Thursday, September 30, 2021

Love & Basketball

 


LOVE & BASKETBALL (Prince-Bythewood, 2000)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Sep 21, 2021

Review by Christopher S. Long

Battle-tested by the age of 11, Monica Wright (Kyla Pratt) already understands that she's going to have to prove herself over and over again. After her family moves into an affluent black neighborhood in Los Angeles in 1981, she must earn her right to play on the basketball court with the boys. One cocky youngster barely has time to scoff that “Girls can't play no ball” before she's driving to the hoop. Her game impresses young Quincy McCall (Glenndon Chatman), no mean feat since Quincy has high standards: his dad Zeke (Dennis Haysbert) plays in the NBA. For the Clippers, mind you, but that still technically counts as the NBA.

Quincy decides Monica should be his girl, an “honor” she grudgingly accepts with a kiss, then promptly rejects once she realizes Quincy now expects to be the boss of her. Monica has no intention of taking orders, or guff, or crap of any kind from anyone, something Quincy discovers once she jumps him and wrestles him on the lawn. It's tough to like Quincy's chances in this match.

This childhood interlude is the muddy, grass-stained launching pad for a lifelong romance, one told with conviction and panache by writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood in “Love & Basketball” (2000). The film, divided by title cards into four quarters, leaps ahead to the second quarter, circa 1988, when both Monica (now played by Sanaa Latham) and Quincy (Omar Epps) are high-school basketball stars. Quincy is the golden child, a pedigreed star guaranteed his choice of any college program. Monica, as always, has to fight much harder for everything she wants, playing her heart out for the tenuous hope of being recruited.

Dating is a nuisance she hardly has time for- gotta work on her outside game - but the spring dance is coming up, and she feels pressured to go, partly by her devoted mother (Alfre Woodard), who wants to see her tomboy daughter dressed to the nines, and partly because Quincy will be there. They're just friends who happen to live next door and share a love of basketball – honestly, they're just friends, but still, she wants to check in with him on the school's big night.

“Love & Basketball” has become a fan favorite since its release just over 20 years ago, and I suspect admirers fall in love with it at the same point Monica and Quincy officially declare their love. Prince-Bythewood's script deftly balances authenticity with the occasional fairy tale flourish that puts the romance over the top. Perhaps her savviest decision is to have Monica's and Quincy's bedrooms facing each other. Any time Quincy needs to escape from hearing his parents argue, he can just climb out onto the thin hill of grass that separates their rooms, knock on Monica's window, and have a safe refuge for the night. After they've both returned home on the night of the dance, their respective dates long since dispatched, they meet on the lawn and fall into each other's arms, a lifetime of yearning finally boiling over.

It's a beautiful moment, but college, with its whole new set of challenges, awaits in the third quarter. They both play at UCLA where they are now officially girlfriend and boyfriend. Repeating a pattern, the much-ballyhooed Quincy weighs leaving school early for the promise of being a lottery pick, while Monica scraps just for a chance to get on the court and showcase her mad skills. On first consideration, I felt the film took a wrong turn here, as the sweet, loving Quincy abruptly turns mean and selfish, but now I think Prince-Bythewood, herself a gifted high-school basketball player, understands well the difference in entitlement between male and female college athletes. Praised his whole life, Quincy expects the support of everyone on his predetermined path to fame and fortune. So when Monica makes even one modest decision to pursue her career (observing team curfew) instead of consoling Quincy when he feels down, he turns on her, placing their entire future in jeopardy. He's not accustomed to adversity and responds petulantly to even the slightest setback.

Monica truly loves Quincy, but she won't abandon her career plans for him, the way she feels her mother did to support her father, a successful banker. “Love & Basketball” would be a far lesser film if Monica ever lost focus on her own goals, and her commitment only makes their relationship, as well as Monica's ultimate on-court fate, feel all the more fully-earned.

“All's fair in love and basketball,” says Quincy. And all feels true in Prince-Bythewood's “Love & Basketball”, even its happily-ever-after ending.



Video:

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. From Criterion: “This new digital transfer, supervised by director Gina Prince-Bythewood, was created in 16-bit 4K resolution from the 35 mm original camera negative...” This 1080p transfer is pristine, another top notch Criterion release.

Audio:

The DTS-HD Master 5.1 audio track is sharp and robust with strong depth throughout. The score by Terence Blanchard as well as the film's pop songs also sound great with this mix. Optional English SDH subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:

The film is accompanied by two older commentary tracks. The two options are a track by Prince-Bythewood and Sanaa Lathan, recorded in 2000, and another track by Prince-Bythewood, editor Terilyn A. Shropshire, and composer Terence Blanchard, also recorded in 2000.

The “Making Of...” feature (2021, 38 min.) involves several cast and crew members, including Prince-Bythewood, Omar Epps, Sanaa Lathan, and Alfre Woodard. Prince-Bythewood speaks about her own experience as a high-school basketball player as well as her early career as a writer on “A Different World” and other shows.

In another interview (2021, 16 min.), editor Terilyn A. Shropshire discusses her work on the film, and how she came to join the project via a recommendation from Spike Lee (who is also a co-producer on the film).

Criterion has also included a short feature (2021, 22 min.) which consists of a Zoom meeting between Prince-Bythewood, WNBA Hall of Famer Sheryl Swoopes, and writer-actress-producer Lena Waithe. The three women discuss how they've pursued success in their various careers, as Monica does in “Love & Basketball.”

The disc also includes Deleted Scenes (8 min.) and Audition tapes (9 min.), of both the adult actors and child actors who portrayed Monica and Quincy.

Criterion continues to stack the disk with two of Prince-Bythewood's short films. “Stitches” (1991, 31 min.) was her thesis film at UCLA Film School and tells the story of a troubled female stand-up comedienne. “Progress” (1997, 3 min.) is a very short film that juxtaposes Klan violence in the 1960s with gang violence in the 1990s.

The final extra on the disc is a Trailer (2 min.)

Final Thoughts:

Prince-Bythewood recently scored a Netflix hit with “The Old Guard” (2020), but her debut feature “Love & Basketball” has been winning hearts for over 20 years. Criterion has given the film a proper treatment with a great high-def transfer and a strong collection of extras.


Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Throw Down

 


THROW DOWN (To, 2004)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Sep 21, 2021

Review by Christopher S. Long

At first blush, Johnnie To's “Throw Down” (2004) appears to be the rare martial-arts movie in which nothing much is at stake. Cocky young Tony (Aaron Kwok) challenges the best judo fighters in Hong Kong not to seek revenge for a past slight or to restore honor to his family name. Nobody will live or die based on the outcome of these bouts; heck, there isn't even a cheap tin trophy cup on the line. Tony just wants to fight because it's fun, and the big goofy grin on his face when he has the chance to spar against a worthy opponent speaks of the sheer kinetic thrill of the moment, the rare opportunity to test your skills and feel alive, the chance to really just, well, throw down.

Tony particularly craves a match with Szeto Bo (Louis Koo), a celebrated former judo champion turned karaoke bar manager. Szeto, however, is mostly in grappling with his next glass of whiskey or pulling of his next scam, as he sinks deeper into depression every day. Tony tries to bolster Szeto's spirits (he needs him in peak fighting shape, after all) and is joined in the endeavor by the high-spirited Mona (Cherry Ying), an aspiring singer/actress eager for a life free of a manager who'd rather be her pimp. Szeto resists with a masochistic stubbornness familiar to anyone who has wallowed in their own misery for years, but Tony, Mona, and several supporting characters refuse to give up. Soon it becomes apparent that the stakes in “Thrown Down” are actually quite high - nothing less than the redemption of a lost soul.

To hurtles into each scene as if it's the only moment that ever existed, sometimes with disorienting results. Shortly after they all meet, Szeto leads Tony and Mona to an arcade where, for some reason, he insists that Tony play a Mortal Kombat-style game, something the young man does with his usual ferocity, attracting attention from the other gamers. The whole sequence then abruptly shifts into a heist, one that hasn't so much as been hinted at before, but Szeto knows his plan and the audience can just catch on at their own pace. Character introductions are handled with efficiency as well. We meet Mona as she blissfully slurps a bowl of noodles while being harangued by the furious landlady who has just evicted her, instantly establishing both her predicament and her personality with no wasted set-up.

The film also provides no obvious clues as to why Szeto is so depressed, until a sudden late revelation, and by then it hardly matters. OK, it matters quite a bit, but of far greater significance is the devotion of so many of Szeto's friends (some old, some new, all equally supportive) to his rehabilitation. Even the mobster Szeto rips off at the arcade wants to help and, oh by the way, he wants to fight too. Almost everybody in the movie is crazy about judo, a bit of a joke by the filmmakers since judo isn't particularly popular in Hong Kong.

While “Thrown Down” features several rousing judo fights, both one-on-one matches and chaotic mass street rumbles, its central appeal rests on its emphasis on the healing power of friendship. A charming sequence in which the three main characters join forces to rescue a red balloon trapped in a tree, only to immediately release it to the heavens, captures the true essence of this sweet and idiosyncratic film, a genre mashup both melancholic and life-affirming.

A relative lack of exposition (relative to Hollywood narrative, at least) may make “Throw Down” occasionally frustrating for viewers who always want to know why characters are doing what they're doing. But once you realize you can trust the filmmakers to be sincere, true both to the characters and to the audience, you can just relax and live in the moment, like the film does.


Video:

The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio from a “new 4K digital transfer.” The 1080p transfer is sharp with deep, rich colors. No noticeable issues with another top-flight Criterion transfer.

Audio:

The DTS-HD Master 5.1 surround track is clean and efficient, and sounds great even in some of the messy crowd/fight scenes. Optional English subtitles support the Cantonese dialogue.

Extras:

Criterion has includes several features for this release, some older and some made just for this release.

The collection starts with a 2004 interview (40 min.) with Johnnie To, in which he discusses the genesis and development of “Throw Down.” The disc also includes a 2004 “Making Of” featurette (11 min.) which is mostly a promotional film that doesn't offer too much insight.

The new features consist of four interviews conducted by Criterion. First up is screenwriter Yau Nai-Hoi who talks about how the script was originally a light comedy which To wanted to develop into something more nuanced. He also speaks about To's propensity to improvise on set. Composer Peter Kam (11 min.) credits To with a natural musical rhythm in his pacing of scenes, while echoing Yau's comments about To's preference for making changes on set.

Criterion has also invited two film scholars to contribute. David Bordwell (21 min.) speaks about some of the differences in the film's narrative and editing vs. more standard Hollywood approaches. Caroline Guo (12 min.) discusses how atypical “Throw Down” both in terms of genre conventions and compared to most of To's other work.

The extras wrap up with a Trailer (2 ½ minutes).

The fold-out insert booklet features an essay by film critic Sean Gilman, who discusses both the film and To's prolific output in the late '90s and early 2000s.

Final Thoughts:

Johnnie To also styles “Thrown Down” as an overt homage to Akira Kurosawawa, particularly his early judo film “Sanshiro Sugata” (1943). This only adds to the film's upbeat message. “Throw Down” is ultimately a great hang-out movie, with unlikely friends finding pleasure in each other's company, just chilling and helping each other out. Who wouldn't want to throw down with that?


Monday, September 13, 2021

A Touch Of Sin

Dahai (Jiang Wu) gets even
A TOUCH OF SIN (Jia, 2013)
Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, Release Date April 8, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

It's both exciting and confusing when a filmmaker appears to make a decisive break with his previous work, complicating the picture for critics who thought they had him conveniently pigeonholed. Jim Jarmusch caused plenty of consternation with the release of his revisionist Western “Dead Man” (1996). While he certainly laced his entry in the quintessential American genre with his trademark deadpan humor, the easy-going satirist had made a surprisingly violent film, a scabrous indictment of the genocide inflicted by “stupid fucking white men” on Native Americans. Blood spurted, skulls were crushed, and bodies piled up in this nightmare on earth. Fans looking for the gentle laughs of “Down By Law” didn't quite know what to do, and a few former critical boosters (like Roger Ebert) took the opportunity to jump ship.

“A Touch of Sin” (2013) is, at least in some ways, director Jia Zhangke's “Dead Man.” There are noteworthy parallels between Jia and Jarmusch, though they shouldn't be overstated. Both directors cite Robert Bresson as a formative influence and both have often been attracted to marginalized protagonists surviving on the fringes of urban society. Like Jarmusch (born in 1953), Jia (born in 1970) is viewed as one of the defining figures of his generation's independent film movement; bootleg copies of Jia's heavily censored early films like “Pickpocket” (1997) changed hands regularly on the Chinese black market and inspired legions of cineastes from Jia's home province of Shanxi all the way to Beijing (and even attracted financial support from Takeshi Kitano's production company in Tokyo).

From the festival breakthrough “Platform” (2000) through critically praised works such as “The World” (2004) and “Still Life” (2006), Jia established himself as one of the preeminent chroniclers of China's rapid transformation to an industrial and capitalist economy, a globe-altering metamorphosis that displaced millions of Chinese citizens. Jia's characters face off against forces too big even to acknowledge their existence, but while his movies are inevitably tinged with a sense of sorrowful resignation, they also became increasingly playful, occasionally outright hilarious. They have also been, to the exasperation of many “slow cinema” skeptics, long on patient observation and short on dramatic incident.

“A Touch of Sin,” by contrast, plunges headlong into incident: no fatalistic watching and waiting here. In the first few minutes, a man on a motorcycle is accosted by thugs armed with hammers and axes; his handgun wins the day and initiates a body count that reaches double digits. And he's not even the main character of the opening section of a film organized into four separate but loosely connected segments (another Jarmuschian parallel, though JJ doesn't exactly own the format). 

Dahai is still mad
 That honor belongs to Dahai (Jiang Wu), a former coal miner turned social crusader in Shanxi who rages against the corruption of local officials who sold the publicly-held mine and clung very privately to the profits. Brash and loud-mouthed, he has probably never been good at winning friends and influencing people, but he does his best to funnel his furious protests through official channels before personally confronting the big boss, a meeting that winds up with Dahai being savagely beaten with a shovel wielded by one of the boss's thugs. Whether spurred by his head trauma or his innate obstinacy, Dahai grabs a shotgun and cuts a bloody swath through town starting with a low-level crooked accountant and ending with the money-grubbing politicos at the top.

Like most of the violence in the film, the shootings are artfully and artificially staged. Heads explode, bodies launch through the air on wires, geysers of blood soak clothing and walls. Nothing coy here, but also nothing particularly realistic. These are movie murders and Jia makes overt references to films most Western viewers (including yours truly) aren't too familiar with; the movie's English title is a pun on King Hu's popular wuxia (martial arts) film “A Touch of Zen” (1971). 

Xiaoyu (Zhao Tao) makes her point
 Jia loves to collapse the barriers between documentary and fiction, and freely mixes surrealism with naturalism. That's not quite what he's up to here, but it might explain the movie's abrupt detours into full-blown “movie-dom.” In the third segment, Xiaoyu (Zhao Tao, Jia's long-time muse and now wife) works in the “Nightcomer Sauna” as a receptionist. A pushy businessman mistakes her for something else and won't take no for an answer as he insists on a “massage.” The otherwise passive Xiaoyu reaches in her purse for a switchblade and, posing like an avenging angel from one of a host of wuxia films, slices the abusive john to bits, then wanders the streets in a daze, drenched head to toe in blood. I've spoken to some viewers who find moments like this distracting or phony, but they're intended to disrupt the apparent realism of each situation, though with my lack of familiarity with the cultural touchstones Jia references, I'm reluctant to guess precisely what his motivations are.

All four of the movie's major stories are drawn loosely from real-life incidents in China that went largely ignored by the state-controlled media. I don't know enough to claim that violent crime has become more common in China over the past decade or two, but “A Touch of Sin” definitely portrays a nation traumatized by upheaval, with money being the root of all brutality. In the final segment, a feckless but generally well-meaning teenager (Luo Lanshan) loses his soul to the twin destructive forces of young love and factory work, Jia's response to a rash of suicides by assembly-line employees at the multinational corporations that rushed in to exploit cheap Chinese labor. The protagonist of the second segment (Wang Baoqiang, also the motorcyclist from the opening) may be the most damaged character of all, but his dysfunction is more difficult to link to current events: he is a killer who likes to shoot guns because everything else (including village life with his family) is too boring. Perhaps the fresh whiff of prosperity, tantalizingly out of reach by legal means, has made it difficult for him to play by the rules anymore.

I should note that I haven't seen Jia's first film “Pickpocket” so it's possible that what I'm describing as a major departure is a return to roots. However, “A Touch of Sin” is not only much more graphic than Jia's previous 21st century movies, it also moves at a more relentless pace with few of the long, contemplative takes that have marked most of his work. The movie races from one violent eruption to the next, and the sense of inevitable tragedy builds implacably. There are still a few moments of Jia-esque humor (Dahai, in the midst of his righteous rampage, prepares to kick down a door but stumbles when startled by a phone ringing off-screen) but everyone here is just circling the black hole at the center of capitalist China, waiting to spiral into its gravity well and be torn to shreds.

It's all quite a shock for a Jia fan expecting more “Still Life” and it's a challenge to process. It might be my least favorite of his movies, but I still count it as one of the best films of 2013 which should tell you what I think of this extraordinary filmmaker. I can't wait to see whether this marks a new turn in Jia's career, or if it will turn to be a bracing exception. 


Video:
The film is presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. This high-def transfer from Kino Lorber has the slightly soft look of a movie originally shot on HD with the occasional instance of digital blurring in scenes with rapid motion, but nothing significant that would detract from the viewing experience. Image detail is sharp throughout and colors are vibrant, though the film (shot by Jia's long-time collaborator Yu Lik-wai) is not exactly meant to look beautiful. The look ranges from drab (a lonely, ignored statue of Mao overlooks a declining town square in Shanxi) to gaudy (a nightclub/sex fantasy room made up to look like a train car reserved for party officials) and the 1080p image presents it all vividly, though with a few flaws.

Audio:
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is crisp and has a convincing sense of depth; gunplay almost overwhelms the speakers at times. The sound is as angry as the story at times. Optional English subtitles support the Mandarin and Cantonese dialogue.

Extras:
All we get are five trailer for films from Kino Lorber.

Final Thoughts:
In my review of “Still Life,” I described Jia Zhangke as my favorite under-50 director. I've had no reason to revise that claim. “A Touch of Sin” may be his most accessible movie, admittedly an ambiguous description. It won Best Screenplay for Jia at Cannes in 2013 and placed highly on most year-end critical polls. Unfortunately this is a bare-bones release from Kino Lorber, but it's great to have this available to more viewers. Everyone needs “A Touch of Sin.”

Thursday, September 2, 2021

Still Life

 


STILL LIFE (Jia, 2006)

Playing on the Criterion Channel in September 2021

Review by Christopher S. Long


This month, the Criterion Channel is featuring eight films by Chinese director Jia Zhangke: “Xiao Wu” (1997), “Platform” (2000), “Unknown Pleasures” (2002), “The World” (2004), “Still Life” (2006), “24 City” (2008), “A Touch of Sin” (2013), “Mountains May Depart” (2015).

Jia may be my favorite filmmaker of the 21st century, so I'm posting a few reviews intended to encourage viewers to check out these extraordinary films while they're available on such a great platform.


Writer-director Jia Zhangke is perhaps the most prominent member of the Sixth Generation of Chinese filmmakers; he also happens to be one of the very best filmmakers working today. His first breakthrough hit on the festival circuit was “Platform” (2000) and he sealed his reputation as a modern master with 2004’s “The World”, the best movie ever made about cell phones.

Jia’s career continued to soar, and in 2006 he exploded onto everyone’s radar by winning the Golden Lion in Venice with “Still Life.” “Platform” was set in Jia’s hometown province of Shanxi in central China. In “Still Life” he sends two Shanxi natives south to Fengjie along the Yangtze River. Like many areas along the river, most of the residents of Fengjie have been displaced by the massive Three Gorges Dam project, now the largest power station in the world.

Coal miner Han Sanming (Han Sanming, a real-life coal miner who had small roles in earlier Jia films) has come to Fengjie to find his ex-wife and daughter, neither of whom he has seen in sixteen years. Treated in a largely separate story, nurse Shen Hong (Zhao Tao, Jia's frequent collaborator and now his wife) comes searching for her estranged husband. Both of these seekers will have to be very patient, as will viewers.

The only growth business left in the 2000-year-old town is demolition. Unable to locate his wife at her now submerged address (“See that island? That’s your town.”), Han settles for work on a crew while he waits for his wife to return. There’s really not much left to do in Fengjie except to wait. Shen Hong has to wait too, as her husband is a big-time boss (of the demolition company) who is difficult to track down. She whiles the time with one of her husband’s friends and glides along the fringes of the local business community.

As is usually the case with Jia, plot recedes into the background as time and location are emphasized. Working with high-def video, Jia and his great cinematographer Yu Lik-wai explore the environment so thoroughly and with such attention to detail that “Still Life” has the feel of a documentary, which is not a coincidence since Jia simultaneously shot the documentary “Dong” (2006) in the same setting. Nominally about painter Liu Xiaodong, the documentary rambles freely, sometimes observing Liu at work, and other times simply roving through the city. The two lead characters from “Still Life” wander through the documentary at different points as Jia’s fictional universe bleeds into his non-fictional one. One shot is even repeated in both movies. Jia isn’t necessarily making a formal point about the two modes of filmmaking so much as he is telling one unified story from multiple perspectives that are readily interchangeable.

In his early works, Jia could loosely be described as a neo-realist but beginning with “The World” he tapped into a more fanciful sensibility. In “The World” he used animated sequences when characters texted each other on their phones. In “Still Life” he blurs another boundary as live-action (“real”) settings suddenly become animated. A UFO abruptly shows up in one scene, providing an unlikely transition from Han’s story to Shen’s. It is never mentioned again. In another shot, a tall building in the background shrugs off its foundation and launches into the sky like a rocket ship. Why? According to Jia, it just looked like a rocket ship. Simple enough.

This playfulness reflects a generosity of spirit that imbues even the drabbest of Jia’s settings with a sense of vibrancy. Fengjie may be in the process of being sucked into the maelstrom of the Three Gorges Dam but the city and the countryside still shine like jewels. The beautiful river and hills always lurk in the background whether partly shrouded by polluted skies or shown in full bloom on a rare crystal clear day.

The people of Fengjie also refuse to go gentle into that good night. Even with limited options for work and play, they do their best to thrive. A boy shows up from time to time to whistle a tune and bum a smoke; he breezes through life just fine. Han also befriends a young man who models his every mannerism after Hong Kong movie star Chow Yun-Fat. He’s a wanna-be gangster with a smile and a snappy way of lighting a cigarette. Their budding friendship leads to yet another great cell phone scene in Jia’s oeuvre when the two exchange numbers and ring tones, setting up a powerful payoff later on.

Exchange is another major theme in the film as the characters trade luxury items with each other. Jia even uses on-screen titles to divide the film (very loosely) into chapters: cigarettes, tea, liquor, and toffee (or candy.) According to the director, these are items that were all strictly rationed in the past and had only recently become more widely available by 2006. They function here as means of forging a quick connection, or showing affection.

Like so many of my favorite films, “Still Life” affords the pleasure of spending time with characters and watching events leisurely unfold in real time. Jia’s use of long takes isn’t nearly as programmatic as in films by notoriously “challenging” directors such as Tsai Ming-liang or Bela Tarr. He varies duration and scale freely, moving from long-distance landscape shots to close-ups (though he seldom uses extreme close-ups) to strike a balance between the people and places, both of equal importance, in his movies. While “Still Life” offers several beautiful shots of distant hills, the most enduring image of all is probably that of Han in his tattered t-shirt that somehow looks distinct even compared to all the other tattered t-shirts.

Playful and moody, naturalistic and surreal, “Still Life” is a film not to be missed. It's probably my favorite Jia film, which means I also consider it one of the best films of the 21st century.