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Saturday, May 31, 2008

To the typical narrow-minded Westerner, martial arts mean one thing and one thing only - lots of mindless violence choreographed in a sensationally surreal manner. We want to see butts kicked, heads roll, and any other variation on said slam bang theme. Some understand the philosophy behind the fisticuffs, recognizing the second half of the nomenclature categorization for the supreme mental and physical skill it is. Others just want to see stuff hurt. In their latest releases as part of the exceptional Dragon Dynasty Collection, Genius Products and the Weinstein Company dig deep into the seminal Shaw Brothers vaults to bring out two terrific titles. One will satisfy the audience’s bloodlust. The other will provide a more pragmatic, respectable approach.

On the honor side of the issue rests Heroes of the East (1979). A wonderful starring vehicle for Gordon Liu, the famed 36th Chamber of the Shaolin icon, this fast paced free for all is actually two very distinct films in one. The first follows Ah To, our immature lead, as he faces an arranged marriage. After seeing that Kung Zi, his soon to be wife is not the Japanese kid “with the runny nose” that he used to know, he leaps into the wedding with wide-eyed optimism. The minute he learns his spouse is a seasoned martial artist, practicing several differing styles, their relationship starts to deteriorate. Eventually, their battles send Kung Zi back to Japan, and into the arms of her former teacher. Demanding a challenge, the greatest fighters of the island nation head to China. There, they prepare to take on Ah To to prove, once and for all, whose kung fu is the best.

This makes for a very unusual experience. On the one hand, the war between Ah To and Kung Zi is like a battle of the sexes set inside a weird proto-wuxia world. Clearly meant as a comment on the paternalistic nature of society and the pig-headed way men treat women, Kung Zi’s strength doesn’t lie in her skill set - it comes from her determination. She refuses to back down, even when propriety and social status would suggest otherwise. That this turns into a life or death struggle between her teachers and her husband reflects the importance of respect and tradition within Asia. The only reason Ah To confronts his wife is to command the tribute he thinks he deserves. The only reason Kung Zi allows her instructors to stand for her is that, as an insulted spouse, she requires defending. This leads to the second half of the film, a fascinating overview of various martial arts styles.

Director Lau Kar-leung, who helmed 36th Chamber, has a spectacular way with action. His editing only intensifies the already intricate choreography, and he manages to build drama and suspense within every carefully controlled composition. The differing aspects of each fight - two are merely brute force beat downs combined with wits while the rest involve differing instruments/weapons of destruction - means that the premise never grows tired. We even get a side sequence where Ah To visits a local drunken master (Kar-leung in a classic cameo) to get a handle on this more restrained talent. Naturally, the last contest between our hero and noted ninjitsu Takeno (a wonderfully intense Yasuaki Kurata) is epic, taking place in the lush Hong Kong countryside and making use of everything from jagged cliffs to local streams.

Purists, who believe martial arts are marginalized by the reliance on blood and vengeance, will adore Heroes of the East. It allows for the exquisite sanctity of each craft to be preserved while awarding the viewer with brilliant balletic action. To this end, Dragon Dynasty’s new DVD release should really satisfy said fanbase. The image offered is excellent, colorful and clean while preserving that famous “Shaw Scope” aspect ratio. Similarly, the label’s main Hong Kong cinema expert, Bey Logan, is back with another insightful and detailed commentary. Add in a tribute to Kar-leung, an interview with the always interesting Gordon Liu, and a breakdown of the differences between Japanese and Chinese fighting styles, and you have a wonderful set of supplements to an equally engaging film.

Come Drink With Me (1966), on the other hand, returns us to the classic criminals and wanton warlords of the genre’s best - and bloodiest - efforts. After a particularly gruesome ambush, the son of the local governor is kidnapped by a band of ruthless thugs. They want to work out a trade - their equally vile leader for this royal relative…and they won’t take “No” for an answer. Instead of talks, the mercenary Golden Swallow (a luminous Cheng Pei-Pei) shows up to negotiate a release. But these criminals are in no mood to bargain. Instead, they threaten our heroine. With the help of local goofball Drunken Cat, she learns the vulnerabilities of the clan, and strategizes a way to break into their temple hideout and free the captive.

Drenched in ample arterial spray and stylized to the point of poetry, Come Drink with Me is often pointed to as the inspiration for Ang Lee’s contemporary classic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. While many of the stunt setpieces are the same - a rooftop chase, a barroom brawl, the use of certain weaponry - this 1966 showcase is far more grounded. We aren’t dealing with myths and legends here. Instead, celebrated director King Hu keeps us firmly set within the fertile feudal terrain of lawlessness and frontier justice. Golden Swallow is really nothing more than your standard Clint Eastwood knock-off, a lone vigilante working out her own form of judge, jury, and executioner amongst the populace of China’s countryside. She may be able to fly like an eagle, but she’s all human…and all killer.

No, where the film finds its flights of fancy is in the character of Drunken Cat. Played with expert aplomb by Yueh Huo, he’s the kind of teacher who sits by a waterfall and forces the current to curve with only the power of his own will. He sings songs with lyrics that just so happen to be the directions to the bad guy’s hide out. He’s labeled a renegade and rogue, but his actions have the justification of right vs. wrong, honor vs. greed and disobedience. Every time he is onscreen, Drunken Cat leaves the viewer exhausted. He is conniving and convincing, wooing the ladies, swigging down wine, and working with abandoned orphans. He may sound too good to be true, and indeed, director Hu seems to steal some of Swallow’s story to give this amazing messianic figure more screen time. Along with the geisha faced villain in the piece, who seems lifted out of a much more contemporary film, Come Drink with Me is as much of its time as it is timeless.

For this DVD version, Dragon Dynasty continues with its perfected preservationist bent. Shaw Scope is once again expertly handled, and the digital packaging provides a wealth of extras. Most exciting is the chance to hear Cheng Pei-Pei reflect on this film. She is present for both the commentary with Logan and a solo interview. Both features are fabulous. So is the Yeuh Ho Q&A. He goes into great detail about his training, his interpretation of the character, and where the drunken master comes from in martial arts lore. As with all the releases by this label, the end result is something very special indeed. It’s the kind of contextual complement that really aids in our appreciation of these genre classics.

Of course, both films will still cause quite a conundrum among the typically bifurcated fanbase of the Hong Kong action film. On the one hand, Heroes of the East is pure skill, nothing but create kung fu executed by seminal big screen masters. Come Drink with Me, however, has vile hoodlums hacking away at little children, torrents of blood gushing up into their face as they destroy another life. One movie celebrates the discipline within the practice. The other centers squarely on death. If you can handle both dynamics, you are in for a very rare treat indeed. As with many of the movies featured by Dragon Dynasty, and the work of the Shaws, Heroes of the East/Come Drink with Me is a potent, masterful combination.

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Friday, May 30, 2008
Armageddon in Retrospectby Kurt VonnegutPenguinApril 2008, 240 pages, $24.95

Armageddon in Retrospect
by Kurt Vonnegut
April 2008, 240 pages, $24.95

And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was a friend of mine. Not that I ever met him, but he was a friend of mine all the same, because he did for me what friends do. He got me through rough patches of my life with his absurd humor and simple decency. When no one else’s words seemed to offer me anything, his were always there. Reading Vonnegut, I could always hear a voice, feel a human presence beyond mere style, beyond glib wordplay. Kurt Vonnegut was my friend, and your friend too.

Armageddon in Retrospect (Penguin USA, 2008) is a new collection of previously unpublished works by Vonnegut on the one-year anniversary of his death, and while it’s not exactly the treasure-trove his fans might have hoped for, this assortment of essays and short stories on the theme of war is still Vonnegut, and even the least of his works contain amazing stuff.

War was always a preoccupation for Vonnegut, its horrors and pointlessness and capacity to make otherwise rational people behave in nonsensical ways, and these elements are doled out in full and equal measure in this collection. Of particular interest to Vonnegut, and a running theme throughout most of his work, is the issue of capitulation—to what degree do we allow ourselves to be parties to war by doing nothing? In one story Vonnegut envisions a future without conflict, a condition so anathemic to the human condition that time-travel technology is used in order to seek it out. In another, an old couple in a Czechoslovakia freed from Communist rule finds themselves equally persecuted by an American occupying force for not having risen up against the last regime. A family man in Norman England has to choose between a cushy berth as his feudal lord’s tax collector and the example he must set for his son, despite his nattering wife’s excitement over better living through the scraps from the Normans’ table.

The defining moment in Vonnegut’s life was witnessing the firebombing of Dresden, Germany as a POW, an experience he attempted to write out through his seminal novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1965), but which provides fodder for several of the stories here. Unlike many posthumous collections, this one doesn’t quite have the feel of the author’s heirs plundering the bottom of a discard trunk, though the absence of any dates assigned to these stories does make one wonder just how long Vonnegut, a shameless anthologizer of his own work, allowed these to gather dust and why. Still, the collection is worth reading for the stories, the inclusion of Vonnegut’s final piece of writing, an address he was about to give at Indiana University when he had the accident that took his life, and son Mark Vonnegut’s eloquent and apt tribute to his father’s life and work. Vonnegut’s best? No. But in a world made the worse for losing Kurt Vonnegut’s voice and spirit, we’ll take what we can get. After all, he was our friend.

Originally published 14 May 2008 at Flagpole.

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Friday, May 30, 2008
Fans can’t be faulted for nostalgia, which begs the unanswerable question: if the gory backstage drama had not pushed them apart, could Veruca Salt have continued to make it work?

Not sure if any band quite captures the waiting-to-exhale extended moment of semi-innocence that was the mid-90s (you know, the post-grunge, post-Reagan/Bush, pre-9/11, pre Bush/Cheney era when casual Fridays were infiltrating offices everywhere and music—as always, for better or worse—reflected the times in a sort of holding pattern that mixed ennui with an always unfashionable optimism) than Veruca Salt.

To recap: what was the appeal of this band? Irresistible melodies? Check. Smoking hot, sexy singers (who also played better than passable guitar)? Check. Utterly ingenious band name? Check. Glorious debut album title? Big check. Most folks recall “Seether”, as well they should; it was their big hit and a truly infectious piece of pop perfection. But as anyone who did—and still does—worship at the altar of American Thighs, it needn’t be belabored that Veruca Salt was most assuredly not a one-hit wonder. Among the better moments, “Forsythia”, “Number One Blind” and especially the almost-too-good-to-be-true “All Hail Me” (how about another shout out to the days when music videos were actually capable of being almost as great as the songs that inspired them?). All in all,  pretty ideal fodder for a one-and-done minor masterpiece.

But the dream was not dead, yet. A tide-us-over EP, Blow It out Your Ass It’s Veruca Salt, featuring the delectable “Shimmer Like a Girl”, found Veruca Salt poised for real superstardom—for whatever that’s worth. Their shot at glory came in ’97 with the (once again, brilliantly titled) Eight Arms To Hold You (incidentally, the working title of the Beatles’ album Help!), which had the addictive single “Volcano Girls”. The rest of the album wasn’t terribly shabby, either, but, it seemed (unfairly? impossibly?) their moment had already passed. And so, while the album didn’t do badly, it didn’t quite put them over.

What happened next is truly difficult to believe, particularly if you saw the doe-eyed adoration Louise Post and Nina Gordon obviously had for one another—as late as ’97 during interviews (check out youtube): a combination of bad blood, ambition, stolen boyfriends and terrible timing resulted in best friends on the wrong side of that thin line between love and hate, not to mention rock and roll cliché. Gordon set off on her own and in the summer of 2000 released Tonight and the Rest of My Life, while Post pulled a David Gilmour and retained the brand name. Almost simultaneously, the “new” Veruca Salt put out Resolver (another Beatles reference and another incredibly inspired album title, particularly considering the content within).

The results, predictably, separated fans into two camps: those who thought Tonight and the Rest of My Life successfully proved that Nina Gordon was the true talent in Veruca Salt, and those who felt that she sold out. Conversely, there were fans who insisted that the new albums made it clear that Post was the soul of the band and the one who rocked. Even in 2000, it was immediately obvious to me which album was superior (Resolver, by far)—Post picked up the banner and crawled with it. Time has been less kind to Gordon’s overly polished, ultimately safe and brazenly ambitious (not in the good sense of the word) project, while despite—or because of—the considerable warts and rough edges of Resolver, it retains an immediacy, daring, and furious venom that eight years has scarcely cooled off.

Tagged as: veruca salt
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Friday, May 30, 2008

I have to say that this has been one of those weeks where I fantasize about having enough money to wall myself away from the world and do drugs and desserts until I die.  So today, I was trying to remember something/someone music-related that made me laugh when I recalled this interview with O.D.B. on MTV where he pulled up to the welfare office in a limo to pick up his check.  I’m not going to parse out the man’s ethics late on a Friday when I’m counting the seconds until my first Mexican Martini.  But he was a hilariously interesting character, both for having more aliases than a C.I.A. passport and in his fairly adamant refusal of most social graces.  His lyrical abilities had a miraculous Wesley Willis quality about them, somehow managing to penetrate our reality from a galaxy far far a way and usually delivered like a gravel mouthed old dude yelling from a cracked cellar door.  And just to make myself smile that much wider I absolutely had to dig up my favorite Dirt McGirt couplet:

“You can call me dirty, and then lift up your skirt
And you want some of this dirty, god made dirt and dirt bust yo ass”

How did this work?  The lyrical rhythm is pausing and parenthical (oh yeah, and dirty bust yo ass, son), but it still sounds amazingly stammered out.  A great man has been taken from us while my list of ungreat ones that should go in their stead remains ignored.  I guess God needs all the good people to work in the Angel mines.

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

We’re two months in, and yet the Summer season continues on. For 30 May, here are the films in focus:

Son of Rambow [rating: 7]

Wistful and a little wonky, playfully recreating a fanciful early ‘80s UK summer, Son of Rambow definitely feels like someone’s personal experiences reinterpreted for public consumption.

It’s clear that, if music provides the soundtrack to our lives, movies make up the mental scrapbook. While we are a far more aural than visual race, we do tend to take certain films at face value. We’ll shiver at the thought of a shower after Psycho, or become the wariest of beach goers after Spielberg bares his Jaws. Yet we don’t typically take the actual image with us. Instead, a motion picture is filed away as a feeling in our cultural cabinet, lovingly recalled whenever a similar scene or sequence pops up. For the young boys of a small English town, Sylvester Stallone’s unhinged Vietnam vet with a personal vendetta and a wondrous way with weaponry becomes a symbol of their social coming of age. The reverence and need for a remake forms the basis for Son of Rambow, an effervescent look back at one director’s post-punk full review…

The Strangers [rating: 4]

The Strangers is a deadly dull experience in boredom, strangled by two cinematic stumbling blocks - one external and one of its own unfortunate making.

The art of suspense is dead, or at the very least, dying. Few in post-modern filmmaking know how to establish dread without drowning it in gore or just boring us to death. Part of the reason lies in how cinematically complex the basic bloodless thriller must be. It has to work on the psychological, as well as the physiological and pragmatic levels. As Hitchcock accurately stated, the viewer must be invariably linked to the fate of characters they just met, and may know more than. It’s all a matter of timing and talent. Tossing grue at the screen is as easy as opening up a can of red paint. Getting audiences to grip the edge of their seats stands as a rare motion picture accomplishment.  read full review…

Other Releases—In Brief

Sex and the City: The Movie [rating: 4]

For fans of the long running HBO rom-comedy, a Sex and the City movie seemed like a no brainer. Leave it to salary disputes to make the inevitable suddenly span four long years. In that time, it’s clear that nothing new has been invested toward this Cinderella on stilettos nightmare, a collection of irredeemable behaviors masked as post-modern feministic fizz. For this unnecessary revisit, Carrie gets engaged to her BFF as ATM, Mr. Big, Miranda systematically alienates and then disowns her unfaithful spouse, Samantha screws and shops, and Charlotte blandly plays the perfect mommy. It’s all so contemporary…so couture…so calculated. Like a greatest hits package without a single hummable tune, this drawn out, dystopic fairytale hits on every facet of the series the fanbase demands without offering the uninitiated a single reason to care. The fashion porn the demographic digs feels equally unexceptional, the same old labels being flaunted as fabulous when they’re really yesterday’s Elsa Klench feature. This is a comedy with permanent PMS - it’s bloated, moody, and purely a ‘gal thang’. Men - and true film fans - are not welcome, and frankly, both groups should take that as a blessing.

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