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Contemplate the number for a moment…$8 million. One Sixtieth of what The Dark Knight has made so far this Summer. One tenth of the average budget for a mainstream movie. The salary some undeserving TV actor is earning to make the unnecessary (and unwarranted) jump to the big screen. Yet that is exactly how much money the first film of the Fall Season, the clumsy crime thriller Bangkok Dangerous took in over the three day weekend ending 7 September. Averaging less than $3 million a day, this certified flop argues for the end of America’s fascination with all things Asian - at least from a cinematic standpoint. With J-Horror remakes regularly tanking and Eastern filmmakers having a hard time connecting with blasé Western audiences, this latest blow may not be a true death knell, but it sure feels like it.

Now no one was expecting a runaway blockbuster. After all, the talent involved suggested a minor cult hit at best. And when you think about it, the revamped storyline robbed the original movie of its substance and meaning. For those who didn’t see it (and there’s a whole helluva lotta you out there), Nicolas Cage stars as Joe, a hitman whose having a sudden crisis of conscience. Sick of his solitary life as a killer for hire, he decides to take on a protégé, and befriend a deaf pharmacy clerk while on his last job in the title city. Naturally, nothing works out for the murderer for money, each of this marks becoming more and more difficult to ‘execute’. In the end, Joe decides to take out the mobster who contracted him, even if it means losing everything he has - his student, his lover, and his life.

With its anemic action scenes - poorly staged and awkwardly edited - and its lack of deliberate depth, it would be easy to dismiss this box office bomb as the typical Tinsel Town tainting of a once viable motion picture product. But what does it say about creators Danny and Oxide Pang that they are the one’s responsible for this regressive redux? Sure, there is plenty of blame to go around, but unlike the ripples that occur after a movie turns into a monetary monster, a failure has its own unusual way of cherry picking out the parties responsible. So as we did with Iron Man and The Dark Knight before, SE&L will venture a guess as to how Bangkok Dangerous’ business model embarrassment will play out among everyone involved. As you will see, there are some who don’t have to worry. Others, obviously, are on the last few minutes of their already borrowed time.

The Studio


Lionsgate


Long considered the company of last resort for any lame, unwatchable horror hack job floating around the direct to DVD universe, new company president Joe Drake has announced that he’s moving the production paradigm away from money draining mediocre macabre and back into more PG-13 oriented mainstream product. With an infusion of cash, and a claim to some of the more intriguing titles this Fall, it appears that Drake is a man of his word. Of course, when the repercussions arrive from Bangkok‘s failure, the fallout should be minimal at best. After all, Drake can merely blame the man he replaced - ex-studio guide Peter Block. It was his bumbling baby after all. 

The Source


The 1999 Original


As their first foray into feature filmmaking, the brothers truly delivered a naïve tour de force, a movie that makes no bones about its unabashed sentimentality (in the original, our amiable antihero was the deaf one) or love of violence. Some have suggested that it’s just as slow and overly mannered as the Tinsel Town makeover, but the language difference alone helps compensate for such artistic underachieving. When the dust final settles from this fiasco, the original version will end up heralded as some kind of cult classic. It neither deserves nor demands such superlatives. Instead, it’s just a decent debut, nothing more.

The Writer


Jason Richman


Poised to take one part of the bi-furcated blame for this unqualified disaster, our Southern California scribe has very little legitimacy to stand on. After all, his other Summer film, the equally uneventful Swing Vote, also came up short when coffer counts were mounted. Yet if there is one main lesson to learn from Bangkok Dangerous’ shortcomings, it’s that screenplays rarely take the full brunt of any responsibility. That’s because of all the pieces in a multimillion dollar production, the scribe is the least considered - and that stinks come post-success praise. But it definitely helps once pink slips start arriving.

The Directors


The Pang Brothers


Okay - here is the true ground zero for this cinematic stink bomb. The Pangs may have been heavily touted talents for their endless Eye movies (as well as Bangkok‘s inspiration), but Hollywood functions under a “what have you done for me lately…as in yesterday” mentality, and the boys’ miserable track record speaks for itself. The Jessica Alba version of the blind babe ghost story came up short, and the Pangs own attempt at a haunting mainstream horror movie - the equally ineffectual The Messengers - suggested a certain flash in the pan status. Of course, there are a couple of Pang productions unseen by Western eyes (2007’s Forest of Death, 2008’s In Love with the Dead and Missing) that may moderate such a cold classification. But one thing’s for sure - don’t be looking for Danny or Oxide to take on any future high profile projects. They’ve more than used up their commercial cache in La-La land.

The Star


Nicolas Cage


There is no need to worry about Cage being unable to find work. Reports have him linked to no less than nine new or currently in development projects - and that’s not counting a proposed Ghost Rider sequel sometime in the near future. And more than a few of his upcoming efforts - Alex Proyas’ Knowing, Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and Roman Polanski’s The Ghost - sound absolutely incredible. Apparently even with junk like Next, The Wicker Man, and the National Treasure films as part of your recent resume, a single Oscar and a quirky onscreen persona can still get you some sensational scripts. It will be interesting to see how long his losing streak can last before the studios start pulling the (hair) plugs.

The Franchise


The Hitman Movie


While the ending does leave an opening for a sequel, it’s hard to see how anyone could greenlight a return to this already overdone material. Part of Bangkok Dangerous’ problem - at least in this American revisit - is how redundant and formulaic it feels. John Woo at least offered a little motion picture panache when he served up his take on the typical gangster gunplay stereotypes. The Pangs simply desaturate the colors and consider it a stroke of aesthetic genius. Frankly, journeyman jokes like Brett Ratner and Tim Story have created more compelling action scenes, and with the exception of this Summer’s sensational Wanted, the professional killer genre is more or less terminal. Again, Bangkok Dangerous won’t necessarily kill it, but this body blow will be hard to overcome.

In the world of innocuous comparisons, Jet Li will always be Gene Kelly to Jackie Chan’s Fred Astaire. The latter used his grace and tireless technique to add uniquely comic flare and characterization to his martial arts moves. The former, equally adept and expert, took a far more physical and staunch approach. Together with the late great Bruce Lee, they have done more for the Hong Kong action film than a production company filled with Shaw Brothers. Yet thanks to our previous narrow minded focus on our own interpretation of the genre, few US fans got to see these icons in their prime. Genius Products and The Weinstein Company, via their definitive Dragon Dynasty imprint, has been hoping to change all that. With their 31st (!) release, we get Li proving why he is one of the greatest movie stars ever. In this fantastic film, his truly is the Fist of Legend.

While studying in Japan, Chen Zhen learns that the master of his kung fu school has died during a challenge. Vowing to help rebuild its failing reputation, he leaves behind his gal pal Mitsuko and returns to Shanghai. It’s the mid-‘30s and the entire country is currently under Japanese invasion. Upon arriving, Zhen finds his fellow students defeated and depressed. Even worse, the new headmaster, Hou Ting-An, is failing to fulfill his late father’s mandates. Zhen takes on and defeats the Japanese sponsored training temple, raising the ire of General Fujita. He frames the Zhen for murder. Luckily, Mitsuko steps in to save the day. Prejudice against such interracial match-ups lead our hero and his fiancé to live in a cabin in the wilderness. As Ting-An tries to escape his responsibilities via a local prostitute, it will be up to Zhen to save the face of his former master and his great school once and for all.

It goes without saying that Fist of Legend is some manner of masterpiece. It features Li in one of his most compelling and iconic roles (it’s an update of the famous Bruce Lee film Fists of Fury/The Chinese Connection from 1972) and shows why director Gordon Chan is considered a modern Hong Kong king. Utilizing all the standard storyline manipulations, from loss of dignity to a last act fight to the death, Legend lives up to its mythic title by taking these elements and molding them into something electrifying and emotional. The entire experience is as spellbinding as it is brilliantly bad-ass. Li has always been a wonderful fighter, and in this film he shows off every skill in his capacity. There is even a clever bit where he uses Western boxing techniques to throw his mystified opponent off guard. It’s yet another testament to the skilled stuntwork of the equally celebrated action God Woo-ping Yuen. His repute needs no further finesse. 

But there is more to this movie than kicks and counterattacks. The main theme running through Fist of Legend is the unflinching hatred between the invading Japanese and the victimized Chinese. The prejudice is so deep that when Li’s former female classmate Mitsuko shows up to offer her (false) testimony in Chen’s defense, she is rewarded with some unsettling, uncalled for bigotry. As one of the characters says later on in the film, everyone will accept the young headmaster’s whore mistress from the local brothel, but the woman who saved their true hero’s life gets relegated to an existence in exile. Not all the Japanese are evil, however. Fist does try to moderate the intolerance. During these scenes, Li’s subtler side shows through. Though he understands the anger and animosity, he chooses to see beyond the small-mindedness and social stigmas.

In fact, it’s hard to differentiate which is more powerful - the anti-Japanese sentiment (understandable considering the countries’ shared history) or the battles. Each grabs a hold of our attention and provides various levels of intrigue. Film historian Bey Logan, a fixture of these DVD presentations, states in the accompanying commentary that some of this kowtowing was clearly meant for Hong Kong audiences. Certain scenes got crowds up on their feet and cheering, especially toward the end where Li seems to singlehandedly push the invaders back to their tiny island nation with a single unselfish act. Logan also explains that the original Bruce Lee movie was so well loved that Li and Chan were concerned about adapting it. The more political approach soothed their understandable hesitance. As we watch this remarkable movie, we see that much of this narrative is layered in the art of populist myth making - both plotwise and for movie marketing. It certainly has a star capable of carrying such a stance.

As they do with almost all their releases, Dragon Dynasty delivers a content dense two disc package that should make purists proud while giving newcomers the context they need to simply enjoy. There are interviews with director Chan, kung fu “impresario” Chin Siu-ho, Japanese action hero Kurata Yasuaki (who plays the charismatic master of the competing school), and a sit down with American director Brett Ratner and critic Elvis Mitchell regarding the film. Toss in some deleted scenes (always fun, considering the source), a screen fighting seminar at the Kuratra Action School, and a trailer gallery, and we have an excellent set of supplements that provide explanations as well as added entertainment value.

Yet even it pales in comparison to the rousing experience of seeing Fist of Legend for the first time. There is no greater joy for a film fan than learning the ‘when and where’ of how their favored hero earned their earmarked reputation. Here, Li is nothing short of human electricity, lighting up every scene he is in and sending high voltage shock waves through the entire narrative. From the powerful punches that force opponents across the room, to the sadder sequences where Chen mourns his fallen master, Fist of Legend overloads the screen with heart pounding - and breaking - radiance. It is perhaps one of the best martial arts movies ever - and just like the classic Hollywood hoofer he’s comparable to, Li does it all with athleticism, power, and an undeniable individual elegance. He truly is something superhuman.

I was wondering just that when I was watching this wonderful video of Herbert von Karajan conducting Beethoven’s famous Fifth Symphony from 1966.  It’s not just Karajan’s intensity much less the intensity of the orchestra that makes this a great video but also the way that the orchestra and Karajan are shot, especially the close-up’s of the string and horn sections at various points. 

Unfortunately, there’s nothing from the YouTube posting to tell us any information about the director much less which orchestra we’re watching.  Through a little online detective work, I was able to track down the full version of the video at Google.  There we learn that we’re watching the Berlin Philharmonic and the person who captured all of this is none other than director Henri-Georges Clouzot, who has given the world the classic film Wages of Fear (later remade as Sorcerer) some thirteen years before this performance.  The Google video entry doesn’t even note this though- we only know it because that info happens to be included at the beginning of the full-length video.

So what about the dozens or 100’s (or thousands) of other videos that we’ve watched and enjoyed at YouTube?  Depending on who’s uploading the video, the information can be pretty spotty, usually just a short description of what we’re watching.  The professionals or amateurs who actually make the videos are usually unknown and that’s pretty sad.  We love these videos not just for the characters and action in them but how it’s all staged.  Even when it’s just some spontaneous, unscripted action, someone was still there with a camera to capture it and they ought to get some credit and glory out of it. 

Don’t get me wrong- it’s great to have this treasure trove of videos available, especially for free, but the people behind these mini-masterpieces deserve some recognition.

To be honest, I still have doubts about Metallica’s upcoming Death Magnetic. Yes, I’m waiting patiently to pull the wrapper off and reveal my middle school years within the grooves of a beautiful piece of wax. I want so badly, as I’m sure the remains of the fans that stuck with Metallica do as well (those that are still wrapped up in Napster need not comment), to make this record the soundtrack to everything mundane in my existence. Didn’t we all pull out Kill Em’ All and Ride the Lightning and pretended we ruled the world for an hour of mayhem?

If not, you never understood Metallica and the nostalgia and power their significant recordings (which is debatable, I’ll let you pick) meant to people. But, as we can see, from the likes of “The Day That Never Comes”, we are prepared for a revival. But in order for this revival to take place, one must have faith in Metallica. Frankly, I’ve heard countless examples across the Net of people doing nothing but “expecting the worst”. Well, chances are you’ve moved on and this record isn’t for you. When I had the honor of seeing the band for the first time this summer—I realized this was no joke. Not to any of those fans, or not to me. There were songs I hadn’t heard in years but still remembered every word and every feeling that went along with them. That’s a band with staying power.

After first listen of the new single, “The Day That Never Comes”—the doubt crept in… until the clock struck 2:50 when Lars and Kirk provided a transition into which the next six minutes built into classic Metallica mayhem. But this isn’t exactly old Metallica. This is a new Metallica playing with a youthful revivalism that struck their aging bones. The epic solos, the guitar trade-offs, the driving beat, it’s all there. It’s all fresh. It’s all Metallica.

The notion of returning to your roots is at the core of every life crisis. Getting back to the comfort of the past, to the people who supposedly know you best and longest suggests a security that, sadly, is just not there. No, going back home in an attempt to find the same old acceptance, happiness, personal insight, and situational ease proves the oft cited maxim against the possibility of doing same. In Troubadours, a rousing indie effort focusing on this very subject, we learn that connectivity and the friendships forged in same can be just as destructive as the traumas tricking you into taking the trip back.

Art Stone left his father’s farm with big, broad shouldered dreams. But all Chicago provided was a series of dead end opportunities and a broken heart. When he catches his girlfriend in bed with another man, he finally slips into depression. At the behest of his buddy, he heads back to his parent’s property, eager to work the land and basically find himself. But Art soon runs into his old gang, a group of farm hands and menial laborers who use the world around them as an excuse to get drunk, get rowdy, and get in trouble. With his heavily religious relatives looking down their nose at him, and a new girl turning his head, Art must decide what’s important - a return trip to the city to seek his fortune, or the role of tripwire troubadour in a one horse town.

The brainchild of three outsider filmmakers - Tom Galassi, Tom Synder, and Adam Galassi - and tinged with the kind of kooky experimentalism that both electrifies and irritates, Troubadours (new to DVD from Facets Video) takes its sweet time telling a rather intriguing tale. It wants to explore how post-modern machismo has been mitigated, Fight Club style, by a society that stresses getting in touch with your feelings and a more therapeutic way of dealing with decisions. Within this collection of types - the radical, the flag waver, the nonconformist, the raging conservative - we see snippets of the way the world works circa 2008. Amidst the pain of misspent youth and a growing need for maturity, our hero stumbles bravely along, looking to understand himself by coming to terms with the people who played a part in his formation.

As Art, Tom Galassi gives the kind of performance that seems almost invisible at first. He is all reaction, letting others speak for him or even suggest a psychological path to explore. His responses color in the character nuances, allowing silence and stillness to speak volumes. Similarly, the way in which he interacts with his pals provides equally important insights. We can see how Chad’s confrontational stance protects him from outside criticism, while the fate of others rests firmly in their lost boys grasp. There is a clear undercurrent of arrested adolescence here, of boys being boys for no good goddamn reason, and when the filmmakers let the festivities go on too long, Troubadours stumbles. When they keep it to conversations, the movie often amazes.

There is also a nice use of local color here, the Southern Illinois farmland providing a nice bit of forgotten Americana. Equally effective are the insert shots of the landscape, the unique approach to capturing the countryside - almost piecemeal, if you like - giving the film a wonderful somnambulistic edge. The music also aids in creating atmosphere, though the reliance on shoe-gazing groups like My Morning Jacket and Devil in a Woodpile frequently feel like outtakes from 1994. As directors, the two Galassis and Synder tend toward intimate set-ups and random quick cuts. The upside to such a presentation is that the film feels true and very authentic. The downside is that we often experience a kind of creative whiplash. There are definitely times when it’s tough to get our bearings.

Another aspect that may cause some concern is the obvious decision to rely on improv to flesh out many of the scenes. As part of the DVD package, we are privy to outtakes and deleted scenes which show how frequently off base this material became. Still, these added features do expand the viewing experience, especially when the subject of the music comes up. Perhaps the only thing missing here is a full length audio commentary. Tom has a unique past (he was part of a regional company of the Blue Man Group), and many of his costars come from similarly interesting backgrounds. Besides, their narrator presence during the film could help explains some of the narrative hiccups and the use of certain symbols (the ringing cellphone, the monkey mask).

Still, in a genre which typically renders itself stagnant by an overreliance on self-indulgent and absorbed strategies, the open ended and loose feel of Troubadours definitely wins us over. By the time we realize we’ve just witnessed another manboy making up his mind about life, we are awash in a sea of good feelings and genuine emotion. There will be some who find this well meaning meandering to be more or less an unfocused experiment in homespun hedonism, but that’s part of Troubadours’ charm. While it may be impossible to return to your past, a fine cinematic experience out of the attempt is obviously possible. The Galassis and Synder understand this all too well.

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