The Adventurers (Stephen Fung, 2017)

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Almost thirty years after A Moment of Romance, Andy Lau still looks impossibly cool riding a motorcycle. He does it here as the lead of a small gang of jewel thieves in Stephen Fung’s heist movie, his first film since the lunatic double punch of 2012’s Tai Chi 0 and Tai Chi Hero. Those films are the most successful yet adaptation of the comic book steampunk aesthetic to the kung fu film, supplementing its basic conceit with a breathless storytelling verve: the on-screen titles introducing the film’s stars all end in exclamation points. The Adventurers finds Fung in a much more relaxed mode, the idiosyncratic personal expression bound within the generic form of a movie designed to meet audience expectations rather than defy them. To this end he’s helped immeasurably by Lau, who has spent much of his long career making otherwise interminable movies watchable (for example Ringo Lam’s laziest film, also called The Adventurers, released in 1995) and Shu Qi, who’s undeniable greatness as an art house actress (Millennium Mambo, The Assassin) tends to overshadow, in the West, a sparkling, magnetic movie star charm (as in Ringo Lam’s goofiest film, 2003’s Looking for Mr. Perfect). The two great stars, ably supported by a multinational cast of veterans (Hong Kong’s Eric Tsang and France’s Jean Reno) and relative newcomers (Zhang Jingchu from China and Tony Yang from Taiwan), enliven what is blatantly a Mission: Impossible knock-off (Reno of course featured in the first film in that series, while Zhang was in the latest one, a performance which amounted to nothing but a superfluous 30 second pandering to the Chinese audience).

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Once Upon a Time (Zhao Xiaoding, 2017)

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The intersection between myth and teen drama, between cartoon wuxia and soap opera, with a dash of Hitchcock just to make things interesting, Once Upon a Time is unlike anything likely to play on Seattle Screens this year. The directorial debut of longtime Zhang Yimou cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding (he shot all of Zhang’s films from House of Flying Daggers through The Great Wall), it’s as lushly gorgeous as anything in higher profile releases like Journey to the West: Demons Strike Back, with acres of peach blossoms, castles in the clouds, and godlike beings morphing freely into animals. The story is adapted from a 2008 online fantasy novel called Three Lives Three Worlds, Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms by Tang Qi, which may have been plagiarized from an earlier online fantasy novel called The Peach Blossom Debt by Da Feng. (You can read about the allegations and compare some evidence for yourself here. I can’t read Chinese, so I can’t judge if it is outright plagiarism or simple imitation. The fact that both works were published online and that in Da Feng’s the romance is homosexual (LGBT depictions are officially banned on television and online media in China) makes the issue particularly complicated). The novel was also adapted earlier this year as the Chinese TV series Eternal Love starring Mark Chao and Yang Mi.

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Wolf Warrior 2 (Wu Jing, 2017)

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Somewhat surprisingly, Wu Jing’s Wolf Warrior 2 is smashing box office records across China, on pace to overtake last year’s The Mermaid as the number one Chinese film of all-time. Wu is probably the greatest Chinese martial arts star of his generation, best known here in the US for his starring role in SPL 2: A Time for Consequences, which the best action film to play here last year. He both stars and directs, as he did with Wolf Warriors, released in 2015. In the first one, he plays Leng Feng, a badass soldier who gets recruited into the Wolf Warrior brigade of the People’s Liberation Army, an elite special forces unit. During a training exercise, he and his squadmates are attacked by a multiethnic band of vicious mercenaries led by Scott Adkins who was hired by a drug lord seeking revenge on Leng for murdering his brother, and also as the cover for a scheme to steal a virus that only kills Chinese people. The film is an unabashed propaganda piece about the skills, technology and valor of the PLA, but it’s got a lot of cool jungle action and it moves along quickly.

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The Ornithologist (João Pedro Rodrigues, 2016)

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Sensation in film is, by definition, an event that is difficult to describe. It privileges the experience of watching, of holistically observing sight and sound work in tandem to produce something nearly indescribable. Such an concept is placed front and center in The Ornithologist, a remarkable, subtly shape-shifting film by Portugese director João Pedro Rodrigues. By turns raucous, menacing, gorgeous, and haunting, the movie is never less than throughly engrossing, moving through its surreal logic with a confidence and daring, the likes of which have been sorely missed from Seattle screens this year.

As might be expected, The Ornithologist follows the eponymous birdwatcher Fernando (Paul Hamy) as he explores a mysterious, possibly haunted forest after his kayak is destroyed by rapids. Through his perilous, somewhat meandering attempts to return to civilization, he encounters various denizens and transients, along with increasingly supernatural and surreal experiences. Impressively, this roster begins with a pair of lesbian Chinese Christian hikers, who first rescue him from the waters and then tie him up with rope and sadistic intentions, and only becomes stranger from there, including a motley cast of possible costumed cult members, bare-breasted hunters on horseback, and of course, many birds, some of which assume a strange symbolic importance.

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Landline (Gillian Robespierre, 2017)

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Early in Gillian Robespierre’s new film, Landline, Dana (Jenny Slate), compulsively scratching a poison ivy rash contracted in a not-so-romantic encounter in the woods with her fiancé, sits across a desk from a co-worker discussing their dates from the previous night. Effusively, the co-worker describes a romantic, hours’ long “epic conversation on the rooftop.” Dana, pausing, responds that she and her fiancé, in contrast, had spent “three hours at Blockbuster.” “We got Curly Sue,” she adds. It’s the kind of specific, funny, and evocative moment that punctuates and defines Robespierre’s work, a moment that deftly situates us in the time and space of the film’s 1995 setting, in a character’s emotional landscape, and in the thematic framework. Continue reading

Baby Driver (Edgar Wright, 2017)

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There is something to be said for the recent resurgence of a certain brand of flair in the more independently-minded multiplex films. Whether for good (Don’t Breathe) or ill (La La Land), it is refreshing to see an assertion of directorial style in films made close to the auspices of the studio system, which lends a breath of fresh air to even the most seemingly concrete and inflexible of stock scenarios.

Into this climate comes Edgar Wright, the celebrated English writer-director who, with Baby Driver, makes his American and action film debut. This is not to say that this is entirely unprecedented territory for Wright; he was originally slated to helm the United States-set Marvel’s Ant-Man before he left due to creative differences, and his 2007 film Hot Fuzz contains a substantial amount of suitably frenetic bouts of action. But there is a very different vibe and feeling at work in Wright’s latest film, something that uses the same objects of both homage and derision for something more straightforward and cool, if not altogether serious. Baby Driver is consequently both livened up and slightly weighed down by its influences, which include, among many others, The Driver, Thief, and Bottle Rocket. But they are all connected by Wright’s deft, wonderfully unsubtle touch, all beat-heavy music, tight edits, nicely executed earphone gags, and abundance of feeling.

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Meow (Benny Chan, 2017)

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From Mao to Meow: Revolution in Contemporary Chinese Cinema

Pop will eat itself.

Last summer veteran Hong Kong director Benny Chan brought us the year’s best martial arts film with the High Noon variation Call of Heroes. This year, he’s made the summer’s most improbable movie: a heart-warming comedy about a giant alien cat who befriends a mop-headed Louis Koo and his wacky family. Pudding is the greatest warrior on the distant planet Meow, a cat-world (literally: it’s shaped like a cat’s head) wracked by meteor collisions that has been hoping to colonize Earth for centuries. But none of the cat-agents sent to Earth have ever returned, though there are snippets of their successes: inspiring worship from the ancient Egyptians and modeling yoga in India. Pudding crashes on Earth and loses his MacGuffin, making him susceptible to the corrupting influences of Earth static. In a last ditch effort to save himself, he merges with the form of a fat orange house-cat, the resulting abomination being a obese, six foot tall ball of cuteness.

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Questions of Innovation [THE BIG SICK & A GHOST STORY]

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Just past the halfway mark of this year of 2017, it should be apparent to any attentive observer that, at best, this theatrical release year has been subpar, and at worst it appears to be the worst year for film (not to mention the United States) in living memory. Though I won’t come close to claiming that I’ve seen anywhere near every major release – I have not, for example, seen either Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver or Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV, among other presumably worthy titles – there has been a shocking dearth of any wholly satisfying films. Whether it be the usual batch of disappointingly overrated superhero films (Logan, Wonder Woman), a number of fascinating if flawed works from noted auteurs (Personal Shopper, The Beguiled, Staying Vertical), or other sundry curios (Get Out, Your Name, By the Time It Gets Dark), it is somewhat dismaying that my favorite film from this year still remains the admittedly stellar Resident Evil: The Final Chapter. This isn’t to say that certain films haven’t been very good, and I do greatly enjoy a more than a few of the films I just named, but when David Lynch is showing up the entirety of the theatrical selections every week on Showtime with Twin Peaks: The Return, there is more than a little cause for alarm.

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Our Time Will Come (Ann Hui, 2017)

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The most anticipated, and almost assuredly the best, World War II film of the summer, by one of the greatest filmmakers of the past forty years, opens here tomorrow exclusively at the Pacific Place: director Ann Hui’s Our Time Will Come. Based on true events in the resistance against the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, the film is so effective at its generic thrills, the suspense and action sequences and quiet moments of melancholy patriotism and laments for lost comrades that form the core of the resistance/war film, everything from For Whom the Bell Tolls to Army of Shadows, that one almost doesn’t notice that she’s radically revised one of the most masculine of genres into a story about the unbreakability of women.

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The Beguiled (Sofia Coppola, 2017)

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Respectability, at least in the conventional cultural sense, is a slightly odd fit when discussing the idiosyncratic oeuvre of Sofia Coppola. After her breakthrough works, The Virgin Suicides and the Oscar-winning Lost in Translation, Coppola has increasingly moved along her own particular path, making films about well-off disillusioned youth in such disparate locales as 18th-century France (Marie Antoinette), modern Hollywood (Somewhere, The Bling Ring), and the Upper East Side (A Very Murray Christmas). In light of these works, The Beguiled may seem like a departure for the well-acclaimed auteur, who added a Best Director prize at Cannes this year to her not-inconsiderable collection. But the film is very much hers, albeit in a much different vein than before.

For starters, it is a remake, in this case of the 1971 film by the same name directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page, which itself was based off the novel by Thomas P. Cullinan. The fertile premise, which Coppola’s version follows faithfully, is set during the latter half of the Civil War and involves a wounded Union soldier (John, played by Colin Farrell) who is found and taken care of by a Christian all-girls school in Virginia. Slowly, he begins to forge connections, some of which involve lust, with practically every remaining occupant of the school, including teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), student Alicia (Elle Fanning), and headmistress/matriarch Martha (Nicole Kidman).

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