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Exiled (2006)

Johnnie To has a pretty lengthy filmography, with countless credits as director or producer; many say that the guy has all but single-handedly kept the Hong Kong film industry afloat for the past decade. His movies run the gamut from great (Running Out of Time) to good (Election) to obnoxious (Fulltime Killer).

Using this scale, Exiled floats somewhere between good and obnoxious. To is certainly a talented director; as much as I’ve disliked some of the films he’s involved with, I certainly always saw the technical merit involved. But — like Fulltime Killer or even the almost-good Breaking NewsExiled struggles with anything involving a narrative.

Four men wait outside the house of Wo (Nick Cheung), a former mobster that wants to spend the rest of his life in peace with his wife (Josie Ho). Two of the men were sent to kill Wo, two were sent to protect him. It’s a neat premise, and as the four toughs wait for Wo outside of the apartment complex, the tension escalates considerably.

After an elaborately gimmicky and surreally beautiful shootout (Wo does show up, eventually), the four men call a truce so they can eat dinner together. They grew up together, see, and that’s enough to make the hitmen pause in their mission. All five men agree to go in on a gold heist. Mayhem ensues.

If the set-up sounds unsteady, it is. The screenplay — by To regular Yip Tin-Shing and HK film vet Szeto Kam-Yuen — is an absolute mess in spots. One of the biggest problems is how the characters are developed. The film kicks off with action — there’s no time for backstory when people could be shooting at each other! — and tries to cram a few weighty character explorations as an afterthought. This has to be a first for To; despite how much or how little I’ve liked some of his films (PTU is a good neutral example), I always grew attached or emotionally invested in the characters are some point. In Exiled, every character is as thin as a paper target on a gun range.

Which is a shame; the cinematography is stellar, as usual, and a few scenes were just gorgeous. Cheng Siu Keung’s camera work turns the Chinese territory of Macau into a contemporary western badland, the red- and yellow-hued dust swirling around every scene. And the action sequences are notable. A shootout in the middle of the film — characters twirling through wind- and muzzle flash-blown curtains — is a standout scene. It’s a joy to watch, in the purest sense of the word.

The cast — especially the regulars that are in most of To’s films — also carry the sad script farther than they should. Chueng is great as usual, as are Anthony Wong, Simon Yam and Lam Suet.

It ends up being a visual feast that is a near-total bore. You know it’s not a good thing when you want the characters to die so the film will end sooner. On a technical level, Exiled is excellent. But the story is painfully bad. Maybe To should work that aspect out first in the future.

Exiled on Wikipedia
All Movie Guide entry
Exiled on Rotten Tomatoes

Exiled (Fong juk, Mandarin title)
-Directed by Johnnie To
-Screenplay by Yip Tin-Shing and Szeto Kam-Yuen
-Cinematography by Cheng Siu Keung
-Cast: Wo (Nick Cheung), Jin (Josie Ho), Blaze (Anthony Wong), Fat (Lam Suet), Tai (Francis Ng), Cat (Roy Cheung), Boss Fay (Simon Yam)
-Released 2006 (Hong Kong), 2007 (USA)
-Runtime: 100 minutes
-Rated R (USA)

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Clockers (1995)

Clockers are the lowest rung on the drug distribution ladder; they keep a consistent, ’round-the-clock vigil on an area (hence their name), always on the lookout for buyers. Clockers dream of moving up the ladder, but between persistent sweeps by narcotics cops and the near-constant threat of violent death by rivals, this dream is rarely realized, even in part.

Spike Lee’s Clockers uses the world of these drug-dealing pawns to ask some troubling questions in the framework of a genre film. But while he mostly gets the crime film aspect down, Lee exceedingly succeeds in posing the questions.

The film revolves around a young clocker named Ronald Dunham (Mekhi Phifer); the police and his family use Ronald, while everyone else calls him Strike. He’s barely out of his teens, constantly lugs a bottle of chocolate soft drink with him and spends his evenings hunched over the model train set in his living room. He’s basically a nice kid…but he just happens to deal drugs for a living.

Strike’s world is upended when the night manager of a fast food chain in the projects is killed. Strike’s brother Victor (Isaiah Washington) turns himself into the police, but his obviously false confession doesn’t make sense–Victor supports his wife and kids with two jobs, goes to church, and avoids the drugs and violence that surround him. He wants outof the projects, so why would he ruin that chance? The police think Strike did it. Strike thinks his boss Rodney (Delroy Lindo) had his loose-cannon, HIV-infected henchman commit the murder. And Rodney isn’t sure who did it; he’s just glad the fast food manager–an obstacle to his drug peddling–is out of the way.

Based on Richard Price’s novel, Clockers‘ screenplay carries most of the film’s weight. Price–with help from Lee–adapted his own novel to the screen, streamlining the bulky book without crippling it. I was initially worried, since the book really did the trick for me–Price has a remarkable ear for conversation, and the novel unceremoniously presented weighty moral dilemma after weighty moral dilemma without ever bogging down in cheesy melodrama. But the movie doesn’t suffer; my only qualm with the adaptation is that the action is moved from New Jersey to New York (which might seem minor, but Price’s book portrays the urban decay of the satellite sprawl of the Big Apple like no other).

Strike doesn’t dabble in what he sells and–though he carries a gun–is terrified of violent confrontation. But as homicide cops Rocco Kline (Harvey Keitel) and Larry Mazilli (the always captivating John Turturro) notice, death follows Strike, and not only because he sells it daily while perched on a bench. Strike is a tragic character, too. You pity him, want him to move on. He’s sick of what he does and the quality of life in the projects. He’s the kind of kid that you’d want as a friend, a neighbor, a son. But he’s also killed or ruined countless people, a fact that he just doesn’t comprehend.

Much of the film is shown from Kline and Mazilli’s perspective, two more normal, nice guys wrecked by their jobs and what they see. Early in the film, the two arrive at a murder scene, making gallows humor and hateful slurs as police check entry and exit wounds on the victim. But you can read it in Kline’s face: I hate this life, get me out, save me. The cynicism, hate and distrust rests in he and his partner’s hearts after years of seeing what no one should see. That doesn’t excuse their behavior one bit, but Lee and Price don’t paint them as villains. Just drowning.

But Clockers really works at showing how attractive the drug-immersed lifestyle is, and simultaneously how deadly it is. Lee starts the film with a series of photographs of victims of drug-related crime, all African Americans. Lee’s extended question seems to be, why are so many young black men dying like this? The film is filled with contradicting, powerful little scenes: a young mother chastising the clockers for their lifestyle, but using violence as leverage; a well-meaning black cop constantly threatening to murder anyone that corrupts a young boy in the projects; Strike telling a young boy how important it is for him to stay in school and stay out of the clocking life, but boasting about his money and power at the same time. It’s hard stuff, and Lee lays it out without any cushioning.

If Clockers falters, though, it’s stylistically. Lee is a very capable director, but he fumbles with the crime genre. The editing is terrible in spots–sometimes a line of dialogue ends abruptly and cuts immediately to another character speaking. In fact, this happens constantly. I was quickly turned off by how choppy the movie was. And many of the scenes felt off in some ways, not flowing well from one to the next. The cinematography is a highlight, though; there is extended use of natural lighting, and sometimes the glare from the sun or fluorescent lights overpowers everything on the screen. It’s an effect that works well. The acting is absolutely top-notch, too, especially from Phifer (his first role) and Keitel.

It works in the end. Lee handles the material well, even though the actual detective/crime aspects feel haphazard. Price’s novel is probably the better investment in the long run, but as it stands the film works as an excellent conversation starter, a rich character study graced with detailed brush strokes.

Clockers on Rotten Tomatoes
Clockers on IMDb
Roger Ebert’s review of Clockers

Clockers
-Directed by Spike Lee
-Screenplay by Spike Lee and Richard Price
-Based on the novel Clockers by Richard Price
-Cinematography by Malik Hassan Sayeed
-Cast: Det. Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel), Det. Larry Mazilli (John Turturro), Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo), Ronald ‘Strike’ Dunham (Mekhi Phifer), Victor Dunham (Isaiah Washingon), Andre (Keith David), Shorty (Pee Wee Love)
-Released 1995
-Runtime: 128 minutes
-Rated R (USA)

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Fitzcarraldo (1982)

Fitzcarraldo‘s troubled creation precedes it. Almost any review of the film mentions one or more of the following: director Werner Herzog reshot the film from scratch with actor Klaus Kinski after original lead Jason Robards dropped out for health concerns; Kinski’s intensely violent quarreling with Herzog and the crew; Herzog filming a scene onboard a steamship as it crashes down the rapids of the Pongo de Mainique, injuring three of the six; and, finally, manually hauling the same 300+ ton steamship over a large hill by hand without the use of any special effects.

Reputation aside, Fitzcarraldo is an excellent movie on its own. Kinski is Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, an Irishman living in Peru around the turn of the 20th century. Fitz–as his lover Molly (Claudia Cardinale) calls him–is an intense supporter of Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, so much that he dreams of building an opera house in the remote city Iquitos so that the opera singer can perform in the Amazon.

To fund his dream, he buys the deed to a rubber-saturated area of the Amazon and plans to exploit it. He also purchases a steam-powered ship to transport the valuable resource, hiring a rag-tag crew to run the boat. The catch is that the land is inaccessible by river (impassible rapids!) and land (cannibals!). But Fitz has a plan, impossible as it may seem.

Herzog fills much of the film with long, steady shots of water or jungle–and it never feels unnecessary or out of place. Or boring, for that matter. The landscape is as much a character as Fitz or Paul (Paul Hittscher), the ship’s patient Dutch captain. At one point in the film, the crew of the steam ship arrive at the remains of Fitz’s last failed money-making scheme: a Trans-Andean railway. Rails and steam engines are entwined with overgrown vegetation, the rusted husks of rail cars and flatbeds glistening shabbily in the hot sun. The camera lazily hangs on the crew as they salvage metal for their trip downriver; the scene is not necessarily advancing a plot point, but instead giving the movie’s silent co-star more screen time.

Kinski plays Fitz with a simmering intensity, more subtle than some of his other efforts with Herzog. His eyes leap out above his crooked smile, and his tangled shock of hair pairs perfectly with the white suit that Fitz soils gradually over the film’s course. One could assume that Fitz’s dreams are that of a madman, but the movie never suggests this. Not does Herzog imply that Fitz is a genius. Maybe he’s somewhere in between? Or both?

One of the film’s most indelible scenes–and there are many–has Fitz standing atop the moving steamboat, cranking Caruso out of his phonograph. The noise from the cannibals in the jungle eventually drifts off, and Fitz’s smile spreads. Is he a madman or genius? Fitz is so moved by the beauty of Caruso’s art that maybe the question doesn’t matter.

Fitzcarraldo at Wikipedia
Fitzcarraldo at IMDb
Great Movies: Roger Ebert on Fitzcarraldo

Fitzcarraldo
-Directed and written by Werner Herzog
-Cinematography by Thomas Mauch
-Cast: Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski), Molly (Claudia Cardinale), Orinoco Paul (Paul Hittscher), Don Aquilino (Jose Lewgoy), Huerequeque (Huerequeque Enrique Bohorquez), Cholo (Miguel Angel Fuentes)
-Released 1982
-Runtime: 158 minutes
-Rated PG (USA)

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