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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Son of Rambow [rating: 7]

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

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


The Strangers [rating: 4]

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

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

Other Releases—In Brief

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

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

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

Will Proudfoot lives a very sheltered life. As a member of the Plymouth Brethren religious sect, he is not allowed to watch TV, listen to modern music, or befriend his classmates. Quite by accident, he makes the acquaintance of school bad boy Lee Carter. Initially, the relationship is very one sided. Lee takes advantage of Will, and Will is too inexperienced to know any better. The duo begins work on a homemade movie, inspired by the recent release of First Blood, starring Sylvester Stallone. Entitled “Son of Rambow”, it incorporates many of Will’s wildest fantasies, mostly concerning the recent death of his father. As the boys make their mini action epic, they draw the attention of a French exchange student named Didier. He also wants to star in the film. On a far more serious note, Will’s work outside the order gets the attention of the elders. They warn the Proudfoots - end this association, or face expulsion.

Wistful and a little wonky, playfully recreating a fanciful early ‘80s UK summer, Son of Rambow definitely feels like someone’s personal experiences reinterpreted for public consumption. Writer/director Garth Jennings, last heard from helming the underappreciated big screen version of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, takes snapshots from his childhood, mixes them with some intriguing local color, and paints a glorious canvas of an era unsure of itself, punk plowing into pop without a Blitz kid’s concern for style or substance. There are sequences of sumptuous reminiscence here, times when we literally get lost in the unique time and place that Jennings is portraying. At other instances, things become so pat and predictable that the forewarning undermines the wistfulness at play.

It goes without saying that the stars of this particular piece are the young actors at the center of the story. As the irascible Lee Carter, Will Poulter seems pulled directly out of a primer on purposefully angry young lads. He’s Butch from Our Gang given a slightly cockney bent, and he’s totally believable, even when slightly schizophrenic in his motivations and mannerisms. We may not believe in his ability as a future filmmaker, but we do get the impression that he’s dedicated, and when personal push comes to shove, quite loyal. Of the duo, young Bill Milner definitely has the harder role. His perplexed Will Proudfoot is walking, talking fundamentalist naiveté, desperate to break out of his religious restrictions, but unable to achieve the proper perspective. For him, the world is one big animated adventure just waiting to be had. Gullibility is hard to sell, especially in these all-knowing ‘naughts’. But Milner makes us believe, even if his ideas are a bit babyish.

Indeed, the whole moviemaking subtext steals some of Son of Rambow‘s potency. When Will and Lee are recreating overly aggressive action scenes and steroided stunts, we instantly anticipate the physical comedy. It may be rote shtick, but it is mostly satisfying. Where the film really flies is in its mix tape mapping of the early ‘80s. Sure, the song selection is all over the Top of the Pops terrain (“I Just Can’t Get Enough” by Depeche Mode never shared chart time with Sioxsie and the Banshee’s “Peek a Boo”), and the fashions scream of the broadest epoch generalization, but Jennings does a jolly job of capturing a moment when the dour depression of before seemed to open into an optimist, anything goes giddiness. It’s nostalgia, but its knowing, not knotty.

Perhaps the most intriguing material is left more or less unexplored. The Plymouth Brethren may appear like any other sect, starved of rationality as they use the Bible as the basis for every one of their often unconscionable decisions. And there is an interesting plotpoint when Will’s mother lets slip her secret love of a certain 45 rpm record. But we don’t get much more than mean-spirited reprimands and a leader who clearly lusts for the passive Proudfoot widow. Not much is made out of the missing father either - he is dead, but the details appear shrouded in a lack of clarity that makes his absence lack the standard cinematic impact. We want more of this material, to really understand the last act decision made by the family. But Son of Rambow is not interested in intricacy. It’s satisfied with a more slapdash approach.

Not that we as an audience mind, really. This is clearly a movie where the sum of all parts transcends the individual problems with each particular narrative thread. When mixed together with Didier’s pseudo stash, Plastic Bertrand panache (he’s an odd addition to this story, to be sure), Lee Carter’s old folks home front, Will’s wonderfully cartoonish flights of fancy, and the Monty Python meets misery of our heroes’ school situation, the manic movie making really zings. Certainly this is an incomplete effort, leaving more questions than clear cut conclusions, and the required wrap seems too easy given all that’s gone before. But there is also a bubbly exuberance that really reminds one of their youth and all its awkward awakening glory. This is one Son that any source could be proud of. 

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

It’s one that the new so-called shocker The Strangers strives for, over and over again. It’s so desperate to drag us through a tense little exercise in creepy cat and mouse that it all but misses the reason these movies succeed. After an especially hard night of romance and rejection, young couple James Hoyt and Kristen McKay retreat to his isolated family vacation home. As they regroup, they sense something is amiss. Suddenly, there’s a knock at the door. Even though it’s four o’clock in the morning, they answer the door. There, in the darkness, a young girl asks if ‘Tamara’ is home. Slightly belligerent, she barely takes “No” for an answer. Without warning, the house is suddenly besieged by a trio of masked assailants. Their purpose seems simply enough - torture and kill the panicked pair.

The Strangers is a deadly dull experience in boredom, strangled by two cinematic stumbling blocks - one external and one of its own unfortunate making. Outwardly, this movie can’t help but compare unfavorably to the brilliant French thriller from last year, Ils (otherwise known as Them to American audiences). So similar story-wise as to almost be exact, and utilizing a far more interesting set-up and payoff, filmmakers David Moreau and Xavier Palud really delivered the goods. We cared about the characters in that eerie little experiment in ambient noises and unseen threats. Even if the ending went a bit gonzo, we still enjoyed every spine tingling, bone chilling moment of the ride.

The second factor is completely within writer/director Bryan Bertino’s control. Instead of starting the movie off inauspiciously, allowing the tale of our crumbling couple to organically meld into the stark and subtle serial killer material to come, The Strangers shoots itself in the foot by following a lame-brained Texas Chainsaw Massacre style preamble. As our super serious voice over narrator drones on, we are told of the terror to come.  Even worse, Bertino then starts the narrative at the end, giving us horrific, hint filled glimpses of what will occur. A more successful conceit would have been to remove the first five minutes and give us nothing more than the effective shot of stars Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman in silent sadness, tears streaming down their faces. Advanced warning of their fate turns everything stale.

Not that there’s much to go on once the Manson Family by way of The Town That Dreaded Sundown shows up. Dressed in slightly unsettling costumes that conceal their identity, our mindless murderers are purposefully given no backstory or motive. The most we learn is that James and Kristen have been chosen because “they were home”. It’s a wonderfully evocative line, but Bertino does nothing with it. Similarly, the house in question is never established as a place of shelter, or safety, or scares. Ils at least let its brooding Romanian estate be as much a surprise of escape opportunities and fatalistic dead ends as a cinematic backdrop. In The Strangers, all we get is a barn, a backyard, and a ranch style design right out of the ‘70s.

In addition, Bertino completely misunderstands the use of sound as a way of securing shivers. Our couple has some of the oddest taste in music ever established in a horror film. They seem to enjoy a combination of Lester Roadhog Moran and His Cadillac Cowboys, The Shaggs, and a diseased Little Jimmy Dickens. The atonal drone of the cracked country music that plays during the fright sequences is so annoying as to cause outright anger - and nothing destroys suspense quicker than a rising urge to kill the record player. Also, Bertino misses a golden opportunity to add some ambience to his efforts. The wooded exterior should have provided some ample unexplained angst. Instead, even the aural cues are obvious.

As for the acting, Tyler and Speedman are given little to do, instantly moving from morose to victim mode in the span of a few seconds. They never provide a sense of individual urgency, capable of anything to make sure they survive. Instead, they huddle into corners and whine, whimper, and wince. We never develop any real sympathy for them, so as a result, we don’t care if they live or die. Our killers are another conundrum all together. Purposefully oblique, they come across as deadly dolls without a single sinister bone in their persistent hunter horror personas. Even when Bertino unmasks them and offers his downbeat denouement, the performances never play into genre ideals.

Of course, The Strangers is the kind of film that would welcome such unpredictability. You can just see some suit reading the script and thinking “Wow, this sure beats all that bloody torture porn being pushed right now.” Sadly, an alternative is not necessarily a salve, or in extremes, a salvation. Just because John Carpenter changed the movie macabre dynamic with his slasher homage to the Master of Suspense doesn’t mean that 2008 is looking for the same cinematic redeemer. Bryan Bertino may believe he is onto one Hell of a shouting-back-at-the-screen audience participation thrill ride. All easily frightened fans aside, The Strangers is destined to be mildly favored and then forgotten. It doesn’t have enough heft to warrant macabre staying power.   

 

After all the rumors and innuendos about the various now-defunct shows of HBO’s Golden Age—you know, the ones that ruined us for the increasingly decrepit art of cinema—being turned into theatrical fare, the film of Sex and the City is finally upon us, and its success (or lack thereof) could well determine whether or not we will see the continuing multiplex adventures of Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen, and Jimmy McNulty. Obviously there is no single template that HBO would have to follow for film versions of any of these shows, but if such a thing did in fact happen, there are worse models they could follow than Sex and the City. In his wrapup to the half-hour groundbreaker of a sitcom that began on HBO a full ten years ago, writer/director Michael Patrick King takes about two or three season finales’ worth of tears and OMG jawdroppers and whacks them together into a big, sloppy, gooey sundae of a film that is, for better or for worse, just like the show … only longer.

The magnifier of cinematic size does things to the new adventures of this quartet of middle-aged Manhattan ladies, mostly of an unfortunate variety. While it’s all well and good to catch up with them a few years after the show’s conclusion, the pratfalls and complications of a half-hour TV show can seem either trivial or downright crude in a film. The show’s penchant for the occasional bit of embarrassing physical humor is played up here (a protruding gut when one of the ladies overeats to quell her anxieties, rumblings when another has bowel issues) but not in a way that comments on women’s insecurities, simply as a way of playing gross-out for the back row.

It also doesn’t help that King has shot and edited Sex and the City just like the show, only with cruddier cinematography and lousier music cues; where there should be glitz and perfection is only bad lighting, hand-me-down sets, and the occasional visible boom microphone darting down from above. For a story so obsessed with style and glamour, the end result is depressingly downmarket in appearance, looking like the poor second cousin of The Devil Wears Prada (which updated the show’s considerations of women and work so well that it almost makes this film entirely redundant).

All that being said, the whole point of the Sex and the City film was not to make a lasting piece of art, but simply to squeeze more life out of some characters that its audience couldn’t quite let go of, being sick to death of watching the butchered episodes re-running endlessly on TBS. On that front, at least, the film succeeds for the most part, concentrating on running the ladies through an obstacle course of betrayal and dashed expectations, dangling the rose of a happy ending continually just out of their grasp.

For those who have been dragged to the theater by friends or spouses and have never seen the show, a recap of the characters’ basic traits is quickly (if not deftly) handled by clip montages during the opening credits. After that, it’s back to the basics of making love last in the big mean city. In short: Charlotte (Kristin Davis) is living in married bliss, Samantha (Kim Cattrall) is out in Hollywood managing her boyfriend’s career, Miranda’s (Cynthia Nixon) marriage to Steve (David Eigenberg) is struggling, and Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) is moving in with Mr. Big, aka John (Chris Noth).

After a rough opening section where things go just a little too smoothly for too long, the hammer gets dropped and three of the women fall into their own little puddles of discontent. About a half-hour in, King finds the right rhythmic mix of discord, romance, and humor, after which the remainder of this surprisingly long film (148 minutes?) zips along with due speed. There are rough patches where it feels as though the script is struggling to shift from one episode to the next, and a surprising number of the characters are given little to do. Charlotte and Samantha play essentially one note and plotline for the entire film, while Steve and Mr. Big (practically the only male characters from the show to have left much of any impression) are only given the minimum necessary lines to break Miranda and Carrie’s hearts, not enough to give people new to the story any idea why these women care for them.

We all know that Sex and the City is really all about Carrie—one of the only freelance writers in New York who apparently can afford to hire an assistant (Jennifer Hudson, flat)—and her search for romantic bliss but was it really necessary to make Miranda even more of a miserable, cynical shrew? There’s a real ugliness to King’s treatment of Miranda, one of the only women here who evinces any intellect, but that’s par for the course with the show, and since the film is nothing but a retread anyway (Sex and the City: The Further Adventures of Carrie) such mean-spiritedness shouldn’t come as any surprise.

As a well-calculated remix of an enduring television landmark, Sex and the City fits the bill, leaving naught but a quickly dissipating champagne buzz. The fact that it stands well above just about any romantic comedy that’s been popped out of the Hollywood jello-mold in the last year or so isn’t so much of a compliment as it is a sign of how devalued the genre is.

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