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Once Upon a Time In Hollywood
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Zhang Yimou is nowadays best known in the West for the wuxia spectacles Hero and House of Flying Daggers, but his early career was decidedly more interesting. The early 1990s saw the Chinese filmmaker shifting from the tragic romance of Ju Dou (co-directed with Yang Fengliang and Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Language Film) to the anti-despotism allegory of Raise the Red Lantern. It was with these films that he established his now-celebrated command of colour and announced himself as a formalist force to be reckoned with.
On paper, A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop seems more aligned with these more bold appearances in the Zhang oeuvre than the ornamental works that have occupied him since the turn of the millennium. Not for any particular commitment to sociopolitical subtext (there's precious little of that to be found here), but rather sheer cracked audacity - the film is a remake of the Coen brothers' hugely idiosyncratic Tex-noir debut, Blood Simple.
As by now is well and truly his wont, Zhang sets his telling in an indefinite period of China's feudal past. (It's worth noting that the revisionist rationale seems determined by nothing other than its being a setting the director has favoured time and again throughout his career.) So the backwater dive bar of the Coens' movie is replaced by the eatery of the title, while Blood Simple's perspiring cowboy P.I, so memorably played by M. Emmet Walsh, is recast as a laconic member of the Chinese imperial police (Sun Honglei). Rusty six-shooters become bows and arrows and weather-beaten jalopies horse-drawn carts. Indeed, much of the film's modest appeal comes from discovering how the most modern rudiments of the Coens' twisty plot (doctored photographs; a mislaid cigarette lighter) have been accordingly retrograded.
This Zhang achieves with far greater grace than he does the transmutation of the Coens' tar-black and absurd stylings into pantomime farce. With the notable exception of Sun, characterisations are broad and the cast grating. This is most damaging in the case of its central adulterers (Shen-Yang Xiao and Yan Ni), with whose predicament we're asked to sympathise at ...Noodle Shop's peril. Unlike John Getz's cocksure-cum-not-so-sure alpha male lead in Blood Simple, Shen-Yang's Li is an asexual man-child - replete with pink wardrobe - whose only conceivable allure to Yan's comely honeytrap would seem to lie in his not being her abusive husband, Wang (Ni Dahong). Similarly Yan, in a role strangely credited only as 'Wang's Wife', is so shrill in her more domineering variation of Frances McDormand's first-ever screen performance that by the time she emerges as the story's intended hero we're practically rooting against her.
That Sun's scenes are where Zhang's adaptation sticks most to the Coens certainly stacks the deck in his favour. They're the only sections where the incongruent sensibilities of Zhang and the brothers find any sort of accord and the film makes good on its improbable culture-mashing potential. These largely dialogue-free stretches, in which Sun's corrupt policeman is left to go about his underhanded business alone on screen, don't just afford the film its only genuine tension, but free Zhang to play to his own strengths as a visual storyteller. When his characters open their mouths, it's hard not to wince - according to the subtitles of this Australian theatrical version, the script by Shi Jianquan and Shang Jing disappointingly shirks the challenge to approximate the wonderfully idiomatic patter swapped by the Coens' players. Instead, the cast are left to wade through colourless tracts of expository dialogue which overexplains rather than entertains or elucidates.
With the Martian-red loam of the Chinese badlands as its backdrop, ...Noodle Shop at least doesn't want for striking imagery. But this is by now a given in any film directed by Zhang, and the film's aesthetic appeal only carries it so far. It's a shame that such a singular prospect as this (for when are we next likely to encounter a project of such atypical pedigree?) should ultimately boil down to little more than a curious witness to two obvious things: the pliability of genre storytelling, and the simple truth that certain things will perhaps always be unavoidably lost in translation.
It's a cold sort of comfort to realise that Hollywood's mangling of foreign favourites in actual fact goes both ways.
Prior to defecting to Hollywood and hawking himself as a rehash hack, French expat Alejandre Aja (The Hills Have Eyes, Mirrors) showed early promise as a peddler of terror with the savage femme survivalist slasher High Tension. Theres no trace of that films cardiac-throttling suspense to be found in Piranha 3D, Ajas third horror remake in just four years. Rather, his latest retread this time of the 1978 Jaws spoof that launched the solo career of Joe Dante is a cartoon model of generic excess. Theres flesh-eating fish; Sam Raimi-style carnage; and busty, beach-bronzed babes who burst from the screen in hokily retrograded 3D. Trash is unabashedly the catch of the day, and Piranha 3D offers the movie equivalent of a late night Fillet-O-Fish.
Its apt, considering the projects pilfering pedigree, that things should open with a Jaws riff that will have genre junkies on-side from frame one. Its a brisk manifesto of Ajas approach to the whole: keep em laughing and hope they dont realise how crappy the thing really is. Its enough to sustain 88 tawdry minutes in the company of an enthusiastic audience, but makes Piranha 3D an experience that will evaporate from memory the moment the house lights come up.
Heavy seismic activity has opened a primordial chasm beneath Lake Victoria, a spring break hot spot in an otherwise sleepy pocket of the American Midwest. Before you can plug cryptozoology into Google, the prehistoric predators are awakened, the partys underway, and the feeding frenzy is set to commence.
And thats all of the piece setting required. Plot and cast are noteworthy only for how noteworthy theyre not, and thats just the way Aja wants it. After all, why clutter so perfectly absurd a set-up nubile teens get minced by razor-fanged fish! with such redundant trappings as drama and character? Actors Elizabeth Shue, Jerry OConnell, Ving Rhames and Christopher Lloyd among them were seemingly lured by the promise of a few breezy weeks in the sun and a spectacularly outlandish on-screen demise. For those seeking the latter, Piranha 3D delivers. Extras and topliners alike are dispatched with wicked cruelty, the joke being that each kill is more savagely embellished than the last. Ever wished to see a disembodied penis spewed at the screen in three stomach-churning dimensions? Piranha 3D plugs that void. Not since Peter Jackson employed a lawnmower as a zombie deterrent has so much haemoglobin showered the screen to such willfully ridiculous ends.
But dont be suckered by the (bafflingly) positive reception to Piranha 3D: despite possessing a maturity level on par with caviar, Braindead this gory romp aint. The best horror comedies notch their mark by having more than just blood and guts and T&A on their minds, as An American Werewolf in London and Shaun of the Dead attest. Given the nasty ends so many of his revellers meet, it could be argued that Aja is taking broad swipe at his core demographic (the tequila slamming, sex-crazed, party-like-tomorrow-is-our-parents-problem set), but really, the scenes of en masse debauchery are likely to encourage far more post-movie blow-outs than the sight of that up-chucked member is quiet moments of self-reflection.
Thankfully, Piranha 3D makes no pretense to anything other than what it is: diverting, disposable trash. Dont be surprised if the DVD arrives with nothing more than a blood-sopped pair of bikini-clad breasts on its cover.
Speaking of which, Aja does manage one sequence which might be enough to claw Piranha 3D into infamy: a riotously gratuitous, all-nude, girl-on-girl aquatic frolic set to the operatic strains of Delibes The Flower Duet. Self-respecting connoisseurs of cinematic sex scenes will get a laugh as they identify the lesbian love theme from The Hunger in the films sliest and subtlest gag. Everyone else will be held rapt for sixty languidly elapsing seconds by the gentle billowing of 3D boobs.
This sci-fi/horror/action amalgam moves at the clip of the videogames from which it borrows its grind-and-advance narrative mechanics. The plot killer plague sees a clutch of the usual genre suspects (cute kid, mysterious bad boy, shifty intellectual etc.) entering cryo-freeze only to awaken and find themselves besieged by alien nasties is pure, recycled pulp. Its a fact done no favours by a reliance on an overstated Sleeping Beauty motif and tedious its-all-a-dream-no-its-not!-or-is-it? perceptual rug-pulling. But if youve ever pined for a film in which autonomous brambles take the form of a botanical dragon and ensnare Edinburgh Castle, King of Thorn will scratch that itch but good.
The real genius of Evangelion was never its outré visions of sky-scraping robots and celestial harbingers of doom seemingly torn from the id of Storm Thorgerson, but the crystalline perfection of its giant-mechs-as-adolescence metaphor. Teenagers callow, impetuous, angst-crippled teens were given charge of cyclopean fighting machines and tasked with nothing less than defending the world. Kids thrust into ungainly new bodies with frightening, exciting new powers? It was The Wonder Years with collateral damage. Fifteen years after its television debut, the ambitious cinematic Evangelion rebuild which commenced with last years Evangelion: 1.0 You Are [Not] Alone continues with Evangelion: 2.0 You Can [Not] Advance, which furthers the visual sprucing and narrative compaction established by its precursor. But unlike part 1.0, which adhered stanchly to the plot progression of its revered televisual source, 2.0 urges the story into unfamiliar terrain. It lacks the scope and complexity of Evangelion proper, but with its slate of surprises and awesomely upgraded animation, You Can [Not] Advance should both slake Eva die-hards itching for a mech/monster fix, and spark the interest of curious newcomers.
The stand-out of Reel Anime 2010 is the gorgeous Summer Wars, which straddles two worlds both visually and within its own diegetic sphere. The first is the real world of teen tech whiz Kenji, who finds himself improbably recruited by the girl of his dreams to holiday at her grandmothers bucolic estate in celebration the old womans 90th birthday. The second is the virtual realm of Kenjis employer OZ, an online peer-to-peer universe where people are signified by a vibrant miscellany of cartoon avatars, and where digital transactions carry very real implications on society. Mixing social commentary and gentle coming-of-age drama with videogame action, and possessing an admirably un-saccharine sense for heart-swelling poetry of the everyday, Summer Wars plays like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World meets Still Walking. Will appeal to lovers of Studio Ghibli.