This time around I have two of my favorite actresses - almost 100 of Maggie and some of Loletta Lee. A lesser known actress is Mondi Yau Yuet Ching and I don't know a thing about her other than she showed up in some risque films in the 90's and vanished soon after (likely married a wealthy husband as did many of the HK actresses - it is sort of a retirement plan and a quick road to riches). I have thrown in a few pictures for the George Hamilton of HK movies, Louis Koo, Leon Lai who is still hard at work learning his second acting expression after all these years (glummer) and Lau Ching-wan. I wish I had a lot more from Lau but he seems to stay out of the spotlight - he was probably my favorite actor from the mid-90s on for a few years - and actually still may be though his output has generally got much less interesting these past few years - though Mad Detective was a lovely Johnny To reunion. And finally a lot of pictures of Leslie Cheung. Its been a while but looking at pictures of him still brings on a swell of sadness.
A while back I broke out of the Asian film world and made mention of a few non-Asian films that I had come upon that were of interest to me - and since I haven't watched anything Asian to write about, there are a few more below.
Lau Ching-wan (9 picts)
Leon Lai (13 picts)
Louis Koo (7 picts)
Mondi Yau Yuet Ching (7 picts)
Since I got back from my last trip I tried catching up on a few of the newer titles from the USA that I had missed. I admit my choices were not great and were driven by not wanting to use a major portion of my brain while viewing. I certainly succeeded in that goal.
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor - where did all the fun go from this series. A terrible idea to make the protagonist Brenden Frasier a stuffy father. Just boring from the get go though its always nice to see Michelle Yeoh picking up a nice paycheck! Her fight with Jet Li was short and almost made me want to watch Tai Chi Master again to see them in their prime together.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - I love the Tin Tin like title but not much more - though in truth I had heard such unpleasant remarks about this film that my expectations were so low that I wasn't really disappointed. Similar to The Mummy the producers seemed intent on passing the baton on to a new generation - but was Shia LaBeouf the best they could come up with? Does that say something about the current state of the male actor in Hollywood? Seeing Indiana grow old before my eyes makes me feel old as well. I did enjoy seeing him escape a nuclear blast by hiding in a refrigerator - reminded me of the days long ago when we had to get under our desks at school to practice surviving a blast and all we did was giggle a lot. Now I understand they just practice sending out one last SMS.
Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay - good for some crude laughs but watching them smoke dope with George Bush humanized him more then he deserves. Hope this is the last one in the series as you can imagine these just getting worse and worse like Police Academy.
Wanted - this encapsulates pretty much everything I have come to hate about modern commercial movies - just awful with the soul of a safety box. Something about super assassins and father's love but the editing gave me whiplash and the story was just so astonishingly stupid with a lead actor who would be better off on daytime soaps.
The Dark Knight - have tried unsuccessfully three times to finish this. Each time at around 20-minutes I decide I would rather be doing something else. Anything else. I think I give up. The critical raves for this mystify me. I find it oppressive, dirge like and so lacking in fun that it is like watching a black hole of emotions close in on itself. When did our super heroes become glum Nietzsche Supermen. Give me Ironman over this any time. Even the new Hulk was better. What am I missing here?
And I have also watched some older films.
Mr. Wong Detective - along with Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto, this series also starred a Caucasian playing an Asian - in this case the great Boris Karloff. I expect all three of these series are from a modern perspective politically incorrect and easy red meat to condemn, but I think its important to put things in context to the times in which they were made. To me what I find intriguing about all three of these is that though society at the time generally stereotyped Asians fairly negatively the Asian protagonist is always the smartest and most honorable guy on the set showing all the white folks how stupid they are. The Wong series was six films from 1938 to 1940 (five starring Karloff and one starring Keye Luke who often played one of Charlie Chan's sons). They are real low budget and not nearly as good as many of the Chan films or any of the Mr. Moto films, but still enjoyable for what they are as they follow a basic formula - someone is murdered - the dim police captain (Grant Withers) can't figure it out and brings in Wong while the captain's girlfriend journalist (Marjorie Reynolds) keeps getting in the way. All of them run just a bit over 60 minutes and all six come in a box set from VCI.
She - produced in 1935 by Merian Cooper who also did a little film called King Kong, this is good fun - an adventure tale that might almost be a forerunner of the Indiana Jones films. A small group of men go off looking for the fountain of youth into the wilds of the Himalayas and find She - a beautiful and very ancient Queen who is looking for love again. Amazing art deco sets and a dance number that looks straight out of a Bollywood movie. The main actor was Randolph Scott who went on to a great career in the saddle making some of my favorite westerns.
Fox Horror Classics - this is a box set of three horror films all directed by John Brahm and they are terrific - the kind of old fashioned horror I like in an era of torture porn - it's all in the atmospherics and what you don't see. I'd never heard of Brahm before but I was very impressed by these films. He came over from Germany in 1937 and brought a lot of that German expressionistic style with him. The Undying Monster (1942) was a fairly basic family werewolf film but Brahm adds some nice stylish touches, dark shadows and loads of English fog. The film that blew me away was The Lodger (1944) loosely based on Jack the Ripper. Beautifully shot and wonderfully acted it is simply gripping and brilliant. It stars Laird Cregar as the serial killer and the lovely Merle Oberon as his obsession. The film was a huge hit and so Brahm had to follow this with another serial killer film - Hangover Square again starring Cregar along with Linda Darnell and George Sanders. It's not quite up to The Lodger but is worth watching just for Cregar. Cregar is astonishing in both films - bringing sympathetic vulnerable shades to his character and being able to in one camera shot show complex changing emotions. He was rather a tragic figure in Hollywood - gay at a time when the closet was deep and locked and very much wanting to be a romantic leading man. But he was a large man who could not keep the weight off and so he had an operation right after Hangover Square to sew up his stomach and he died from it. He could have been one of the great character actors of his time but he wanted more. I also caught him recently in The Black Swan (middling Tyrone Power flick) and as the devil in Heaven Can Wait (Lubitsch) and he was fine though they were much smaller roles. Lodger and Hangover Square are his two showcases.
Esther Williams - Volume 1 - the five films in this set are whimsical journeys into the past and into a film genre that doesn't exist anymore and very likely never will again. I am not sure if they had a term for them so let's just call them wet musicals and Esther Williams was the only star of them. She was a swimming champion who saw her dreams of competing in the 1940 Olympics dashed by this little thing called World War II and so eventually settled into what they called Aquatic Escapades back then. These were shows performed in the water for an audience and the leading male star was none other than Johnny Weismuller! Who apparently spent much of his time trying to grope and seduce his 16-year old co-star. What would Jane say. Someone at MGM had the idea of transferring the concept to the movies and so they hired Esther who looked fine in a bathing suit and after a couple small stints in Andy Hardy movies she had her grown-up debut (18 years old) in Bathing Beauty in 1944. Williams was to have a gigantically successful career for the next dozen years along with a few husbands and three children. After watching all five of these it's hard to argue that they are really very good - today's audience would chew them up and spit them out in kitsch contempt - but I liked them and look forward to volume 2. I get the impression that Williams wasn't much of a singer and not much of a dancer on dry land so they surround her with mounds of talent that perform many of the musical numbers - Red Skelton shows up in two of the films and is very funny at times, Jimmy Durante does two numbers in On an Island with You, Xavier Cugat the big band leader (and whose music Wong Kar-wai uses in Days of Being Wild and 2046) is in four of the films and it's really his Latin flavored songs that still sell today, Cyd Charisse dances in Island with a surprisingly fluid and graceful Ricardo Montalban - who also co-stars as a polo player in Neptune's Daughter with Betty Garrett and another great big band leader Harry James does a couple numbers in Bathing Beauty as well. The only film that they leave Esther naked of talent is Dangerous When Wet and it is by far the least interesting film in the bunch - her co-star is the uber suave Fernando Llamas who she was to marry years later. What surprised me is actually how little time Esther spends in the water - generally they save the big spectacular water number for the finale and they are great to watch - very Busby Berkely like in their geometric visuals. All the films are of course shot in that glorious MGM color. I can't say I am really totally taken by Esther - she honestly seems way to smart for her material and it keeps her a bit distant but the films are a real nostalgic trip to a time when audiences loved this kind of stuff. How far we have come I guess.