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Saturday, Jun 16, 2007


There are basically two kinds of martial arts movie fans. The first is the most common. They are the aficionado who grew up loving the format’s freak show leanings, the combination of physical grace and personal goofiness (usually accented by badly dubbed English voices) all wrapped up in eccentric traditions and mind blowing mythos of the Asian culture. For them, the outlandish sound effects and insane fighting styles (mad monkey kung fu) were part of an overall desire by the filmmakers to entertain at any costs. But for anyone lucky enough to catch these films uncut and uncensored, presented in their original aspect ratio and native language, the experience was far more revelatory. To them, they were art. In the mind of these outright obsessives, Westernization of the genre diluted its power, turning it into something cloying and kitsch, when the opposite was clearly the case. Hoping to keep both sides happy, Genius Products and The Weinstein Group have founded Dragon Dynasty, a DVD label with the intention of reviving the lagging fortunes of old school chop socky with the digital format’s newfound ability to act as motion picture preservationist. It’s been a godsend for both the casual and critical enthusiast. 


Representing titles 11 through 14 in the label’s ongoing release schedule of classic and contemporary Asian cinema, the latest Dynasty offerings represent a veritable history lesson of the Hong Kong kung fu film. Again drawing from the amazing vaults of the seminal Shaw Brothers, we are treated to the rising in popularity of the martial arts movie (1967’s The One-Armed Swordsman), the internationalization of the genre (1972’s King Boxer - Five Fingers of Death), perhaps the quintessential example of the category’s cinematic approach (1978’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin), and the moment when many fans feel that comedy began to dilute the overall potency of the artform (1981’s My Young Auntie). More fascinating than the fight choreography or historical codes of ethics and honor are the motion picture grandeur and filmic scope these productions provide. Many dismiss these movies as examples of fisticuffs over finesse, but the truth is, each one is a major accomplishment of acting, scripting, art design, and direction. The stuntwork is equally important, but not the only reason to respond to these films.



Take The One-Armed Swordsman, for example. Following a tradition of swordplay storylines, Shaw Brother’s in house auteur Cheh Chang decided to mesh some well known literary motifs into these movies, resulting in narratives that are powerful in their emotional as well as athletic pull. Our hero, Fang Gang, feels unappreciated and picked on at his teacher’s martial arts academy – and with good reason. The son of a servant who laid down his life for the noble Master, the other students undermine him mercilessly. When one of their pranks goes horribly wrong, Fang Gang is left disfigured and desperate. He meets up with noble country girl Hsiao Man, and after nursing him back to health, she hopes the two of them will start a quiet life together. But Fang Gang is constantly pulled back in to the life of a vigilante. First, he defends a local festival from a group of thugs under the tutelage of the repugnant criminal Smiling Tiger. But when the mobster’s older brother, Long-Armed Devil, decides to unseat Fang’s former teacher (with the help of a new weapon), our hero must protect his mentor’s honor.


Scattered throughout this amazing movie are sequences seemingly ripped right out of an old fashioned Hollywood melodrama. When Fang is injured and falls into Hsiao Man’s tiny boat, the Shaw soundstage is decked out in a riverside set so delightfully detailed that you can literally sense the snowflakes falling along the frost-covered landscape. Similarly, several showdowns between Smiling Tiger and the disciples of Fang’s teacher Qi Rufeng take place in a wooded wilderness stolen from MGM’s Wizard of Oz backdrop. This highly stylized approach – matching much of the ancient chest pounding and sense of duty – helps alleviate some of the celluloid stress these films induce. Since this is a civilization far removed from ours, one seemingly steeped in traditions so deep that no one can circumvent their import, such fanciful elements help jumpstart our suspension of disbelief. It also helps us accept the almost invincible technique our hero has with only one arm and half a sword.


The One Armed Swordsman is also a great beginning point for any newcomer’s journey in the ‘60s/’70s concept of martial arts moviemaking. Again, they are more films than fight clubs, and there are long passages where our characters converse instead of trying to carve each other up. The plots can also get very intricate and involved. Surely, there are moments that seem purposefully placed within the tale to take us away from the drama and back to the action (a proposed kidnapping of Qi’s daughter, a last act battle between Fang and Smiling Tiger on a deserted bridge), but the balance between exposition and ass-kicking is nicely maintained. And since the sequences of swordplay and martial artistry are so well done (thanks in part to Cheh Chang’s excellent work behind the lens) we don’t feel the burden of all that inter-institutional intrigue. Bloody, bombastic, and quite beautiful at times, The One Armed Swordsman proves that there was always more to this genre than round house kicks and throwing stars.



Of course, King Boxer took it all another sensational step in 1972. Cited as the film that revolutionized the acceptability of kung fu films in the West (it came out two months before Enter the Dragon, and was a solid hit for American studio Warner Brothers), its battle royale narrative hid a far more forceful tale of power and betrayal. With an all important martial arts competition set to start in a few months, the instructor at Chao Chi-Hao’s school decides to send him away. It’s not because the pupil has no skills. On the contrary, the old man believes he can’t properly train the boy to be the champion he’s capable of becoming. Arriving at his new academy, Chi-Hao is immediately caught up in some inter-familial issues. The son of his new master is jealous, and wants to ruin his rival’s chances of making the competition. Even worse, a competing school is so desperate to win that they hire a hit man from Japan who, along with his samurai sword wielding bodyguards, begins eliminating the other contestants. After suffering a devastating setback, Chi-Hao masters the deadly “Iron Palm” technique, and seeks revenge on the corrupt instructor and all who have wronged him.


Playing like a Sino-Spaghetti Western (complete with bountiful bloodshed and gore), King Boxer is a remarkable movie. It gives us a soft spoken, almost passive hero who allows many horrible things to happen to him over the course of 90 minute, only to turn into a hands-on version of the Terminator towards the end. As he learns the value of his five fingers of death technique, and draws the connections between the adversarial school and its seemingly endless collection of crazed henchmen, director Chang-hwa Jeong persistently pushes the pace into overdrive. If we’re not experiencing another inventive fight sequence, we’re witnessing potboiler plotting amongst a cartoon character collection of creeps. One of the highlights of this bright spot laden effort is the number of times our hero can be humiliated by various villainous foes and still come back swinging. This is especially true after an attack which sees his hands beaten mercilessly. There are moments when we wish Chi-Hao wasn’t such a lethargic lox (it takes him awhile to get his retribution groove on), but thanks to the filmmaking employed, we never grow bored.


Indeed, King Boxer is best when it’s thwarting convention. Toward the end, when the major third act competition is about to begin, we are startled by a particularly nasty fight between Chi-Hao’s old master and the Japanese hit men. Then said shock is repeated when the jealous brother takes on the corrupt instructor and his thugs. While it takes away from the final contest showdown, that’s apparently part of the plan. Indeed, once a winner is determined, we get more double crossing, another few deaths, and a sensational confrontation in a locked, dimly lit room. The stylistic flourishes employed – shadows crossing faces, jump cuts confusing the logistics of the fighters to increase the suspense – really sell us on this film’s artistry. But more than that, the bucking of narrative convention keeps us on our toes, and allows us to become much more involved with the characters. Along with the next film in the series, King Boxer argues for how fully formed and complete these efforts really were.



Perhaps the pinnacle of everything the Shaw Brothers was striving for in their kung fu epics, The 36th Chambers of Shaolin remains, even by modern standards, a solid masterwork. While the story may be familiar to any fan of the genre – pacifist student seeks out the help of the Shaolin, those monk masters of the martial arts, to teach him to fight to defend his family’s honor and his village – the approach is breathtaking in its depth and scope. Our hero, San Te (a stunning turn by Chia Hui “Gordon” Liu) is a reluctant rebel, a student helping his instructor defeat the totalitarian forces of local General Tien, When their efforts are discovered, a bloodbath occurs. Left for dead, Te heads to the Shaolin temple, where he hopes to learn the secrets of self-defense in order to take on the onerous oppressors. But he soon discovers there is more to martial arts than learning how to fight. There is discipline, mental clarity, a discarding of self, and of course, lots and lots of training. After completing his courses, he recruits a group of followers. It’s not long before honor is being avenged and General Tien’s troops are destroyed, one by one.


Beginning with a remarkable sequence where Liu, decked out in nothing more than a black pair of pants and several weighted metallic arm bands battles such odd elements as rain and a waterfall, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin represents a directorial tour de force for the star’s brother (by adoption), Chia-Liang Liu. It’s a sumptuous film to look at, a movie that takes its varying fight facets very seriously. The training, in particular, is flawlessly executed, using a combination of cinematic methods (slow motion, close-ups, quick cuts) to amplify the aesthetic qualities. Of course, a lot of this is the result of Liu’s performance. Note for note one of the best acting jobs you will EVER see in a Hong Kong kung fu film, the intensity and drive that San Te shows is a direct reflection of his creator’s personal passion. During one incredibly effective sequence, our hero has to learn how to circumvent a water hazard that leads to the monastery dining room. Failure to do so will result in humiliation – and hunger. Watching Liu literally throw himself into the test is heart-stopping. His determination is like a laser leaping off the screen.

Thanks to his sibling’s work in the director’s chair, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is as much spectacle as sport, a movie that really celebrates the excesses of the artform with sweat, blood, and lots of well choreographed resolve. The bad guys are unbelievably evil, the confrontations violent and purposeful. Even the finale, when Te must face his adversary alone on a vast remote vista, crackles with the kind of energy that makes these films instantly addictive. Indeed, the difference between the Asian action movie and the American version is a question of outward attitude. No matter how hard they try, a Western fist fight just can’t match the seismic shockwaves generated when two Hong Kong pros go head to head. It’s more than just the choreography. Because the skill is founded on attack and counterattack, defensiveness as important as offense, there is never a dull moments in the melee. Every warrior is working to both strike and protect, win and avoid losing. This is especially true of Gordon Liu. Like a skilled chess player, you can literally see him plotting out his next move. It’s written all over his matinée idol face.



Of course, not every actor in the Shaw stable was as visually viable as Liu. Similarly, the explosion in popularity (thanks to the new international appreciation of the genre) led the company to try different dynamics within the films. A few went overboard into historic period and accuracy, while others went directly for the comical and crazy. You can see the shift inside My Young Auntie. Exploiting his power as a director, Chia-Liang Liu decided to create a showcase for his girlfriend (star Kara Hui) and mesh as many cinematic styles as he could into a simple story of a adolescent widow sent to deliver her late husband’s estate to the rightful heir. Of course, there is a bastard brother who should rightfully gain the inheritance, but is being left out of the will because of his criminal ways. A capable kung fu expert, our villain decides to steal the probate papers, and this leads his minions in direct conflict with the gal, her elderly nephew, and his college aged son. Wildly inventive and lovingly languid in its pace, Liu’s clash of cultures (country vs. city) and clans (good vs. evil), is like a compendium of every manner of moviemaking thrown together. 


My Young Auntie is actually divided into two distinct acts. The first focuses on the arrival of the main character at the home of her elderly nephew. The confusion her appearance causes, and the effect she has on her kin (especially the kooky college age grand nephew who is instantly smitten) drives a great deal of the narrative. We witness battles over honor, misidentification, and oddly enough, the juxtaposition between the old world and modernization. After an hour, we wonder if the filmmakers have remembered that this is a kung fu film. Then Liu kicks into overdrive with a signature sequence that instigates the almost hour long finale. At a costume party, rival forces from the disinherited elder appear, and soon, the dance floor is awash with combative kick turns and high flying swordplay. The moves are so intricate and expertly timed that you frequently feel you are watching an actual musical number, not a life or death struggle for familial supremacy. It’s at this point where the comedy tends to trickle away as well. There are more jokes to be found – especially when our young hero battles a muscleman whose entire body is impervious to pain – but the second half of the film is all vendetta and violence.


It has to be said though that Liu really does push the envelope in My Young Auntie, challenging what makes up a standard chop-socky spectacle. There are many convention breaking conceits, including the lack of onscreen deaths (the defeated are shamed instead of bled), the placement of Hui as the most confident fighter, and the overall cartoonish tone. Unlike the previous films discussed here, the fisticuffs are played for both their power as fighting, and their outrageous, hyper-stylized mannerism. It was a switch in the presentation of this material that would alter the next two decades of martial arts movies. Previously, audiences responded to the strength and dexterity. After Auntie (and the similar movies before and directly after), kung fu was pitched like silent film comedy. It became centered around elaborate set-ups, multi-faceted payoffs, and inhuman levels of endurance and physical tolerance. When critics complain about the sudden shift in Hong Kong action films, it’s this exaggerated aspect that gives them the biggest issue. On the other hand, fans who’ve only seen the pan and scan, poorly dubbed versions of these titles may not notice the tonal twists.


When taken together, there are several reasons to celebrate these DVDs. First and foremost, they rescue these films from the ridicule they typically experience from purists and cinephiles. Since the Shaw Brothers catalog was basically unavailable on home video until the late ‘90s/early ‘00s, viewers had to suffer through n’th generation copies, incorrect aspect ratios, editorial inconsistencies, and horrendous English language tracks. It’s what elevated many of these otherwise well meaning films to the level of ludicrousness and camp that has been both a benefit (commercially) and detriment (artistically) to the genre. With such pristine presentations now available, the films regain their status as cinema. The second reason is the addition of an incredible amount of context. Each disc here offers commentary (including passionate takes by critic Elvis Mitchell and true fan Quentin Tarantino), interviews with the important actors and crew members, and various gallery presentations that help us understand the amount of effort that went into these films. Finally, Dragon Dynasty wants to open up the appreciation of these efforts beyond a few noted offerings. By rescuing the catalog of the Shaws and others, they help instill a sense of integrity that other packages fail to proffer.


As an excellent introduction into the world of Hong Kong moviemaking, as a quartet of important titles that illustrate the industry’s beginning, mainstreaming and commercialization, you can’t do better. The One Armed Swordsman, King Boxer, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, and My Young Auntie are the perfect primers for learning what made the Shaw Brothers so important in their native land, as well as among film fans worldwide. Each one holds its own unique treasures, but together they suggest that there are dozens of differing layers to the kung fu/martial arts movie. While they may not make the artform more popular, they will definitely redefine the scholarly take on such supposedly silly fare. Indeed, it’s time to put the ridicule away. Respect is what these fascinating films truly deserve.


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Friday, Jun 15, 2007


The ‘50s were so filled with fears – fear of Communism, fear of nuclear annihilation, fear of minorities – why not add zombies to the mix. After all, the living dead have come to symbolize so much in our current cinematic zeitgeist that allowing the undead to combine all the Eisenhower Era horrors into one flesh eating fiend seems like a pretty smart idea. A pretty funny one as well. Conceived as a combination satire and scary film, Fido is a surreal surprise, a genuinely touching tale of tolerance and totalitarianism reminiscent of Bob Balaban’s equally brilliant suburban frightmare of conformity Parents. Canadian filmmaker Andrew Currie has taken the standard iconography of the era – the freshly manicured lawns, the cocktail dress and pearls housewives, the sleek Detroit automobiles – and perverted them, ever so slightly, into a commentary about race, relationships and reality.


After a radioactive cloud blankets the Earth, the dead come back to life. The government responds to the cannibal crisis by launching all an out war. Things do not go well at first. Thanks to the efforts of Dr. Hrothgar Geiger, however, the zombies are contained and controlled. He comes up with the ‘head wound’ theory, and the collar that domesticates the creatures. Soon, all suburban households have zombie servants, while the corpses do most of the menial chores and jobs around town. Naturally, there are accidents, but the corporate security forces of multinational ZomCom Industries keep everyone – living AND undead – in check. When the Robinson family gets its first rotting man-monster, it causes a split among the members. Dad hates it. Mom is intrigued. And little Timmy? He names it “Fido” and adopts it as his ‘pet’. Soon, the two are inseparable. 


At first, it’s rather hard to see the parody present. Because of his attention to period detail and desire to make his characters more than just silly symbols, Currie stays subtle – maybe even too much so. Even the black and white ‘educational’ film shown at the beginning of the movie (a nice way to introduce us to this particular take on the zombie’s origins) feels too ‘real’ to be overtly ridiculous. No, it takes a while before the script starts slipping up, tossing in little baneful beauties about “wild zones”, protective barriers, and citizen ‘re-education’ procedures. By this time, we get the idea – the gated community with its internal security and demanding deed restrictions is the ultimate example of ‘white flight’ illustrated and acted upon. And the reanimated corpses carousing around the perimeter? They’re the undesirables (racial or social) that the scrubbed Caucasian citizenry is desperate to avoid. 


Yet there is much more to Fido’s narrative than ‘us vs. them’. There’s a murder mystery thread running through all the stories, hints at aberrant sexuality (thanks to an odd duck neighbor who treats his knock-out zombie servant just a tad too friendly), notions of growing martial unrest, and the erratic beginnings of the freedom and liberation that would come to define the revolutionary nature of the next decade. In between, we have the Conservative Establishment trying to moderate the primal, uncontrollable ‘counterculture’, along with a fatalism that suggests the battle may be already lost. Throughout, Currie paints pictures with a pulsing primary color patina. Everything looks bright and shiny and crazily kitsch. It’s only when we see the rotting facades of the dead-eyed zombies that we recognize how phony this entire world really is.


If one wanted to be cynical, they could argue that Currie is making a comment about traditionalism – and it’s a criticism that cuts both ways. For the Robinsons – Bill (Dylan Baker), Helen (Carrie-Ann Moss) and son Timmy (the excellent K’Sun Ray) – a zombie represents status and standing. Helen even argues that they need this one. After all, there neighbors already have six! Bill’s reactions are more distant. He has bad memories of the initial undead outbreak, and can’t stand being around this constant reminder. Like an episode of Lassie gone loopy, Timmy decides that ‘Fido” would make a good friend. He benefits from his ghoulish presence, but also learns how ill-prepared he is for the responsibility. Still, they want to be part of the planned community, a place that ZomCom runs with a slightly sinister set of kid gloves.


But the undead don’t get off so easily. Because he casts them as maniacal flesh eating fiends, Currie can countermand the nuclear family with its own parallel plight. The zombies are definitely supposed to be seen as the harsh underbelly of humanity that we try to keep in check – our unhinged hunger, our predominant pituitary evil. When you think about it, it’s a fairly potent metaphor. It draws directly into the allegorical nature of the genre, and it provides a portal for many of the movie’s more intriguing ideas. The whole whodunit angle, for example, is hinged on the fact that the undead are ‘automatically’ considered the criminals, and while cinematic statistics bear this out, Fido suggests the protector may be more corrupt than the provocateur. Additionally, this is perhaps the first film (after Scott Phillips’ fascinating Stink of Flesh) that actually broaches the subject of sex. After all, if you can get a compliant corpse to do anything, like mow the lawn or take out the trash…ummm…


Naturally, a great deal of the movie’s success rests on the tone taken by the actors. One wink at the audience too many, or a few too many tongues planted openly in cheeks and the whimsy wears off. Luckily, Currie rounded up a cast so sensational that they occasionally feel like subjects in a deranged documentary, not a group of fictional creations. It has to be said that Billy Connolly, the mad Scottish comic, is lost inside Fido’s fright mask make-up, his expressive eyes all that’s left of his standard Glasgow façade. But his performance is exceptional, always suggesting something more complex and compelling behind his rigor mortis movements. Similarly, Carrie-Ann Moss makes frustrated ‘50s housefraus seem like the sexiest soon to be bohemians in the bridge club. Released from her Matrix-imposed S&M ambivalence, she’s down to earth and very endearing. Tim Blake Nelson certainly delivers on his naughty nebbish demeanor, while Dylan Baker remains an actor unstuck in time. He can play both contemporary and Cold War with unimaginable ease.


As for Currie, his lack of outlandishness may put off some macabre fans. After all, he treats his zombie kills in an almost comic book manner, offering them on camera but blotted out by an amazing full moon or a park draped in deep shadows. And still, his undead register real fear – both to the characters and to the audience. It’s the concept of unpredictability that makes them so suspicious. Fido himself seems to be capable of controls that his fellow fiends can barely contain. Still, he happily feasts away when need be. Perhaps the most compelling element of this fully realized film is its ending. Laced with irony and some unsettling comeuppance, it sets the stage for the next ‘evolution’ in the human/zombie order – and the inevitable question of where society goes when intolerance no longer owns its purpose.


For all its grandiose implications and subtle social skewering, Fido remains a wildly entertaining comedy. It has as much humor as horror, and a wonderfully wonky way of making its many cogent social critiques. A few may scoff at a deeper meaning, reducing Currie to a comic resorting to gimmickry to produce his gags. And unlike Shaun of the Dead, this is not a movie macabre homage. Nor is it a 28 Days/Weeks reinvention. No, Fido is a wholly original take on a very familiar film foundation. Ever since DVD destroyed the creepshow category, mainstream moviemakers have been looking for a way to reclaim their rotting corpses. According to Fido, you’ll never beat them, and you really can’t join them. Better to accept them and move on with life. It’s how you finally defeat fear once and for all.


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Thursday, Jun 14, 2007


Maybe it’s the pounding heat. It could be the lackluster offerings at the local Cineplex. It might even be the initial salvo in mainstream moviemaking’s ultimate demise – at least, in the manner as we presently know it now. Yet is seems that as 2007 stumbles along, the entertainment options available to the public are getting less and less impressive. Just look at the choices arriving on your favorite pay cable service. While Cinemax finally steps up and delivers on its popcorn movie promise, the rest of the titles are tried and true attempts to capitalize on certain waning genres. Indeed, unless you wander beyond the scope of the premium movie networks, the midyear malaise will probably hit you too. Being adventurous and thinking outside the idiot box may be the only way to avoid the Summer’s sameness. For those who are brave of heart and stout of constitution, here’s what you can look forward to on 16 June:


Premiere Pick
Superman Returns


It’s all Bryan Singer’s fault. In fact, that’s not fair. Actually, it’s the fault of frothing fanboys who have, somehow, turned this journeyman director into some kind of blockbuster god. Thanks to his earnest, if not completely successful take on the entire X-Men mythos (including bringing their superhero wardrobe up to contemporary snuff), he was handed the prized pig of comic book franchises – the revamp of the waning Superman series. At first, it seemed like he had the proper perspective for the project. He ignored all the recent graphic novel hoopla and went right back to the original films. But when his casting was revealed – Brandon Who as the Man of Steel? Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane?  - it appeared the bloom was finally off this ridiculous rose. Indeed it was. While fairly effective in capturing the grandeur of the hero, the rest of the narrative lumbered along like a drunken door mouse. The small screen is the perfect place for his otherwise underperforming project. (16 June, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
Ice Age 2: Meltdown


Some like to point to Shrek as the moment that CGI started cannibalizing itself. In fact, it got a great deal of help from this incredibly lame Prehistoric kiddie fodder. Highly profitable the first time around, this money mandated sequel is even more cloying and uncomfortable. With jokes that consistently fall flat and a lack of anything new or inventive, this is the perfect definition of empty calorie eye candy. (16 June, HBO, 8PM EST)

Pulse (2006)


Kairo remains one of Asian horror’s few masterpieces, an apocalyptic tale that argues the value of human life over the lure of technology. This Americanized remake robs the narrative of all its ambiguity, and instead gives us baffling backstory, overly complex explanations, and lots of ghoulish specters stalking the cast. Parts remain faithful to the original, but overall, it’s a less than successful translation. (16 June, Starz, 9PM EST)


Waiting


Ever wonder if those stories about snot in your salad and purposely overdone meat have merit? Well, this serio-comic look at the life of a waiter/waitress wants to combine said insights with a Clerks-like level of humor. It fails in both capacities. It’s too dumb to be daring, too nasty to be knowing. Still, slackers unable to find real careers may see something of themselves in this otherwise gratuitous groaner. (16 June, Showtime, 9PM EST)

Indie Pick
Primer


When PopMatters published an article on the ‘Death of Serious Science Fiction’, critics complained feverishly that this film, more than any other, failed to get a mention as a post-millennial example of stalwart speculation. Of course, there are reasons for such exclusion, including general critical consensus (intriguing but confusing), the film’s lower than average profile (it was made for $7K after all) and lack of more universal themes (some consider it an engineering lesson on crack). Still, SE&L strives to bring light to the otherwise dark domain of cinematic scholarship, and so we pick this film as our Indie item of the week. A few reviewers stress that multiple sittings are required to decipher the lengthy last act, so it’s clearly TiVo time people. Maybe after a screening or two, its inherent value will be unveiled. Maybe. (18 June, IFC, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
B Monkey


While it’s not the greatest movie in the world – Heck, we here at SE&L barely remember what it’s about – it does contain one element worth considering: Asia Argento. Incredibly sexy in a smoldering sort of way, she turns almost any role she plays into an experiment in the erotic. So what if this is just your standard ‘nerd meets bad girl/hijinx ensue’ storyline. With Ms. A in the lead role, we’re there. (17 June, IFC, 10:45PM EST)

R Point


It’s the Korean take on J-Horror with a little war and remembrance thrown in for good measure. A group of soldiers on patrol in Vietnam are sent to an abandoned manor to locate a missing platoon. Of course, they discover the reason for the previous unit’s sudden disappearance. Seems the local area is inundated with uneasy spirits, and they want their vengeance on anyone living – including our unwitting cadets. (17 June, Sundance Channel, 12AM EST)

Following


Right after his effective short film, Doodlebug, the man who would soon helm the brilliant Memento, Batman Begins, and The Prestige, crafted his first feature. It remains a nice little low budget gem, the story of a writer who follows random people to gather material for his work. Naturally, he runs across a character, in this case, a thief, who is willing to show him more than he may want to know. (19 June, Sundance Channel, 12:50AM EST)

Outsider Option
How to Frame a Figg


By the time this project – based on a story proposed by the star – landed in Don Knotts’ lap, his days as a comedic icon were beginning to wane. After the slam bang success of The Andy Griffith Show (five years – five Emmys) and a string of successful solo films (The Incredible Mr. Limpet, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, The Love God? ) this political pseudo-satire just didn’t have the same creative kick. As a bookkeeper unwittingly caught up in City Hall corruption, Knotts still gives good fluster. But the changing cultural tide of the ‘70s was far removed from the more innocent days of the early ‘60s, and the actor was seen as a presence whose time had passed. Still, his undeniable talent continues to show through in what remains a nice footnote to Knotts’ more potent parts. If you can get past the cornball conservatism and arch approach, you’ll really enjoy this minor movie. (17 June, Drive-In Classics Canada, 2:30PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Conqueror Worm


Vincent Prince as a touring witch hunter, selling his services as prosecutor to the highest bidder. Sounds spectacular, right? Well, unlike the next two films in this section, this is an effort that actually delivers on its promise. Thanks to the actor’s amazing performance – he practically oozes evil onscreen – we are completely swept up in this period piece. Michael Reeves’ amazing work behind the camera also adds to the creep-showboating. (15 June, TCM Underground, 2AM EST)

John Carpernter’s Vampires


The title alone had horror fans foaming at the mouth. Would their favorite dread director, responsible for such major macabre classics as Halloween, The Thing and Prince of Darkness actually deliver on the promise of a post-modern Wild West take on the neck-biter genre, complete with James Woods in the role of ghoul hunter? Sadly, the answer was a big fat no. It remains a black mark on a career seemingly drowning in same. (19 June, ThrillerMax, 8:10PM EST)

Minnie and Moskowitz


John Cassavetes was on a role after the critical accomplishments of Faces and Husbands. But he somehow lost his way on this goofy drama romance involving a relationship between a museum curator and a slightly off balance parking lot attendant. There will be those who appreciate his gonzo approach to moviemaking, but this is not one of the independent auteur’s best. More of a curio than anything else. (20 June, Indieplex, 2:50PM EST)

 


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Wednesday, Jun 13, 2007


You can see what Ghost Rider is trying to do. It’s right there in between all the comic book movie clichés and formulaic action picture trappings. Indeed, if it weren’t for an apparent industry mandate that every funny page crime fighter has to be turned into a mainstream movie icon, star Nicholas Cage and writer/director Mark Steven Johnson could have helmed a really inventive take on the unusual Marvel character. Unfortunately, studio interference is evident throughout this ultimately semi-successful effort, from the casting of Eva “Mediocre” Mendez as Cage’s love interest to the last act showdown drawn directly from the Big Book of Popcorn Film Flash. Instead of staying with character quirk and individual development, we end up with something that’s more eye candy than evocative.


The story starts when young Johnny Blaze discovers his stunt man/daredevil dad is dying from cancer. Hoping to save his life, he makes a deal with a sinister stranger that requires an oath in blood. Naturally, the contract backfires, and Blaze discovers he is indentured to the Devil. He will forever be known as Ghost Rider, a fiery skeletal figure riding a menacing motorcycle. As the bounty hunter for the underworld, his job is to return damned souls to their place of eternal unrest. When Blackheart, Lucifer’s love child, goes after a mythic parchment containing 1000 damned souls, it is up to our fire-drenched anti-hero to stop him. Along the way, he must reconnect with his former fling Roxanne, and discover the secret identify of the kind-hearted cemetery caretaker who seems to know a great deal about the entire Ghost Rider lore.


Granted, it’s a pretty dumb premise for a pen and ink champion. Without the context of the comic, its customary attention to origin detail and backstory characterization, we are left filling in a lot of blanks on our own. Unfortunately, Cage isn’t about to help. Instead, he packs his performance with the kind of eccentricities and observable oddities that, at one time, established his thespian credentials (see: Vampire’s Kiss or Peggy Sue Got Married). His interpretation of Johnny Blaze involves jelly beans instead of beer, the Carpenters instead of anything remotely rock and roll, and a goofy shyness in place of disturbed bravado. It’s an interesting set of choices which, sadly, have very little to do with the actual comic the character came from. A brief perusal of the original story is far more mystical, dealing with demons, the ‘Spirit of Vengeance’, and a great deal of supernatural spectacle.


This Ghost Rider could be easily categorized as the “user friendly” version of the icon, a far more approachable (and valiant) entity than the one first conceived. There is tons of talk, all throughout the rather simplistic script, of Johnny’s desire from “a second chance” and the ability to redeem his soul-selling decision, and Cage never overemphasizes the crime fighting/payback element of the man-monster. It’s clearly a cop out, a decision designed to make the Rider more stoic than scary, as well as more personally palatable to a mainstream audience. Similarly, the casting of Eva Mendez is truly a demographically demanded decision. She’s not bad here – in fact, there are moments when she overcomes her inherent flatness to show some real emotional depth. But alongside Cage, whose like ionized idiosyncrasy, she’s nothing more than adolescent fantasy fodder.


The rest of the cast should be commended for making the most out of what is standard fire and brimstone balderdash. Wes Bentley, who comes across as a Goth kid unhappy over his allowance, makes for a vague and uninteresting Blackheart, while Peter Fonda’s Satan is more acid casualty than fallen angel. Still, both do a decent job of playing off Cage, and countermand a lot of the stock malevolence they have to portray. As Blaze’s manager and sidekick, Donal Logue is lost. Since the jokes he’s given are beyond bad, he keeps tossing in line readings that seem pulled from another performance. Similarly, Sam Elliot’s caretaker is left over from The Big Lebowski, his drawl so derivative now that you keep waiting for him to poke some cows or ‘get along’ a few doogies. Taken in conjunction with Mark Steven Johnson’s journeyman directing, filled with wickedly wide shots that hope to instill scope into this otherwise small storyline, everything is technically proficient.


When matched against the amazing special effects, however, their adeptness is barely impressive. Ghost Rider is indeed a highly proficient product of the post-millennial reliance on computer technology, and his fiery image makes a definite impression. This is especially true when Blaze first discovers his destiny, and races down a local side street, shop canopies and parking meters melting under his inferno-like presence. Equally stunning is the skyscraper fight, where a completely possessed Blaze rides right up the side of the glass building’s façade. Sure, you’ve see the sequence a hundred times (thanks to a trailer that gave away most of the movie’s visual magic), but within the context of the story, it still scores significant points. The evil elements are not so well done. Both Satan and Blackheart look like snaggle-toothed sea creatures instead of something more sacrilegious, and last act arrival of hundreds of ‘lost souls’ is like a cross between Raiders of the Lost Ark and the minions from Constantine.


Yet it’s the departures from the original source material, along with the lack of sufficient character support, that has really divided movie fans. Many could forgive the personal plot holes for the amazing amount of visual finesse on hand. But those hoping that the newly released Extended Edition DVD would cast some light on shallower subjects will sadly be left searching. There is some intriguing material reinserted into the film – more moments between a young Blaze and his dad, Roxanne having to deal with the police – but for the most part, the new information is as ambiguous as what is already on the screen. Why it’s taken Blackheart this long to defy his father, why Satan waited several years before tapping Blaze’s Rider potential – heck, the whole reason behind the character’s odd choice of refreshment and music would have been nice. Instead, it’s more focus group falderal offered as additional insight.


In the end, such a strategy is what really undermines Ghost Rider. Without all the necessary Hollywood hokum, absent the sequences suggested by past comic book movies (this film frequently feels like a production from a parallel universe in its ridiculous amount of referencing), this could have been something strong. Not necessarily popular or marketable, but a unique take on material mostly unknown to the movie going public. It also suggests that the proposed Nicholas Cage/Tim Burton Superman may not have been such a bad idea after all. From a filmmaking perspective, no one understands the vastness of visuals better than the off-kilter ex-animator. And via his intriguing take on Johnny Blaze, Cage continues to argue that he has uncultivated acting chops just waiting to be exploited. Those who’ve dismissed this movie outright are dead wrong. But there are aspects here that truly make it hard to embrace.  It’s a dichotomy that ultimately dooms this attempted trail blazer.


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Tuesday, Jun 12, 2007


(Part One of this two part piece can be found HERE)


It’s clear that Eli Roth’s Hostel series is designed to push buttons. It uses easily recognizable elements - young people alone, international naiveté, the unknown evils of the former Iron Curtain – as components for a combination slice and dice splatter film and sly social commentary. But some have sensed that Roth is more misguided than masterful in creating his corrupt fright fests. While the complaints about the original film focused solely on the gore and brutality, gender has been added to the Part II prototype. As a result, the rabid reaction from critics and commoners has positioned this sequel as the worst cinematic example of violence against females ever attempted. Sadly, such a conclusion is not educated, but instead based purely on personal preference and perception.


It all starts in Hostel: Part II’s second act. Reminiscent of the famous legend surrounding the Blood Countess Elizabeth Báthory, the death of our dour, sensitive wallflower Lorna is what has most detractors of Roth up in arms. Up front, they are disturbed by the pseudo-sexual nature of the crime. Hung upside down and naked, actress Heather Matarazzo is featured topless and terrified. As preparations are being made for the soon to arrive ‘customer’, the young actress puts on a clinic of stifled sobs and desperate cries. Suddenly, her killer arrives – a middle aged woman with more than a little experience exposed in her aged appearance. Obviously buying into the whole mythical “rejuvenation” aspects of the Báthory story, she sits stark naked under the crying Lorna, and proceeds to tease her with an oversized scythe. Eventually, she stabs (unseen) and carves (seen) into the helpless girl’s body. As the craven claret covers her middle aged torso, our matron massages it into her flesh. It’s a horrific sequence, one made even more impactful by the performance from Matarazzo and the directorial flourish shown by Roth.


Because of its snuff film strategies, the combination of real and blood lust, and the overall viciousness of the attack, many in the media have decided that such a scene demands condemnation. In fact, many are convinced it’s the most awful atrocity committed against women onscreen in the history of the motion picture. The outright ludicrousness of such a statement aside, these self-professed experts are just plain wrong. Here, as a refresher, are a collection of titles that are far worse in their treatment of females, as well as the use of violence against women as a means of making movie macabre (the following is by no means all inclusive):


Psycho, Scrapbook, Blood Feast, Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer, Suspiria, Frenzy, Peeping Tom, Last House on the Left, Make Them Die Slowly (Cannibal Ferox), Cannibal Holocaust, Gates of Hell, I Spit on Your Grave, The Virgin Spring, Maniac, Tenebrae, Don’t Go In the House, Bloodsucking Freaks, The Gore-Gore Girls, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Opera, The Hills Have Eyes (both original and update), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, The Ilsa Movies, The Olga Movies, The Flesh Trilogy, The Friday the 13th Franchise, The Stendhal Syndrome, Se7en, Straw Dogs, The Death Wish Series, Jackson County Jail.


Clearly, Roth is not the first male filmmaker to use gender as a measure of cinematic vileness. In fact, the first Hostel is based clearly on the notion of twisting archetypes for the sake of invention. But it also belies an interesting conceit. In that first film, two young Slavic sluts are rundown by a car, one body so badly mangled it gets stuck under another vehicle’s frame. Yet these deaths are not lamented by haters of Roth’s ideas. Why? Because from all we learn about these evil mercenary whores, they deserve to die. They’ve set up our heroes (and hundreds of others like them) for the sake of a few dollars and some much needed drugs. They aren’t innocent and naïve. Unlike Lorna, who goes off with a fat foreign Romeo because he treats you like a goddess instead of a clod, they’re perverted and evil. Lorna’s only flaw is being too trusting, and her reward is getting garroted for the sake of some rich witch’s baneful beauty regiment. Right?


Wrong. There is nothing decidedly different in Lorna’s death vs. Josh’s in the original Hostel. All allusions to historical context aside, both she and he are mangled and murdered for no good reason. Yet somehow, when some viewers see Lorna die, their internal parenting protocol comes raging to the fore. Don’t call it a concern for humanity – a boy’s death is no different than a girl’s (and why, oh WHY does no one mention what happens to a grade school age CHILD during the course of Hostel: Part II’s narrative?). No, the old ridiculous psychosexual roles come immediately back into play, and Lorna is viewed as helpless, while Josh is merely reckless. People can point to the supposed erotic undercurrent, but that’s reading a great deal into a scene that is clearly presented for its splatter value. Besides, what does it say about the thinker when they argue that adolescent males will “get off” on such a sickening sequence?


In addition, only Whitney suffers a similar fate. Her face is cut with a buzzsaw, and she loses a patch of hair (and scalp) when it gets tangled in the mechanics (yes, it is noxious). But that’s it. Her eventually death occurs off camera, as part of a joke at the expense of the Elite Hunting Club’s surveillance team. Compared to what happens to Paxton (stabbed multiple times with a gardening tool, fingers sheered off by an errant chainsaw), she gets off metaphysically easy. In direct comparison to its predecessor, Hostel: Part II’s killings are succinct and to the point. Beth endures the most psychologically damaging situation as she has to play cat and mouse games with Stuart to save her life. She’s beaten, almost raped, and confronted by Sacha’s men before her undeniable wealth saves her. Told she must also take a life to be freed, she makes an immediate beeline for her capture’s manhood.


Which brings up an interesting dichotomy. In 2002, French filmmaker Gaspar Noé caused an international sensation when his film Irreversible featured a nine minute realistic rape scene that had many audience members running for the exits. While its artistic merits were bandied about, the outcry for his incontrovertible crime against women was never as loud as that for Roth. The reason why is obvious – first, Hostel: Part II is part of the most easily marginalized and dismissed genre in all of motion pictures: the horror film. It’s a long standing scholarly bias, one that argues for the categories disposability as a credible form of cinematic expression. Almost always reconsidered in retrospect (imagine the reaction of critics who climbed all over Tobe Hooper’s Chainsaw to see it heralded today), the fright film is, to most, incapable of creative vitality. So anything it offers is pragmatically pointless.


And let’s not forget the snooty arthouse factor. Irreversible was indeed viewed as confrontational and repugnant, but because it represented an experimental effort, highly improvised and shot in an unusual manner, the repugnance of the rape was contextually compromised. In essence, if Roth was any other homemade horror addict, creating his craven delights in the basement of his parent’s home with a group of friends, the uproar would be limited by logistics. But because he is making a mainstream scarefest as part of the Summer Movie season, he’s open to outright attack. True, the images and elements at play in Hostel: Part II are not natural and do not represent the best that the medium of film has to offer. But if there is room for inexcusable violence against women in award winning dramas (The Accused) or foreign films, then horror should be able to do the same without facing increased scrutiny.


Again, there are far worse examples of what Roth is being condemned for. Take the aforementioned Texas Chainsaw film. Actress Marilyn Burns spends the final act of the film tied to a chair and abused both emotionally and physically by the diabolical Sawyer clan. She is beaten repeatedly in the head with a sledgehammer, cut severely with a straight razor, and eventually chased, bloody and insane, by a crazy man wielding the title power tool. Or how about David Lynch’s sickening send-off to his famous Twin Peaks series. Aside from the obvious sexual/incestual undercurrent, the infamous auteur languishes on Laura Palmer’s death in Fire Walk With Me, her bruised and battered face full of fear as her dad crushes her skull with a bolder. Throughout Wes Craven’s early career, his female leads are typically raped and murdered in particularly graphic fashion. Even the exploitation realm which started the entire taboo-busting side of cinema had Olga, Ilsa and Michael Findlay’s foul slasher start-up, the Flesh Trilogy to violate all kinds of interchangeable victims.


Of course, for every supposed outrage, there’s someone out there ready to complain about it. When Lynch presented a completely naked Isabella Rosalinni, scarred and scared, at the doorstep of Kyle McLaughlin in Blue Velvet, Roger Ebert was so appalled he accused it’s creator of being a soulless monster. Similarly, when I Spit on Your Grave took the entire rape/revenge element to new, nauseating heights, the well respected reviewer, along with his then partner in prostylitizing, Gene Siskel, decided to focus an entire show on women as the centerpiece of the scary movie slaughter ideal. Pointing to the overabundance of female deaths in the derivative slasher films, they made it sound like they had discovered something completely novel in the new post-modern movie dynamic. Sadly, as far back as one goes, gender has helped define the terms of terror. Even the early Universal monster movies used the so-called “weaker sex” as the object of evil’s unhinged desire.


If those who are complaining about Hostel: Part II are only up in arms because its girls, not guys, getting torn apart for the sake of shock value, then their “humanitarian” argument is hypocritical. Imagine the Lorna scene with a ‘Larry’ substituting for the victim and a middle aged MAN as the scythe wielding reprobate and see what kind of response you’d get. It’s the dirty little secret of this entire debate that gender determines reaction in a way that is antithetical to the overall concept. If you hate pointless brutality against any individual, sex doesn’t matter – not in perception, not in presentation. Death is death, and the reproductive organs of those being butchered are unimportant. Besides, looking back over the murders in both movies, one would dare say that the original Hostel is far more gruesome than the smattering of gore given in the sequel.


Still, there will be those who question all of Eli Roth’s intensions. To them, both movies are simply the same notes being hit on different masculine/feminine beats, and the entire girl angle of the series smacks of reprehensible personal depravity. Like most of the horror genre, it will be easily dismissed as the playground for perverts and those who get some manner of sick kicks out of the terrifying and torture of human beings. Like hardcore pornography, it is given over to a select group of weirdoes who can’t see the forest for all the blood and guts soaked trees. Unfortunately, such criticism is as narrow-minded and biased as any other position of intolerance. Hostel: Part II is not a mindless rip-off of its original narrative, nor is it the most violent movie concerning women ever created. Both ideas are simply shorthand for avoiding the whole horror as entertainment discussion. Until said situation can be settled once and for all, it will be motives, not the movies themselves, that will be constantly chastised and challenged.


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