Beaks v. New DVDs – July 11, 2006

     July 12, 2006

Yi Yi

The fullness of Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (A One and a Two…), the completeness with which it depicts, through one extended family unit, the discontentment and malaise of middle age, the wide-eyed yearning of adolescence and the oblivious joy of early childhood is nothing less than miraculous. It’s so honest, and, yet, so enveloping in a relatively conventional manner that it’s a shock the movie never caught on with American audiences outside of the major media centers of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Though Yang’s previous work has – and, sadly, we can still use the present tense since he has yet to complete a follow-up to this six-year-old masterpiece – drawn comparisons to the stately work of Yasujiro Ozu, it’s got just as much in common with the sprawling family dramas of James L. Brooks in fact, Yang occasionally evinces a gag writer’s timing, particularly when setting up bits involving young shutterbug Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang). (The score, by Kaili Peng, is also as winsome as those by Michael Gore and Bill Conti.) Yang may be far more patient than most American directors, but he’s hardly as contemplative as his Taiwanese film industry comrades Tsai Ming-liang (brilliant) and Hou Hsiao-hsien (puzzling, possibly talented), which is why it’s strange that a more substantial distributor than the now-defunct WinStar couldn’t be bothered to give the massively accessible Yi Yi a wider rollout.

After all, the Taiwan portrayed in Yang’s film doesn’t look too different than any U.S. metropolis (it’s immense, glitzy, yet kind of dreary), while the behavior of its denizens should be entirely familiar to Americans regardless of where they live. Most importantly, the manner in which NJ (Wu Nisenjen) and his family react to the joys and misfortunes they encounter throughout the picture aren’t, for the most part, specific to the culture as they might be in an Ozu film. The professional discontentment and sedulously concealed regret (dredged up by a chance encounter with a childhood sweetheart) eating away at NJ is identifiable to anyone who’s ever worked a dead-end job or married poorly. Meanwhile, what young girl couldn’t understand the bad boy appeal of Fatty (Yupang Chang) to which NJ’s teenaged daughter, Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee), unexpectedly finds herself susceptible. The plot developments, with one jarring exception, aren’t surprising or “foreign” they’re universal. And they’re integrated seamlessly into a swiftly paced narrative that’s never once derailed by any self-indulgent digressions over the course of its 173 minute run time.

I hate to capsulize Yi Yi, because, after two viewings, I feel I’ve only begun to appreciate the precise construction of Yang’s triumph (which, by the way, is the only of the director’s seven features available on DVD in America). When something as innocent and offhandedly staged as a sequence in which gaggle of bullying little girls flick the back of Yang-Yang’s head as they pose for a wedding day picture figures prominently in setting up the film’s emotionally overwhelming payoff (itself a bit of a blindside), you know you’re in the hands of a master. For nearly three hours, Yang doesn’t waste a shot, a gesture, or a line of dialogue, and the number of directors capable of such exactitude don’t far exceed the sum total of the film’s title.

The Criterion Collection has done Yi Yi proud with a characteristically flawless picture and audio transfer. I must admit to not having had the chance to listen to the commentary with Yang and controversy courting Asian cinema critic Tony Rayns, which due to a lack of time and the knowledge that I’d be hopelessly stuck on the couch for three hours listening to the sucker if I started it. I hope, by this late date, you don’t require a flurry of meaningless superlatives to fire up a Criterion commentary. I did, however, enjoy Yang’s and Rayns’ video interview, as well as the perceptive Kent Jones essay in the accompanying twenty-page booklet (where you’ll also find some illuminating words from the director). Since Yi Yi will surely be one of this decade’s ten best films, it goes without saying that this is a must-buy.

And there may be a more comprehensive review on the way.
Road House

Road House 2

Some chucklehead writing as “Mr. Beaks” for Ain’t It Cool News recently explained Road House’s enduring appeal thusly:

“As Americans, it is our God-given right and occasional duty to drink copious pitchers of priced-to-guzzle beer and kick the living shit out of each other. In my estimation, you’re not a man until you’ve tasted your own blood and spilled someone else’s courtesy of your fists in a barroom brawl. And while this tradition is not specific to America per se, no other country does it with our chair-tossing, lip-splitting, airplane-spinning, and, in the case of Rowdy Herrington’s paean to pain, throat-ripping panache. Patrick Swayze’s Dalton (and I’m completely aware that I’ve concluded my list with back-to-back Swayze), the world’s greatest “cooler”, is intended to be the film’s civilizing influence, but no one makes a living as a bouncer – particularly those with a degree in philosophy from NYU – without enjoying a bracing set-to every now and then. I mean, Dalton’s “Be nice until it’s time to not be nice” credo is simply an acknowledgment that the action will inevitably haymaker his way before last call, and you’ll notice that, save for the regrettable throat-ripping episode, Dalton doesn’t exactly seem disappointed at having mixed it up a little. That’s because he’s a real red-blooded American and he likes throwing hands, which, aside from flash animation and decoupage, is what we do best.”

This wasn’t the first time I mused over the appeal of Road House, nor will it be the last so long as the duo of Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier yet live to contribute smug commentaries wherein they spectacularly fail to elucidate why so many seemingly educated film fans love what Vincent Canby, writing for The New York Times, derided upon its release as “a movie I’d rape if it were a woman – even if she were butt-ugly and handicapped”. (Before I get sued, let me be clear that I may be a tad off on that. He may not have specified a gender.) Early in the commentary, Smith proudly confesses that they’ve printed up numerous bios from the IMDb to help them sound more learned throughout the film, meaning they’re not the hard core fans they claim to be. Later on, I’m told (I shut the fucker off after ten minutes) they begin ripping off material from the Chuck Norris random fact generator – something a smart and capable comedy writer like Smith should know is fiercely frowned upon in his chosen field. Money well spent, Sony!

Not quite as egregious a waste of your time is the Jonathan Schaech vehicle, Road House 2, which is as low-rent and poorly scripted as you might expect, but still kinda fun if you like watching people beat each other up. Schaech plays Shane Tanner, spawn of the now-deceased Dalton and nephew to legendary cooler Nate Tanner, who raised him to be a proficient ass kicker like his old man. Shane is now a DEA agent busting narcotics rings using seedy New York City strip joints as cover, so it’s appropriate/ironic that his Uncle Nate gets roughed up by a nasty group of drug smugglers down south. These tough customers are led by the creatively monikered Wild Bill (Jake Busey), who’s looking to buy Nate’s conveniently located bar in order to run drugs in through its swampy backyard. When Nate catches wind of his uncle’s butt-whuppin’, he hightails it down to his hometown, where he meets a fuckable grade school teacher named Beau (Ellen Hollman) whom he later fucks. Though the narrative twists and turns like something that twists and turns, the real attraction here are the fights, of which there are several, and while they’re not terribly well-choreographed, they do the trick. And, hey, the filmmakers even up the ante by having the fuckable grade school teacher throw hands with some knife wielding broad whose name I can’t remember. And to think a few hundred words ago I was writing about Yi Yi.

Both films look and sound fine, but only Road House père contains substantive extras, the best being a brand new documentary featuring interviews with Herrington, Swayze and Kelly Lynch.

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