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by Bill Gibron

22 Sep 2009


The events of 11 September, 2001 continue to resonate for most of us. It’s not a matter of never forgetting as much as always remembering. It also lingers for reasons that have very little to do with the horrific events of that day and, instead, deal directly with their shocking, sensationalized aftermath. Remember, we’ve gone to war because of it, turned our Constitution into a shell of its former self because of it, and played nation maker as an indirect byproduct of our desire to sweat out the enemy.

Now, nearly a decade later, memories haunt us like the twisted remnants of the Twin Towers, their significance continuously countermanded by declarations of support and pro-American prostylitizing. But for some, 9/11 is significant for other, more underhanded reasons. In the always compelling - if not usually logical - realm of conspiracy theory, the tragedy was nothing more than a staged coup, an outright power grab by a President and his insane inner circle to redefine the United States foreign policy for the next several years.

Pointing to previous despotic interventions on the part of position-mad politicians, the documentary Loose Change 9/11: An American Coup sets up a scenario by which George Bush, along with several highly placed members of his Cabinet, construct an elaborate cabal for a controlled implosion of the World Trade Center and a surrounding skyscraper. Evidence both anecdotal and visual is compiled, contradicting the “official version” of the day’s events. Coincidences turn into prearranged plotting (the sudden start of important war games on the same date as the attacks, the Federal agencies housed in the last structure) and illustrations from the past (Hitler and the Reichstag fire, Johnson and the JFK assassination) become validation for such a surreal, self-imposed catastrophe.

Like Oliver Stone’s evisceration of the Warren Commission, Loose Change hopes to dismantle the findings of the government’s own 9/11 tribunal, taking down the sequence of events, the men responsible, the motives for such a “stunt”, and the lack of any other explanation. They then pull out the most important and damning piece of proof they possess - a scientist who assures us that “explosive residue” and “nanothermite fragments” were found in the post-incident debris. Their argument sounds rational - reopen the investigation, follow the paper and rubble trail, and determine if four airplanes, several tons of jet fuel, and the structural integrity of the towers themselves could cause this kind of massive destruction - or in two cases, a lack thereof.

Indeed, where Loose Change wins a lot of points is in the presentation of the Pentagon/Pennsylvania cornfield discussions, two ancillary crash sites which yield little or no wreckage. While it doesn’t prove that two massive jumbo jets didn’t not smash into the side of a building or isolated farmland, the lack of anything remotely resembling a plane puts an uneasy spin on the surrounding conjecture. As Rescue Me‘s Daniel Sunjata narrates from a carefully crafted script director Dylan Avery, little lights start going off in our heads. It may be nothing more than a kneejerk reaction, a case of instant fault without benefit of all the facts, but it’s all Loose Change needs. From there, it can gather steam and discuss suppressed testimony, harmful hearsay, and any other kind of specious conclusion and, at the very least, gain our attention.

Yet what’s hardest about buying into Loose Change‘s conclusions, even if the intention is nothing more than to reexamine the case, is that there have been a great many post-tragedy attempts to illustrate what happened, outside a carefully orchestrated inside job. The Discovery Channel has delivered near definitive reports on the building collapses, arguing without much contradiction that a series of structural design flaws, including the rapid and sudden removal of the metal’s mandatory fireproofing, allowed the smoldering diesel to do its irreversible damage. Architects, other than the ones Avery speaks to, have also illustrated some construction missteps that may have helped in the buildings’ eventual “implosion” like freefall.

Of course, anything written above can and sometimes is used by Loose Change to support its theory, spun into a web so slick and a factual fallacy so compelling that you can’t help but get caught up in the hysterics. As with any situation that seems both unfathomable and unexplainable, Avery plays on our fears, both internal and external. He dismisses Al Qaeda and the whole Saudi/Bin Laden angle while drawing direct links to many in the Bush White House. Religious fervor and the increasing anger toward the United States in matters of Middle East policy are placated by interviews with individuals who heard “explosions” inside the various buildings on that fateful day. In fact, the overall insularity of Loose Change may be its greatest strength - and its most pejorative weakness. To forget the foreign landscape to forward an awkward and sometimes circular hypothesis misses the main purposes of the documentary format - instruction and insight.

Yet Loose Change cannot be shouted down, Bill Maher style, in simple hopes that its supporters go away. Indeed, we live in times when everything is suspect, from the simplest proposition to the most complicated multilayered circumstance. The internet fuels feelings of distrust and personal empowerment, making investigative journalism null and void in favor or blogsphere deduction and messageboard conclusions. Does Avery and his DVD narrative expose questions that should be looked into and addressed once and for all? Absolutely. For instance - Why did we ship all the WTC metal out of the country without inspection? Why was there no wreckage near the Pentagon or out in Pennsylvania? Were the foreign pilots really experts, or patsies as part of a bigger scheme? In our initial rush to judgment, certain conclusions became givens. Loose Change suggests there is still more to learn and it might just be right.

But again, being on the moral side of a subject doesn’t prove your position. It will take more than a few blow-up frames of the towers’ collapse and some casual conversations with witnesses to convince the family of a fallen soldier that he died because George Bush wanted to maintain his passive Presidency by any means necessary. It’s going to take a lot more than handy happenstance and easy alignments to turn a nationally televised incident into a wholly realized secret strategy. No one said for Avery and his ilk to be silenced. Their voice is one of concern, not crackpot history. But one must always be careful when treading on memory.

For many, that’s all that remains of 9/11. Take that away, and you upset the long settled balance. Loose Change clearly delights in such shakeups. Here’s hoping it can accept whatever happens - pro, con, or most likely, nothing. This is a very clever bit of cinema. But good does not automatically equal correct. Currently, all Avery has is motion picture proof, and that’s just not enough.

by Bill Gibron

20 Sep 2009


What, exactly, were people expecting from X-Men Origins: Wolverine? After the incessant bellyaching that followed the announcement of Brett Ratner as director of X-Men: The Last Stand, (and the resulting, subpar film) Fox went out and hired Oscar winning director Gavin Hood (responsible for Best Foreign Language Film Tsotsi) and offered up a cast of considerable talent including returning action man Hugh Jackman, as well as Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston, and Ryan Reynolds. They mined the comic for favorite characters (Gambit, Deadpool) and reset the franchise to follow the adventures of James Howlett/Logan during his years in pre-Dr. Xavier exile.

And still the fanboys kvetched. They complained and argued over faithfulness to the source material, use of computer generated F/X, and a scattershot focus that weighed heavily on the psychological and not on the spectacle. And this is a year which saw Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra get by on substantially…SUBSTANTIALLY…less. So it’s interesting to hear Hood’s commentary track as part of the newly released, Blu-ray edition of the film. For him, X-Men Origins: Wolverine was a story of siblings. It was a look at how being different, exiled, and unwanted creates unusual bonds of brotherhood, and the mounting mental quandaries of having to live outside the norm. As a South African native, he could relate to the basic mutants vs. humans segregation and wanted to concentrate on the personal as well as the pyrotechnics. He did indeed deliver the big stuff. But for him, it was the small details that mattered.

Sequences like the opening, when a young Logan learns of his parentage, his biological link to the sinister Victor Creed (soon to be Sabertooth), and his own deadly physical mutation. Gifted with seeming immortality, the two half-brothers participate in major world events, like the Civil War and Vietnam. It is there that Victor’s anger gets the best of him, and when he attacks a superior officer, the two men are condemned to death. When the firing squad can’t kill them, a shady military man named Major William Stryker recruits them as part of a secret mercenary group. Their goal? Seek out and secure as much of the interstellar metal Adamantium as possible. When Logan balks at their brutal ways, he quits. This sets up the first of many conflicts between our hero and his sibling as well as with the Major and his prized recruit.

To delve into the narrative more would give away several of X-Men Origins: Wolverine‘s best moments. Suffice it to say, our lead learns of his physiological abilities, gets an impenetrable metal skeleton, and comes face to face with a horrific scientific creation bent on destroying the mutants one by one. For Hood, all of this is required of the wannabe blockbuster, built into a script by David Benioff and Skip Woods. But he is far more interested in the personality beats between Logan and Victor, about how the notion of being different translates into a psyche that stands alone against the world - for good and for bad. He also tracks the growing abandonment issues within the dynamic, illustrating how almost everyone Logan loves either dies or is indirectly destroyed, while Victor’s horrific temper seems propelled by his need for another like him.

Sure, this is heady stuff, but that’s part of X-Men Origins’ charms. It’s the reason comic book fans favor a set-up storyline when beginning a series. The previous films had Wolverine suffering from intermittent flashbacks, mere glimpses into what happened to him in Stryker’s lab. Now, we get the whole picture, painting in strokes that don’t smash you over the head with their obviousness. It’s interesting how fan embraced The Dark Knight for its various complexities, its more “realistic” take on the superhero standard, and yet X-Men Origins gets condemned for basically attempting the same thing. Yes, Hood is no Christopher Nolan, and he doesn’t have iconic elements like Two-Face and The Joker to work with, and we are dealing with ideas far outside Knight‘s vigilante against crime syndicate scenario, but with properly pegged expectations, this is a very good film. It’s entertaining, exciting, and an excellent example of what can be done when visionary individuals - not journeymen - sit behind the camera.

This is clear from the content packed product Fox provides. The Blu-ray format really celebrates Hood’s compositions and framing, the 1080p/AVC encoded transfer doing a terrific job with the 2.35:1 image. The colors pop, the various locations look epic, and aside from the occasionally forced F/X shot (some greenscreen sequences are rather obvious), the movie looks amazing. It really does recreate the theatrical experience in scope and visual wonder. As for the sound situation - get ready to have your subwoofer suffer from a massive bombast overdose. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 turns every explosion into a nuclear blast, every car chase or fight sequence into an Olympian battle between formidable aural gods. Even the smaller sonic situations, like the clank of Wolverine’s metallic claws, come across in crystal clarity.

Along with the aforementioned commentary track, the Blu-ray is packed with plenty of additional production insights. There’s another alternate narrative track with the producers (good), deleted scenes with option Hood discussion (interesting), a play along trivia track with lots of X-Men goodies (fun), and a discussion of each character and the difficulty of bringing them - and their abilities - to life (insightful). We also get an extended look at Hugh Jackman’s dedication to the role as part of a “Complete Origins” featurette, an overview of the character with Stan Lee and Len Wein, and a glimpse of the world premiere. One of the best bonus features however is the Ultimate X-Mode BONUSVIEW option, which provides three separate picture-within-a-picture choices (along with the trivia track) that allow you to immerse yourself in all facets of bringing X-Men Origins: Wolverine to the big screen, including connections to the rest of the franchise, casting choices, and a look at the film’s pre-visualization.

And yet one fears that no amount of bells and whistles will convince the already angry fanboy to change his mind and embrace this movie. Hood may have been a radical choice, but he brings a level of compassion and innate understanding to the mutant situation that few other filmmakers could - and he can definitely handle the bigger, popcorn movie mandated material. Sometimes, there’s no accounting for what the devoted demand of their beloved fantasy figures. Maybe the leaked bootleg version almost a month before did do some damage. Maybe there was nothing Gavin Hood could do to satisfy some. Whatever the case, X-Men Origins: Wolverine is truly a cut above the standard Summer blockbuster - it’s just a shame too few thought so. Maybe home video will resurrect its flailing fortunes. Unlike many of the season’s shoddy adventures, this one deserves a second chance.

by Bill Gibron

18 Sep 2009


It’s safe to say that, somewhere down the line, Jody Hill is going to make a truly f*cked-up masterpiece. He’s going to drop all the idiosyncrasies and preplanned insularity, dig deep into his feverish and often fetid imagination, dump the angst-ridden Apatow shtick and come away with something truly remarkable. You can sense it in the work he’s done so far - the mean-spirited satire of The Foot Fist Way, the equally ugly honesty of Eastbound and Down. Now comes his latest big screen screed, the wickedly weird mall cop craziness known as Observe and Report. Starring funny business flavor of the month Seth Rogen and dealing once again with an isolated individual struggling to make a statement in a world that only wants reassurances, Hill definitely has his hands full. This time around, however, audiences may not be ready for the eerily familiar juggling act.

All his life, Ronnie Barnhardt has wanted to be part of law enforcement. His dream is to become a police officer and carry a gun. Unfortunately, he is stuck as head of security for a local mall, and while he takes his job very seriously, the rest of the employees think he’s a joke. When a flasher starts stalking women at the facility, including Ronnie’s dream babe make—up counter girl Brandi, the mentally unbalanced rent-a-cop vows to solve the case. In doing so, he hopes this prissy party gal will become his regular Saturday night thing. Of course, he will have to get around actual lawman Detective Harrison, a severe lack of clues, and his own inept sense of self to apprehend the pervert. To add to his frustration, Ronnie finally takes the necessary steps to enter the police academy. While physically capable, his current psychological “deficiencies” might make this a one way street as well.

It’s not Hill’s fault that Kevin James stole his thunder. Indeed, the stand-up turned pseudo-star could not have anticipated that Paul Blart: Mall Cop would be one of 2009’s surprise hits (hackneyed and horrible as it is). Indeed, as audiences exit Observe and Report (or revisit it again on home video), many will probably wonder why Rogen and company choose to ride the coattails of said slapstick slice of family farce - especially with such an antisocial take on the material. The truth, of course, is that both films found their way to market without direct correlation of competition from the other. In addition, Hill was hacking away at this screenplay long before James was jumping up and down like an overstuffed burrito in a ball pit. Still, the similarity in subject matter (and the eventual acceptance of Blart‘s mindless mediocrity) means that Observe and Report has absolutely no chance at the box office. Perhaps Warner’s new DVD and Blu-ray can solve that problem.

Clearly this film is not for everyone. It doesn’t reach across commercial boundaries to try and embrace the demographic or be everything to every viewer…and fail. Instead, Hill is like a stubborn old man, sitting on his motion picture front porch and chasing away all but the more adventurous from his aesthetic lawn. Let’s face it - anyone who uses a naked fatso running full frontal throughout the finale (in slow motion, nonetheless) is tweaking the tenets of modern audience attention spans. He’s challenging those who expect warm and fuzzy with material tepid and frazzled. Rogen is not the cuddly teddy geek he’s portrayed in numerous films. Instead, his Ronnie is a bi-polar problem with a penchant for inappropriate comments, obsessive-compulsive fantasizing, and a real love of weaponry. The minute we watch Rogen shooting targets with a massive handgun, we can guess where this contextual characteristic is going to eventually reveal itself.

There are a lot of hidden agendas in Observe and Report, from a fey Hispanic co-worker who might not be completely honest, to a police detective who’d rather screw around with Ronnie than actually solve the case. There is a classic, curse-laden crossfire between Rogen and a kiosk worker that proves that the F-bomb is still the most versatile of all putdown, and we do enjoy the drunken directness of Ronnie’s mother. Her combination of inebriated insights and off the wall warmth are almost magical. Indeed, one of the best things about Hill’s particular brand of humor is that it’s based wholly on people - problem, hate, and pain filled individuals, but human beings nonetheless. He doesn’t go for the gross out, unless it’s part of someone’s personality, nor does he dim the sentimentality to keep the anarchy alive.

This doesn’t mean that everything works in Observer and Report. Two important players - Ray Liotta’s sarcastic investigating officer and Michael Pena’s lisping security guard are significantly underused and ambiguously formulated. When each one reveals their true nature, it’s less of a surprise and more like a sudden, senseless shock. The same can be said for Faris’ fried make-up clerk. Ditz can only take you so far, and this otherwise capable actress is reduced to playing potted and prone to date-rape like sex. Hill also has a hard time keeping things straight. In one scene, Ronnie is so fascinatingly adept at fighting that he beats down a bevy of street toughs. But in a last act confrontation with the cops, he gets a few good licks in before having his clock cleaned.

What makes this all the more unusual is that Hill genuinely believes in his movies’ motives. The new Blu-ray disc has a picture in picture commentary track find the director sitting with his two main leads (Rogen and Farris) and together, they find subtext and psychological complexities that the actual film fails to address. Some of the additional scenes included do flesh out the characters, and all the Making-of material really supports the conclusions being proffered. As for the presentation itself, the 2.41:1 1080p image is excellent, giving a clear consumerism crassness to the New Mexican location. In addition, Hill’s ear for aural complements really works within the loseless Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 mix. Songs like “It’s Late” by Queen and “When I Paint My Masterpiece” by The Band really come alive with speaker sparking goodness.

And even a good digital reproduction might not help. When placed alongside the current crop of gutless comedies, films which manufacture funny stuff out of grade school level quips and uncomfortable physical crudeness (isn’t that right, Pink Panther 2?), Observe and Report is like Conan (the Barbarian, not the late night talk show host). It’s not afraid to take chances, to push envelopes, and explore elements that usually don’t make it into a satire or spoof. With a cast that, for the most part, fits perfectly into Hill’s humor ideals and a story that serves the basic needs of the underdog hero formula, a good time should be had by all. But don’t underestimate that dreaded Blart effect. Word of mouth will doom the eventual bottom line, but that doesn’t take away from what Hill has accomplished. One day, he’ll create his classic. Until then, we’ll have to put up with above-average efforts like Observe and Report. It’s very good. We’ll have to wait until Hill achieves ‘great’.

by Bill Gibron

18 Sep 2009


Believe it or not, there was a time when the name Wayans didn’t instantly incur the wrath of comedy fans everywhere. From I’m Gonna Get You Sucka to In Living Color, Keenan Ivory and his rotating band of relatives produced biting send-ups and celebrated spoofs, all with an unusual (for the time) African American slant. To call them trailblazers would do their innovations a disservice. At a time when TV and the mainstream media saw all black people as either Huxtables or hoodlums, the Wayans crew walked the fine line between stereotype and satire brilliantly.

Then…something happened. Like those stories from our youth about falling in with the wrong crowd, the various members of Wayans nation saw commercial success blind their abilities. Where once they were funny, they flopped. Where once they delivered high brow burlesque that functioned as savage social commentary, they spewed cinematic scat like Scary Movie, White Chicks, and that most miserable of motion picture experiences, Little Man. In fact, when it was announced that the formerly talented team was taking up the movie mantle of films like Step Up and Save the Last Dance, audiences and critics groaned in disbelief. Apparently, they thought they knew what was coming next.

Luckily, the next generation of Wayans seems ready to return the family to greatness - or at the very least, likeability. Their first attempt at resetting the clan’s commercial fortunes is Dance Flick, and while not a perfect comedy by any stretch of the imagination, what we do have here is something fresh, inventive, exciting, and most importantly, fun. Instead of throwing every tired pop culture riff at the screen, desperate to see what sticks, the latest members of the Mad Magazine influenced crew use the classic ZAZ formula for funny business and wind up delivering something every bit as good as Airplane! or the Naked Gun films.

After her mother’s untimely death, Juilliard wannabe Megan travels to the big city to live with her deadbeat dad. There, she meets up with several standout members of the Musical High School class, including 21 year old unwed mother Charity, her talented if slightly stuck up street thug brother, Thomas Uncles, his best friend A-Con, prissy white chick Nora, and incredibly flamboyant (and very closeted) Jack. While she dreams of a life as a dancer, the tough streets of her new urban environment constantly remind her of the struggle ahead. All that changes, of course, when overweight mobster Sugar Bear demand money from Thomas and A-Con. Naturally, their only chance of getting it is via a big time ghetto wide dance off - with Megan and the rest of Musical High as the “crew”.

While it may sound like an excuse, it is important to note that comedy, like horror and musical taste, remains a very subjective standard. Just because you think something is funny, scary, or the second coming of The Beatles doesn’t mean a group consensus will support you position. We all have private favorites and fixations, pleasures that may be unexplainable but make you feel happy - and slightly guilty - for enjoying them so. That’s exactly what Dance Flick is, especially for a film critic who’s seen more than his fair share or suburban girl meets street tough scenarios. With its combination of cleverness and crudity, obvious gags and hilarious insider smackdowns, the movie hits more targets than it misses. Even better, the cast seems really invested in the story and the situations, unlike that god-awful junk that arrives under the various “Move” monikers - Date Movie, Epic Movie, Disaster Movie - every six months or so.

There truly is an art to mixing narrative with nuttiness, avoiding the slapdash senselessness of someone like Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg. Sure, when Sugar Bear breaks into a Dreamgirls parody of the showstopper “And I Am Telling You…”, we recognize the obvious aside. But the other main song in the film (a sexually confused take on the original high school musical Fame) flows directly from the need to mock the omnipresent House of Mouse franchise. But it’s the dancing, including the numerous slapstick and physical comedy incorporated therein, that is truly wonderful, especially the moves of the incredibly talented Affion Crockett, Shoshana Bush, and Damon Wayans, Jr. A sense or reality is important to making a movie like this work and their believability as street savvy hoofers puts Dance Flick over the top.

Even better, the toilet humor and gross out stunts are kept to a minimum. Only Amy Sedaris pushes the boundaries of propriety with her leotard-challenged instructor, Ms. Cameltoé (gee, wonder what her issue is???), while other sexual or scandalous content is modulated to fit the teenage circumstances involved. Even the deleted scenes - present on the new DVD and Blu-ray versions of the film - don’t oversell the bile (for a wonderful drunken David Hassellhoff take-off) and other bad taste tricks to keep the humor happening. Still, even with the so called “Un-rated and Outrageous” edition of the film hitting home video, then new stuff is not that naughty. Instead, it’s the standard MPAA mandated labeling that occurs whenever a theatrical release is ‘embellished’ with material that did not make the final version that played in theaters.

And yet it’s hard not to argue with people who find this kind of comedy silly or stupid. Even in a wonderfully crisp, 1080p, 1.85:1 widescreen Blu-ray image and beefed up DTS, Master Audio 5.1 mix, there are always going to be viewers who cringe at this kind of kneejerk, football to the groin level of wit. In fact, format can’t make up for perceived personal shortcomings, which make grading something like Dance Flick a critical crap shoot. No matter the final judgment, someone is bound to take you for task. However, most written movie opinions also have an element of objectivity to them, and within the current crop of attempted take-offs, Dance Flick is definitely one of the best. While not quite damning with faint praise, one thing’s for sure - the new generation of Wayans have the comedy chops to resurrect their family’s lagging fortunes. 

by Bill Gibron

16 Sep 2009


It’s astonishing to think how far the martial arts movie has come in the last 30 years. While it was commonplace within the major metropolitan markets of the 1970s (thanks in no small part to Bruce Lee), it wasn’t until home video, and the ready availability of titles, that the real upswing started. By the time DVD rolled around in the ‘90s, fans were no longer happy just getting their hands on certain celebrated efforts. They wanted the original film left intact - uncut, uncensored, un-manipulated by Hollywood studios, and most importantly, un-dubbed by usually over the top Western actors. For the most part, the business model dictated otherwise, while some outsider distributors gladly fed the geek fervor. Now Blu-ray has come along and with it a bevy of new digital reproduction issues. While DVD is often seen as a consumer friendly format, the new high definition dynamic is viewed as the territory of the true film preservationist - and each new release is viewed with a jaundiced, jaded eye.

Indeed, any company that claims attention to be catering to the purist but then fails to fulfill their most-wanted wish list of disc mandates is just asking for trouble - and that’s what’s happening with Miramax right now. While it’s wonderful to finally see these four films - the new releases include The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi, Hero, Iron Monkey, and The Legend on Drunken Master on the technologically advanced system, some are grousing over the various flaws they find in the transfers and audio specs provided. Whether or not they have a point goes beyond the issue of each of the films (which are, in general, some of the best in the genre). In fact, it raises a question of what consumers want from their Blu-ray collection vs. what a small but very vocal contingency of home video nerds demand. Perhaps the best way to gauge this conflict is to rate each film individually, before addressing the actual product and presentation. We begin with one of the more unusual and unknown titles in the set:

The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (dir. Takeshi “Beat” Kitano, 2003)

As he travels around the countryside, the famed blind swordsman Zatoichi encounters a pair of geishas who were orphaned by the awful Ginzo gang. He also learns that the local village is suffering under the brutal thumb of these thugs. It’s not long before our hero is working his way on the inside, killing anyone who comes between him and the head of this sinister syndicate.

When it was announced that Takeshi “Beat” Kitano was taking on one of Japan’s best loved mythical heroes, film fans around the world sat up and took notice. Imaginations went into overdrive determining what the man responsible for the cult legend Battle Royale would bring to the story of a blind gambler and masseuse who’s an expert at iaido style swordplay. More importantly, the new film was considered a reboot, reminiscence of what Hollywood has done recently with long running properties like Star Trek. Indeed, after 26 films and four television series (almost all dating back to the ‘60s and ‘70s) this was to be the first new title since 1989’s Zatoichi, Darkness Is His Ally. While some have complained that Kitano’s take on the action icon was muddled and unfocused, others have championed his post-modern approach and psychological realism in regards to the character. Seen now, sans all the hype and hoopla (the film won awards at both the Venice and Toronto film festivals), we can gauge Kitano’s production for what it truly is - a compelling and quite complex bit of fractured folklore.

Kitano is not a director capable of the familiar or the formulaic. No matter what he does, from standard crime dramas to depraved, gore-soaked social commentaries, he brings an idiosyncratic style and sense of adventure to his works, and Zatoichi is no different. Graced with a big budget and more modern production values (including gallons of CG blood), we get a slick, satisfying thriller made even more entertaining by Kitano’s unusual ideas. Wearing dirty died blonde hair and a flaming red sword sheath, this is clearly an update of the old Asian honor and virtue cautionary tale. Everyone Zatoichi meets has a moral agenda, looking for payback or protection from regional thugs. Dispensing his wisdom with a heavy, heady dose of violence, Kitano is clearly influenced by the Western approach to such ripe revenge flicks. As the iconic figure, the filmmaker brings an oddball design to Zatoichi’s physicality. He’s part village idiot, part outlaw assassin, and all cinematic cool. While it sometimes plays like a private joke between Kitano and his audience’s expectations, this is one cinematic update that does its subject rather proud.

Hero (dir. Zhang Yimou , 2002)

A group of assassins gather together to destroy the King of Qin. A reward is offered for their deaths. A nameless prefect from another part of the country arrives at the palace carrying the weapons of each of these trained killers. Impressed, the wary ruler wants to hear how he did it. Through flashback, we learn how our hero’s exciting exploits, and how his arrival in the kingdom may be far from coincidental.

Beautiful to look at and amazing in its stunning, stylized action, Hero argues for Jet Li’s stature as a living martial arts legend. He is so graceful here, so solid in his onscreen machismo and magnetism that it puts recent turns by the acclaimed Chinese actor (like the awful Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor) to shame. Applying a palette of colors so strong that it’s reminiscent of the old school Hollywood spectacle from a bygone era, and expertly composed and controlled by director Zhang Yimou (famed for other sumptuous efforts like Raise the Red Lantern, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower), this is moviemaking of majestic proportions. When we are not left agog by the pristine production design and costuming, we marvel at the various staged conflicts, each one bringing a new level of proficiency and polish to an already overripe genre. In fact, critics were so taken with this combination of heritage and histrionics that Oscar took notice, nominating the film for 2005’s Best Foreign Language Film.

Again, it’s not hard to see why. This is heartbreaking, highly stylized stuff, colors used as indicators of emotional subtext, the flashback approach allowing Yimou to explore different visual and narrative cues. With five main stars, including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon‘s Zhang Ziyi, Police Story 2‘s Maggie Cheung, and Iron Monkey‘s Donnie Yen, you’d figure there’d be a lot of stunt- showboating. But unlike most action films, Yimou finds a way to keep the battles tied directly to the story, letting confronts with Li and fellow favorite Tony Leung Chiu-Wai (Hard-Boiled) flow organically out of the various altercations and situations described. This is the very definition of an epic, the kind of film that employs a heighten reality and a broad sense of scope to transport audiences to a larger than life set of individuals and ideas. Yimou is clearly an artist, using celluloid as his canvas and the various actors and craftsman involved in the production as his paints. The result is like watching one of the Old Master’s masterworks come to life, movement adding yet another incredible element to an otherwise ample aesthetic stunner.

Iron Monkey (dir. Yuen Woo-ping , 1993)

Our title hero is a masked avenger who is actually a well-meaning physician by day. He tends to the poor without charge while gouging the wealthy when they need medical care. One day, a fellow MD (and master swordsman) named Wong Kei Ying comes into town, along with his young son. Hoping to force the newcomer to fight, the government kidnaps the boy. The only option for getting him back? Find the Iron Monkey and kill him.

Like Robin Hood on steroids, Iron Monkey has two very strong elements going for it. The first is actor Donnie Yen, who oddly enough doesn’t play the title character. That honor goes to Rongguang Yu. It really doesn’t make a difference, however. The acting is uniformly good, as is the amazing martial artistry. The fight scenes soar with a clearly crafted efficiency and power - and that makes sense, considering whose staging the stand-offs. Indeed, the second standout facet is stunt god extraordinaire, fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping who here steps behind the camera to act as director. Though battles with producers forced him to add more comic material than he would have liked, the overall effect is one of someone who implicitly understands action. That doesn’t mean that everything functions like cinematic clockwork here. Yuen Woo-ping dives into this story with little set-up, expecting us to catch up on the characters and socio-political underpinning along the way. Even worse, rumors have the movie being trimmed by Miramax from its original 90 minute running time to a supposedly leaner 86. Gone are bits that many feel flesh out the film, including specific subplots and concepts of cultural significance.

Still, this is an entertaining effort, a very imaginative film from a man who really does understand the genre. The finale, staged among several elevated flaming wooden pools, produces the necessary jaw-dropping effect, and fans of Matrix like wire-fu will not be disappointed. As a matter of fact, even without the supposed interference from Miramax, this is a very Western film. There are similarly styled heroes in our recent folklore (the aforementioned Robin, the Hispanic hero Zorro) and we tend to cotton to characters that hide under secret, subversive identities. The whole good guy vs. the government angle also satisfies, due in part to our already in place distrust of people in power. Add in child endangerment (always a manipulative plus), some herbal medicine hocus pocus, and the ever-present death dance excitement of the choreography, and you’ve got something that delights more than it disappoints. While purists may balk at not getting Yuen Woo-ping’s complete “vision” here, Iron Monkey manages to make its case, even within the mangled material provided.

The Legend of Drunken Master (dir. Lau Kar-Leung, 1994)

When he accidentally learns that the British government is stealing rare antiquities and exporting them out of the country, Chinese patriot Wong Fei Hung decides to defend his nation’s honor. Using his expert style of martial arts (which is enhanced even more when he actually drinks), he battles the bad guys in hopes of restoring his homeland’s honor, pride, and treasured artifacts. .


Don’t try to figure out the franchise serialization of the noted “drunken boxing” hero Wong Fei Hung (the movie’s tag comes from the Zui Quan style of fighting). In 1977, a cast and crew including Yuen Woo-ping and star Jackie Chan made a movie called Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow. In 1978, they then released Drunk Monkey In The Tiger’s Eye - what many consider to be the first film to feature the noted Chinese fighter and herbalist. Then a side character in the series, a character known as Beggar So (played by Yuen’s father Siu Tien) starred in three additional films - Drunken Master Part 2, Story of the Drunken Master and World of the Drunken Master. Finally, in 1994, Chan returned to reprise the role of Hung. In Hong Kong, the film was labeled Drunken Master II. When it finally hit American shores, the title was reconfigured to Legend of the Drunken Master. Understand? Actually, you don’t really have to. With Mad Monkey Kung Fu and Return to the 36th Chamber‘s Lau Kar-leung behind the lens (with some uncredited help from his star), we wind up with one of the most mesmerizing, mindbending action films ever.

This was the beginning of Chan’s international stardom, a phase founded on such import hits as Police Story 1 - 3, Crime Story, and The Twin Dragons. Instead of the deadly serious mannerism he adopted early on in his career, Chan plays his scenes - including the fights - for laughs, emphasizing a literal translation of the title talent. Watching him act inebriated to trick his opponents is hilarious, and then once he stops the pantomime and gets to punching, the stunt choreography is astonishing. Though Lau Kar-Leung is also credited with the “action direction”, most of these sequences were coordinated and executed in collaboration with Chan’s own famous Stunt Team. This close-knit group of action artisans, many who’ve been with the superstar since the beginning, really deliver on the derring-do. While you might not always appreciate the historical aspects of the story, you will definitely find Chan’s physical acumen amazing. Indeed, at almost 40 when the film was made, he proves that his kind of talent is timeless. While some will once again scold this film for its lack of reproduction authenticity (there is no Cantonese track on the DVD), the movie itself is incredible.

Which does bring us to one of the bigger issues with these Blu-ray releases. Many consider this latest digital format to be as definitive as possible…this week…within the framework of the current technology and available electronics, and yet Miramax is being called out for not providing a completely polished and pristine home video experience. The biggest argument comes over the lack of a True HD 5.1 mix IN THE ORIGINAL CHINESE for each title provided here. All arguments over print quality and image transfer aside, geek nation is going ga-ga over the lack of such a sonic scenario. Sure, the English dubs get the high profile presentation, but what film fans actually want - the original movie remastered in its entirety, including its native tongue - seems like the last consideration for these releases. Instead, we get ported over bonus features, lots of arguments over picture quality, and a very vocal contingent lighting up Messageboard Nation with their complaints.

So the question becomes one of availability over perfection, the chance of seeing one of your favorite films on the best of current formats vs. waiting years for rights issues, original print locating, footage processing, and other common complications to be addressed and resolved. Those arguing the loudest will claim that it’s not worth releasing these films if you’re not going to do it right. Others, especially those who wouldn’t know 1080i from 1080p, could probably care less. What’s clear is that the martial arts movie has become such a part of our cultural discussion that when the demographic feels underserved by the studios they look to for their regular dose of foreign and other outside the mainstream fare, they want their displeasure known - and in as massive a media savvy way possible. Miramax may have dropped the ball here - that’s for others to truly decide - but each of the four films offered have their own artistic merits (and missteps) as well. Perhaps they should be judged on this basis first before being dismissed as unworthy of the Blu-ray label.

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