Thursday, September 22, 2016

Miscellaneous Musings: On Hollywood's Two Toms

September 22, 2016

*A little something I wrote for a writing class and never really used.

A Misperception of Cinematic Proportions


They are two of the most well-known people in the world today. They have both enjoyed unparalleled success in their professions and as a result have achieved a status in Hollywood unmatched by their peers, while also being nominated for awards for their work. They even share the same first name. However, for all their similarities, they are, in fact, unique from the other. Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise, two extremely famous and talented individuals, are very different kinds of actors, and they play vastly different roles.

In interviews, Tom Hanks comes across as a person with whom you’d be equally comfortable sitting at a bar drinking with or talking about scientific theories over tea, and that persona is reflected in the films he makes. He has a voice that exudes confidence, while simultaneously assuring those around him that he indeed shares the attributes of the nice guys he often portrays – sturdiness, dependability, decency. Audiences feel comfortable with him in the same way they felt comfortable with Fred MacMurray on the 1960’s television show My Three Sons or with Michael J. Fox in any of his comedies from the 1980s and 1990s. Furthermore, Hanks conveys the sense that he is one of us, a kind of everyman. Like Jimmy Stewart before him, he conveys to audience members the message that each of us can rise to the occasion when we need to, that we too can give everything up for a mermaid, triumph over loneliness and possible madness on a deserted island, and fight against those that seek to discriminate against us.

However, what’s particularly unique about Tom Hanks is that his characters are rarely powerful enough to do these things alone. Instead of being the “go it alone” type, which Tom Cruise can play with relative ease, Hanks’s characters are often part of a community, of a family that rallies to his side in times of adversity, and of a country that will one day understand and appreciate the sacrifices he makes for it. To watch his films is therefore to watch an image of the American Dream, one which reinforces the classic notion that good will be victorious in the end – he will win the lawsuit, get the girl, save his marriage. And its not as if Tom Hanks becomes a good person after a long inner struggle; no, he is often already the kind of man that a mother would love for her daughter to bring home. In fact, it’s frequently his character’s role in life to help other characters, as well as the audience, become the decent people they have always wanted to be. Just look at how many people he helps just by sitting on a bench and waxing nostalgic in Forrest Gump. In fact, Tom Hanks is so good at playing this kind of role that it even rears its ugly head when it shouldn’t. In Sam Mendes’s 2002 film Road to Perdition, Hanks’s character should have been a cold-blooded killer, yet halfway through the film, there he was teaching his son to drive and embarking on the kind of comic escapades that would be more appropriate in a Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin film. Perhaps the screenwriters looked at who their star was and just couldn’t help themselves.
        
Watching Tom Cruise on film, however, one does not always get the sense that our more patriotic sentiments are being pandered to. In truth, we’re not always sure we should even like Cruise’s characters. Maverick, his career-making role from Top Gun, may have been a decent man, but there’s no denying the truth behind Ice Man’s rather astute observation that he is dangerous. Cruise further develops this notion by staring straight at Ice Man and looking as if he is preparing to lunge at him in anger. Moreover, Cruise excels at playing characters who often have a hidden truth buried somewhere just waiting to come out. It could be that he’s the product of abandonment, that he’s not as knowledgeable as he would like people to believe, or that he’s dealing with the emotional scars of having committed unconscionable acts while following orders. Watching Cruise on film, we know there’s something there – we can see it in his face. We just don’t know what it is or exactly when it will force itself out. Characters like these are not easy to play, and yet he makes it look downright effortless time and again.

It is this element of Cruise’s acting that allows him to play characters that can be completely believed one minute and entirely distrusted the next. It’s no wonder that Cameron Diaz can’t decide whether he’s trying to save the world or make himself filthy rich in 2010’s Knight and Day. In fact, Cruise often begins a film as a rather unsympathetic character only to learn a valuable lesson about life, love or family by the end of the film. By the end of his movie Rain Man, he’s completely forgotten about the money his father declined to leave him and learned the value of brotherly love. Furthermore, with a smile that can range from cocky to heartfelt and an intensity that can appear at a moment’s notice, Cruise is well capable of jumping from action films to dramas, and from dramas to romantic comedies. Who else could have played the vampire Lestat, the sexist Frank Mackey in Magnolia, and the idealistic sports agent in Jerry Maguire? Certainly not Tom Hanks. In fact, Cruise is more like Robert Mitchum than he is Hanks. Mitchum could be charming and courageous in one movie and talking about the epic battle between love and hate while trying to steal a fortune from two orphaned children in the next. In short, we’re not always sure what to expect with Cruise, and to me, this is a good thing.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Review - Brother Bear

September 15, 2016

Brother Bear – US, 2003

Were it not for my less than stellar impression of The Great Mouse Detective, I’d be able to proclaim Brother Bear my least favorite Disney animated film. Brother Bear is a film with a plot so unsettling and creepy that I spent most of the film with a rather queasy feeling in my stomach and thoughts of incredulity running through my head. It was somewhat reminiscent of the sheer astonishment I felt watching Brave. That, some of you will remember, was the film in which a woman changes her mother into a bear and then has to stop her father from hunting her. Believe it or not, that pales in comparison to what we get in the wholly unoriginal Brother Bear.

The film is set in the forests of Canada. There we are introduced to three Inuit brothers, who have a special bond. How do we know? Well, in what will become an unfortunate trend in the film, a song tells us. And by song I don’t mean your standard, everyday Disney musical number – you know, the kind in which an animated character will break into song and reveal a little of his or her character. No, here we get Tina Turner belting out “Great Spirits,” which reveals to us that they’re brothers and they’re always there for each other. In truth, we could tell that the first time we saw them rough housing and evading a parade of stampeding elk. Unfortunately, the song is the first of this sort, and from here on in, the songs serve as the film’s lazy intermittent narrator, telling us what we are already able to see and doing it to the point of ad nauseam.   

The youngest of the brothers is named Kenai (voiced by Joaquin Phoenix), and like many other films of this sort, Kenai is just about to take part in a ceremony that will reveal to him his spirit animal. It’s not hard to guess that he won’t like it or that whatever quest he ends up on will lead to his embracing of the very quality that he at first rejects. But before he starts his journey, he must first embrace darkness because apparently nothing sets a character in a kids film on the path of self-discovery quite like death, obsession, and killing. Here, Kenai rejects his spirit animal and its pacifist characteristics and sets off to kill the bear that caused the death of one of his brothers – at which point I wondered, “Are there any Disney films in which someone doesn’t die or get killed?”

The journey takes Kenai high up on a mountain, where the spirit of his deceased brother decides to teach him a lesson in humility by turning him into a bear. This is of course after he has killed the bear that he blames for his brother’s death , and because he is now a bear, he is in danger of being killed by his other brother because… oh never mind. You get the point.

The film tried to make up for its bleak and morbid undertone by turning on the comedy. To do this, it enlists Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, here essentially playing animated versions of their iconic characters from 1983’s Strange Brew. Here’s the problem, though. They’re given nothing to work with other than tired yoga jokes, frequent jabs at each other for being lazy, and a tired scene in which they play “I-spy” on the backs of large mammoths. Their scenes are much less fun than they should be. Only a bear cub named Koda, voiced by Jeremy Suarez, brings energy to the film. However, the character is nothing we haven’t seen before, and his big reveal seems more like an act of desperation on the screenwriter’s part than a spark of creativity. It also ramps up the “ick” factor, already in great abundance.

Brother Bear was directed by Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker, and to their credit, they get some things right. There are scenes of stunning natural beauty and spectacular cave drawings, and the film’s depiction of the Northern Lights as a realm in which both deceased animals and humans roam freely is quite an interesting concept. I’m just not sure anyone involved in the film knew what to do with this idea beyond the obvious. Perhaps they should not be blamed, though. According to IMDB, twenty-five people are credited with writing at least some part of the film, and you know that old saying about cooks and the kitchen. Well, it applies to screenwriters and films as well. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

2 stars

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Review - Those Who Remain

September 8, 2016

Those Who Remain – France, 2007

Anne Le Ny’s Those Who Remain is a heart-wrenching film about people going through heart-wrenching experiences, and to its credit, it avoids the rah-rah, visiting hours don’t apply to me moments that so many other films on this topic include as if they were both a badge of honor and a part of the sales pitch that got the film green-lighted in the first place. This is not to say there isn’t a place for such scenes, but I suspect that most people who have dealt with potentially terminal illnesses will find more in common with Bertrand Lievain (Vincent Lindon) and Lorraine Gregeois (Emmanuelle Devos), the two characters at the heart of Those Who Remain, than with Sean Maguire from Good Will Hunting or John Tremont from 1989’s Dad. Bertrand is a flawed character on whom the repeated hospital visits, late night emergencies, and repeatedly dashed hopes have clearly taken a toll; Lorraine is a woman who expected her relationship, still in its relative infancy, to be full of carefree fun and honeymoon-like passion. Instead, she finds herself wondering aloud, “Why me?” and immediately feeling ashamed of herself for having had such thoughts.

The two of them meet in a hospital one day by accident. He is a frequent visitor to room 34 of the breast cancer ward, she of the floor designated for patients with colon cancer. The two of them eventually strike up a friendship that is at first convenient and more than a little awkward. At first glance, the two of them are almost polar opposites. Bertaind’s experience has turned him inward, and he seems to be going out of his way to avoid human contact, ashamed to admit the toll that his wife’s plight is having on him. Lorraine seems to be subconsciously looking for someone to latch on to, perhaps in the hopes that that person will be able to explain to her why she has not become the benevolent, selfless person she thought she would. Eventually, they find themselves beguilingly drawn to each other, and soon it is clear – these are two characters that urgently need each other.

The success of a film like this rests on the shoulders of its cast and its director, for the camera must be the eyes to Bertrand’s soul and a means of showing the true character of the woman that lies behind Lorraine’s fatalistic remarks and loud denouncements of fate. Fortunately, Lyndon is more than up to the task. His face, with its time-battered wrinkles and frequent looks of both exhausted determination and utter resignation, show more than many actors are able to convey with their whole body and their voice. As Bertrand, he seems to be willing himself from one moment to the next, doggedly sticking to the daily routine as if doing so will somehow change his situation. Devos is equally impressive, and in a way, she has the harder role, for the audience must be able to see through her negative words and see the love and emotional impairment that lies underneath them. Bertrand earns our respect, Lorraine our empathy.   

There is of course more to the story. There’s Bertrand’s strained relationship with his step-daughter, and a visit from a sister that is both desperately needed and mistakenly unwanted. Ny, who also wrote the screenplay, keeps the focus on Bertrand for the most part, and when we finally get a glimpse of Lorraine’s world outside the hospital, the scene has a tinge of finality to it. Like them, we understand that this is the end of a journey.

Having said all this, I must admit that the film left me somewhat cold at times. Characters that hide their emotions are not always the easiest ones to relate to, and as much as I admired Bertrand, I often felt distant from him, as if on some level he would forever remain an enigma. I feel this kept me from appreciating the film as much as I could have. I was also annoyed by attempts at humor that I felt either fell flat or were too much of a distraction, one of which involves a mother missings her baby's first steps. Needless to say, the film is at its best when it focuses on the tragedies unfolding and their effects on those who will ultimately remain here among the living, and I admired these parts greatly. They more than make up for any slight misgivings I may have about certain parts of it. Those That Remain is a moving film, one that many people will find truthful, poignant, and painful. It's worth finding if you can. (on DVD in Region 3)

3 and a half stars

*Those Who Remain is in French with English subtitles.  

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Miscellaneous Musings - On Labels and the Times We Are Living In

September 1, 2016

On Labels and the Times We Are Living In

Oh, the irony. You are now reading the words of a copyright infringer. Shocking, I know.

Some time ago, I posted a review of Zhang Yimou’s Coming Home, and then as I usually do, I went to Google Images to find the cover of the DVD. In truth, I didn’t put much thought into which picture I saved and placed to the left of my review, and posting the review would likely have been the last time I wrote about the film. But you know that saying about life and its annoying habit of throwing you curve balls? Little did I know that my little blog would soon be ensnared in a massive sweep of websites connected to that very image.

Perhaps a little elaboration is in order. Last weekend, I wrote a review of Disney’s Brother Bear and went to post it. No sooner had I logged in than I was greeted by an ominous box explaining that my post for Coming Home had been labeled draft and removed from view. Even more ominous was the announcement that I had violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and, according to Blogger, was in danger of having my blog suspended or deleted if such intrusions into other people’s rights continued. Two days later, I would receive a second notice from Google itself.

But wait, I thought. Surely there had been a misunderstanding. Can it really be a violation of copyright law to put the cover of a Blu-ray disc in a movie review that is on a blog intended to promote movies and has not been monetized? Apparently, it can be, but it gets a little more complicated than that.

The warning from Blogger and Google both referred me to a third-party website where I could view said violation and see exactly what the complaint was. So I went there, put in the complaint code, and was taken to a page with numerous listings of links to websites that had apparently received the same notice, one of which was IMDB. The list was long, in some cases over 300 items, but when I looked for the reason for my now criminal label, I was met with a curious word, unspecified. Unhelpful was more like it.

I learned I had one more option: I could contest the charge against me. Therefore, I clicked on a link to a form I would have to fill out in order to explain why, in my opinion, it had all been a misunderstanding. The form is long and, interestingly, requires you to give the party making the complaint against you much more information than I was interested in revealing to a group accusing me of intellectual theft. It also included some friendly advice about consulting a lawyer if I thought I could claim fair use of the material. Needless to say, I haven’t done that. I simply deleted the picture, and hopefully that puts an end to it.

It does make me wonder, though. Had an actual person looked at my blog and concluded that I did not have the right to use the image, or had a computer program found it through some complex algorithm and simply labeled it a violation? I suspect it was the latter. We are living in a rather impersonal world, one in which some companies make a lot of money, employ a small number of workers, and utilize complex formulas in their daily operations, What we write is scanned and analyzed for shopping habits, interests, key words, and possible violations of laws. Time was when someone actually had to read something to make the claim that it had copied someone’s ideas. Now it appears companies rely on computers for this. YouTube is even has a program that detects background music in a video and can label it “unpostable,” without ever considering the purpose of the video or whether it would qualify as fair use.

And so my review of Coming Home has no picture on it, and it’ll probably stay that way if only to serve as a reminder of this odd event, one which highlights the mechanical world we live in and the likelihood that it will become much more so. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Review - Black & White: The Dawn of Justice - 2014

August 25, 2016

Black & White: The Dawn of Justice – Taiwan, 2014

The circumstances that Black & White: The Dawn of Justice lays out are indeed frightening – ten missing criminals, all of whom appear in a cryptic video that eerily resembles the kind associated with a suicide bomber’s last testament; a series of explosions, each one designed to bring a part of Kaohsiung to its knees; and rumors of chemical warfare. Into this brewing catastrophe steps Wu Ying-Hsiung (Mark Chao), the central character from the first Black & White film, as well as the television show that the films serve as prequel to, and, as the first scene attests, he is a man who has not mellowed one iota. In the scene, we watch as he almost single-handedly fends off a series of terrorists intent on getting their hands on a high-ranking military official who has access to an important code. It’s an exciting scene, and it stands up there with the more memorable intros from the Bond series or Mission Impossible films, yet it’s almost all down hill from there.

Part of the problem with Tsai Yueh-Hsun's The Dawn of Justice is that savvy viewers will quickly notice uncanny similarities to other (and better) films. Stop me if you’ve heard these before – a villain with a deep bass voice, a secret society intent of destroying a city and then rebuilding it from scratch, a detonator and a choice of who lives and dies. In other words, the film borrows extensively from both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises. Other elements seem taken from the Mission Impossible films, and, oddly enough, shoot-em-up video games. For example, in one scene, our heroes find a secret path, go up a long ladder, and turn around to find a villain for each of them to take out. Then once they have vanquished these foes, a new and more powerful one emerges, one that will take their combined efforts to defeat. Later they have to climb all the way up to the top of a building where their final opponent is causally waiting for them. I half expected them to pick up a more powerful weapon along the way and to eat a berry for extra energy.

Like the previous film, The Dawn of Justice never lets up, jumping from one action scene to another, with only a few down moments thrown in to explain just what the heck is going on and just who everyone is. It helps if you have an encyclopedic knowledge of the first film, for Dawn of Justice doesn’t bother to explain who most of the characters are. However, if you can remember the characters from 24, you’ll be familiar with these character types. There’s the police chief who wants to ground Wu. Think the head of CTU in any season in which Tony Almeida or Michelle Dressler aren’t in charge. There’s the computer expert trying to ascertain the villains’ whereabouts with very little help from his superiors. Think Chloe O’Brian. And there are a few female colleagues on the case as well. They could easily be any of the one-season CTU agents who are pulled into action after receiving a clue and not being able to communicate with Jack. Then of course there’s the reluctant partner who at first dislikes or don’t trust Jack. Here, think Chase Edmunds. Like Jack’s, we have a feeling that Wu’s doubters will eventually come around, too.

The film is helped greatly by the all-too brief appearance of Xu Da Fu (Bo Huang), the criminal turned hero from the first film. He shows up as the tenth suicide bomber, yet his involvement is anything but voluntary. Xu is every bit as energetic as Wu is staid, and Huang and Chao make the most of their limited screen time together. In fact, Xu’s storyline also gives the film its emotional depth, which is more than a little strange given how many lives are at stake if all goes according to the terrorists’ plans. However, most of Kaohsiung’s civilians remain background figures and are not given much screen time to develop a connection with the audience. In an interesting move thematically, what screen time they do receive features mobs of them ransacking stores and doing snatch-and-grabs - not necessarily the kinds of deeds that would endear them to the audience. Even when Wu runs in the middle of a panicked mob and saves a young child from being trampled, the scene fails. It’s a near carbon copy of Katie Holmes’s heroics in Batman Begins.

When the film does devote time to a new character, the results are hit and miss. A fellow police officer named Chen Zhen (Lin Gengxin) makes his grand entrance just as Wu is dangling perilously from a freeway overpass. What should be a heroic moment is used instead to establish the character’s oddball personality – instead of helping Wu, Chen snaps a selfie with him and then complains about the placement of Wu’s hand. The moment plays worse than it reads. Another character, Huang Shi-Kai (Shiou Chieh Kai), a member of an elite military unit known as the Black Hawks, fares much better. We get a clear sense of just how he skilled and principled he is, and everything he attempts to do later on in the film is completely believable.

Unfortunately, too little of the film feels original. From its use of plot points from Christopher Nolen’s Batman trilogy to its many clich├ęd supporting characters, there’s just never a sense that we’re seeing anything new, and no amount of energy and action can make up for this. Wu, Huang, and Xu are all intriguing characters, yet they’re stuck in a movie made by a studio too afraid to venture outside of established action-film norms. The film didn’t need strained attempts at comedy or action scenes exaggerated to the point of being parody; what it needed was to trust that audiences would invest in the film’s characters and willingly go wherever the ride took them. They needed to take a chance. That they didn’t is obvious, and the result is a film that is watchable, yet ultimately forgettable. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

2 stars

*Black & White: The Dawn of Justice is in Mandarin with English subtitles.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Guest Blogger: Paul Cogley

 Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Reviewed by Paul Cogley

Here is movie star Olivia de Havilland photographed regally in June 2016 wearing a blue dress in a blue room in her Paris apartment on the occasion of her 100th birthday. Also shown here is a publicity photo of De Havilland as Maid Marian with Errol Flynn as Robin Hood, taken when the two were enthralled in an offscreen romance.
 
The screen star has long been known for her intelligence and independence. In a 1944 landmark court case which resulted in what became known as the De Havilland Law, she sued Warner Bros. to reduce the studio’s power and extend creative freedom to performers.

De Havilland still possess her sharp mind and independent streak. For her 100th birthday, she gave several interviews—including with NPR—that are well worth Googling. Reading those interviews led me to seek out “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” from my local library.

Never trying to be an historical account of the late Middle Ages, the Michael Curtiz film presents the legend of Robin Hood redone as Hollywood Movie Magic. It remains one of the greatest family movies of all time. In nearly all aspects, the film feels as fresh today as it was during its successful 1938 release and second go-round as a feature-movie rerelease back in 1948.

The story begins some time after King Richard has ridden off from Merry Olde England and gotten himself jailed after fighting a Crusade. The king’s mean, hedonistic brother Prince John has taken full advantage of the situation to raise taxes and in all ways ruin the lives of the peasants. Eventually, his life of debauchery will be foiled by the eagle-eyed archer and good-natured forest dweller Robin Hood, with the help of his motley band of income-inequality warriors. Also, Maid Marian, who lives in the court, will fall for the charms of Robin and have a change of heart about her royal privileges when she considers the injustice its cost has on the commoners.

This is a movie with many elements, all of them working in-synch together. It is a Technicolor production, which until then was still a mediocre technology. Due to the new breakthrough in color processing introduced in this film, the costumes and scenery were brilliantly toned to dazzle the audience, similarly to what would be seen again in “The Wizard of Oz” (1939). 

The Oscar-winning film score was composed and arranged by the Austrian opera composer Erick Wolfgang Korngold. His music superbly pushes the battle action and fits the film’s many moods, such as the lighthearted times in Sherwood Forest and the romantic interludes between Marian and Robin.

The film was a milestone in action choreography. Our modern standards for adventure film battles - featuring clashing swords, whizzing arrows, etc.- began with the sophisticated realistic action that was carefully plotted in this movie. At times I thought I was seeing bits of action that would be actually referenced by George Lucas four decades later in his Star Wars trilogy.

Finally, the film has a wonderful cast. In the 1930s, in his earlier films, Errol Flynn had reinvented the role of the irreverent swordsman and rakish man of action using the template of the silent era’s Douglas Fairbanks Sr. Flynn was charming, young, and athletically gifted, and a wonderful fit for the role of Robin Hood.

Regarding Olivia De Havilland’s performance, in this modern era we tend to more fully appreciate an interpretation such as her Maid Marian, who is a strong and thoughtful woman. Nothing is played saccharine sweet with this Maid Marian.

Prince John is nicely played by Claude Rains, who would later again work with director Curtiz as the French inspector in “Casablanca” (1943). Also notable in the cast is Prince John’s very intelligent aide, Sir Guy, played by Basil Rathbone. Poor Sir Guy, almost every bit as intelligent as Robin Hood, hatches one doomed scheme after another to defeat his nemesis, and eventually faces off with him for one final sword duel.

“The Adventures of Robin Hood” is a movie that is fun for the whole family. However, battle scene are often intense and may not be appropriate for children under six.  

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Review - The Diary of a Big Man

August 11, 2016

Diary of a Big Man, The – Hong Kong, 1988

Chow Yun-Fat is a very talented actor. Blessed with dashing good looks and an appearance that can fluctuate between tender and tough at the drop of a dime, he has dazzled audience for four decades, an impressive feat by any standards. He excels in dramas and period pieces, and his films with John Woo were many young people’s introduction to Hong Kong cinema. I have seen a number of his films and enjoyed many of them. However, nothing I had seen before of his prepared me for Chor Yuen’s The Diary of a Big Man. If that sounds like praise, it is not.

In The Diary of a Big Man, Chow plays Chow Chen Fat, a young stock analyst whose life is utterly changed one rainy night. It is on that night that he meets two young women. The first is Joey (Joey Wang). She meets Chow while her umbrella is giving her fits, and he clumsily tries to assist her. In this movie, being clumsy is rather endearing, and in no time at all, she’s giving him her card so that he can return her umbrella after he fixes it. (Really. That’s what the subtitles said.) A few minutes later, he meets Sally (Sally Yeh). Sally is getting out of a cab, and wouldn’t you know it - she needs an umbrella! Just what’s a guy like Chow to do in this situation, but give her the umbrella? It’s practically love at first sight.

Chow decides to date both of them, and through a series of errors eventually ends up married to them. Thus, begins one of the greatest and funniest of ruses ever put to celluloid. If only. Rather, thus begins is an ill-fated attempt at screwball comedy featuring actors whose director has confused screaming and exaggerating with acting, and who believes that being eclectic is the same as being entertaining. All of this is brought to us courtesy of a screenwriter who seems to think that taking time to establish characters and built relationships is overrated.

Just how much did I dislike this films? Oh, let me count the ways. This is a film which offers a semblance of sweetness in its opening moments only to abandon it seconds later in favor of showing nastiness in the guise of screwball comedy. This is a film that thinks that actors will be funny if they speak loudly and quickly, yet doesn’t put any thought into what the actors are actually saying. There are scenes featuring cockroaches and screaming women, police sergeants who sexually harass their subordinates, and a man making up threats against his life in order to deceive his wives. All of these scenes are intended to be humorous. Then there’s the almost obligatory scene from an eighties comedy - you know, the one in which the lead character pretends to be gay - and the almost obligatory overreaction by the person who sees him do so. Here, the witness seems to be trying to avoid throwing up, and as he departs, he yells at two unsuspecting individuals, “Don’t get AIDS!” Ah, the eighties.

Like a screwball film, The Diary of a Big Man is a film that doesn’t take a moment to breath. It is filmed like a Road Runner cartoon, all frenzied movement with no direction or purpose. Its female character are one-dimensional for most of the film, and then suddenly they’re engaging in actions that are so far removed from what they have done before that it’s unsettling. In one scene, the film seems to be attempting black comedy when Chow’s two lovely wives, previously thoughtful, caring, and devoted, are suddenly pretending to be drugged and arranging for their husband to be roughed up by thugs. The change is simply too sudden to be shocking and the execution too bland to be entertaining. I watched it in exasperation rather than exhilaration.

Calling the film a product of its time would be to let it off the hook, for even films that are dated can still be good films. It would also be an insult to films of its time. Instead, I would say that too much of the film just feels wrong – and wrong at any time in film history. For example, it breaks the fourth wall, but doesn’t know how to use the technique to enhance the story. Also, it seems to think speeding up the action will create comedy, ignoring the fact that speeding up a film only makes it look clunky and dated – just ask the Keystone Cops. And just for kicks, in the film’s final moments, it decides to let Islam in on the fun, proving, I suppose, that the film is an equal opportunity offender.

In the end, I gave up on the film. Oh, I finished it, of course, but I did so with an air of resignation. I simply did not believe that the film would get better or build to anything worth waiting around for. This is unlike me, for I believe even the worst films can have decent endings. However, at one point, Chow asks aloud, “When will this end?” and I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that I was asking the same question myself.

Now there are some people out there who will say that I missed the boat on this one, that all of the things I disliked about the film were not intended to be taken seriously. Essentially, they will be suggesting that I just didn’t get the humor. They may be right. However, I would add this caveat: I did laugh as I watched the film - once. I believe audiences deserve more. (on DVD)

2 stars

*The Diary of a Big Man is in Cantonese with English subtitles.