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Review by Trylon contract assassin Ben Schmidt

The Killer isn’t the only killer in The Killer. This ‘89 entry into John Woo’s filmography also features a tough cop who plays by his own rules, and a washed-up Triad who serves as the Killer’s mentor and friend. But as this story of regret, betrayal, and redemption unfolds, it quickly becomes clear why Chow-Yun Fat is so deserving of the titular role.

More on that in a moment. First, let’s shovel some plot:

The film begins in a church filled with many candles and many pigeons. The Killer waits here, enjoying the calmness and stillness, as his friend arrives with a job. Luckily, someone needs to be killed, so the Killer goes off to kill him.

We arrive at a nightclub. The Killer enters and makes his way past a young lady, a singer, towards the back of the club where bad guys and their henchmen are wont to reside. The Killer kills his way to his target, kills his target, then begins to kill his way out of the club. Ain’t no thang, until that young singer flees right into the line of fire.

That sucks because up until this point the Killer was doing a pretty super job. To his credit, Woo (who also wrote the script) doesn’t waste our time having characters monologue about how good the Killer is. We witness it. Head held back, pistol pointed down and away at a particular angle, Yun Fat’s Killer exudes an oddly precise physicality as he moves and turns and dives and fires through oodles of bad guys. In mere moments, we believe he’s the best. And it’s this performance, in the context of Woo’s direction, that keeps things engaging.

It’s during the last, tense moments of this literal shoot-out that the Killer errs, firing a pistol, point-blank, directly in front of the young woman’s face. This split second reaction leaves the two alive, but her corneas badly damaged. We later learn this injury will lead to permanent blindness if the young singer does not quickly receive an expensive operation.

This leaves our Killer racked with guilt. He begins to frequent the (other?) nightclub where she (Jennie) sings for a living. A thwarted mugging brings them closer. Soon the Killer is attempting to carry out one last hit in order to pay for her eye surgery; an attempt to make things right fuels the entire latter half of the film.

Through it all, it’s easy to focus only on all the stunts and gunnery on display in The Killer. They’re the makings of a reputation that’s always preceded John Woo. But to focus only on bullets is to ignore half of what’s so enjoyable about The Killer. The other half makes up the wondrous, weirder side of John Woo (a side that seems much rarer in his later work). Like the random freeze frames that occur throughout the film, often while two characters are just chatting away. Or the prune-colored, sniping-from-boat disguise perfectly complemented by a salt-and-pepper fake mustache. Or “Shrimp Head” and the face/off in Jennie’s apartment that manages to be both tense and ridiculous. Or poor, surprisingly-stabbed-not-shot-right-in-the-back guy.

Woo’s film ends up feeling like a musical in that it unfolds completely at the mercy of its own logic and rhythm. That being said, your ability to enjoy the screening largely relies on your willingness to relax and follow Woo’s lead.

For this is not a writer/director concerned with whether or not you agree that handsome, legendary Triad assassins should unwind with a combination of star-gazin’ and harmonica playin’. In this film they most certainly DO. And that’s as off-kilter as it is fantastic.

Much like The Killer itself. — Ben Schmidt

 

THE KILLER screens Monday and Tuesday, July 27 and 28 at 7:00 and 9:15.  Advance tickets are $8:00 and you can purchase them here.

 

 

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One one level, Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike is the baldest sort of early Soviet propaganda. The villains are cigar-chomping, top-hatted Capitalists who own a factory in Tsarist Russia, ca. 1903, men who laugh heartily over the money they make exploiting the workers. The factory owners’ despicable henchmen (who have nicknames like “The Fox” and “The Bulldog” and “The Owl” and who look just like the animals they’re named for) are factory stooges who spy on the workers. The police and the firefighters and the army are depicted as the misguided servants of the Capitalist regime, mindlessly attacking the men and women who are their most natural allies. And the workers themselves are uniformly noble and righteous and therefore a bit dull, with little to differentiate them.

But against all odds, Strike is a dynamic and fascinating film, brought to life by the young director’s ambition and his incandescent talent. This was Eisenstein’s first feature, and he runs with it as if this is not just his first film but his last, making every scene compelling and every shot memorable. On purely visual terms, this is the Run Lola Run of 1925, with Eisenstein using the motion picture camera as a bag of tricks that seems inexhaustible. He does everything he can think of, and we get the dizzying sense of what it must have been like to make movies in the very early days of film, when anything seemed possible and everything seemed worth trying: Eisenstein employs double exposures, arch angles, oddball wipes, process shots, POV’s, fourth-wall-breaking asides, even cross-cuts between literal and symbolic images of butchery to get his points across. He shoots into lights and into shadows, layers numerous images on top of each other to create remarkable tableaus, and uses the editing table as a montage-a-matic, presaging the tactics he would use later in his career.

Originally envisioned as the fifth in a series of eight films celebrating the rise of the Soviet Union called “Toward the Dictatorship of the Proletariat”, Strike was the only one that got made, but it’s just as well – this muscular, kinetic film makes perfect use of Eistenstein’s “collective protagonist” tactic and contains the sense of righteous, incendiary outrage that makes every good propaganda film work.

This silent classic is a must-see on the big screen, comrades, but as an added bonus all 7:00 screenings will feature live accompaniment by The Rats and People Motion Picture Orchestra MN. – Michael Popham

 

STRIKE screens Friday and Saturday, July 24 and 25 at 7:00 and 9:00, and Sunday, July 26 at 5:00 and 7:00. Advance tickets are $8.00 ($10.00 for live accompaniment shows) and you can purchase them here.

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Review by Trylon senior railroad bandit Thorn Chen

The outlaw Zhang Muzhi (played by the director, Jiang Wen) arrives in town, impersonating its mayor. In order to get his way, he has to oust the incumbent warlord, the villainous opium merchant and human trafficker Huang Siliang (Chow Yun-fat), who currently has the place on lockdown. In the middle there is Ma Bangde (Ge You), the real mayor, who was strong-armed by Zhang to surrender his title in a railway heist. It’s bandit versus bandit in a game of gunplay, deception, and theatrical posturing. As their plots against each other crescendo, it becomes clear that whoever better manipulates public opinion will decide the day.

The setting is 1920s China, a time of unrest. Warlords vie for control of land and influence. Bandits ride around on horseback, searching for fortune. Government officials follow, greedily chasing their share of the loot. Such is the mythos of Jiang Wen’s Let the Bullets Fly, a film that combines, with characteristic immoderation, the extravagant action sequences of a spaghetti Western with the plot of a theatrical intrigue. A good part of the film is dialogue driven, focusing on discussions of strategy and layered with sharp witticisms that are, unfortunately, mostly inaccessible to non-Chinese speaking viewers. The plots are then translated into fast paced and often-outlandish action, all taking place in a carefully crafted mise-en-scène that more closely resembles the set of a board game than a real life Chinese village. The board game effect is accentuated by the film’s turn-taking rhythm but contradicted by its absurdist imagery: a courtyard filled two feet deep with guns, a steam-powered railroad car that is nonetheless drawn by a pack of stallions (to take two examples). Lines like “let the bullets fly for a while,” delivered coolly by the swashbuckling Zhang, are pure statements of the film’s parodic brilliance. They show the utter groundlessness of the hero’s macho charisma, yet they encourage us to enjoy it nonetheless. This is the spaghetti Western tradition at its best.

The film is not simply a parodic Western intrigue set in China, however. Yes, there’s plenty of intrigue, action, and cool guy posturing, but also an equal amount of political commentary, literary criticism, and cultural navel-gazing. No doubt you’d have to watch it more than once, or twice, to get it all. When it came out in 2010, Let the Bullets Fly broke the box office record in China, taking full advantage of the rapid expansion of the Chinese film industry in lieu of the boom in domestic consumer spending. It did so by creating a multi-layered texture exploding with action, comedic moments, and barely hidden political commentary, deeply satisfying to intellectuals and the popular audience alike. Critics have speculated about the film’s other meanings: is it an allegory of Mao’s victory over the nationalists? Or is it a film lampooning the current corruption of the communist party? A statement on the character of the Chinese people? An indictment of the rush for riches in the wake of economic reform? The cool thing about Jiang Wen’s film is that it is available to all these interpretations at the same time. This is one of those cases where the director tries to satisfy everyone at once, and succeeds. — Thorn Chen

 

LET THE BULLETS FLY screens Monday and Tuesday, July 20 and 21 at 7:00 and 9:30 at the Trylon. Advance tickets are $8.00, and you can purchase them here.

 

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Review by Trylon volunteer Maria Gomez

Lush green backgrounds, descending waterfalls, and robust mountains provide the backdrop for Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The film stars Chow-Yun Fat in his first martial arts film as Li Mu Bai and Michelle Yeoh as Yu Shu Lien. Long time respected friends, together they must take on the challenge of attempting to avenge past wrongs, guide Jen Yu, (Ziyi Zhang) onto the righteous path, and still have time to declare their long-held feelings of love for one another. This is not an easy task with an enemy lurking around every corner.

The film begins in 1778 China with Li Mu Bai returning from a long journey declaring to Yu Shu Lien that he has plans to retire from his warrior lifestyle but before he does, he wants to give his coveted Green Destiny sword to a dear friend as a gift. Jen Yu discovers the sword and although she exhibits all the skill that is demanded of a powerful warrior, as woman she feels that she is held down by societal constraints and decides to revolt to seek out her own destiny. In her own battle within herself, Jen Yu soon discovers that her desire to be a powerful warrior becomes her greatest enemy.

In a kind of Chinese fairytale, through detailed character development, an ethereal musical score, and a backdrop of breathtaking scenery in this stunning film, we watch a beautifully told story unfold. Director Ang Lee has long had a tendency to emphasize the inner strength in his female leads and Crouching Tiger is no exception. In this film, his strong female characters are superbly coupled in contrast with the subtle hints of the social norms in late 18th century China. Yu Shu Lien is a woman who highly regards respect for her elders and teachers, honor as a warrior, and the rules of being a warrior while also trying to be true to herself as a woman. She knows her place but there is something that keeps her from declaring her true feelings for Li Mu Bai. She remains calm, controlled, and clear-headed throughout the film until the moment when her faith is challenged and she finally reaches the point when she feels that her heart can take no more.

The intensity of the love stories that Lee presents are done so with such delicacy and tenderness, that you can’t help but fall in love with these stories and how they illustrate how beautifully flawed these characters are. There exists a sense of duty, honor, and pride in both stories that prevents these characters from truly allowing themselves to be given over to love. The inner conflict that each character undergoes fuels the story just as intently as the martial arts scenes do and there is no denying the impact it has on the audience. You feel for the characters even if you do not agree with their motivation. You even find yourself having sympathy for the film’s antagonist Jade Fox, a woman who has only ever tried to become a strong warrior, an able master, and worthy opponent but all the while having the most arrogant of intentions. She never really possesses respect for the knowledge of her elders or fellow warriors and in the end, this lack of respect seals her fate.

Many of the fight scenes are perfected with a score by Dun Tan, who was reported to have completed the project for the entire film in two weeks time. If you listen closely, you can hear the flutes actually weeping during the swift poetic dances between Zhang and Chow-Yun Fat. It is something quite extraordinary to behold as they deftly dance over giant bamboo stalks and through tall blades of grass, sternly glaring at one another as they fight. The additional fight scenes between Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang are encapsulated in movie history forever as some of the most well-choreographed in cinema history. Having no formal martial arts training, Ziyi Zhang used her dancing skills to make many of the fight scenes flow naturally.

Spoken completely in Mandarin dialogue with English subtitles, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is filled with beautiful landscapes, weightless dream-like fencing sequences, enchanting love stories, and immaculately choreographed combat scenes that will carry you off into a two-hour journey you will not soon forget. –Maria Gomez

CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON screens Monday and Tuesday, July 13 and 14 at 7:00 and 9:30 at the Trylon. Advance tickets are $8.00, and you can purchase them here.

 

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In Walter Hill’s stylized and slightly surreal cult hit The Warriors, the street gangs of New York dress in matching theme outfits, as though they are all British pop groups from the 1960s. There are the Baseball Furies (heavy face paint and pinstriped uniforms); the High-Hats (mimes, basically); the Lizzies (a tastefully trashy biker chick vibe), and the relatively tweedy Warriors themselves, who rock matching sleeveless maroon leather vests.

There are hundreds of equally colorful gangs in the city, and one night each gang is invited to send nine delegates to a special conclave being held in the Bronx. It turns out that the charismatic Cyrus, leader of the highly respected Gramercy Riffs (matching leather jackets, sunglasses, bling) wants to propose an unprecedented alliance. All the city’s gangs combined, Cyrus argues, would number in the tens of thousands; they could evict the police and rule New York City.

This enticing idea seems, for a moment, as though it will unify New York’s gang culture (the assembled delegates seem to be digging it, anyway), but tragedy strikes: Cyrus is assassinated mid-speech, and in the confusion, the Warriors are wrongly accused to committing the crime. Now being hunted by 60,000 enemies, the gang must fight its way back to the safety of its home turf of Coney Island.

Based on Sol Yurick’s 1965 novel, The Warriors takes a simple premise and propels it forward with admirable speed and efficiency. While many directors would choose to make a movie of this kind look gritty and rough around the edges, Hill goes in another direction, creating a sleek dystopian New York that seems eerily depopulated, its deserted streets glistening; only the gangs seem to venture out after dark, tuning into the radio station that delivers coded messages read by Lynn Thigpen in a series of extreme close-ups (Thigpen, incongruously, also plays The Eagles).

It seems strange today that the movie generated so much controversy upon its release; there was a good deal of worry that it would incite gang violence. And in fact there were some violent incidents between rival gangs that happened to show up at the same theater to see it, causing the movie’s theatrical run to be cut short. But those concerns were clearly rooted in the anxieties of Carter-era America, not in anything you see on-screen. Because the gangs in The Warriors aren’t much tougher than the ones we saw in West Side Story, though they tend to be, on the whole, snappier dressers.

The Warriors is a lot more fun than West Side Story, though, and as a movie it works a lot better than Hill’s even more stylized retro-future fantasy Streets of Fire (1984) — Michael Popham

THE WARRIORS screens Friday and Saturday, July 10 and 11, at 7:00 and 9:00, and Sunday, July 12 at 5:00 and 7:00.  There will also be a special 10:00 am screening on Saturday, July 11 with a book club discussion of Sol Yurick’s novel The Warriors to follow at Moon Palace Books around the corner. Advance tickets are $8.00. and you can purchase them here.