bad guys can't match wits with a good-hearted killing machine like him. Swagger's got this. I mean, his name's Bob Lee Swagger!

The film is a throwback to the straight-arrow action films of the 1980s. In fact, substitute the story's post-9/11 government paranoia with communists and you'd have Red Dawn, right down to the sharp-shooting yokels camping in the woods. At the end of the day, I think I prefer Red Dawn's shameless 80s sincerity. That movie at least knew in its heart that the villains didn't really matter, it was the struggle of teenaged kids banding together to survive World War III. Shooter loses it's steam at the most crucial of points, the very end, when the story suddenly shifts from Swagger clearing his good name to the filmmakers wagging their fingers at morally-corrupt capitalist bureaucrats. By the time you realize what they've done for money (no, not for money! Evil!), you'll probably want the credits to roll. There's actually a sequence where Swagger lets the bad guys go so they can be properly shamed in a government hearing. Which they don't, but hey, we're talking about Bob Lee Swagger! Suffice to say, this is the least satisfying comeuppance a villain has ever had.

Yet, I cannot condemn the flick as bad. It's decent. It moves quickly. The action is nifty. Not spectacular, or terribly exciting, but nifty. Sure, Michael Pena becoming Swagger's new spotter is one big ball of cheese, as is the quasi-romance that blooms when Swagger seeks refuge with his old spotter's heartbroken girl. But every time Wahlberg, I mean Swagger!, offs a baddie with his sharp-shooting skills, it's oddly satisfying. Double decker with mild sauce satisfying. And with just as much guilt on my part.