Chungking Express (1994)


Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express (1994) feels like a dream. The film starts with a chase scene through the streets of Hong Kong, filmed in a low framerate slow-motion that both distorts the image and time, a common practice throughout the rest of the film. Characters often do obscure things, such as eat 30 cans of pineapple in one sitting, or simply accept obscure things, such as a friend breaking into their apartment to rearrange or even replace items, without being noticed. Love is a central theme in Chungking Express, as it is in many of Wong’s films, and for these characters love distorts reality, much like a dream.

This film features two stories told in sequence. Both are about lovesick cops who frequent a snack bar called Midnight Express and find new love interests that are very different from themselves. While you can call each cop the protagonist of his respective story, you can easily change perspective and call their love interest the protagonist of that story. Dualism is a prominent theme in this film, both within each story and in the fact that there are two similar stories told from different angles.


The first story features Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a detective (from the look of him), who, at 25, seems too young for such a career, and a woman in a blonde wig (Brigitte Lin), who as a drug smuggler seems pretty fed up with her career. Starting about one-third of the way in, the second story features Cop 663 (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), who has also recently broken up with his girlfriend, though his apathy suggests that he thinks she’ll be back, and Faye (Faye Wong) a new worker at Midnight Express, who expresses her interest in 663 by breaking into his apartment periodically, blasting music with only goldfish to dance with her.

By the end of the Chungking Express, the second story seems like the main course and the first just an appetizer (to use a food analogy – food is another prominent topic in this film). It is almost twice as long and has a more well-rounded story with a proper conclusion. While the two stories do have some overlap, I was expecting the less-significant first part to somehow tie into the conclusion of the second. It didn’t, instead largely departing the film by the 42 minute mark. While both stories are very well-made and enjoyable in their own right, the first one seems unnecessary to the overall film due to its less profound impact.


Perhaps what stands out most in this film is its soundtrack. If you enjoy “California Dreamin’” by The Mamas & the Papas the first time Faye plays on the boom box, you’re in luck because she plays it about five more times before the films end. The same goes for “Things In Life” by Dennis Brown and a Cantonese cover (by Faye Wong) of “Dreams” by The Cranberries. With only a couple other songs, the soundtrack his little variety and a lot of repetition but it works well in the dream-like atmosphere that Wong has created.

Despite repetition in many aspects of Chungking Express, it does not tire you out. In fact, it’s worth watching twice. Wong’s attention to detail when creating this film allows you to spot things you may have missed the first time and the sometimes non-linear narrative will make more sense. I may even watch it a third time.







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Film Review: Chungking Express

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Mikey and Nicky (1976)


Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky is a film about two very unlikable characters that finally learn to dislike each other. After stealing money from his mob boss, Nicky (John Cassavetes) hides in a hotel to evade a hitman hired to kill him. He contacts his childhood friend and fellow gangster Mikey (Peter Falk) for help and the two spend a night moving around the city eluding death. While under threat of death, the two friends start to have realizations about each other and their friendship, ultimately leading to a surprising (and unpredictable) conclusion.

Much like Mikey and Nicky’s friendship, my feelings about this film are split right down the middle. On one side you have some great performances from Cassavetes and Falk, whose characters were apparently written by May to match their own personalities, but on the other side you have some terrible editing that makes the film feel very thrown-together. There was not one but two editors, John Carter and Sheldon Khan, who probably had as loving of a friendship as Mikey and Nicky as it was “editing problems” that caused this films delayed release. The whole film felt very choppy, with some noticeable ADR, subtle (but noticeable) cuts in the middle of long takes and abrupt shot changes.

My mixed feelings can be applied to the cinematography as well, as there were some great, well-framed shots but also some seemingly unjustified out-of-focus ones. Luckily the Cassavetes and Falk have very distinct voices as there is also a graveyard scene so dark their voices become disembodied. These are things that seem very unavoidable, making me suspect they are intentional. Maybe I just don’t get it.


At first, the two characters seem very one-dimensional but their complexity develops at a good pace as the film progresses, ultimately leading them to make decisions you might not expect. Though the two are almost opposites, with Mikey being the responsible, sensible one and Nicky the obnoxious and impulsive one, they share common ground as misogynistic assholes that are not above slapping a woman that denies them sex. The two (especially Nicky) alienate pretty much every other character in the film as well and ultimately each other. Cassavetes and Falk’s performances produce some very well-played assholes, though this makes it less and less easy to sympathise with their character’s predicaments as the film progresses.

While it is an interesting character study, apart from some good performances and witty writing Mikey and Nicky is often a meandering, irritating experience. The two spend so much time arguing that someone who walks in during a few particular scenes might think Micky and Nicky are a married couple. But duo are also childhood friends so if that same person were to walk in on a few other scenes, they will see two old pals. With some really good aspects and some really bad, May has created a very average film. She clearly has the potential to be a great filmmaker so I’m interested to see some of her other work to see if this trend continues.







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Cold War (2018)


Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War is the other big monochrome film to come out in 2018, along with Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. Maybe the two friends intended it to be a double feature, with each film being set in their respective homelands.

Starting in communist Poland in 1949, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is a musician touring his country in search of Polish folk songs and singers for his new show. He meets Zula (Joanna Kulig) in the process and instantly falls in love with her, giving her a place despite her mediocre performance. The Soviet government sees this popular show as an opportunity to spread their propaganda, allowing the group to tour Europe. While in East Berlin a few years later, the two are presented with an opportunity to escape to Western Europe, which only Wiktor takes. Though their lives often diverge over the next decade, they always seem to come together again.


What stands out immediately when watching a black and white film is, of course, the cinematography, especially in this day and age; with digital technology, it’s a purely stylistic choice. Also unconventional of this era is Cold War’s aspect ratio which, from what I can tell, is the traditional 1.37:1, much narrower than what we are used to. Perhaps Pawlikowski is making homage to the films that existed in this films time period. Perhaps he’s competing with Cuarón for best black and white cinematography of the year. If anyone at the Academy is reading, bring back this category.

But is it just this unconventional look that makes Cold War so visually refreshing? Alas, no, because it is actually very well shot and Łukasz Żal, the cinematographer, uses the lack of colour to great effect. Just look at the high contrast poster for a sense of what much of the film is like. Not all of the cinematography is high contrast though, with many day time shots showing the beauty of the films setting (especially in Paris). The film takes place in various parts of Europe over about 15 years so not only does the cinematography give each setting a distinct look, it is used in combination with makeup to age the characters, something it does better than most other films.


Cold War was jointly written by Paweł Pawlikowski, Janusz Głowacki and Piotr Borkowski and the Polish triad do a great job, for the most part. Both Zula and Wiktor have a lot of depth to their character, often making decisions that one might not expect. For example, why didn’t Zula leave for Western Europe with Wiktor when she both loved him and desired to be free of communist oppression? That is just one of many examples that appear until the very end of the film, all of which provoke discussion.

That being said, it is often hard to sympathise with the couple as they are both (especially Zula) unlikable characters. Despite being in love, they separate and marry other people, only two get back together. Twice. I guess the point is that their love can’t be stopped by anything. But to make it worse, there’s something missing from their performances that make their love unconvincing. Apart from a couple of passionate on-screen kisses, if they didn’t occasionally state their deep love to each other, one might miss it. If you want to see a convincing portrayal of a madly in-love couple, watch Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible.

Apart from this, almost everything else about Cold War is great. But being such a vital part of the story, this unconvincing couple turns an otherwise great movie into a pretty-good-will-probably-watch-again movie. It does have an unpredictable ending, which is nice.






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Glass (2019)


Glass is the third installment in M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable Trilogy (AKA Eastrail 177 Trilogy), following Unbreakable in 2000 and Split in 2016. From looking at the poster, one might assume this film is about the three main characters of this trilogy but when reading the title, you may think otherwise. Perhaps we are supposed to know this. After all, we know Mr. Glass from Unbreakable, a film that premiered nearly 20 years ago.

Picking up three weeks after the conclusion of Split and almost twenty years after the events of Unbreakable, Kevin Crumb/The Horde (James McAvoy) is (are?) hiding in a warehouse, tormenting his latest group of teenage girls while both the authorities and David Dunn/The Overseer (Bruce Willis) are hunting him. The two eventually meet and a very dimly-lit warehouse fight ensues before both are arrested and taken to the very same minimum-security asylum that houses Elijah Price/Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson). Coincidence? I think not. I won’t spoil the rest.


Apart from a fight scene that is so dimly lit that I almost missed a table being thrown across the room, the cinematography in this film is great. Mike Gioulakis, the DoP who also worked on Split, brings at least some sense of immersion to a mostly uninteresting story. Shots often take on the perspective of the central character in a particular scene, which seems to be Mr. Glass for most of the movie, though other characters get their moment in the spotlight. Shots are often very well composed and there are a few establishing shots that are almost perfectly symmetrical – nice

Most performances in Glass are good, especially James McAvoy’s, who switches between his many personas with ease and makes them instantly recognizable (well, it helps if you’ve seen Split). Willis and Jackson are great as well, especially considering the boring, one-dimensional characters they have to work with. This is true of most characters, in fact, except for one, the psychiatrist Dr. Staple (Sarah Paulson), who reveals the full scope of her character towards the end of the film. There are many instances of characters being shown through a mirror, possibly alluding to a new aspect of them that is yet to be seen, though hers was the by far the most surprising.

Night’s writing is easily the biggest drawback of Glass, even if it is hardly his worst feature. There are so many plot conveniences in this film that it’s hard to take the story seriously at times. Apparently a prison housing three dangerous super-humans only needs one nurse to guard them. It started very strong, throwing you right back into the action where Split left off and though the ending did have a good amount of cheese, there was a pretty unpredictable twist. The Sixth Sense showed us that he is at the very least capable of that. Too bad you first have to sit through the many sleep-inducing conversations that make up the bulk of this film.

With a dozen superhero movies coming out every year, it’s good to have an original take on the genre and while Glass is original, the slow middle act just makes it hard to get through. There may be a good film in here somewhere but M. Night’s writing makes it hard to find. But it’s made over 100 million so he must be doing something right, I guess.






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Irréversible (2002)


Time destroys all things. This is the opening statement in Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible. It’s also the closing statement, so it must be important. This film shows us how one’s life can be destroyed over the course of a night but first, we must see the outcome of this destruction. Irréversible, is a film where the chronology is reversed, with each successive scene taking place right before the previous one (remember Memento?) and as the title suggests, the story needs to be told this way.

What are the consequences of seeking revenge? By the second or third scene of Irréversible, Gaspar Noé shows us but makes us wonder if it’s worth it. After a scene of two men, Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel), walking out of a nightclub called Rectum (can you guess what kind of club it is?), one on a stretcher and the other in handcuffs, we see a scene of the same two men walking into it. They are looking for someone, a person known as Le Tenia. When they eventually find him – or at least someone they think is him – you know exactly what kind of film you just sat down to.


There are several points of in Irréversible where Noé speaks to the audience through his characters and does so in a way that only works in a film told in reverse. We need to know what happens to the characters before they do. Pierre claims “This isn’t a B-grade revenge movie.” Well, we already know that. That’s kind of a wink to the audience by Noé but there are other instances of this that work to great effect. I don’t want to spoil too much by revealing more of the story because this film really is worth watching.

Along with being the writer and director, Noé fills the role of editor and photographer as well. With lots of long takes in each scene, Noé’s skill as an editor is apparent between scenes as most transitions where very smooth. But what really distinguished each scene (apart from the state of the characters) is Noé’s camerawork and Benoît Debie’s use of lighting, both of which set the tone of the scene to match the emotional state of the characters. Some scenes utilize long, smooth takes while others are dizzying.

Irréversible is not a film for everyone. While being very well made, it is hard to watch at times, evoking a visceral reaction in its viewers. Does Noé do this to be provocative? Perhaps, but as the film draws nearer to its conclusion, these scenes giving meaning to Noé’s take-home message. Time destroys all things.






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The Devil’s Backbone (2001)


Guillermo Del Toro has made some incredible films and most of them are post-The Devil’s Backbone. That isn’t to say that this is a bad movie; it’s far from it but it is definitely not an Oscar winner like The Shape of Water (2017) or his best film (in my opinion) Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).

The Devil’s Backbone is Del Toro’s third feature film and is set in a remote orphanage in Spain during the final days of the Spanish Civil War in 1939. Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is the new kid at the orphanage and though he is welcomed by some, he is unsurprisingly rejected by others. Within the first few minutes of his arrival, Carlos (and us viewers) notice that this is no ordinary establishment, with a huge diffused bomb decorating the courtyard and a boy who looks a bit more ghost-like than the other inhabitants, peeking out from the shadows. And that’s just the start of Carlos’ strange experience in this unconventional orphanage. This is a story of torment and revenge and though we often fear the supernatural, the true horrors in this film are altogether human.


Being a Del Toro film, one can expect only the best, most bizarre and eerie special effects. This film delivers. Even in his more recent films, Del Toro greatly values practical effects when creating his characters and expertly uses it in combination with CGI in this film. Most of these effects are applied to Santi (Junio Valverde), the orphan turned ghost, known among the kids as “The One Who Sighs.”

Despite primarily taking place in the remote orphanage, there is no shortage of sets in this film, all of which shout Guillermo Del Toro. They are detailed from floor to ceiling with obscure content such as jars of unborn fetuses floating in rum. The characters are often just as complex as the sets they inhabit. The aforementioned baby-rum is believed by some to cure incompetence and though the orphanage doctor does not believe such nonsense, we see him take a swig when no one is looking.

Despite loving a lot about this film, and despite its fairly straightforward plot, I found it quite often confusing. There are a lot of metaphors, some of which are a bit much (such as blocks of gold weighing someone down as he drowns) and a lot of symbolism that left me scratching my head. The title of the film is apparently explained but I still have no idea what it means. I thought about a second viewing before writing this but I am not sure it will make much difference. Perhaps I’ll watch it again with Cronos (1993) and Pan’s Labyrinth, which comprise the Del Toro’ troubled childhood trilogy (not the official title).

After all of that, does The Devil’s Backbone pass the final test? Yes, it was not predictable.






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Roma (2018)


Is the age of terrible Netflix Originals finally coming to an end? With the release of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma this week and the Coen Brother’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs a few weeks before that, the answer seems very hopeful. Cuarón and the Coen Brothers all have fantastic track records as directors so hopefully this trend continues. Good job Netflix. Note: this is in reference to the movies on Netflix; their shows have tended to be much better than their films.

Roma is a 1970’s period drama, set mostly in the Colonia Roma district of Mexico City. Over about a year, we follow Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a Mixtec maid/nanny and her life with a middle-class Mexican family. Set during a period of turmoil in Mexico’s history, Cleo deals with her own personal troubles as well, mainly in the form of an unplanned pregnancy that she must face alone.


Being Mexican himself, it is clear that Cuarón was passionate about making this film and took as much control as possible in its production. Along with being director of this film, he filled the role of director of photography as well. His talent in both roles (well, he’s also the writer and producer) is apparent as the cinematography is something that stands out immediately. Filmed in black and white with every shot being either completely still or slow-moving, shots are well framed and very detailed. Instead of trying to direct your attention, Cuarón richly layers each shot, letting you choose what you see. Upon a second viewing, you might see something that was unnoticed the first time around, especially if you require subtitles. Considering this is a Netflix film, this is likely to be case for many viewers. See it twice.

Conflict is a prominent topic in this film and Cuarón does a great job of showing it. Though it is sometimes explicit, such as the killing of student protesters during the Corpus Christi massacre, the film is filled with metaphorical juxtapositions as well. For example, a shot of a hospital nursery cutting to a shot of a gravesite or Cleo giving birth immediately following the massacre referred to earlier. Mexico was a very conflicted nation in 1971 and while this is shown, the film is really about the personal conflicts people go through in every day life. Cleo’s experiences in this film are things that can happen to any young woman. At several points throughout the film, a plane can be seen flying in the background, perhaps signifying Cleo’s desire to escape and be free of turmoil. But she never runs away. She stays with the people that bring her joy, in Roma.



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