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by Bill Gibron

26 Jul 2008


It’s incredible when you think of it, but Jet Li’s first Hollywood film (as a villain in Lethal Weapon IV) was a mere 10 years ago. That’s right, back in 1998, few outside the Hong Kong action film fanbase knew the amazing talents of this life long kung fu expert. Certainly his work in the Once Upon a Time in China films made a major impact, but it took DVD and the digital format to really serve those epics the way they deserved. Indeed, Li’s rise from cult to commodity, geek glory to A-list action man, is nothing short of amazing.

And with said ascent we Westerners are finally being treated to the many unknown movies in his resume. Thanks to Genius Products, The Weinstein Company, and their definitive Dragon Dynasty label, his 1993 tour de force Tai Chi Master is now available. Featuring several major players in the genre both in front of and behind the camera, we get a clear example of why Li is the superstar he is today.

As young boys among the Shaolin, Jun Bao and Tien Bo were almost inseparable - that is, when they weren’t trying to outdo each other in the martial arts arena. A mistake sees them banned from the temple, and set out into the world. Soon, Tien Bo has fallen under the corrupting influence of the local eunuch governor, while Jun Bao works with a Robin Hood like insurrection taking back the excessive taxes and shakedown protection monies manipulated out of the population. In a grab for power, Tien Bo promises to stop the rebellion.

He tricks his friends into an attempted assassination. Only Jun Bao and broken woman Sui Lin make it out alive. Vowing to end the reign of terror instigated by his childhood friend, our hero takes up the sacred teachings of Chi, and learns the invaluable fighting lessons of its skill set. Naturally, a showdown between Jun Bao and Tien Bo will prove who is indeed the master, and whose been a servant to secular whims for far too long.

Tai Chi Master is one of the greatest martial arts movies of all time. This is no exaggeration. When you combine the stellar talents of a prime Li (30 years old and ready to rock), an amazing Michelle Yeoh, a ballsy turn by Chin Siu Ho, and nonstop action amazement from a directing God Yuen Wo Ping, this is the kind of kung fu spectacle that turns the novice into a fan and the knowledgeable into something akin to rabid. The basic plot serves as a model cinematic clothesline, perfect for the filmmaker to hang his patented wire fighting stunt scenes on. Even better, each one builds in skill level and execution, leading to a series of third act showdowns which close the story in absolutely epic fashion.

Unlike other examples of the genre, which focus almost exclusively on honor and duty, tradition and the trappings of society, Tai Chi Master is more concerned about the philosophical underpinnings of the title art form. Here, Jun Bao and Tien Bo are exiled for violating the monastery’s strict codes. But before they leave, their master explains how this is a blessing in disguise. Without understanding how their skill set plays within the parameters of the real world - and in turn, how the pair will respond when temptation and teachings clash - they will never truly gain wisdom. All throughout the first third of the narrative, our neophytes are tested over and over.

Part of the joy in this majestic battle royale is in how the characters react. Chin Siu Ho has the hardest role to fulfill, since we have to watch him turn from ambitious to evil in a very short period of time. Of course, the script gives him some truly horrendous crimes to commit, yet we have to buy the personal motivation and find empathy. Ho helps us do so. Similarly, Ms. Yeoh is hardly a weak willed woman, especially within these settings. But Tai Chi Master throws her for a loop early on, when an ex-husband shows up with his new horrible harpy wife. After another classic confront, Siu Lin drowns her sorrows in massive vats of wine. It’s spellbinding to see the actress in anything other than superhero mode.

The biggest surprise, however, is Jet Li’s effervescent, almost tragicomic performance as Jun Bao. There is lots of clowning and confused physical shtick in his humor-laced routine, but the overall façade he presents is one of dismay, betrayal, and anger. He even gets to play inebriated and insane (while recuperating from an attack). While he maintains the same stature and grace throughout, his is a troubled man, tormented by a true lack of understanding. Once he gets into the montage-style Tai Chi material, complete with voiceover lessons and artful fighting illustrations, we sense the champion coming to the fore. His last battle with Tien Bo seals the deal…and the movie.

Lacking some of the insight we’ve come to expect from the DVD series, the bonus features presented are more praise-oriented than production dense. Brett Ratner and Elvis Mitchell are on hand to give Jet li, Michelle Yeoh and Yuen Wo Ping their due, while another featurette focuses on the location for the shoot. The only star we hear from is Tien Bo - Chin Siu Ho. Looking surprisingly young, he discusses his own martial arts past and what it was like working with the various icons present. Wrapping everything up is another excellent commentary from Bey Logan. Desperate to fill in the blanks located at places like Wikipedia and IMDb, he delivers a detailed, dense, discussion of both the players and the pitfalls in making this kind of action ‘opera’. It’s an intriguing listen. 

With its lightening swordplay, flawless fisticuffs, slapstick style physical stunts, and well-choreographed genius, Tai Chi Master instantly takes its place among the many noted genre classics. It contains timeless performances from all involved while staying true to the recognizable approaches that keep fans flocking to this area of entertainment. Even better, this is the perfect introductory film for anyone wondering why, in today’s clime of CGI inspired bravado and outsized visuals, the basic body movements associated with the martial arts remain compelling. It’s much more than the violence. It’s the names responsible for the mayhem that are equally important. And Tai Chi Master has an amazing collection of talent behind it.

by Bill Gibron

25 Jul 2008


Some films commit the cardinal cinematic sin of being too smart for their own good. They smugly announce their importance, challenging you to hate them if only to expose your own lack of understanding. The recent remake of Funny Games is a good example of this ideal. If you loved it, you got what writer/director Michael Haneke was selling. If you didn’t, you stand as a poseur, pretending to love film without seeing the Paloving way in which you salivate over big screen violence. Right. There is a little of this out of touch arrogance running through Neil Marshall’s ‘80s movie mash-up Doomsday. In the mind of the man responsible for Dog Soldiers and The Descent, if you’re not hip to his homage heavy update of the ‘80s post-apocalyptic thriller, then you just haven’t spent enough dateless nights in front of a VCR.

When the Reaper virus wipes out most of Scotland, the British government quarantines the North Country. Within months, the remaining population dies off, the disease’s communicable state requiring a massive wall and martial law. Thirty years late, the plague returns to the heart of London. Desperate to halt another pandemic, officials turn to Cabinet Minister Canaris and Chief of Police Nelson. One holds the key to a cure. The other has an officer who can infiltrate the hot zone and find the whereabouts of Dr. Kane, the only man who may have the answers. Of course, the region is now its own warzone, apparently immune survivors traveling in packs, creating their own craven rules along the way. But if anyone can accomplish the mission, it’s Eden Sinclair and her ragtag group of well-armed mercenaries.

As part of the Unrated DVD release from Universal, Doomsday‘s director sits down with several cast members to discuss the making of the movie, and from the 28 Days Later inspired opening to the Escape from New York styled set-up, the group make it clear that this film was as much a cinematic statement of terror trivia as an actual attempt to make some serious science fiction. The name dropping is rampant, with Mad Max (in all three of his incarnations), Aliens, and even the legend of King Arthur getting a referential shout-out. In fact, if one reads between the lines, they can garner a fairly accurate review from the ravings. Apparently, even the individuals behind the film recognize how redundant Doomsday is, going so far as to point out the far better examples it rips off in order to achieve its throwback tedium.

Part of the problem here is scope. Even when he destroyed the UK with nubile, naked space vampires, Tobe Hooper made sure to remind everyone that his Lifeforce Armageddon had bigger picture implications. But Marshall, who works better in enclosed scenarios (see: the cave carnivores of his all gal Descent), can’t take his vision global. Heck, he barely delivers Glasgow. There are sequences where Sinclair and her group of military clad clichés come across a deserted cityscape covered in foliage and debris. Yet because of the way it is shot (at night, under a bright blue moon) and the angles Marshall chooses, its looks like the most mediocre of old school matt paintings. Even worse, when we wind up in what appears to be a future shock version of Medieval Times (the restaurant chain, not the era), the castle keep seems solid only when the director stays within its location walls.

Sloppy CGI and incomprehensible scripting are not the only issues plaguing Doomsday. Marshall makes it very clear in his digital conversation that one of the many elements he tried to bring to the material was a thwarting of expectations. And if he meant that his villains would be more pathetic than powerful, that his heroine would whine as much as a pre-weaned pup, that the army would be lousy at the two things they supposedly excel at (infiltration and the skilled use of armaments), or that his government officials would be obvious and outrageous in their corruption and subterfuge, then he’d be right. Indeed, all of these failures fill out Doomsday‘s many minutes, and no amount of added violence or bloodshed (hence the cover art come-on “Unrated”) can fix them. When tossed in with what is, in essence, an adventure without a real sense of purpose - no President to save, no gas supply to protect - any inherent thrills simply disappear.

This doesn’t mean that Doomsday is a visual disaster - at least not all the time. The rest of the DVD is fleshed out with features that argue for the meticulous detail in the production design (check out the tattoos) and the budget busting goals Marshall attempted. A lot of work went into this movie, and like the old adage proudly proclaims, all of it is up on the screen. Yet it doesn’t explain why all this pomp leads to so little entertainment circumstance. Sure, if you enjoy the basic b-movie, easily amused by the sometimes absurdist premises and solid schlock execution, you might get some kicks here. But Doomsday still begs the question - why borrow from something better, especially when you have no desire (or ability) to improve on it.

Of course, filmmakers like Brian DePalma and John Carpenter would argue with such an assessment, especially since they’ve borrowed liberally from past and present masters (Hitchcock, Argento) and yet managed to make the material their own. Neil Marshall can’t make the same claim with Doomsday, no matter how many cult classics he throws into the scattered storyline. Sometimes, a bad idea is just that, no matter what inspired you to come up with it. Arguing for its mediocrity by citing better original sources seems…arrogant. Then again, that’s how the ‘smarter than you’ style of cinema defends itself. Somewhere, someone is laughing at this criticism’s inability to sync up with what this dystopian dirge has to offer. One peek behind this genre emperor’s dressing room door doesn’t reveal a lack of clothes, just someone who worships the designer yet has no idea how to wear them.

by Bill Gibron

24 Jul 2008


After last week’s Bat-mania, it’s time for Hollywood to trek on, unveiling yet another array of tent pole titles. For 25 July, here are the films in focus:

X-Files: I Want to Believe [rating: 6]

In a summer that’s seen its fair share of outsized spectacle, everything about X-Files: I Want to Believe is somber, subdued, and in the end rather minor.

While some may consider it blasphemous, The X-Files was really nothing more than somber serious science fiction in an era overrun by otherwise slapdash space operatics. It channeled V, various conspiracy theories, and just enough Night Gallery ghoulishness to keep geeks glued to the set. When it failed to fully deliver on its multi-layered mythology (are you listening, Lost?) viewers began packing up and leaving the speculation to the likes of nerds like Whedon. Now, a TV lifetime since it’s last legitimate episode (and a previous film that filled in some midpoint alien invasion blanks), agents Mulder and Scully are back…except they no longer work for the FBI…and they no longer oversee the investigation of the X-Files…and this latest sequel has nothing to do with the show’s previous extraterrestrial cabal. Huh? read full review…

 

Step Brothers [rating: 7]

It’s hard to deny how absolutely hilarious Step Brothers really is. You may feel guilty as Hell for laughing at it, but it definitely does earn its cheap and childish giggles

Embarrassing as it may seem, we’ve all been there - laughing when the fat man splits his pants, fighting off hysterics after an old lady farts. Even the most erudite among us can’t deny that, on occasion, an expletive suits a situation far better then a calmly thought out rejoinder. Let’s face it - buried deep within all of us is a primordial appreciation of the infantile. Whether it is monkeys flinging their own poo or babies whizzing in their parents’ somehow shocked faces, the scatological and the sophomoric twinge an ancient aspect of our genetic make-up.  read full review…

by Bill Gibron

24 Jul 2008


Embarrassing as it may seem, we’ve all been there - laughing when the fat man splits his pants, fighting off hysterics after an old lady farts. Even the most erudite among us can’t deny that, on occasion, an expletive suits a situation far better then a calmly thought out rejoinder. Let’s face it - buried deep within all of us is a primordial appreciation of the infantile. Whether it is monkeys flinging their own poo or babies whizzing in their parents’ somehow shocked faces, the scatological and the sophomoric twinge an ancient aspect of our genetic make-up.

Perhaps that’s why, in spite of our own civilized better judgment, the newest Will Ferrell/Adam McKay effort, Step Brothers, is so funny. Not only does it take foulness to a whole new level of arrested adolescence, but it actually banks on our love of such untenable tastelessness. The storyline is deceptively simple. While at a medical convention, Dr. Robert Doback meets Nancy Huff. Since both are single, they fall into an easy relationship. Fast forward a few months, and they are getting married. This really cramps the style of their sons - both of whom are middle-aged and still living at home.

Brennan Huff is a wannabe singer who refuses to accept his Mom’s new man. He also hates that his younger brother Derek consistently undermines his station and self-esteem. Uber-slacker Dale despises his Dad’s decision. After all, this means that a lady will be part of the Doback design, and this means much less musk-scented machismo. When they are forced to live together as step-brothers, sibling rivalries instantly come crashing to the fore. The result is 80 minutes of profanity, pranks, and the kind of over the top physical shtick that hasn’t been seen since Inspector Clouseau battled his manservant Kato for dominance over their Parisian apartment.

It’s hard to deny how absolutely hilarious Step Brothers really is. You may feel guilty as Hell for laughing at it, but it definitely does earn its cheap and childish giggles. Like a lewd, later day classic comedy team, Ferrell and symbiotic performance partner John C. Reilly make a terrific post-modern mess. They play off each other in ways that signal their same wavelength wantonness, and it’s clear that neither man is a hostage to current trends in male body typing. Though clearly created as a vehicle for both, it’s equally hard to imagine two other actors who could fit as easily into Brennan and Dale’s skid-marked shorts.

Step Brothers is, in essence, cinematic stand-up, all set-ups and payoffs. There is no real narrative nuance on display, the closest we get to reality being the foulmouthed fight between the four members of this cobbled together clan. Even the inclusion of Brennan’s self-aggrandizing brother Derek (a nicely nauseating turn by Adam Scott) is just the fuel for more prurient punchlines. While actual adults Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins definitely get to flex their foul mouthed muscles, it’s purely Ferrell and Reilly’s show - and they make the most of it. As they did in the delightful Talladega Nights, the pair swaps specialties, giving each other the opportunity to shine in ways that feel unique and unusual even if they are merely the same old scatology.

Of course, films like this need nasty set pieces to manufacture return adolescent word of mouth, and Step Brothers has plenty. Ferrell is beaten up and forced to lick a petrified dog turd…by a bunch of grade schoolers. Reilly gets the hand banana treatment from Derek’s wife. Perhaps most memorably, a conflict between the ‘boys’ results in Ferrell wiping a particularly private area all over Reilly’s drum kit…and the camera never flinches. Some might call it repulsive, but McKay understands the allure of such repugnance. In a world where Jackass frequently reminds us that our greatest comedic asset is ourselves, such gonzo groin antics are to be expected. Making them anything other than nauseating takes a certain cinematic skill, something the cast here completely understands.

Ferrell is always getting ribbed for playing the same stunted adult, a manchild incapable of reacting to situations in a grown-up, non-goofy manner. Here, he stands accused, but also adds a nice layer of pathos to his overgrown teen’s social IQ. We expect this from him and he doesn’t disappoint. Reilly is the real revelation however, if only because he moves so effortlessly from serious actor (The Aviator, Magnolia) to roles of outright idiocy. Here, Dale is the more defensive element of the pairing, the midlife crisis kid that fails to understand exactly why he has to conform to a life mandated set of rules. Together, they spark the kind of interest that gets us past the lax story designs and last act upheaval.

As a director, McKay doesn’t get a lot of credit. This happens a lot in motion picture comedy. Everyone points to Judd Apatow as some sort of cinematic savior, but this fails to take into consideration how adept he is behind the camera. The same goes for the man responsible for such broad scoped efforts as Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, and Talladega Nights. Here, the avenues are much smaller, but this doesn’t mean McKay lowers his aim. There is an ambition here that’s hard to shake, a sense that the filmmaker, in conjunction with his leads, wants to stretch old school slapstick into something almost surreal. Step Brothers is indeed a mind boggler, the kind of laughfest experience that has you shaking your head in dumbfounded disbelief at what has you giggling.

Naturally, any viewer offended by the notion of 40 year old men acting like they’re 14, including all the summer camp crudeness that accompanies the prospect, will despise Step Brothers. To them, it will be yet another example of bodily fluids replacing wit as a means of getting already shell shocked and desensitized audiences to laugh. But that would miss many of the film’s undeniable pleasures. Sure, there is something inherently sick about seeing a balding buffoon kicking the crap out of little kids, and nothing defensible can be found in a grown man groveling like a grounded middle schooler. But Step Brothers is a pristine example of vulgarity taken to endearing extremes. Check your sense of propriety at the door and simply go with the foul flow. Save the shame for another.

by Bill Gibron

24 Jul 2008


While some may consider it blasphemous, The X-Files was really nothing more than somber serious science fiction in an era overrun by otherwise slapdash space operatics. It channeled V, various conspiracy theories, and just enough Night Gallery ghoulishness to keep geeks glued to the set. When it failed to fully deliver on its multi-layered mythology (are you listening, Lost?) viewers began packing up and leaving the speculation to the likes of nerds like Whedon. Now, a TV lifetime since it’s last legitimate episode (and a previous film that filled in some midpoint alien invasion blanks), agents Mulder and Scully are back…except they no longer work for the FBI…and they no longer oversee the investigation of the X-Files…and this latest sequel has nothing to do with the show’s previous extraterrestrial cabal. Huh?

When a bureau agent goes missing, the Washington bigwigs decide to track down former FBI agent Dana Scully, now working in her previous profession as a doctor. They hope she will lead them to the infamous (and disgraced) Fox Mulder. Seems a convicted pedophile, a former priest named Fr. Joe, claims to have a psychic link to the victim, and the current agency has no time for such supernatural falderal. Under the guidance of agents Whitney and Drummy, the former X-Filers head out into the cold West Virginia wilderness, defrocked clergyman in tow. There, they begin to unravel a sinister plot involving missing persons, incomplete visions, and severed limbs. Meanwhile, this return to ‘darkness’ has Scully questioning her connection to Mulder. It doesn’t help that she has a terminally ill patient to contend with…and a hospital administration who wants to merely give up on the boy.

In a summer that’s seen its fair share of outsized spectacle, everything about X-Files: I Want to Believe is somber, subdued, and in the end rather minor. After witnessing the Shakespearean angst of a masked vigilante battling a clown faced psychopath, or the reinvented spy superlatives of a literal ‘iron’ man, a standard serial killer procedural is just not that significant. It’s not that head honcho Chris Carter doesn’t try to artificially load his film with significance. The subtext surrounding this latest stand alone installment (in line with the ‘monster of the week’ work the series initially traded in) deals with several current hot button topics - stem cell research, black market organ transplants, pedophilic priests, gay marriage…even George Bush gets a gentle, sound cue tweaking. Yet all of this social sturm and drang can’t compensate for a narrative that’s made-for-TV friendly, and decidedly out of its medium.

Carter seems convinced that this less showy Silence of the Lambs will truly resonate with audiences. He treats every confrontation - either between Mulder and Scully, Scully and Fr. Joe, Mulder and anyone within earshot - as if the fate of the free world rests on the very next syllable. He keeps his clues close to the vest, making it almost impossible for viewers to follow along (or eventually foil) his dénouement. He gets a lot of mileage out of the bleak Vancouver landscape, and yet the snow-covered vistas hide more than just the film’s muddled motives. I Want To Believe seems locked in a kind of entertainment permafrost, feeling that elements that made heads spin and tongues wag 15 years ago will still seem intriguing in these days of torture porn and gorehound gratuity.

Indeed, the best material here ignores the mystery fully, and instead focuses on the complicated and moralistic relationship between Mulder and Scully. Since this film takes place AFTER the end of the series (Fight the Future was set between seasons five and six), there are lots of references to certain interpersonal cliffhangers. The fate of William, the trumped up charges against our hero, the need to stay in hiding, and the reason behind Scully’s reluctance to rejoin the cause are all addressed, and stalwarts Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny are so familiar with these characters that they nail every emotional beat. Sure, these scenes stop the narratives formulaic forward motion, but without them, I Want to Believe would be nothing more than a run of the mill, slightly more macabre CSI.

The rest of the cast confirm this. Amanda Peet is given the thankless job of playing the agent still willing to give Mulder and Scully a chance, while Alvin ‘Xzibit’ Joiner is reduced to slowburning as the surly ‘bad cop’. Bill Connolly’s boy buggering cleric is all fright wig gray and Scottish brogue, lacking the depth needed to make Fr. Joe anything other than a plot point. Perhaps the biggest mistake a movie like this makes is turning the terror into an unseen item. Since we don’t know who or what is behind the disappearances, and don’t get enough information to connect the uncovered body parts, we have to wait to the final 15 minutes before anything clicks. When it does, we see an intriguing potential in the premise - and recognize how it was more or less scuttled for other storyline significance.

Oddly enough, all would have been forgiven had co-writer/director Carter (who redeems himself in both behind the scenes arenas) simply renamed this project and cast Lance Henriksen as prophet/profiler Frank Black. This is much more a Millennium movie (the horribly underrated X-Files follow up from 1996) than something Scully and Mulder look comfortable in. And in our current political clime, the dour face of a man who’s tuned into the approaching Apocalypse makes for a much better shock conduit. While some fans have longed for the return of the more horror-tinged side of the series’ set-up, the alien invasion conspiracy - and its inconsistent folklore - is what drives most memories of (and messageboard showdowns over) the show.

As a stand alone title, something to remind fans of how chilling The X-Files used to be, I Want to Believe does a decent job. And when compared to other similarly styled thrillers, including recent rejects like Untraceable and 88 Minutes, it is definitely a clear cut above. But in a season where a sort of creative classicism rules, resting on one’s laurels just won’t do. X-Files: I Want to Believe, for all its interpersonal intrigue and controversial context, feels like the proverbial little fish in a very, very big cinematic sea. No matter its many strengths, it just can’t compete. 

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