Category Archives: 1994

Chungking Express (1994, Wong Kar-Wai)

Chungking Express has two parts. First part is lonely young plainclothes cop Kaneshiro Takeshi counting down the days to his birthday, which is also thirty days since his girlfriend of five years dumped him. Simultaneously, sort of middle person drug trafficker Brigitte Lin loses her latest batch of mules (once they’re loaded up with the coke in luggage and person and at the airport, they run off when she’s buying the tickets). If Lin can’t find them, her creep boss (Thom Baker) will have her killed. Director Wong opens the film with stylized slow motion action; Kaneshiro running through the crowded Hong Kong streets after a suspect or something, almost bumping into Lin (who’s in a blonde wig, raincoat, and sunglasses—at night—all movie). Kaneshiro, narrating, explains he’s just come so close to Lin without meeting her and in two days, he’ll be in love with her. So presumably Express is going to be that story. And it is that story. Until it turns out Lin and Kaneshiro’s violent, melancholy romance is just a warm-up. A mood prologue.

The second part is Faye Wong and Tony Chiu-Wai Leung. Leung is a different cop, a little older, and in uniform. Wong works at the counter-only restaurant where Leung gets his coffee. And where Kaneshiro also gets his coffee. But there’s no crossover. Director Wong really did just do a warm-up. Because even though Kaneshiro is the narrator at the beginning, eventually Lin gets some. And her narration is the best in the film. She’s been a complete mystery—sort of unsympathetic but funny as she bosses her mules around, but still sympathetic because Baker’s clearly got some weird thing going on with her, which she might not even know about. You get to know her from her actions and behavior, not narration like Kaneshiro. When Lin does get the narration and makes a revealing statement or two, they send these shockwaves through the rest of the first story. She doesn’t get much narration and even though Kaneshiro gets a bunch, he becomes secondary. It’s clearly Lin’s story. Even though she never goes to the restaurant so has no crossover with kindly owner Chen Jinquan.

Chen gives romantic advice to Kaneshiro, who spends most of his time in the film at the restaurant waiting for his ex-girlfriend to call him. He has this great subplot about expired pineapple. He’s a complete sad sack and comically naive in his narration. Meanwhile, Lin’s sometimes mercurially merciless. There’s this fantastic contrast between their two stories. Wong has some of the same styles—the slow motion action sequences all work the same—but there’s some other visual distinction. Chungking Express is an exemplar of how narrative distance and style can work together while going at very different speeds. It’s awesome.

If Wong wanted, it could be neo-noir. But instead it’s a deliberate drama with Lin and Kaneshiro sometimes meeting in their orbits and how it affects them.

Back to Faye Wong and Tony Leung. Director and writer Wong gives them this third act story with the narrative distance changing to transition things along. It starts as an echo of the first story. Lovelorn cop, wise owner. Only this time there’s Faye Wong. She starts as a foil then becomes the protagonist. Not just of the story, but of the film. Director Wong went through the first part so we could see Faye Wong’s story, which almost entirely without narration as she starts stalking Leung. Comically and lovably, but definitely stalking. Director Wong always keeps this really light mood to Faye Wong hanging out in Leung’s apartment and messing with his stuff. He never breaks from the film’s sharp visual focus. While Express is a film about quiet, sometimes private moments between people, Wong uses the enormity of the city—artificially muffled, but still sharp-as the stage for those moments. That style—infused with bubbly—just further spotlights the film on Faye Wong. It’s jarring when director Wong changes the pace for the third act.

The first story takes place over two and a half days. There’s even a clock involved; the dates of the present action matter to the story and characters. Well, to Kaneshiro anyway. The second story is very loose in pacing, but also extremely precise. Director Wong only wants to give so much of the story at each point in the story. It’s a relaxed pacing, much different from the first story, much different from the beginning of the second story itself. Wong slows things down and lets the film enjoy itself. Faye Wong and Tony Leung are both really charming in the film. The first story is the neo-noir romance, the second half is the romantic comedy, and they’re almost exactly the same, stylistically. But without Faye Wong narrating even through her longer scenes. There’s more time without narration. A lot more. And there’s an entirely different sense of danger. It’s a wryly comedic one, done in a style where there’s no wry comedy. Because more than anything else—even a spectacular vehicle for Faye Wong—it’s this sad sack romantic drama about these two cops who can’t get over their heartache. And they don’t understand how their potential romances exist away from them. In very, very different ways, but it’s a definite echo. It’s a beautifully constructed narrative, beautifully edited as it plays out on screen narrative. Director Wong and his crew do… I don’t know, I’m running low on positive adjectives. The film’s technically breathtaking.

Great photography from Christopher Doyle and Lau Wai-keung. Great editing from William Chang, Kai Kit-Wai, and Kwong Chi-Leung. The film wouldn’t work without them. Or the music. Frankie Chan and Roel A. García’s score is awesome. The use of popular music is awesome. And essential. It’s magnificent.

Wong’s the best performance, then Leung, then Lin, then Kaneshiro. Kaneshiro’s still great. Chen’s perfect as the restaurant owner. Valerie Chow’s good as Leung’s ex-girlfriend because Leung’s so much the second story protagonist for a while he gets flashbacks. For a movie where Leung’s always walking around in tighty-whiteys, there are also some lovely romantic scenes. Director Wong and the crew bring the sexy for the salad days flashbacks, bringing yet another style into the film, which Wong still keeps once Faye Wong takes over, even though the narrative content has changed.

So astoundingly good. Chungking Express is astoundingly good. I’m livid at myself for not seeing it sooner.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Wong Kar-Wai; directors of photography, Christopher Doyle and Lau Wai-Keung; edited by William Chang, Kai Kit-Wai, and Kwong Chi-Leung; music by Frankie Chan and Roel A. García; production designer, Chang; produced by Jeffrey Lau and Chan Yi-kan for Jet Tone Production.

Starring Brigitte Lin (Blonde), Kaneshiro Takeshi (Zhiwu), Faye Wong (Faye), Tony Chiu-Wai Leung (Cop 663), Chen Jinquan (Manager of ‘Midnight Express’), Valerie Chow (Air Hostess), Thom Baker (Drug Dealer), and Zhen Liang (May).


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This Unfamiliar Place (1994, Eva Ilona Brzeski)

This Unfamiliar Place is content in search of presentation. Director Brzeski’s father survived the Nazi attack and occupation of Poland. He never talked about it. Then there’s an unspecified earthquake (maybe the San Francisco-Oakland one of 1989, but it’s sort of immaterial because Brzeski’s not living there at the time). She thinks somehow this place she once lived having an earthquake means she can now understand her father’s experience in Poland.

Her father, who answers unheard interview questions both on camera and in voiceover, doesn’t think she can ever understand. Sadly Brzeski’s wordy, obtuse narration never reflects enough on those statements.

Then there’s a bunch of footage from Poland when Brzeski goes with her father; just people living in Poland in the early nineties. Kids staring at the camera, a cow, all sorts of stuff. It’s like a travelogue with way too much context.

But instead of just ending when it’s only a misfire, Brzeski keeps going–with a lot of that meandering narration–before getting to her father and he’s got so much, both as a visual presence and as a interviewee, well, it becomes clear there’s definitely enough material for This Unfamiliar Place to be something… only Brzeski doesn’t know what. It’s not what she thought it would be, so it’s therefor nothing. Only it’s not nothing.

Brzeski’s technical filmmaking–she directed, edited, photographed–is all good. The short’s not wanting in those regards. Scott Starrett’s music is decent too. Its thesis and the exploration of that thesis… not successful. Way too narrow, way too constrained, way too closed.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Edited, photographed, produced, and directed by Eva Ilona Brzeski; music by Scott Starrett.

Starring Andrzej Brzeski.


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Puppet Master 5 (1994, Jeff Burr)

Puppet Master 5 opens with the series’s (unfortunately) standard lengthy opening title sequences. There’s nothing exciting about it, just white text on black and Richard Band’s theme in the background. The film’s single surprise in the titles is Band just getting an “original music by” credit. Michael Wetherwax is here to adapt it. He’s the Ken Thorne of Puppet Master movies.

He actually does a great job. Puppet Master 5’s music sounds different. It’s got more energy during the slasher sequences. It gets so weird during one of the chase scenes, it sounds like the wrong music track was laid down. But it works. It’s lively.

A lot of Puppet Master 5 is lively. But the film does a lot to delay that energy. After the opening titles, there’s a scene with Ron O’Neal as a police detective interrogating lead Gordon Currie. Puppet Master 5 takes place right after 4. Currie is a genius scientist who gets chosen to be puppet master to an assortment of sentient, animate puppets. They’re all being hunted by an evil Egyptian demon. O’Neal doesn’t believe Currie’s story. Lawyer Diane McBain makes concerned faces. For a moment, Puppet Master 5 seems like it’s at least going to be a little different. The actors will be better. O’Neal might not have great lines and his part might be mispelled in the end credits, but he gives a professional performance. Same with McBain. She has maybe one line. It all feels strangely competent.

Then, of course, the movie fumbles and flashbacks back. A five minute flashback of the last movie’s events. For all those people who thought Puppet Master 5 would be a good jumping on point for the series.

The first puppet sequence doesn’t impress. A puppet escaping from the police lock-up while the officer-in-charge listens to musak. In fact, it’s an ominous sign for the film’s music, so it’s rather cool it turns out to be okay.

But then Ian Ogilvy shows up. He’s playing Currie’s boss. Not of the animate killer (but only bad people) puppets but of the science thing. Ogilvy’s kind of great. He’s hamming it through, the stuck-up British guy who’s actually not entirely proper. Turns out Ogilvy’s in league with the Pentagon to weaponize the puppets. “Holy shit that WAS Clu Gulager” Clu Gulager cameos for a scene as one of the Pentagon suits.

Anyway. Ogilvy hires these three idiots to help him steal the puppets. Nicholas Guest is the boss of the other two idiots. He’s no fun. Willard E. Pugh is fun and nearly good, certainly the best of the three. But Duane Whitaker is more fun, though not actually good. Even if you remove the “Holy shit that’s Maynard; is he going to go get the gimp” factor from Whitaker, he’s still more fun. Because the good puppets spend some time beating him up for being a jerk. They can’t kill him, because they’re good, but giving him a solid beatdown is something else. It even leads to an amusing moment when the puppets hide Whitaker’s unconscious body from female “lead” Chandra West.

All the killing from the puppets is the little demon monster. The big demon humps–literally–his life force into a little demon monster. It’s the same model as the last movie’s little demon monsters, which look like the little Lost World: Jurassic Park dinosaurs but without tails. And done with puppets, not CGI.

And it’s also supposed to be a puppet. Because there’s a long scene with the big demon–presumably a larger than life puppet, but terribly designed and detailed (though the hand effects are amazing)–talking to the little demon monster and it sounds like he too is a “puppet master.” Or at least he really likes to talk to his action figures.

The little demon monster is different from last movie’s because it’s got bling. It starts hunting down Ogilvy and the three idiots.

Those scenes, played equally for humor and suspense, work out well. They take up a lot of Puppet Master 5’s second act and, even when it’s Guest and there’s even not a unspecific bemusement quality, the scenes work. Adolfo Bartoli’s lighting actually has personality. He and Burr all of a sudden decide to have some style. And with Whitaker dressed as a cowboy, Pugh as a Shaft knockoff, Guest as a sports fan, and Ogilvy as a British square–it’s a lot. In the right way.

Sadly, Puppet Master 5 isn’t just these four idiots getting in the middle of the little demon hunting the puppets. There’s still Currie and West. And Teresa Hill, who plays West’s friend who the demon monsters attacked last movie. She’s in the hospital–not one of the film’s more convincing sets–but she can see the big demon and his plans. Like the one where he stands behind the little demon and tells the toy he’s going to hump his life force into it.

That footage is repeated at least twice in the movie.

So at first it seems like Currie and West might have a storyline together. Currie has this sex dream about West being all sultry in a bath tub full of blood; see, the puppets are bleeding her out and she feels all naughty for Currie.

It’s weird. Unpleasantly so. It also goes nowhere. Because once Currie and West get to the closed hotel (along with the long opening titles, another series standard), West gets nothing to do beyond scream and try to save Currie. Currie meanwhile gets to do his computer magic to communicate with Hill. She’s projecting her consciousness into the computer. Oddly, there’s not a lot she can do because the computer’s DOS, after all.

Eventually the little demon comes for West and Currie and the puppets get involved and Guy Rolfe is back. He’s the original puppet master. Now he shows up with his head superimposed over one of the puppets so he can give words of wisdom to Currie.

Currie starts the film a lot better than he ends it. He’s intolerable by the third act; somehow him being knocked out and West trying to save him is more annoying than when he’s pretending to read the computer screen and it’s hard to imagine anything more annoying than that one. Except maybe his inability to deliver one-liners.

Ogilvy’s kind of great. Though his glasses change lenses. Or sometimes appear not to have lenses at all. It’s distracting.

The movie would’ve been a lot better with just Ogilvy and the idiots getting hunted by puppets. The more Currie, the more West, the worse Puppet Master 5 gets. It’s unfortunate. Director Burr, cinematographer Bartoli, editor Margeret-Anne Smith, and composer Wetherwax (sorry, adapter)–they push through the budget restrictions and deliver some actually horrific little demon kills. When it’s not going well, they just keep going until it works. It’s impressive (and unexpected).

Shame about the rest of the movie, which can’t even get a good voice performance out of Jake McKinnon as the big demon. Movie knows to cameo Clu Gulager but not get a good voice performance for the villain. Of course it doesn’t.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jeff Burr; screenplay by Steven E. Carr, Jo Duffy, Todd Henschell, Douglas Aarniokoski, and Keith Payson, based on characters created by David Schmoeller; director of photography, Adolfo Bartoli; edited by Margeret-Anne Smith; music by Michael Wetherwax; production designer, Milo; produced by Charles Band; released by Paramount Home Video.

Starring Gordon Currie (Rick Myers), Chandra West (Susie), Ian Ogilvy (Jennings), Nicholas Guest (Hendy), Duane Whitaker (Scott), Willard E. Pugh (Jason), Teresa Hill (Lauren), and Guy Rolfe (Toulon).


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Timecop (1994, Peter Hyams)

Timecop is deceptively competent. Sort of. There’s often something off about it, but then director Hyams will do something else decent and distract. Hyams also manages to get a perfectly serviceable performance out of lead Jean-Claude Van Damme. Van Damme’s unsure, cautious performance–he tries to understate his terrible attempts at one-liners–is a great counter to Ron Silver’s bad guy.

Silver’s all over the place, the evil senator out to use time travel to win the presidental election and go after “special interests.” Who knew Timecop would be so prescient. Anyway, Silver’s a caricature playing a caricature. He’s definitely evil; he’s just nothing more.

Some of what’s wrong is the plotting. Timecop has a full plot, it just doesn’t have any character development. It’s like someone went through and chucked it. Van Damme’s wife dies mysterious. He’s haunted. And he’s a timecop. Even though he doesn’t do much as a timecop. The movie apparently doesn’t have the budget for multiple jaunts, just a couple before Van Damme is only jumping back to 1994.

You know it’s the past because there aren’t the future cars of 2004. They’re bulky self-driving things. Their design is unfortunate, but there’s a certain dedication to the special effects and design work. It’s like Hyams refused to be dismissive of the concept and he was going to do whatever he could.

Mia Sara’s okay as Van Damme’s wife, though she’s only around to be a damsel in distress and to beg Van Damme for nookie. Screenwriter Mark Verheiden does caricature, never anything more. When he gets around to a contradictory character, someone who can’t just be a thin caricature, he dumps the character as soon as possible.

It’s what happens to Gloria Rueben. She’s not good, but she’s kind of likable. She’s not as likable as Bruce McGill, who has to pretend to give a crap about time travel exposition. He’s Van Damme’s gritty boss who’s really just a softie.

The rest of the cast is the seemingly endless group of thugs Silver sends after Van Damme. Some of the resulting fight scenes are good, but Hyams drags it out too long. The movie’s not even a hundred minutes and the last third has multiple slowdowns. There’s an action set piece on a Victorian house’s roof. First, how does Van Damme afford such a big house in the DC area. Second, it’s boring. Van Damme can’t high kick or do the splits while he’s crawling around the roof–in a rainstorm–trying to save Sara (again). Hyams’s direction of the sequence doesn’t suggest any great interest in doing an action scene on a Victorian house’s roof. Nothing about the architecture actually lends itself to the sequence. Someone must have really wanted an action scene on a house roof.

By the third act, the absence of character development and transitional scenes have caught up with Timecop. Even the time travel-related story twists get tired. The movie’s hook isn’t Van Damme’s fighting, it isn’t the time travel, it isn’t the special effects. So what’s the hook supposed to be? Ron Silver ostensibly slumming only to be revealed as a perfect B-movie villain? Sloane Peterson? Certainly not Hyam’s cinematography (he’ll compose a perfectly good shot then screw it up with the lighting). Not Mark Isham’s simultaneously derivative and generic sci-fi movie score.

Timecop’s a disappointment. Hyams appears to know better, but doesn’t do better. I mean, Sam Raimi produced Timecop. He must have know the lighting was a big problem in the dailies.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed and photographed by Peter Hyams; screenplay by Mark Verheiden, based on a story by Mike Richardson and Verheiden and a comic book by Richardson and Verheiden; edited by Steven Kemper; music by Mark Isham; production designer, Philip Harrison; produced by Moshe Diamant, Sam Raimi, and Rob Tapert; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme (Max), Mia Sara (Melissa), Ron Silver (McComb), Bruce McGill (Matuzak), Gloria Reuben (Fielding), Scott Bellis (Ricky), and Jason Schombing (Atwood).


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