Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Wednesday, Jan 10, 2007


There is a moment in Alfonso Cuarón’s masterful Children of Men where the reality of what is going on finally sinks in. It doesn’t occur when our hero, Theo, narrowly escapes death as a bomb goes off in his local coffee shop. Nor is it the sequence where a band of rebels known as the Fish kidnap this disgruntled civil servant and ask him for a bureaucratic favor. No, in a scene so subtle it almost gets away with its subversion, Cuarón lets us look at the London kept unaffected by the ongoing apocalypse around it. Behind well guarded gates, past lawns loaded with all manner of English tea party pageantry, zoo animals mingle with the privileged and the upper crust, palace guards parading down archetypical streets, everything glazed with proper British ceremony.


Theo, there to visit a relative in the ministry, gets to see the spoils of a world gone warlike. The “rescued” statue of David sits in the foyer, as memento of a raid in Florence. Similarly, a trip to Spain garners Picasso’s Guernica, it’s images of death and destruction used to line a dining room wall. As he sits and eats, sipping wine and drinking in the artificial atmosphere, we see a shockingly familiar site just beyond our view. Sure enough, right outside the window, is yet another lesson in preserving the past. It’s the inflatable pig from Pink Floyd’s Animals album, once again sitting perched within its Battlesea Power Station setting.


Call it dystopian or future shocking, but Children of Men is nothing more than a sensational cinematic allegory as bona fide art. Fashioned from PD James famed novel about a world gone infertile (and the horrors that accompany such a biological barrier), a legion of screenwriters have boiled the metaphorical wake up call into a look at the planet circa 2006. The technology visible is not quite beyond our current comprehension (even if computer screens float freely in the air) and the destruction not predicated on massive acts of global extermination. It is clear from the neo-fascist regime ruling Britain that Earth has died from the inside out, unable to cope with the demise of implied immortality. One of the ideas that this stellar motion picture exploits effectively is the hopelessness of those unable to contemplate the inability to continue on with the species. Instead of finding ways to channel this despair, to join together to fight, they turn on each other, creating police states where citizenship is more important than solutions.


The scenes where immigrants – or ‘fugees’, for refugee – are rounded up and placed in camps smack of so many historical atrocities that it’s hard to pick just one. Between references to the Troubles, the Holocaust and post-9/11 America to the Cuban Boat Lift of the ‘80s and the Japanese internment of the ‘40s, it is clear that Cuarón sees the world as a constant power struggle between the established and the excluded, a continuation of colonialism and imperialism wrapped up in jingoistic jargon and problematic patriotism. When we learn that Theo’s being recruited to help Kee, a pregnant black migrant, escape the city to a supposed scientific project, his stupefaction over seeing a woman with child provides him with an answer to everyone’s problems. “Tell them”, he says, “tell the world.” Naturally, he is scoffed at, one member of the resistance making it clear that Britain would never stand for the first new baby in 18 years being a non-citizen. Of course, there is another reason for their rejection of Theo’s plan, but it’s clear from their conviction that Kee’s existence would only escalate the problem.


Part of the beauty of this film is its exquisite attention to detail. Songs like “In the Court of the Crimson King”, “Hush” and “Ruby Tuesday”, obviously chosen for their ready recognizability, also set the tone for these looking backward times. The Beatles are nowhere to be heard, and bands from the later part of the Brit-pop movement fail to make an appearance as well. Indeed, when Theo’s hippy friend, a pot growing ex-political cartoonist named Jasper (played brilliantly by Michael Caine) wants to “rock out”, he puts on some discordant noise which sounds like techno gone tainted. Memories from the past are important to the people of Children of Men, but they also realize that without a future generation to share them with, such recollections are more or less pointless. They too will die one day. Even Theo’s ex-lover, the Fish leader Julian (Julianne Moore) reminds her partner (and father of their now dead child) that you never really forget what came before, you simply try and learn to live with it. Since each performance is amazingly effective – Clive Owen, as Theo, argues for his place as one of today’s best big screen actors – and the world Cuarón creates so precise, we don’t need long scenes of expositional explanation to get the feel of this tentative time period.


The camerawork here is equally amazing. Mostly handheld, sometimes with the addition of a Steadicam, Cuarón places us alongside the characters, letting us overhear conversations and viewing potential dangers from a clear first person POV position. Some may see this as a trick – along with a couple of sensational tracking shots that, in one take, cover substantial narrative and action ground – but it works to keep us attached to the storyline. Something as unfathomable as Children of Men‘s crisis needs to stay immediate and focused. Sit around too long, or maintain too much distance from the situations and people begin to pick away at plotpoints. Similar to the style Stephen Spielberg employed during War of the Worlds, Cuarón is making it clear that this is no time for thinking. Thought went away over 18 years ago, and now governments wage war against humanity in order to save their own sense of sovereignty. We are supposed to be swept up in events like these, not sit back in the comfort of our stadium seat and rationalize a way for these desperate people to simply get along.


Yet there’s another element at play here, something sly and rather underhanded. It is clear that Children of Men is offering up a weird sort of warning sign, telling a social structure that clearly sanctifies all offspring to be careful what they live vicariously through. The notion of biology as a balm has long been a staple of the cinematic experience. Couples are fighting, families are in free fall, the wicked are wearing down the world. Have a baby, and suddenly, everything is lollipops, roses and puffy pink (or blue) clouds. The implication, both from the opening news report on “Baby Diego” and the glimpses we see of other catastrophes, is that without kids, adults go insane. Unhappy, unfulfilled and without a means of channeling their fear of death into something that will theoretically live on, the supposedly more mature members of society become unglued, guiding the populace toward genocide, isolationism and religious radicalism. Both Christians and Muslims get their moment to muck things up (never outwardly, but in the background) and it’s interesting how God becomes an incomplete catalyst. Kee is seen as a miracle, but one only a phantom group of scientists can supposedly help.


In addition, the film forces a confrontation between the diplomatic minded among the liberal set and the far more iron fisted forces in charge. The parallels to Iraq and other recent US foreign policy blunders are more than obvious, and scenes where armed forces battle rebels for control of a refugee facility have a war correspondent feel to their filmmaking. Cuarón keeps his camera fluid during these moments, never letting it settle even in sequences of outrageous histrionics or nail-biting stealth. He also avoids the brave new worldisms of most futuristic films, keeping police state Britain recognizable, with minor touches here and there to amplify the unfamiliarity. In the end though, Children of Men is more about the present than what we can anticipate years from now. It holds up a mirror to our sentimentalized selves and argues that, without a conduit for our care and consideration, we will turn on our fellow man and destroy all civilizing concepts around us. In a year that saw masterpiece works from Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronofsky and Martin Scorsese, Alfonso Cuarón delivers a cinematic clinic on how to make images work both as metaphors and movie. Definitely one of 2006’s best, Children of Men helps reinstate the sagging fortunes of serious sci-fi. Too bad all filmmakers can’t be as specific – and sensational – as Cuarón.


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Tuesday, Jan 9, 2007


There is a fine line between insanity and eccentricity. There is also an even slimmer margin between desperation and dementia. Sometimes it’s hard to decipher between the various mental fallacies. Some people use idiosyncrasy as a way of coping. Others allow their craziness to create endearing individualistic personas. After you factor in such adjunct issues as wealth, health, status, and situation, it becomes clear that even the nuttiest of individuals can avoid the stigma of psychosis by merely staying locked in their own insular place. It’s what protected the Beales for almost 50 years.


As relatives of the rich and famous, themselves both minor celebrities in their own singular right, the mother/daughter combo lived a reclusive, bubble-like existence in a tumbledown manor in the swankiest part of the Hamptons. With the standard domestic amenities always in question (they lived, for a time, without running water) and an evershifting menagerie of animals invading their space (cats, mice, raccoons, etc.), these one-time society stalwarts are now viewed as lamentable lunatics, adrift in an unhealthy home and an even more damaging familial dynamic.


Strangely enough, their quirky escapades would have been reserved for the back pages of the New York dailies had filmmaking brothers Albert and David Maysles not stumbled upon their story while researching the life of Jacqueline Kennedy’s sister, Lee Radziwill. One of the family’s aunts, a defiant older woman named Edith Bouvier Beale, had recently had her home raided by health and human services officials who were worried that the septuagenarian, along with her nearly 60-year-old daughter Edie, were living in horribly unsanitary conditions. Required to clean up their Hamptons home, the duo claimed that local politics and a desire for their property was the cause of the personal persecution. But what the Maysles discovered once they contacted the Beales was startling to say the least.


Holed up in a couple of rooms in their massive manor, cooking on hot plates and eating not much more than canned soup, ice cream, and simple salads, the pair were isolated, alone, and rebellious. Constantly bickering back and forth, sending each other mixed messages about their devotion and their disgust for one another, the Beales barely connected with the humanity outside their door. While they were aware of the events transpiring around the globe, they were too involved in their complicated companionship to care. The original owner of the estate called it Grey Gardens, a quasi-criticism on the locale’s inability to sustain vibrant life. Apparently, the name applies to the interior as well as the exterior landscape. It makes a fitting moniker for the brothers’ amazing movie.


When we first see the home, it looks haunted. Even up close, the manor is draped in a heavy layer of age and decay. Windows appear broken out, shutters hang haphazardly from cracking sills, slats missing or misaligned. On all sides, stately homes gleam in the Hamptons sun, their rich inhabitants happy to polish their palaces to within an inch of their importance. It’s opulence as reflected by real estate, status centered in a concept of curb appeal—but not for the Beales. These old-money matrons could care less about the upkeep on their estate. “Big” Edith is 75, and more than settled in her secluded life, thank you very much. Her spinster daughter, “Little” Edie, views the last few decades as mother’s maligned helper as a premature prison sentence. Housekeeping is the last thing on their mind.


As a matter of fact, if it weren’t for government interference—and some latent familial charity—the pair would be practically homeless. But lineage won’t allow these ladies to live in the lap of self-determined near-destitution. The surrounding kin—the famous Kennedy and Bouvier clans—have cash, and they make sure the Beales are well-endowed. But neither one really cares about the money. For them, life has become a comical battle of wills, a mother vs. daughter dynamic that pits hopes against help, dreams against distraction. To call the Ediths hermetical would seem overly simplistic. They live in one great big wide world—it just happens to be of their own unusual creation.


Grey Gardens reflects the status of the Beales as women, socialities and—in some ways—human beings. They are femme fatales whom life has let die, upper-crust crones who sit around half-dressed in a mansion festooned with peeling paint, rotting wood, and the feces of various animals. Their relationship is like a contest, a “who will blink first” face-off in which old wounds, new foibles, and lamented losses pile up as potential ammunition. For Big Edie, old age has robbed her of the two things she built her entire personality on—her looks and her career as a singer. While still in good voice, her body has completely broken down. She can barely walk, her eyes and legs failing simultaneously. Still she fancies herself a captivating catch and flirts shamelessly with Jerry, a young handyman.


Little Edie, on the other hand, has bigger personal fish to fry. Feeling hemmed in by her mother’s constant demands and constantly threatening to move back to the big city, she understands implicitly that most of her dreams are unobtainable. Having given up any concept of a career decades before, and taken care of financially by a complex series of trusts and trade-offs, the aging beauty believes she’s still fated for fame. Dressed in bizarre designs of her own making, shawls and scarves covering her seemingly bald head, Little Edie is a fatalistic fashion plate, a woman desperate to escape but unable to find the proper route out.


Together, in front of the Maysles’ constant camera, these reckless and refined relatives square off, trading praise and poison back and forth like volleys in a country club tennis match. Little Edie will cheer her mother’s rendition of “Tea for Two,” then mimic and mock her recordings in the next catty breath. Big Edie will criticize her child’s increasing weight while wondering aloud why her stunning singing voice never eclipsed her own. They will share simple memories and melt down over comments concerning the late, lost Mr. Beale. Men are a mitigated factor in Grey Gardens, Big Edie having shunned her spouse early on in their marriage, her two sons nowhere to be seen in and around the home (we do glimpse them, as babies, in some old photos). Even Jerry, the slightly slow hippie who seems to have moved in with the ladies, is seen as a cog to be used between the fighting females.


Big Edie sees his attention as verification of her stunning sexuality. Little Edie views him as an interloper capable of stealing her antiques, precious books—and her place in Mother’s heart. Indeed, the minor interaction we witness between the Beales and the rest of the world is presented as uneasy and unreal. A birthday party for Big Edie finds the guests sitting on newspapers (the chairs are dirty and haven’t been cleaned in years) and drinking vintage wine out of Dixie Cups (the glassware having mysteriously disappeared long ago). Even the Maysles, who have become like ancillary family, face considerable limits, since they’re not allowed by Little Edie to venture into other areas of the massive, 24-room home.


From a pragmatic standpoint, it all seems so nutty. Though we slowly become aware that the implied wealth that comes with the Beale/Bouvier name is not as comforting as we assume (these women appear to be living right on the edge of abject poverty), their situation is obviously the result of a surreal self-fulfilling prophecy. By returning home without establishing her own identity, Little Edie was destined to fall under Big Edie’s demonstrative domineering. All throughout Grey Gardens, the Maysles catch her scampering about and giggling like an arrested adolescent and, in essence, that is exactly what Edie is. Isolation has stunted her social skills to the point where, while refined and well turned-out, the younger Beale sounds like a lost and troubled teen.


As she slinks around in scandalous, revealing clothes (so stylish that she actually inspired several famous fashion designers to copy her clever combinations) and bats her eyes at the camera, we see an aged youngster trapped in a wrinkling body. Big Edie is also ensnared by the past, but her feelings are very focused. She hates the fact that her marriage and child-rearing responsibilities misdirected her profession, and has apparently tried several times to jump-start her career (mostly by inviting men to live in Grey Gardens with her). For the meditative matron, fame flew away the minute she turned her back on what she really wanted. Now, with daughter Edie flaunting failure in her face on a rather consistent basis, Big Edie is bitter, a battleaxe ready to wield her own personal blade at anyone within range.


That Grey Gardens gives us all this via a non-intrusive, fly-on-the-wall perspective, says a great deal about the Beales’ desire for attention. Though they claim to hate the interference of outsiders, they are more than happy to make room for the Maysles and the genial Jerry. In fact, as natural performers, the pair is desperate for almost any audience. There is lots of singing and carrying on in this film, almost as if the filmmakers fancied they were making a musical. During uncomfortable quarrels or awkward personal insights, one of the Beales will break out into song, stifling the moment with a melodious mist. Frequently, when confronted in lies or contradictions, Little Edie will just caterwaul away, keening in a juvenile, off-key manner that makes her mother furious. It could all be part of a battle plan made up of disappointment and deflection, but one senses something consistent here.


Like a perplexing puzzle made up of heartaches and histrionics, Little Edie annoys her parent to prove the old gal’s feelings—she can’t live without the child. Similarly, Big Edie criticizes her only daughter as a way of keeping her practical and present. This is necessary since, throughout Grey Gardens, we see how easily disconnected the wayward woman can become. Perhaps the best example of an inaction film ever fashioned, neither resident of this rotting façade wants to leave. They may clamor for greener pastures or broader personal horizons, but there is something queerly comforting about their seemingly haunted home. Within its walls, a kind of truce has been forged, a peace between ladies who would rather suffer than live alone. It’s what makes Grey Gardens such a stunning documentary. It’s also what has made the Beales’ legacy live on long after they finally found their eternal peace.


Interesting enough, Grey Gardens is a fairly balanced presentation. Both Edies get their moments, and when one occupies the screen solely, the other is not far behind—either physically or spiritually. For the 2006 sequel, Albert Maysles, the remaining living member of the filmmaking brotherhood, decided to unearth as much footage as he could from the hours the pair spent in the disintegrating home. Oddly enough, it seems that Little Edie got the shortest end of the original’s editing stick. Much of the new material in The Beales of Grey Gardens centers on her, her tendency toward awkward musical moments, and those oddball sequences where she reads from a well-worn horoscope paperback and tries to make sense of her life. In an introduction to the film, Albert hints that the reason most of these scenes were excised was because they show how intertwined the brothers were in the Beales’ life.


Edie obviously fancied David, and spent untold screen time commenting on their future together. Similarly, the filmmakers didn’t like to prompt their participants, and all through the update, we hear them asking questions in hopes of spurring some interesting exchanges. This is more of a supplement than a true sequel (Grey Gardens maintains a sort of implied narrative while The Beales is more like a collection of outtakes), but anyone who believes that more of the Edies is an entertainment windfall will thoroughly enjoy this companion piece. While it lacks some of the original’s psychological insight, the Edies remain fascinating, factual entities.


It seems odd that, for two people fiction could not possibly create, mediums other than the documentary have embraced and are interpreting the baffling Beales story. An off-Broadway musical (which recently shifted to the Great White Way itself) and a full-length feature film (with Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange attached) are set to keep the ladies’ story alive for future fans to discover. Yet no matter how good (or bad) these versions eventually are, nothing can compare to that first fleeting moment when we see the vine-covered Hamptons home, wood cracking as uncontrolled vegetation hides it from view. Suddenly, from out of the darkened back doorway, a decidedly older lady, her head wrapped in a telling turban, announces the situation for the day. “Mother’s complaining about something,” she winks, before flitting off like a preoccupied pixie lost in her daily designs.


As an illustration to what makes Grey Gardens so special, such a sequence seems less than auspicious. But once we learn that this is just the icing on an unusually dense and deliciously cloistered cake, the anticipation for another slice becomes unbearable. It is easy to see why, as symbols or kitschy cult icons, Big and Little Edie Beale have endured. Something about them is so timeless, so vibrant and vulnerable, that they have no choice but to enter the realm of myth. Even though it has long been sold and re-modeled to modern specification, Grey Gardens will always be a dark, desolate place. Luckily, the ladies who once lived there lit it up quite well.


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Monday, Jan 8, 2007


A new year – a new look. Instead of focusing a great deal of attention on several releases each week, SE&L is going to take a different approach when discussing the most recent DVD titles of 2007. Every Tuesday, we will pick a prominent disc – something we think you should be paying attention to – and then go on to highlight a few more significant selections. We’ll then discuss an offbeat offering for those unimpressed by your typical mainstream merchandise. Hopefully, this will give you a better idea on how to spend your digital dollars, and provide a more productive forum for discussing the latest home theater treats. For the first full week of January, here is the SE&L Pick:


Idiocracy


Forgive the man for being angry, but animator/filmmaker Mike Judge has a real right to be pissed. Not only did Fox foul up the release of his latest film, but they purposely buried it in a manner more befitting a Hilary Duff vehicle than a scathing social satire from the mind behind Office Space, King of the Hill and Beavis and Butthead. Though critics who finally saw the film savaged its story of a military milquetoast accidentally frozen for 500 years, only to wake up in an America of incredible inbred stupidity, it is clear they missed the point entirely. Judge juggles several important ideas here – the overall notion of ‘dumbing down’ (the theory of dysgenics), the prevalence of advertising-guided cultural decisions, the failure to see the obvious forest for the specific, sports drink-oriented trees – and finds a brilliant biting way of bringing them to life. This laugh out loud diatribe may seem like more future mock than shock, but the subtext it suggests is more frightening than the notions of global warming - and Al Gore as a movie star - put together.

Other Titles of Interest


Crank


Jason Statham stars in this rollercoaster ride of an action pic, a nonstop display of modern moviemaking, carefully choreographed stunt work, and male machismo that failed to find an audience upon its initial release. DVD and the home theater experience seem the perfect places to rediscover this high energy hokum.

The Illusionist


Of the two magic movies this year, The Prestige remains the best. Neil Burger’s equally interesting take on slight of hand has a formidable cast (Paul Giamatti is magnificent as a police chief/pawn of the Austrian court) but may be too romantic for most. Still it definitely deserves credit for its period piece attention to detail.

I Trust You to Kill Me


Kiefer Sutherland takes on the most dangerous role of his entire career – as road manager for a rock band. Owner of his own indie label, the 24 actor follows Rocco DeLuca and the Burden as they trek around the world, spreading their aural anarchy to whoever will listen. The results are interesting, if not particularly enlightening.

Murder Set Pieces


How do you make a notorious homemade splatter fest acceptable to typical mainstream consumers? Carve out nearly 20 minutes of gore-laced footage and try to pawn off the results as the “hardest R” ever to hit DVD. Sadly, nothing can save this pointless neo-Nazi serial killer crap.


The Night Listener


Robin Williams is a late night talk show host who develops an indirect friendship with a teenage boy. When the child suddenly disappears, he decides to investigate and uncover what happened – or if the kid really existed in the first place. Instead of a psychological thriller, this uneventful effort is plodding and oddly predictable.


And Now for Something Completely Different


Nude on the Moon/Blaze Starr Goes Nudist


Ah, Doris Wishman – that diva of deviant cinema. Notorious for her mid-period Manhattan roughies, and the championing of female physical oddity Chesty Morgan, this main madam of exploitation got her start in nudist camp films, and this double feature provides two of her most amazingly misguided efforts. The first deals with a team of astronauts who discover that the Moon is populated by sunworshippers playing volleyball and swimming sans clothes. The second slice of skin follows famed burlesque queen Starr as she discovers the delights – and the sexy companionship – of vacationing au natural. If you’re looking for narrative logic, clear characterization, directorial flair or reasonable entertainment value, these kitschy classics will probably come up short. But if you’re interested in seeing how sex was dealt with before the boundaries of bareness were broken, or just want to see some puffy mid-60s health nuts brandishing their birthday suits, these slightly surreal epics are pure cheddar cheesiness.

 


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Sunday, Jan 7, 2007


In the last of our looks back over SE&L‘s brief time on the filmic forefront, it’s time to champion our occasional commentary pieces. Sometimes, we hit the nail right on its pointed little pop culture head. At other instances, we voice strong opinions that rub the average movie maven the wrong way. Between our first piece on hiring talk show hosts and actual directors to be film critics, to challenging the “classic comedy” stance of one of 2006’s biggest hits, the SE&L staff has never shirked its responsibility to be provocative, thoughtful and daring. The 14 pieces offered here provide clear proof of such a literary mandate.


A Critical Misstep
Parental Guidance Rejected
Plane Crash
You’re Joking
Home Video’s True Legacy
Bye Bye, Besson
Too Late?
Akiva Goldsman Must Die!
The Incredibly Inconsistent Career of Bob Clark
Is that the Fat Lady Singing?
Whorat
It’s the Year of the Yahoo!
The Tragedy of Terry Gilliam
Dim Wits - Critics and Darren Aronoksy’s The Fountain


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Saturday, Jan 6, 2007


Butcher Wing is a good-natured manchild who’s always in trouble with Master Wong Fei-hung of the Po Chi Lam School, where he studies. One day, he mistakenly attacks a member of the rival Five Dragons School and angry Master Ko demands satisfaction. He warns Master Wong that he will destroy Butcher and the entire academy if any more disgrace befalls the Dragons. Before taking a planned trip, Fei-hung warns Butcher not to get in any more trouble, but the arrival of two disparate entities to town will challenge this mandate. First is Butcher’s long lost brother, who along with his new wife is searching for the “skinny pig” sibling he remembers from years ago. Enter from the outskirts of dishonor Ko Hai Toi, Master Ko’s evil, shiftless son. He kidnaps Wing’s sister in law and even gets the dimwitted meat cutter to beat up his own kinfolk. With the help of a wine-obsessed vagrant, Beggar Kao (who may just be a kung fu master himself), Butcher sets out to set things right. But thanks to the wicked ways of the evil Ko Hai Toi, a series of tragic events leave Wing disgraced, disheartened, and marked for death by the Five Dragons. His only hope? Learn the iron arm techniques of the drunken derelict and use them, in combination with the techniques of Master Wong and the “five animals” school of kung fu, to defeat Master Ko, his family, and followers. And if he succeeds, he will bring honor and respect to Po Chi Lam and be forever known as The Magnificent Butcher.


Even though it ends too abruptly and takes a little while to get started, The Magnificent Butcher is still one of the best old-fashioned martial arts movies ever made, a rip-roaring adventure of loyalty and honor, family and fiends. Director/stunt coordinator Yuen Woo-ping, newly discovered by Western fans with his wire fighting time tricks in The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, here shows why he is considered one of the greatest kung fu fight film creators of all time. Everything about The Magnificent Butcher is indeed spectacular. From the setting and set designs to the acting and athletic prowess of the renowned cast, this is the kind of foreign action film that gets non-fans instantaneously hooked on the genre, like John Woo’s epic crime dramas or Jackie Chan’s stunt spectaculars. If you don’t want to run out and immediately buy every film the beefy, gregarious Sammo Hung ever made after witnessing his physical brilliance in this movie, you just don’t appreciate true talent. Probably the least well known of all the famous Hong Kong/Chinese martial arts film stars, some may recognize the fleshy force from his short lived television series of a few years back, entitled Martial Law. But most action aficionados have followed “Big Brother” since he battled Bruce Lee in the opening of Enter the Dragon and watched him easily move from comedy (Wheels on Meals) to horror (Close Encounters of the Spooky Kind) to director of some of Hong Kong’s biggest hits (Jackie Chan’s Mr. Nice Guy). The Magnificent Butcher is primo Sammo and a definitive representation of the Asian action film in all its glory.


The reason most fans are drawn to martial arts films is for their spectacular stunts and freewheeling fights, and the ones created for The Magnificent Butcher are mind-boggling. Intricately choreographed like a tap dancer’s well worn routine and genuinely moving to behold, their mix of ballet with brutality, skill, and showmanship reminds the viewer of the physicality of Gene Kelly mixed with the ingenuity of Fred Astaire in their heydays. So graceful and delicate are the moves Hung and the others must manage with spilt second timing that their age and size just disappear. The minute they break into a series of intricate hand or foot moves, or they pick up a found object with which to attack or defend, a beautiful mesmerizing mystery unfolds before our unblinking eyes. Honestly, you will never witness physical agility and grace as profound as in the dance like kung fu exchanges in this film. Each is a minor miracle unto itself, but two specific sequences demand special note. Kwan Tak-hing, another legend in the world of Asian cinema, plays the role of Master Wong Fei-hung (sort of a Chinese El Santo, he essayed this character some seventy times in his career), and even though he is 74, feeble and frail here, when challenged to a calligraphy duel with Lee Hoi-San’s Master Ko of the Five Dragon School, he rises to the occasion spectacularly. Thus begins a complex hand and paintbrush battle that will have you picking up your jaw from the home theater room floor. As with all the clashes in The Magnificent Butcher, just when you think it can’t get any more multifaceted or outrageous, they add a flip or a close-up exchange that leaves you exhausted and exhilarated. Sammo Hung also has a creepy fight with one of Master Ko’s henchmen, an insane fighter known as the Weird (or maybe it was Wild) Cat who uses a kind of claws and feline mentality style of fighting. Skittering up the walls, across the ceiling, and over and around columns, the tabby terror gives Butcher Wing a true run for his money, and between the oddity of the character and the intricacy of the hand-to-hand combat, it’s a truly memorable sequence.


But probably the best thing that Sammo Hung and director Yuen Woo-ping accomplish in this film is grounding the over-the-top skirmishes of skill in reality. Some martial arts movies make their participants out to be gods, unable to be killed without near supernatural special moves and almost impervious to injury or disability. Not so in The Magnificent Butcher. Characters die at the hand of their combatants, but not in some single blow balderdash. Indeed, each victory and/or defeat is earned in long drawn out encounters where nothing seems superhuman. And our hero is also a main recipient of pain and loss. Hung is a fantastic actor when he has to show remorse or resolve. While one assumes, from the goofy comedy undercurrent that flows through this (nay, most) kung fu capers, that Hung is trading on his size for some manner of slapstick silliness, the reality is that his clichéd jovial fat man persona hides a wealth of depth and desire. When shown in solo practice mode, running literarily hundreds of moves and combinations in elaborate, complex exercises, there is nothing dopey or dumb about him. He is all poise and power. Woo-ping’s camera is also precise, never interfering or disturbing the action. Like a great musical director, he seems to understand instinctively where the lens needs to be to capture the best angles and shots of the action. About the only complaint that can be offered is that the movie could have used an extra five minutes, post finale, as kind of a coda to Butcher’s story. He is such a likeable character, and we have followed him for almost two hours, that the freeze frame joke closing is kind of a letdown. Still, for the vast majority of its running time, Hung and Woo-ping create a timeless work of magical martial arts action.


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