Sunday, September 30, 2018

The Forbidden Kingdom (2008)

Finally, a movie starring martial arts greats Jackie Chan and Jet Li together! Let's see how well it fares...

Jason Tripitkas  is a martial arts film fan who regularly visits a Chinatown shop run by the aging Hop. One day he's cornered by some young hoodlums and forced to help rob the store. Hop is shot when trying to fight off his attackers, giving Jason a mysterious staff that he tells him to restore to its rightful owner, before the youth is cornered on the roof and falls off. Suddenly finding himself in a new land in a new time, Jason learns of the benevolent Monkey King, a trickster deity who crossed swords with the Jade Warlord, a despotic general in the Heavenly Realm who took control of the land when the true ruler was meditation, and imprisoned the monkey king through deception. Finding out that he holds the Monkey King's staff, Jason is told that it's the key to freeing its master. Along the way, he meets a variety of allies, who are all determined to help stop the evil Jade Warlord and bring peace back to the land...

Taking its inspiration from Journey of the West (though isn't a strict adaption, as far as I know), The Forbidden Kingdom is quite a good adventure fantasy. I'm not exactly crazy about really heavy Wuxia films, so it's a testament to the quality here that this is able to keep interest the whole way through. With its mix of Kung Fu, philosophy, drama, and a thankfully minimal use of flying wire fu (which I always find to look absolutely ridiculous, especially in movies that are supposed to be serious), this encapsulates a lot of the themes of the genre.

What I find impressive is that how apart from the opening 10 minutes, literally everyone in this movie is Asian! A good chunk of the dialogue is in Cantonese, too.

The story in Forbidden Kingdom is a good one. Despite knowing little about any of the characters, we still get to care at least a little about them. The villains don't have a lot of depth though. There's a surprising amount of death here for a pretty family friendly journey! There are also some possible inconsistencies with the immortality elixir, but then again maybe not. I guess I'd make more sense in the source material, given that's a lot longer than a 90 minute film and can explain things better.

The martial arts on display is very impressive, as can be expected from the two world-famous stars, as well as everyone else behind the scenes working tirelessly. It can sometimes get a bit too frenetic to see clearly (mainly when there are more than just a couple of belligerents), but it's usually great to watch, with spot-on choreography.

The main draw of The Forbidden Kingdom is that it stars Jackie Chan and Jet Li together in one movie. Their fight scene is very good, though it stretches on perhaps a bit long. I at least get why, since Lu Yan and the Monk are on the same side from then on, so this is really their only opportunity to have a fight scene. The only thing coming close is when they both spar using Jason as a shield and weapon.

Jason Tripitikas makes for a decent hero, and The Forbidden Kingdom successfully keeps from falling into the 'unskilled white guy saves the helpless foreigners' trope. In fact, I'm sure the Chinese co-producers made damn sure we see that this American only learns the amazing stuff he does because the fantastic Chinese taught him. They do so love doing that in their co-productions. Anyway, getting back to Jason, he sometimes whines a bit and can be impetuous, but he's not egregiously annoying or anything, and when he is a bit of a pain in the neck, it's intentional. When he becomes more skilled at martial arts, it feels earned, as we've seen him gradually train over the course of however much time has passed. While it's a bit silly that he's a bit of a Kung Fu master by the climax, I guess that's excuseable for a movie, and we do see him as not an entirely flawless fighter against the main baddies, so there's that. Jason does get sidelined a bit in the climax, but for the most part each hero gets their own opponent to do battle with at any given moment.

Through no real fault of his own, Jason's 'sidekicks' each eclipse him. Lu Yan is a fun drunken master, whose booze habits never make his skills falter. The 'Silent' Monk feels more lively than other strong and silent badasses by getting amusing moments (some of which might verge on too much for some viewers, but I didn't mind). Lastly, Golden Sparrow is a more gloomy character, with good reason, and her non-personal speech pattern is typically strange, though she does something incredibly stupid in the last act. Try the art of stealth, Sparrow!

The acting in The Forbidden Kingdom is mixed, and I'm not sure if it's a matter of talent, but rather one of language. Being 100% English, Michael Angarano does fine. Jackie Chan is mostly good, though a bit hard to understand in places, especially in the scenes set in our world, where a mix of awful and creepy old age make-up and a put-on croaky voice make him almost indecipherable. Jet Li's line delivery is sometimes a bit weird. I hesitate to say bad because I've seen him in enough English language roles to know he can act, but he's oddly stilted in places. Whether it not it's a deliberate quirk of his character I've no idea. Liu Yufei gets a lot of the movie's drama, and handles it ok enough. Collin Chou makes for a fun villain, whose line deliveries are deliciously evil, even if a bit overdramatic at times. The witch is much of the same, but just to a lesser degree.

The score is made up of traditional sounding Chinese music, while other parts sometimes sound reminiscent of Once Upon a Time in the West.

Filmed on location in China, the scenery is often breathtaking, and it's no surprise that nearly half a dozen tourism companies are given thanks in the ending credits. The set design is well-realised, and the practical effects are impressive. Overt computer effects are kept to a minimum, and while some of the more bigger CG stuff can be a tad noticeable, there's not much here to complain about. The opening credits are pretty neat, made up of the posters to various kung fu flicks.

The Forbidden Kingdom isn't perfect, but it's by no means a bad time. While there are many better Kung Fu and Wuxia movies out there, you can't go too far wrong with this one...

She (1935)

The American Leo Vincey is called back to his home country of England by his dying uncle, a scientist who devoted his life to searching for a mysterious life-bringing element. Telling of a fantastic journey made by their ancestor John Vincey and family, he convinces Leo to search for this element. Accompanied by his uncle's partner Holly, Leo travels for months, until the two finally find themselves in what they believe to be the right area. Along the way they meet an unscrupulous trader/guide and his beleaguered daughter Tanya, encounter frozen snapshots of prehistoric monsters, brave deadly avalanches, and eventually locate the lost city of Kor, dominion of the cruel tyrant Hasha-Motep, She Who Must Be Obeyed...

She is a great 1930s adventure film, in the same vein as King Kong (not surprising since this shares the director). The pace is great, going from one setpiece to another, with several varying locations. The story is never short of adventure or intrigue.

The ultimate main setting of Kor is quite a good one! While we can't be shown too much detail in under an hour of film, what we do see is an interesting hybrid of various cultures, with many interesting rituals and shocking practices. What impressed me most is the dance sequence at the climax. At nearly 10 minutes long, it's a spectacular sight, and it really makes Kor feel alive. Despite its length, it's never boring or overlong, either, and I can't imagine the climax without it, as it'd lose so much of the build-up!

The story is  The amount of time is takes for the characters to reach the lost city of Kor is longer than the journey to Skull Island (if I may reference King Kong once more), but the build-up, as well as the thrills of what happens before that point make up for the duration it takes. Once we do reach Kor, the pace slows down on the adventure front, giving way to more downtime, which makes sense given the characters' new circumstances and surroundings.

I haven't read the original book, but I have enough of a familiarity with it to be aware of the changes. Some are quite sizeable, but not bad. The location is drastically changed, from the deserts of Africa to their polar opposite*, in the frozen wastes of the Russian Arctic. Tanya replaces a native love interest and meets with a different and more pleasant fate (H. Rider Haggard novels are depressing!), and Leo's ancestor is moved closer in history, from ancient Greece to Shakespearean England. I don't mind this, as while some feel a shortening of 2000-ish years to 'only' 500 robs the story of its impact regarding how long Hasha-Motep has waited for her 'lost love' to return, I feel that not only is 500 years plenty of time, but also that if she'd waited upwards of 2000 years, she would've eventually just lost interest in that one random dude she liked.

*That pun wasn't intentional but I apologise for it all the same.

The characters are all good, displaying the right level of intelligence all he way through. Well, most of the time, anyway. One has to wonder why Leo is so down to get together with the queen he's only just met, though I suppose it could be explained by these being quite exceptional circumstances, finding out you're a possible re-incarnation to this immortal woman's lost love, and witnessing the perfectly preserved 500 year old body of your ancestor, as well as an unexplainable vision from the past, it would get to anyone I suppose, as well as the temptation of being a king...Then you remember that the married John Vincey died under rather suspicious circumstances, and Hasha-Motep even admits to Leo that she kinda sorta murdered his ancestor for not leaving his wife. What a dope Leo is! Run away, dude!

She is a well-realised villain. A firm leader to the point of cruelty (if only all of Kor had one neck!), but not without her more caring and tender moments. Just a shame that she hasn't quite gotten a handle on her murderous rages during her long immortal life.

As good as it is, She does have its hokey moments. The exposition text that comes up on the screen for us to read is one. This was an amusingly archaic thing to see in a movie, and I enjoyed its inclusion. Why can't more films do this? The romance between Leo and Tanya is as rushed as you can imagine, but the actors at least share good chemistry. Less well written however is Tanya's line to Hasha-Motep about how she shouldn't have Leo because 'Love is for the young', and Hasha can't because since she's old, she can never truly know love. You speak for yourself, Tanya, you brazen hussy! She also gets an amusing moment when trying to speak pidgin English to a native of Kor, as if saying 'Him very sick!' will make someone who doesn't speak English go "Oh, NOW I understand what you mean! I'll go get the doctor right away!". Finally, there's the denouement about how the real flame of life is that in the fireplace of every happy couple. A sweet but groan-inducing ending.

The acting in She is very good. Randolph Scott is good as the hunky hero, as is Helen Mack as the love interest, while Helen Gahagan is the best performer in the film as the titular antagonist. To those accustomed only to his more laidback turn as Dr. Watson in the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes series, Nigel Bruce's performance as Holly is quite a surprise! While I don't exactly find his Watson to be as much a buffoon as his reputation suggests, he's still leagues behind when compared with his more adventurous and action-oriented counterpart in She.

This is a very well   It was originally meant to be a technicolour production, but I believe didn't have the money for it. It looks great in black-and-white, but I prefer watching the Ray Harryhausen supervised colourisation. It provides a lot more bounce and grandiosity to the imagery, even if the (really good) matte paintings look a bit more obvious in colour, and there's a pastel-y quality to some shots (and an unintentionally terrifying face in one scene).

She is definitely one of the greats of 1930s adventure cinema, and while it's not as well not as other contemporaries, it still stands strong as a shining gem of the period...

Pretty in Pink (1986)

Andie is a schoolgirl who lives in the poorer side of town, but is happy with her life. A frugal sort, she's often experimenting with new second hand clothes, and helping her unmotivated father find a job. Blane is a rich kid, but unsatisfied by how vapid and insulting some of his friends can be. Seeing something special in Andie, he falls for her, but friends on both sides object to the two's pairing, feeling that either Blane is an unsincere rich brat only interested in a quick lay, and that Andie is 'beneath' someone like Blane, respectively. Despite these criticisms, the two try to make their relationship work...

Coming from noted writer and director John Hughes, Pretty in Pink is one of his best works, I feel. It's a thoroughly enjoyable teen movie focusing on the everpresent issues of class. Can two people from different walks of life make it in a relationship?

While the pacing is good with the story, it isn't with the characters, as Blane barely appears during the first half, with all the screentime being hogged by Duckie, an excruciatingly unlikeable character. He's a real pain to watch, and the movie is so unbalanced! Thankfully after a certain point, Blane starts appearing more regularly, but then Duckie is the one to mostly vanish, which still feels like a problem despite my dislike for the character.

Pretty in Pink has a few things to say, including interesting examinations on masculinity, both positive, negative, and in-between. On the positive side is Blane, a rich kid who's not a stuck-up brat, but rather is sweet and caring, and also the first to ask Andie out rather than the other way around. Then on the other end we've got Steff, a toxic asshole who does try asking 'nerdy' and 'poor' girls out himself, albeit in a rude and condescending manner, then accuses them of low standards and bitchiness when he's rejected. Blane lays out his internal reasons for his actions at the end and it's great to watch the guy squirm! One has to wonder what becomes of Steff after the credits roll. Does he stay an asshole forever, or does he learn the error of his ways with his friend's guidance? Duckie, meanwhile, has issues with entitlement, as well as just being a prat to women, then wondering why he has no luck with the ladies, eventually learning that just because he 'love's Andie, it doesn't mean she has to love him back. Finally, there's Andie's father, who's got his own issues to deal with, and is more often than not in an unmotivated slump, being taken care of by his daughter rather than the other way round, with the two having a positive relationship based on mutual respect and admiration, even if his borderline laziness does upset it at times. Man, with all this focus on the male psyche, it's a surprise that the female characters don't get nearly as much psychological attention! I guess it makes sense, since John Hughes would be more familiar with the internal behaviour of men. And it's not like toxic femininity is exactly a common thing in America.

Pretty in Pink may be a great movie, but it is not short of awkwardness. Most of it comes courtesy of Duckie, but some of it from other places. The party scene where Blane takes Andie to meet some of his friends is cringey to watch, although it at least is meant to be. And finally, it's hard watching what Andie does to her two pink dresses! Yikes, those poor outfits! Those are new threads from your dad and a gift from Iona (her old prom dress), kid, don't tear them up and cannibalise them!

Andie is the best character, as she's very well-written, and played excellently by Molly Ringwald, who's the best actor in the movie. As for Blane, he may have a snooty rich name, but he's very likeable. Andrew McCarthy is great here. The moment when Blane calls Duckie an asshole, I was once again reminded why he's one of my favourite living actors!

In actuality, he's my favourite not only because I like him, but because of how versatile he is. Three examples-Weekend at Bernie's, Mannequin, and Pretty in Pink. All three films have performances from him that are so different! Weekend at Bernie's was the first thing I ever saw McCarthy in (at least, the first I saw knowing who he is), and I figured the guy's niche was playing goofy and snarky comic-relief types, but then I saw Mannequin, where his character is a total 180 as a romantic dreamer.

Onto Duckie. I don't like Jon Cryer. Nothing against the man himself, I just can't stand him as a performer. He's annoying! Really annoying! And Duckie is a freakin' scumbag for most of the movie. He's only likeable in the last eight minutes, and when he fights Steff. I wish more care has gone into making his character less of a pain.

The rest of the acting is all good. James Spader's performance as rich asshole Steff isn't anything special, but he's still James Spader, so he's definitely watchable. Annie Potts as Andie's older friend Iona is awesome! She needed more screentime! Thankfully she does get enough, and her and Andy's friendship is nicely written and believable.

The soundtrack here is pretty good. While I don't think it's anywhere near being one of the best ever made, as others have said, it still really compliments the movie well. My favourite tracks were the title song (the verses and general composition moreso than the singing), and If you Leave by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, which is a great pairing with the finale.

Pretty in Pink is an 80s classic that still holds up today just as well as it did back in the day. Not dated at all and still relevant to the modern day, it's not a movie that'll fade from memory anytime soon...

The Patient in Room 18 and Mystery House (1938)

Finally I reach the last two films on the classic Hollywood mystery set I've been chipping away at for the past year or so. Having covered such 'gems' as Sh! the Octopus and The Smiling Ghost, and such gems as The Hidden Hand and Find the Blackmailer, I now reach The Patient in Room 18, and Mystery House...

The Patient in Room 18

Noted detective Lance O'Leary has undergone one of the few failures in his otherwise impeccable and illustrious career, and with his sense of self-worth shattered, his doctor recommends him a stay at a rest home. The relative peace there however is shattered when a wealthy new patient is murdered, over a supply of expensive radium he had for medical treatment. Together with the nurse Sarah Keate, O'Leary must uncover the killer before another death occurs...

The Patient in Room 18 is a disappointing film. Bit of an issue is how the movie spends so much time building up O'Leary that by the time we get to the main story, it all starts feeling a bit much. Too many characters to keep track of, not helped by them all looking pretty interchangeable, and all Doctors or nurses to boot, often with similar hairstyles.

Whodunnits with large body counts are usually disappointing in the respect that the suspect pool thins with each new murder. Patient in Room 18 has such a bodycount, but that's a moot point since we see who the killer is the moment he commits the deed! For the life of me though I had no idea who I was looking at. It's also a bit of a cheat that O'Leary's big clue to finding out who the murderer is a witness, rather than clues he's discovered himself. O'Leary's skills rarely contribute to the discovery of new information (often they're found by other people, like the manservant Higgins or Keate), and there's very little actual investigation into any of the murder victims. The leads just sort of bum around until they stumble upon new things.

The round-up and reveal is very confusing and contains many conveniences, but one thing I did find pretty hilarious was the fate of the murderer. I guess that's one thing this has in common with The Wayne Murder Case. Neither are that great showcases of their genre, but boy do they have satisfying death scenes for the villains!

The biggest crime is this movie is that it's just rather dull. It's not bad, entertainingly so or otherwise, but it's all so perfunctory.

As far as characters go, Lance O'Leary is certainly interesting, but the film paints a pretty glum picture of  him, if he's prone to legitimate nervous breakdowns after a single unsolved case! We less want him to solve this current mystery and more to see him leave it to the professionals, because he's clearly not mentally fit for this line of work! If one failure was enough to drive him into mania, then I hate to see where he'll end up!

Nurse Sarah Keate is your typical 'take-no-guff' 1940s woman, and is much more enjoyable, getting in a few snappy lines here and there, like when the police detective was talking with her. "Now listen, lady"-"Keate is the name!".

One very interesting scene is when Lance is trying to smoke and his gruff nurse beau tears it from his mouth, because "They're not good for you!". Wow, nice to see a film from 1937 acknowledge that smoking is bad! You go, guys, and for that reason alone I'm more forgiving of this movie for its flaws.

Another quite impressive scene was a scene shot all in one take, when the other nurse is trying to move some flowers and keeps getting interrupted by others.

The acting's pretty ok. Some characters are more annoying than others, but there's nothing that wrong with the performances. I wasn't much of a fan of Patric Knowles as the lead detective, but I liked Ann Sheridan!

Overall, The Patient in Room 18 is a bit of a snooze, but it's not an awful way to spend an evening. Just not a particularly striking example of the 30s/40s detective boom...

22:08, 32:18ish, 36:31,

Mystery House

As with all the other films on  set I was going to cover Mystery House separately, but as it turns out this film is another Lance O'Leary vehicle! Man, it's a good thing I realised this was a sequel before posting my review for Patient in Room 18! It's also lucky I chose to discuss Patient first, deeming Mystery House to be a broad enough title that it should be covered last.

Businessman Hubert Kingery gathers all of his board members together at his secluded hunting lodge one night to bring up the matter of extensive theft that could lead to the company's downfall. Before he can go further with is accusations, Kingery goes to his room and is shot dead. Since the door was locked and the windows were barred, his death is believed to be suicide, but his daughter Gwen suspects differently, and asks the household's nurse Sarah Keate if she knows any good detectives...

The plot to Mystery House is more of the same when compared to its predecessor, not because the plot's that similar, but because the bodies keep dropping the floor and thinning out the suspect list! At least the location is smaller and the suspects easier to tell apart this time around. There are also enough suspects remaining even when as many as three people are dead.

The mystery s ok. The solution to the locked room dilemma is certainly clever and reasonably plausible enough, but there's no way for the audience to work it out. There's zero way for the viewer to work out the motive either. For all their sniping at each-other, we don't really know much of anything about the suspects, and why they'd want to commit all these murders beyond the basic reason of vague criminality.

The climax is pretty good, with some neat stuntwork taking place! These poor actors look like they took a bruising for their art! And for course, who should come to the rescue but the amazing German Shepherd!

Mystery House is not a good film to watch on a cold day, because you can feel the chilliness emanating from the screen! The snowed-in setting is quite effective

Lance O'Leary is played by Dick Purcell now instead of Patric Knowles, and acts completely differently. He's not exactly serious, but he's a bit more mature and less insufferable than Knowles' take on the character, which is a relief. Ann Sheridan returns as Sarah Keate, and feels like an anchor tying the two films together.

The rest of the acting is decent. Present is a bad Irish accent, while another sounds like Jimmy Stewart. There are a few other familiar faces here, such as Anthony Averill, Hugh O'Connell, Sheila Bromley, and even Elspeth Dudgeon from Sh! The Octopus, of this very DVD set!

One last note to discuss is the true protagonist of these stories. Upon  reading I discovered that not only is Mignon a girl's name, but also that Nurse Sarah Keate herself is apparently the protagonist of Eberhardt's books! That's what sources say, but I think Lance O'Leary is still a character in them, so I'm not sure what to think.

The Patient in Room 18 doesn't come highly recommended from me, but Mystery House fares a bit better. I suppose the best course of action may be to find the books, as they might bear the highest quality. Still, 1930s and 40s mystery cinema always had at least a little something to offer...