Forsaken Films

Reviews and critiques of movies from off the beaten path.

11.03.2006

The President's Analyst (1967)

Only two people on earth want Sidney Schaefer alive. Sidney Schaefer. And the President of the United States.

James Coburn was one of the coolest guys to be in films, perhaps best remembered for Our Man Flint among others, but one film rarely mentioned features him at his funniest, and is one of the best satires to come out of the 1960s, along with Dr. Strangelove. This long-lost film manages to poke fun at every subject of prevalence imaginable - from the government and its dysfunction (obviously) to suburban family life to hippie culture.

The story involves a certain Dr. Sidney Schaefer (Coburn) who, as one of the top psychoanalysts in the country, is requested to become the official analyst for the President of the United States. Over the course of his sessions with the President, Schaefer learns many dark secrets about the country and its relations with others, and becomes an international liability. As his paranoia grows, he begins to suspect everyone, including his girlfriend. Even his refuge in a hilariously parodied suburban home is tainted with his irrational and ever-escalating fear. As the plot twists and turns, he uncovers a vast conspiracy that threatens the entire world.

The film has its bizarre 1960s moments, such as an acid-induced psychidelic rock concert (wherein Coburn plays the gong!) and the surrealism in much of what it parodies. There are some loose ends that aren't tied up, but the movie is so surrealistic, we half expect a character to wake up, the whole thing having been a nightmare. Director Theodore J. Flicker's expertise lies in television, having directed episodes for shows such as "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "The Andy Griffith Show," and "I Dream of Jeanie," but he uses the cinematic format well. As the writer of this film as well, he shows that he is more than competent in crafting a creative, varied, and hilarious film.

This is a movie with loads of creative ideas, and an unexpected twist every turn. Coburn has never been better, his dry humor carrying much of the picture, but also features a solid supporting cast that makes the brilliant writing as funny as it can be. It is definitely a product of its era, but it parodies basically everything, making it a standout among its peers.

10.09.2006

Infernal Affairs (2002)

"There's an old story. Two guys need kidney transplants, but only one is available. So they play a game. They each put a playing card into the other's pocket. Whoever guesses the card in his own pocket wins."

"You know I can see your card."

"I know yours too."


Chan (Tony Leung) is a cop so deep undercover in a hong kong drug trafficker's gang that only one person -- superintendant Wong (Anthony Wong) -- knows he's not what he seems to be.

Lau (Anthony Lau) was picked as a boy by the leader of the gang, Sam (Eric Tsang), to infiltrate the police and be his eyes and ears on the inside.

Years pass and both Chan and Lau quickly rise in their respective organizations. but when Wong finally tries to bring Sam in, the operation goes awry. Wong and Sam are equally matched thanks to the information passed to them by Chan and Lau.

Wong brings Sam in, but it's merely a formality. Lau's information allows Sam to dump the goods before Wong's men are in place. And so, as each side glares across the table at each other, Wong tells Sam the above story. The game begins.

The symmetries, while obvious, are hypnotizing, like a wound spring, sharp with potential energy.

But the key is in its asymmetry. Both want out of their dangerous lives, but for different reasons. Tiny differences in motivation, in relationships, in the way they play the game are ultimately what drive the movie's relentless pace forward. Who will make the first move? Who will unleash the coiled tension that will irrevocably decide the winner of the war between gangsters and police?

Infernal Affairs has been remade by Martin Scorsese into The Departed, his latest bid at Oscar glory. And while Scorsese's version is much slicker, sidestepping the thoroughly mediocre subplots Infernal Affairs is weighed down by, it also somehow seems a step removed from the frenetic, creative energy of the original. Where The Departed plots, Infernal Affairs improvises.

Part of the problem with remakes is that irrelevant comparisons like these become inevitable. Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon are superb, but perhaps they lack the dignity of Leung and Lau. Jack Nicholson outshines Tsang, but does Nicholson even know what movie he's in?

How strangely fitting that a movie about feuding doppelgängers has one of its own. And like the movies themselves, its their differences, not their similarities that are truly interesting. If you can, see both. If you can't, well, there's nothing like the original.

10.02.2006

Three Times (2005)

Three Times is a movie about love. And that's probably about all you need to know about it.

But for the ever-curious, Three Times is written and directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien of Taiwan, the most highly decorated directors you've never heard about and is comprised of three vignettes set in three different time periods--1966, 1911, and 2005.

The two main characters--lovers, more or less, in each vignette--are played by the same actors, each one delivering three luminescent performances and that's about all the three stories share in common with each other.

In the first, set in 1966, Chang Chen plays a young man, Chen, called up to military service. During his leave, he hangs around a pool hall and flirts with the attendant there, Haruko (Shi-Zheng Chen). But when Haruko is replaced by May (Shu Qi), Chen's affections are likewise replaced.

It is the most romantic of the three stories, appropriately named "A Time for Love", and yet it is by no means over-sentmentalized. These are no destined lovers. But just it might happen in real life, they stumble upon each other at precisely the right place and time.

When Chen asks what happened to Haruko, he is told she has moved to a different city. And that is the end of it. He and May play some pool, a connection is made, and he tells her he'll write to her.

But later, when Chen returns to find May has also left, he follows her, first to one city and when he finds she is no longer there either, then to another. They share a few hours together before he has to catch a bus to report back to base early the next morning.

In the second story, entitled "A Time for Freedom" and set in 1911, Shu Qi plays Ah Mei, a prostitute in a brothel frequented by Mr. Chang (Chang Chen). Mr. Chang is an influential man working for independence from Japan. He is generous and kind, financially assisting another prostitute and friend of Ah Mei to leave the brothel behind for a concubinage to a powerful man when she cannot afford it.

Ah Mei and Mr. Chang share a deep, unspoken connection, but is it love? She longs for freedom from the brothel and thinks he is the way out. He is pleasant enough, but we think that no matter how noble he otherwise appears, he might just be looking for the same thing every man is when he enters a brothel. When she finally confronts him about whether or not they have a future together, he doesn't respond and we suspect that it might be because he's never considered it before.

In the final vignette, "A Time for Youth" which is set in 2005, Shu Qi plays Jing, a listless pop singer who lives with her female lover. She meets Zhen (Chang Chen), a photographer, and the two begin an affair.

Although "A Time for Freedom" was about the relationship between a prostitute and her client, "A Time for Youth" is by far the most physical of the three. Whereas "A Time for Freedom" occurs in between acts of passion--beginning as they dress almost ritualistically and fading out as outer garments are removed--"A Time for Youth" overflows with youthful, passionate sexual energy.

"A Time for Freedom" affects an intentional, almost methodical air, going so far as to mimic old silent films with their dialogue plaques and precise mannerisms. But "A Time for Youth" is messy and chaotic, lovers and ex-lovers and sort-of-lovers stumbling on and off stage, on and off queue, all at the same time.

Eventually Zhen and Jing are found out by Jing's spurned lover. Jing is notified via voice mail and rides off with Zhen on his motercycle. And that is the end, such that it is.

The three stories are completely self-contained, and yet what are we to glean from their juxtaposition? Certain motifs begin to emerge. All three involve letter-writing of some sort. In each one Shu Qi's character provides some sort of service for Chang Chen's. Tea is served to one character or the other at key moments.

But ultimately, even the best attempts to bind this movie together in a coherent, linear way begin to unravel. That the most innocent, straightforward love story, "A Time for Love", occurs when the writer/director would have been the age of his protagonists can't be a mistake. Perhaps we're being told that love in the 1910s was too much of a financial transaction and love today is too jaded for the director; but one's first love will be remembered sweetly and intimately with The Platters' "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" playing on the soundtrack. But then again, that seems too simplistic, too garishly blunt for a film of this beauty and mystery. It seems almost more plausible that this is merely a coincidence.

Perhaps in seeing these characters--and the supporting cast as well--weave in and out of time and place, we are to reflect on the sameness, the universality of love while at the same time, remarking at its inexhaustibly diverse manifestations. But of course, this is hardly profound; what is profound is the actual experience which Hou Hsiao-hsien renders in breathtaking deftness and elegance.

In the end,Three Times is less about what it's about than how it's about what it's about. That is, the vignettes, separately and together, paint a picture rather than telling a story. They reflect upon the genuine, universal experience of love. That it happens to these two characters almost seems beside the point.

Three Times is a gorgeous movie, as any movie about love should be. It menders and takes its time just as love always does. Even in its most optimistic vignette where we know the couple ends up together because the opening shot shows them playing pool together in a scene that must to occur after everything else, there is no promise of happily ever after. Only the joy of the present and the hope in the future.

But if I were to give it the highest praise I could, I would tell you that Three Times, unfathomable as it is, reminded me of every love and almost-love and sort-of-love I've ever had. Notice I didn't say that it made me remember them. There's a difference, and it's the same difference between Three Times and every other movie about love out there.

8.23.2006

Seconds (1966)

The final film of John Frankenheimer's so-called Paranoia Trilogy (comprised also of The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May) is essentially a feature-length Twilight Zone episode. Despite its weak second act, Seconds stands as a prime example of 1960s paranoia film, and offers a chilling and disturbing commentary on human nature.

Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is a burnt-out old man who feels as if he has come to the end of a mundane, useless life, and now decides to start fresh with the help of a secret company. He is surgically given a new body, as well as a new identity, occupation, and place of residence -- now as Tony Wilson (played by Rock Hudson).

After Arthur's transformation into Tony, the movie takes a sharp left turn to show us Tony's ridiculously wealthy lifestyle, climaxing in a wine-making orgy that almost seems out of place. Frankenheimer admitted that the middle of the movie was its weak link, and the awkward dialogue and lack of forward motion cripple the film during this sequence. But before too long, it's back on paranoid track. All of the elements of the film fall into place with one of the most chilling and ironic third acts of any movie. Frankenheimer's television-based directorial style offers endless static shots, contrasted to frantic documentary-like camera work, all in stark black and white, with a subtle, creepy score by Jerry Goldsmith.

While flawed, Seconds represents innovative, minimalist 60s filmmaking at its best. Also of note is Frankenheimer's use of the camera mounted onto an actor's body, a technique later used by Darren Aronofsky in Pi and Requiem for a Dream. Though this is an unknown film, it is certainly a disturbing and rewarding watch.

6.27.2006

Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book (1994)

This is a Disney movie. Get over it. There are lots of things that you could say about this movie that give the wrong impression--it's Disney, it's got crappy 1994 effects, it's only rated PG, it's based on Kipling's Jungle Book, and it has Jason Scott Lee, a pretty hit-or-miss actor. In its defense, I would say that it is not characteristic of Disney at all, it has very little resemblance to the animated movie of the same name (or to the original books), and despite its PG rating, it's a rather adult movie, especially for a Disney feature.

It's more a sequel rather than a retelling of the classic Jungle Book tale of a boy who grows up in the jungle and befriends the animals. In this movie, Mowgli, after living in the jungle until adulthood and completely losing touch with society, is thrown back into the mix when he stumbles across British soldiers in colonial India. Some corrupt soldiers get wind of a mythical place in the jungle said to contain mountains of treasure, and they kidnap Mowgli and force him to take them there. In the middle of all this is a love affair between Mowgli and Kitty, a general's daughter, a crush that has been going on since their childhood together. There are also undertones of racism, class distinction, and social formalities both necessary and archaic.

Since this was a lower-tier Disney production, it does have its "cute" moments, especially in the beginning when Mowgli is a child, as well as some special effects which are patchy at best. The script is tight, but often too simplistic. But when the film gets past the Disneyisms and dated effects, it transcends its studio's stereotype with the help of positively gorgeous cinematography and a majestic score by Basil Poledouris. It shows that a film can be enjoyable by both children and adults without being overlong, dependent on flashy special effects, rife with pretentious heavyweight actors, or dumbed down to its younger audience members. It also avoids unnecessary violence or language, something attributed to more "adult" films that often end up being more juvenile (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl). Nevertheless, it maintains a more serious tone, as well as a sense of adventure and fun that never loses focus.

While not a great film by any means, Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book is some of the best family fare you can get your hands on. I consider it superior to Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith, or any of the other more "adult" family movies coming out these days. This is surely a neglected film, seldom judged on its own merit.

6.19.2006

The Narrow Margin (1952)

B-budget film noir in the 1940s and 50s usually entailed feeble attempts to live up to their A counterparts, or were interesting yet uneven forays into the experimental realm of expressionism and Freudian psychological art. The Narrow Margin stands head and shoulders above its contemporaries as a B noir that gets everything right.

The story revolves around the widow of a late great gangster (Marie Windsor), slated to testify at a trial and reveal the names of several of her husband's cohorts. Naturally, a large crime syndicate wants the list, and they're willing to kill if bargaining proves futile. The bulk of the film's action takes place on a train as the widow, under the protection of Sergeant Walter Brown (Charles McGraw), travels in order to testify. Nothing is quite as it seems, and Brown finds himself deeper than he had anticipated.

There is no music in the film (except for some tinny jazz heard over a phonograph), which makes the title sequence more eerie than most, and doesn't date the film as much as many others of its day. It also preserves a documentary-like aesthetic throughout the movie. The script is tight and doesn't over-sentimentalize, except for the slightly dated police-force heroics of Brown. Even so, the preaching is kept to a minimum, and never impedes the momentum of the story. There are no lulls; every scene reveals a new twist or brings forth a new plot point. Besides, at 71 minutes, the film hardly has time to stall.

The film's economy, expert pacing, and innovative use of the camera testify to its achievement as an above-average B-level film noir. All who were involved went on to greater things, most notably director Richard Fleischer who directed films such as the sci-fi effects film Fantastic Voyage and the U.S.A. sequences in WWII behemoth Tora! Tora! Tora!.