UMBERTO D. (Criterion/Morningstar, 1952) D: Vittorio De Sica, w/ Carlo Battisti, Maria-Pia Casilio. Rating: NNNN
neo-realism is an interesting label. These post-war Italian films, shot in the streets of Rome and Milan with unknown casts, looked "realer" than anything Hollywood had on offer. But the core directors of the short-lived movement - Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti - were veterans of the studio-bound cinema of the Fascist era, and the movement's key writer, Cesare Zavattini, was a master of dramatic construction.
Neo-realist films look like windows on the world but are as highly structured and intensely written as any Hollywood picture of the era - one of the reasons they hold up half a century later. Indeed, it can be argued that Zavattini, who wrote Shoe Shine, The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D., is the founding father of neo-realism.
Umberto D., the story of an aging pensioner trying to sell his watch to keep his apartment, was his third collaboration with De Sica after Shoeshine and The Bicycle Thief. (Their fourth, Indiscretion Of An American Wife, is due next month on Criterion). A humanist drama about a man, the tiny annoying dog he loves and the indifference of the world, it falls into the genre the British critic Raymond Durgnat dubbed the male weepie.
There's an inherent contradiction between the subject - the shabbiness of poverty - and the sophistication of its method. Aldo Graziati lights the film exquisitely, and there's a full-blown symphonic score. Interesting personnel note: the camera operator on Umberto D. was Giuseppe Rotunno, later Fellini's director of photography on Amarcord and Roma.
DVD EXTRAS That's Life: Vittorio De Sica, 2001 Italian television documentary; intervew with Maria-Pia Casilio; booklet essay by Stuart Klawans; and a brief memoir by De Sica. English subtitles.
FULLTIME KILLER (Palm Pictures, 2001) D: Johnny To, Wai Ka-Fai, w/ Andy Lau, Takashi Sorimachi. Rating: NNN
fulltime killer plays like a john Woo movie minus the moral dimension that underlies Woo's Hong Kong melodramas, indicating a school of action cinema sinking into rococo decadence. Andy Lau, one of the biggest HK stars, has an interesting, reptilian kind of sexiness as Tok, the epileptic Chinese assassin who wishes to claim the title of top assassin from the mysterious Japanese hit man O (Takashi Sorimachi ) . It's their dance, and everyone else is trying to figure out the steps.
Directors Johnny To and Wai Ka-Fai have fun staging the big killings - the subway station shootout even tops the one in To's The Mission - but this is for hardcore genre fans, much as Telemann is for real baroque specialists. The rest of us can have fun spotting the references, from the really obvious (Point Break) to some that are madly obscure. Palm has done an excellent transfer; the ice blues would make Luc Besson weep with envy.
DVD EXTRAS Making-of featurette, behind-the-scenes footage, theatrical trailer. English, Chinese and Spanish subtitles.
MAGNIFICENT BUTCHER (20th Century Fox/Fortune Star, 1979) D: Yuen Woo-ping, w/ Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao. Rating: NNNN
MAGNIFICENT WARRIORS (20th Century Fox/Fortune Star, 1987) D: David Chung, w/ Michelle Yeoh, Richard Ng. Rating: NNNN
HONG KONG 1941 (20th Century Fox/Fortune Star, 1984) D: Leong Po-Chih w/ Chow Yun-Fat, Cecilia Yip. Rating: NNN
hong kong distributor fortune Star has sold these titles to 20th Century Fox, which has priced them to move. The prize here (also included in this package) should have been Clarence Fok's cult classic, Naked Killer, which was equally inspired by Intimate Confessions Of A Chinese Courtesan and Basic Instinct, but Fox has the HK cut of the film, which deletes about six minutes of sex scenes, making it, in effect, Semi-Nude Killer. The only director-approved cut of the film is the Region 2 English version from HK Classics, which comes with a director's commentary.
So the prize is Magnificent Butcher, starring the young Sammo Hung, the action hero for fat guys everywhere. This is the archetypal kung fu movie story - rival schools trying to prove whose kung fu is stronger - but it's got a real sense of humour. Director Yuen Woo-ping is best known today for choreographing wirework extravaganzas from Tai-Chi Boxer to The Matrix, and this film shows kung fu fighting as martial ballet, with beautifully constructed ground-level fight scenes.
As a bonus, the butcher's master is Chinese historical-mythological figure Wong Fei-Hong, played by Kwan Tak-hing, who played the character more than 50 times in a long series of films between 1950 and 1965, and at 75 could still bust a move or two.
Hong Kong 1941 is a period drama about life under the Japanese occupation, and Magnificent Warriors is an action adventure set in 1930s China during the Japanese invasion.
They offer a chance to see their stars at an early stage in their careers. Hong Kong 1941 stars Chow Yun-Fat two years before he met John Woo and became the coolest guy in crime films. In Magnificent Warriors, her fifth film, Michelle Yeoh plays a female Indiana Jones character piloting her own plane and helping the local resistance. Three years earlier, she was named Miss Malaysia and several years later Western audiences would discover her opposite Jackie Chan in Supercop, opposite James Bond in Tomorrow Never Dies and, of course, in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
All come with excellent enhanced wide-screen transfers, and Fox hasn't screwed them up the way Columbia has some of its Jackie Chan issues from Dimension. (Project A, for example, came without a Chinese soundtrack.) Speaking of Jackie Chan, City Hunter in this series, too, but, to be kind, Jackie has made much better movies.
DVD EXTRAS All discs come with Dolby 5.1 soundtracks in English and Cantonese, original and new theatrical trailers, photo galleries, promotional materials and some cast and crew interviews - Michelle Yeoh on Magnificent Warriors, Cecilia Yip on HK 1941. The oddity is on Magnificent Butcher, which offers The Amazing Sammo Hung Music Video, a jaw-dropping four-minute compilation of clips of Sammo flying through the air and landing on his ass, and where else are you going to see clips from his early-90s Vietnam flick, Eastern Condors?
SHARK SKIN MAN AND PEACH HIP GIRL (Kino, 1998) D: Katsuhito Ishii, w/ Tadanobu Asano, Sie Kohinata. Rating: NNN
based on a popular japanese comic strip, this is an exceedingly stylized action picture about inertia. The characters run and run but keep coming back to the same place. A renegade gangster pursued by his yakuza colleagues hooks up with a girl trying to escape her sexually predatory uncle. It's a movie that strains to be crazy-sexy-cool and actually manages to get there in some lunatic sequences, notably a hotel lobby shootout. This is the crime movie that Guy Ritchie only thought he'd made.
DVD EXTRAS - Theatrical trailer. Japanese with English subtitles.
SHANGHAI KNIGHTS (Touchstone, 2003) D: David Dobkin, w/ Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson. Rating: NNN
this almost ended up in my "if there's time" pile until a quick look at the back of the disc revealed an interesting extra: extended versions of four of the film's large-scale fight scenes. And a quick search of the IMDb revealed that, in their extensive careers as legends of the Hong Kong action cinema, Jackie Chan and Donnie Yen had never had a confrontation until this film's climactic fight sequence on a barge in the Thames.
Thus, for all its maddening traits - self-conscious anachronisms, out of control jokiness and generally annoying behaviour - Shanghai Knights is a keeper for fans of the Hong Kong actioner. (Give director David Dobkin credit - he spent most of the shooting schedule working on the elaborate fight scenes.) For everyone else, it's at best a renter. It just doesn't wear well as a movie.
DVD EXTRAS Director commentary, writers' commentary (what? somebody wrote this?), expanded versions of the fight scenes, Fight Manual featurette with Chan and Dobkin. English and French versions, Spanish subtitles.
Also This Week
DAREDEVIL (20th Century Fox) - Ben Affleck as the blind superhero, Jennifer Garner as the girl in the tight leather pants.
SOLARIS (20th Century-Fox) - Steven Soderbergh's remake of Andrei Tarkovsky's putative sci-fi classic, with commentary by Soderbergh and producer James Cameron.
PAST PERFECT (Mongrel Media) Rebecca Jenkins and director/star Daniel MacIvor chew over their relationship.
LIFE AND DEBT (New Yorker Films/Mongrel Media) Stephanie Black's documentary, with script by Jamaica Kincaid, on globalization and Jamaica.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb