A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 579 – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – September 30th, 2011

I admit, I have fallen way way behind with my reviews. I’m writing this almost three weeks after seeing it. It’s not easy writing a substantial review every day even when the movie really deserves one. It’s almost harder when the movie deserves something good. If I’m tired or not terribly sharp or just cranky, then whatever I write is going to be crap. And that feels so unfortunate to me. But then I get hung up on whatever review I stopped at, and if it’s something I’m having trouble writing about, I don’t go on and write others. Not easily. I sit there and stare and wonder just how to say what it is I want to say. Fortunately, I made some notes here, so I can remember a few of the points I wanted to make. And this isn’t the review I got hung up on, so hopefully I’ll get back on track soon.

I remember when this came out I was working at the video store in Pennsylvania. It was a huge big deal, this gorgeous wire-fu movie with a romance and action and a sweeping story of struggle and yearning. And the cast! Michelle Yeoh and Yun-Fat Chow got the most attention when I heard the movie spoken of, but Ziyi Zhang gained steam quickly because she’s fucking awesome. And it came very very close to being overhyped to me. It was like The Matrix, where every person who came into the store would ask if I’d seen it and if I said yes, they wanted to have deep and insightful discussions and if I said no I got a long diatribe on how much I needed to see it and how it would change my life. So, I avoided it. For a little while. I don’t remember what made me break down and watch it, but I did. And I was so glad I did, because it is indeed a beautiful and beautifully made movie.

The thing is, I don’t really want to have deep and insightful discussions about this movie. I just want to appreciate it. The fact of the matter is that I do not know nearly enough about the culture(s) portrayed here or the time period they’re portrayed in to feel comfortable viewing this movie from anything but a modern and decidedly white US perspective. But then again, I think that might well not be a bad thing. I’m curious just how much of the movie’s content is modern commentary on women’s lives in an earlier time period. I don’t doubt that women did at times stand out and go against the grain, but I don’t know just how prevalent that was in this time and place. If much of the point of the movie is that the women in it have been outsiders (and that is key to the plot), then of course there will be women in it who try to break in.

The story follows four or five main characters as their lives converge around a legendary sword. Li Mu Bai (Yun-Fat Chow), a martial arts master who hopes to retire from a life of combat brings his sword, the Green Destiny, to the supposed safe-keeping of a friend. He entrusts it to another friend, Yu Shu Lien, for the journey. Yu Shu Lien is also a skilled martial artist but was not trained like Li Mu Bai because she is a woman. The two have long been interested in each other romantically but due to social and cultural traditions, they’ve never spoken of their feelings. While Yu Shu Lien is visiting the friend the sword is being given to, the sword is stolen by a masked thief who displays amazing martial arts skills. Eventually it’s revealed that a young woman, Jen Yu, is the culprit, but she’s a noblewoman due to be married soon. Her teacher is her nurse, a woman made bitter by rejection from the best martial arts school because of her gender. And so the movie goes, with Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien (along with a few others) facing off against Jen Yu and her teacher, Jade Fox.

Ostensibly, the impetus for it all is the sword, which is pretty awesome I will admit. But really the impetus for it all is society and the restrictions it places on the women in the movie. Jade Fox took on Jen Yu because she wanted an apprentice to help her get revenge for being excluded. Jen Yu wants a life of adventure that she could never have under the societal restrictions she’d be held to as a married noblewoman. She’s had a taste of that life before, living in the desert when her family moved for a time. She ran off after a group of bandits and ended up falling in love with their leader, Lo. But she had to go back eventually and found herself trapped. And then there’s Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien, who seem at first to be the focus of the movie but end up a tragic side note to Jen Yu’s story.

Now, I did a little poking around when we watched this and came across some scholarly opinions. But I reject the interpretation that claims that Jen commits suicide in the end and that it’s a sign of her hopelessness in regard to freedom in a patriarchal society. That interpretation seems to completely miss the more fantastical bits of the movie and the direct reference to a legend told by Lo earlier in the movie. The way the legend is told, anyone who reaches the top of one particular mountain can make a wish and dive off. The young man in the story made his wish, dove off and flew away, knowing his wish had come true. So when Jen tells Lo to make a wish and then dives off, there is some ambiguity there, but I don’t see it as helplessness. The ambiguity is more as to whose wish will be fulfilled. Lo is the one with the faithful heart mentioned in reference to the legend, so perhaps it will be his wish. But Jen is the one who dove, so perhaps it will be hers. And perhaps they’re one and the same. That’s the unknown, and as she flies away, Jen is clearly at peace with whatever the outcome will be. She spent the whole movie railing against authority and fighting for the right to make her own choices. She made a choice in the end. What it was isn’t important.

The story is a sad and beautiful one, with a lot of little stories woven together to make a whole. But I realize I haven’t even touched on the visuals. Obviously the acting is superb or the story wouldn’t hold up as well as it does, but the visuals truly complete the movie. And I don’t just mean the backgrounds and settings, though those are amazing and lush and real in a way many movies fail to make one feel from the other side of the screen. I also mean the fight scenes, which are plentiful and impressive. In a movie where part of the story hinges upon the physical skills of the main characters, this also has to be spot on in order for the story to work, and it does. It is a gorgeous movie from top to bottom, inside and out.

September 30, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 557 – The Master

The Master – September 8th, 2011

Among our MST3K episodes from back when I was recording them off of Comedy Central we had one titled “Master Ninja 2.” And we watched it fairly frequently. Enough to know a bunch of the jokes. The thing is, we knew there was also a “Master Ninja 1” that they’d done before, but I’d never managed to catch it. I’d never seen it, though I’d certainly heard about it. And then Shout Factory released both episodes on professional DVD and we snapped them up. I do not recall if we bought this before or after we’d finally seen Master Ninja 1 with the MST3K treatment. All I can say is that if we bought it after, it was probably my fault and I am duly ashamed.

I admit, it’s not really a movie. It’s a pair of episodes of a martial arts television show from the 1980s. But after the show was cancelled pairs of episodes were released as movies, which is how MST3K did them. The conceit of the show is that a US soldier named McAllister stayed in Japan after the war and became a ninja. Then he gets a letter from his long lost daughter, heads for the US and meets up with Max Keller, a well-meaning troublemaker who drives around in a van with his hamster and gets (literally) thrown out of bars. Keller convinces McAllister to take him on as a student and off they go to get involved in super spy plots and labor disputes and corrupt police forces while they search for McAllister’s daughter. It is exactly as horrible as it sounds.

The first episode in this pair is the first episode of the series. So we get an introduction to Keller and we get an introduction to McAllister and we get the rundown on the premise for the show. It’s all horribly contrived, but I will give the movie credit for not trying to claim that Lee Van Cleef, who played McAllister, was Asian. Granted, the way they explain the whole ninja thing feels terribly forced, but there’s at least a little effort there! They work it into the plot, such as it is! So, that’s something. And that’s about all this has going for it. Well, that and a few of the single episode cast members ended up having actual acting careers or had already had careers. In this first installment we have a young Demi Moore, for example, and in the fourth episode George Lazenby showed up. But that’s about it.

The first installment has the obligatory introductions, then promptly tosses Keller and McAllister into a dispute between a family that owns an airfield and a land developer who wants their property. There’s a skeezy police officer who assaults Demi Moore, the airfield owner’s daughter, and there’s a lot of fighting and corruption and arson. Honestly, the plot just isn’t that interesting. None of the plots are that interesting. They’re stock conflicts, usually with a pretty young woman for Keller to flirt at (I’d say with, but it’s not like any of them are sticking around so the chemistry doesn’t matter much). Someone will threaten them. Someone will underestimate McAllister. Then there’ll be a fight where McAllister uses his ninja skills to save the day. There you go. This first episode totally sets the tone, if the four episodes I’ve seen are an indication of what the other nine are like.

The second section follows right along, with an extra dose of McAllister’s mysterious past. From what I could tell, he seems to have defied ninja tradition and now his former student is out to kill him? I could be getting it wrong. I usually watch this through a filter of riffing and when we started the second part on the un-MSTed version we have we realized something was very wrong with the disc. First, our DVD player refused to play it, continuously defaulting back to the menu. Second, the XBox refused to play it too. We were finally able to get it running on Andy’s computer, but the sound was about three seconds behind the action. Turns out this makes a movie hilarious in some moments, when the dialogue ends up matched to the wrong person, and incredibly hard to watch for the rest. Now, to be fair, I’m sure we paid pennies for this and the old “you get what you pay for” axiom holds true, so I’m not mad that the movie’s out of sync. On the other hand, whereas I might have been willing to put in some effort to pay attention to a decent movie if it was out of sync, this movie just isn’t worth the bother. So I payed the barest minimum attention necessary.

I’m pretty sure the plot involved a club where drinks are served and talented dancers dance getting shaken down for protection money by a Yakuza gang who actually want to own the club and therefore force the former owner’s daughter to rake in money for them by dancing. Also, there’s a sister in a wheelchair who is of course not at all jealous of her dancing sister except she totally is. I would expect no better of a show this sloppy and dated. McAllister and Keller get involved, have the sister in the wheelchair deliver the ransom for the dancing sister, then there’s the obligatory martial arts fight. Oh, and the sister in the wheelchair takes a few steps at the end. Why was she in the wheelchair? Why did McAllister’s “just buck up and believe in yourself” crap work? Who knows! It’s not like the show cared or anything. It’s all there for the big poignant moment at the end anyhow.

Having seen this much of the series, some of it without the humor that makes it bearable, I’ve got to say I wonder how it lasted even thirteen episodes. I do prefer the third episode over all the others, but that’s really neither here nor there when it comes to what we watched just now. With a pilot like that first section with Demi Moore, how did this get greenlit? I guess martial arts were a thing at the time and Keller was played by Tim Van Patten, son of Dick Van Patten, so presumably the combo of family contacts and Lee Van Cleef convinced someone it was worth taking a shot on. But what’s even more unbelievable is that it was ever repackaged as movies and released. And we bought one! I don’t find this as gut-twistingly offensive as some things we own, but I do apologize. I’m sorry. I don’t know if it was really me who put it on the pile, but I’ll take the blame. It’s the least I can do.

September 8, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 448 – Kill Bill vol. 1

Kill Bill vol. 1 – May 22nd, 2011

I’ve got mixed feelings when it comes to Quentin Tarantino. I think he’s a brilliant guy who knows movies like few other people do. He has a recognizable aesthetic and he can do homage and reference while keeping the result distinctly his own. He has a good eye and an excellent ear and hearing him talk about movies it’s clear just how much he loves watching them, absorbing them and then making his own. And that’s all great. But he’s also got an ego the size of Jupiter and he can get so wrapped up in his own cleverness and image and reputation that things get overdone. Death Proof lowered him a lot in my eyes, but I have to reconcile it with this movie, which is an entirely different creature. So, like I said, mixed feelings.

This is probably one of the most obvious revenge quest movies I can think of. There’s no attempt to disguise it and that’s the point of the whole thing, that it’s righteous and bad-assed. There is never any question of who you should root for here. The Bride, whose name is omitted whenever it’s spoken, is your hero. She’s been put through hell and she’s going to get her revenge and if you’re not going to help her then she’s going to ignore you and if you hurt her then you’re as good as dead. She was beaten and shot on her wedding day, pregnant and trying to escape her former life as an assassin. We meet her as she tells the man shooting her – Bill – that it’s his baby. Just before he shoots her in the head. Now that? That is some potent backstory for a revenge plot.

I like how this movie is put together. Sure, starting out by going forward in time and then back is a bit of a gimmick but I don’t really mind. The Bride makes a list of people she needs to kill and we meet the second one first, but it’s a fast bit of action, all things considered, and it serves to introduce the character’s skills, lack of weaknesses and a good amount of her background. We hear she would have had a daughter. We get a bit about the assassination squad she was part of. We see a lot here, including action and a good amount of blood (but nowhere near as much as we will see). So I like it as an introduction. And by the time the movie ends we know what the Bride’s already been up to before she even got there.

It’s a fairly episodic movie. Yes, we see the last episode first, but otherwise it’s all clearly delineated by location. She starts in Texas, she wakes up in the hospital, she goes to Okinawa, she goes to Tokyo, she comes back to the US. Each section is well defined and within the section in Japan we get a complete style change to animation to show the backstory of one of her opponents: O-Ren Ishii. Now, the animation and storytelling there? I’m not so keen on. I can see its purpose, but it seems to be there more because Tarantino thought it would be cool than because it’s necessarily required for the plot. I’m not sure I care enough about O-Ren to see her childhood trauma and her own revenge story. And the animated style of it defines it as not a part of the rest of the movie’s storyline, but it also serves to separate it out and keep it from fitting into the movie as well as it should. And I find that frustrating. Whereas the rest of the episodes in the movie fit together as part of the Bride’s story, O-Ren’s doesn’t. It’s there for style more than substance. But that’s sort of how I see Tarantino: He has the potential for such fantastic substance, but gets distracted by style sometimes.

The other thing I really like about this movie, aside from the excellent cinematography and directing and all those things I expect from a Tarantino film, is that it’s not wall to wall violence. Oh sure, once the fight scenes start they’re relentless – as they should be – but there are other scenes where there’s little to no violence whatsoever. Specifically there’s the Hattori Hanzo scenes. Those are some fantastic bits that serve both as homage, with Sonny Chiba playing a role that’s a clear reference to a television show from the 80s, as well as character development for the Bride. She’s not a mindless assassin who uses a sword because it’s cool. She has a reverence for it and for its history. And it shows here. It’s a nice bit of quiet in a movie full of noise and I appreciate the pause it creates in the middle. It’s sort of a calm before the storm that is to come in the teahouse later on when she faces off with O-Ren and her gang.

This movie? Is not for young audiences. In fact, I’m impressed that the tricks that were used to land it an R instead of an NC-17 actually worked. And it gets shown on television! Every so often I flip past it and I usually pause to watch for a little while because I enjoy it quite a bit. But oh is it funny how it gets altered to make it “safe” for television. I’m often amused by these things (when we review The Breakfast Club I’ll share my favorite example) but this one is up there near the top of my list. I can’t speak to exactly how much blood and gore gets removed, but the most noticeable change is that “pussy wagon” is changed to “party wagon” and the line “My name is Buck and I’m here to fuck” gets changed to “My name is Buck and I’m here to party.” As if that at all hides the fact that Buck’s been selling her body while she was comatose. And there’s just something so ridiculous about trying to clean up this movie by changing the terminology but not the content.

Aside from the animated section I really feel that this is a tightly put together movie with a clear idea of where it’s going and what it wants to do and how it’s going to do it all. The Bride is a strong character, willing to do whatever it takes to get to Bill and kill him and take down the rest of her former teammates as she goes. Sure, she’s had horrible things happen to her, but the movie doesn’t seem to delight in showing them to us, which is a huge difference for me from Death Proof (also a revenge story but one in which the revenge cannot be enacted by those harmed the most because the movie just had to show how much they were harmed). The Bride faces off with a number of other strong characters, ones who have lives and backgrounds of their own and who can certainly go toe to toe with her. It’s paced well, populated well, written well. It’s full of darkly humorous lines in the midst of the revenge. And all the homage and reference are combined well to make it something different. I honestly think it stands fairly well on its own, but it’s only part one and ends on a cliffhanger, so we’ll have to finish talking about it tomorrow.

May 22, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 446 – Dragon Princess

Dragon Princess – May 20th, 2011

Oh boy, this is going to be a short review. There’s not a heck of a lot to this movie and I’m afraid I’m going to end up focusing on its flaws instead of on its potential, but I guess that’s how it goes sometimes. This is yet another movie obtained from my coworker. We got it solely on the basis of Sonny Chiba’s involvement. Okay, Sonny Chiba and the promise of a kick-ass female protagonist getting revenge for her father’s sake. And well, Sonny Chiba is in it. And Yumi is pretty awesome and does kick a lot of ass. But the movie’s pretty lacking in almost every other area.

One of the first things we discovered when we put the movie in was that it was dubbed. And this is the sort of horrible dubbing that’s been lampooned on every sketch comedy show ever, with the audio not even remotely synced with the video on multiple occasions. The aspect ratio shifts between the opening scene and the rest of the movie. The camera appears to be hand held and not very steadily so. There is panning and scanning but not nearly enough of either since the camera often seems to be looking at the empty space between the two characters in the scene being filmed, or on the spot a character was in and has moved from. And well, this is very obviously a low quality transfer from what was likely already a low quality copy of the original, leaving the visuals blurred more often than not.

The plot is pretty simple, or so it seems. The basic story is, anyhow. A man is attacked by several men and gravely wounded in front of his young daughter. He lives, only to devote his daughter’s childhood to the study of martial arts so she can be his instrument of revenge. She grows up and after he dies she seeks out the men who attacked him when she was little, eventually taking them all down. That’s not terribly complicated. And if the movie had kept it nice and simple like that, perhaps things would have gone better. But there’s a whole plot with a karate school and the scheming leader, Nikaido, who wants it to be the only school or a state sanctioned school or something like that. I couldn’t really figure out exactly what his incentive was but it definitely had something to do with being a karate teacher. And he’s also into extorting protection money from the locals around his school and sets up a big tournament that’s supposed to bring prestige to the school and the local government somehow and then he rigs it so his students will win. And then there are his men.

The Big Four, as they’re referred to in the movie, are four of Nikaido’s men. They were with him when he beat up on Yumi’s father and they act as his agents all over the place. And I’m not sure if I’m supposed to have picked up on anything other than that one of them, who has longish white hair, is more than a little high strung. The trouble here, and through the vast majority of the movie, is that while it attempts to have a plot and characters and dialogue, the scenes between fights are so poorly shot and edited together that they’re actually hard to pay attention to or make sense of. Which in turn makes the whole movie hard to pay attention to or make sense of. Why did that one student at Nikaido’s school decide to help Yumi? I have no idea. If he ever said anything about his reasons I admit I totally missed it and it’s not like the movie gave me much to go on. But help he does. After the tournament is announced the Big Four go out to kick the asses of anyone who might dare to try and compete. This takes us to such far flung locales as Cuba and South America and. Um. I think that’s it. Cuba and South America. Where we spend about five minutes of fighting before going back to Tokyo.

Yumi’s staying with her grandfather in the city, and you do get to hear some from him, but not enough to keep my interest. He tries to stop her but she goes to fight anyhow. She gets her arm fractured and is told if she fights more before it heals she’ll probably never use it again. You might think this would be the source of some emotional weight or conflict but no. She doesn’t really bat an eye. Not that I saw. There’s also a sort of side plot with a man who picks Yumi’s pocket when she arrives in Tokyo and apparently sells pornography from a stall near his home and whose mother pays protection money to Nikaido, but it’s never delved into. That would take time away from the fight scenes.

The thing is, with the shaky and poorly framed camera work here, all the fight scenes sort of muddle together into one. If I were to tune into this movie, even having seen it, I’d probably find it difficult to tell by a fight scene where the plot was at any given moment. When a movie has well choreographed fights that serve to enhance or propel the plot you can see how unique they are. These fight scenes are only usually unique due to whom, specifically, Yumi is fighting. And even then, the villains aren’t terribly distinguishable for me, aside from the one with the long hair and Nikaido himself. The other three? They aren’t even characters. They’re just henchmen.

And in the middle of all that mess is a totally unrelated sexy dancing scene that’s not really at all sexy. I think sex is supposed to have happened? I’m not sure. It’s strip disco, as Andy said. Between two characters who aren’t even in this movie. For no reason I can divine aside from someone deciding that the movie needed some bare breasts for American audiences. That, along with the ever-so-70s horn section soundtrack just makes this movie ridiculous and cheesy on top of messy. And you know, I really wish it was better. I would love to see a remake of this with decent production values. Heck, I’d even settle for halfway decent production values. Because I like the basic premise and I’ve got to say I did enjoy Etsuko Shihomi as Yumi and she did indeed kick a lot of ass. But I couldn’t really enjoy it as much as I wanted to, between the cropped and sloppy camera work and the horrible dubbing and the total lack of pacing and writing. If anyone knows of a remake or of something that takes the same premise and runs with it in a more coherent fashion, please let me know.

May 20, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 440 – Brotherhood of the Wolf

Brotherhood of the Wolf – May 14th, 2011

This is a movie I’ve been hearing little things about for some time. I’ve meant to watch it for ages, but it’s so long! And it’s subtitled! And it seemed pretty dark. All together that’s a pretty hefty movie viewing experience, so I put it off. And put it off. And put it off. Until tonight when we had the time and Andy suggested it and a long dark French period piece sounded like a good idea. I don’t know why it appealed to me tonight and not some other night before now, but it did and so we put it in utterly ignorant of what we were actually going to end up watching.

I’m not entirely sure how to even begin to describe this movie. It isn’t any one single type of story. It isn’t even two types. It’s a whole laundry list of genres combined into something unlike anything else I’ve ever seen before. Oh, I’ve seen period action, which is part of what this is. I’ve seen political drama, which it also is. I’ve seen political action and period political. I’ve seen mysteries and martial arts and supernatural themes woven in through intrigue and I’ve seen many combinations. But not all of them in one place. Oh, I’m sure they exist, but I haven’t seen them. But now I have seen this and it is a wonderful thing to know that it exists.

The story is apparently at least superficially based on actual historical events involving a beast or beasts that killed a large number of people in south central France between 1765 and 1767. The exact nature of the beasts responsible for the historical killings is still debated, though there were two large wolves killed at the time which seemed to stop the attacks (if you’re curious, try poking around the links in the wikipedia article on the beast). In the movie the beast attacks are merely the hook to draw the viewer into a story of political intrigue, religious fervor and a small and somewhat isolated town terrorized into submission. It appears to be a supernatural thriller but really, Sherlock Holmes might as well be in play here, for all the actual supernatural events that happen.

The main character in the movie is Grégoire de Fronsac, a royal taxidermist and naturalist who studies animals and has done quite a lot of traveling. He is indisputably the hero of our story, arriving in the area to study the beast’s attacks and to preserve it once it’s caught and/or killed. And Fronsac quickly determines that the beast is far from supernatural, but is also far from the wolf most people believe it to be. It’s something else entirely and he aims to figure it out. Staying at his side is the mysterious Mani, a Mohawk shaman whom he met when in America. Mani may not be the hero of the movie, but he is certainly awesome, kicking a fair amount of ass as well as giving some great little quips and sly looks at just the right moments. Fronsac is all well and good and I certainly liked him as the hero, but Mani’s more fun to watch, and not just because he’s played by Mark Dascascos (who is also the Chairman on Iron Chef America). Of course, since Fronsac and Mani are so determined to get to the bottom of the whole situation there will have to be something standing in their way.

I don’t think I can really go any further with the plot synopsis without spoiling things even more than I already have so I’ll gloss a little. There’s a lot more at work here than a beast attacking shepherds. The title alone implies that there’s a group involved and that group has a motive and a goal and they certainly don’t want Fronsac ruining it all. And all of that would be complex enough, but then there are the two female leads. On one hand you have Marianne, a young noblewoman whom Fronsac becomes enamoured of right from the start. She’s sheltered and young but also clever and compassionate and unwilling to be swayed by tricks and wit. She holds her own quite well for the vast majority of the movie, even in the fairly constrained position she’s grown up in. On the other hand is Sylvia, an Italian courtesan who works in a local brothel. Sylvia is, without a doubt, my favorite character in the entire movie. Mani’s a close second, but Sylvia wins, hands down.

Sylvia is ruthless and calculating and cold and brilliant and very well versed in manipulation and observation. And Sylvia has her own agenda and motives and follows her own path through the events taking place around her. She sleeps with Fronsac several times and seems to know far more of what’s going on than anyone else does. But being a woman of ill repute, she’s gone unnoticed by those who might otherwise try to silence her. Sylvia kicks ass. Sylvia is precisely the sort of character who always makes me giddy and she is played beautifully by Monica Bellucci. I loved every second she got on screen and she certainly made the entire plot more interesting and complicated and I love that.

And even after all of that I have yet to really touch on the fight scenes, which were a fantastic combination of styles and weaponry and camera work. I hadn’t been expecting the sorts of fight scenes this movie has, with beautifully choreographed stunts and enough martial arts to keep it from being just brawling and European swordfighting. Not that I’d have been disappointed with swordfighting! But that would have been expected and really, nothing about this movie is what I expected. Not the action, not the plot, not the intrigue, not the characters and not the epic quality to it.

The movie exists in several acts. There’s the first act, where Fronsac arrives and studies the situation and meets Marianne and her brother, Jean-François and the marquis, Thomas d’Apcher and all the rest of their friends, relatives and associates. The second act involves Fronsac and Mani returning from Paris to resume the hunt. And the third act is when it all comes to a head, with Fronsac exposing the whole conspiracy and exacting revenge for every wrong done against him, his friends and the people of the area. That, plus the gorgeous scenery both inside the buildings and out in the countryside make this movie feel larger and more expansive. It’s both folklore and political history wrapped into one package, a politically minded tall tale with the ultimate femme fatale and some truly awesome fight scenes and yes, it’s a little long, but it’s worth every minute.

May 14, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 438 – 5 Superfighters

5 Superfighters – May 12th, 2011

One might think that last night’s movie was truly the ultimate when it comes to movies with incredibly thin plots to allow for a truckload of fight scenes. One would be wrong. Oh so very wrong. Because movies like this one exist and I’ve got to admit, it’s hard to beat. This was yet another movie acquired from my coworker’s husband. We knew nothing about it when we got it other than that it was a kung fu movie. IMDB doesn’t even have a running time listed (it’s about an hour and a half, for anyone curious) so we figured out if it was watchable tonight by popping it in and forwarding to the end to see what the timer on the DVD player read. The disc has no options, the dubbing is patchy, the soundtrack cuts out oddly in a few places and there are VHS artifacts carried over to the DVD release. It was a mystery to us and oh, oh am I glad we own it.

This is not going to be a long review because really, what can I say about this movie? It’s fairly low budget and the plot is a thin shell around fight scene after fight scene. I can’t comment much on the acting both because of the dubbing and because of the lack of plot. I can talk about the fighting and the soundtrack, but that’s really about where we stand here. There’s just lot a whole lot of substance and that’s clearly by design, not accident. No one set out to make this movie an epic masterpiece of storytelling. But more than one person obviously set out to make it a little over ninety minutes of king fu fighting.

There’s a trope I’ve noticed in watching the kung fu movies we’ve done so far. It’s the hidden kung fu master. The true masters, the people who can beat anyone and teach the main character the necessary skills to beat the villain and whatnot? They aren’t running schools or taking on student after student. They don’t walk around announcing that, like Neo, they know kung fu. No. They live normal and mundane lives until some heroic type brings trouble to their doorstep. In this movie we have a drunken beggar, a fisherman and a bean curd maker. The only reason we find out that they can do kung fu in the first place (let alone that they’re masters) is because they get forced into defending themselves. On the other end of the spectrum, we have a teacher and his three students, whom he took in and raised after finding them as orphans. Granted, he’s not running around preening about his skills, but he’s not hiding in plain sight or anything. And so when the villain, a kung fu master proclaiming that he is the master of correcting bad kung fu, shows up, he kicks said teacher’s ass. And he whoops all three students too. So off they go to find new teachers so they can learn how to beat this mysterious master to exact revenge for their first teacher’s humiliation.

If you’re thinking there’s anything more to this movie than the three students (and their teacher) all going out and finding new people to learn from? You are clearly expecting too much from this movie. Even the scenery is minimal at best. Each of the three students goes out to find a new teacher. One finds a woman who makes bean curd and kicks the snot out of four potential suitors who won’t take no for an answer. He ends up getting some bonus lessons from her blind father too. One finds a drunken beggar whose character is a pretty hideous stereotype, so I kind of found other things to do whenever he was on screen and talking. Fighting, on the other hand, well, he’s pretty kick-ass, which is the point. Then there’s the third student, who meets a fisherman who tosses a net over him, then takes him on as a student. They all have to convince their prospective teachers to take them on. They all fight and train and fight some more. Meanwhile at home the teacher gets a new teacher of his own. And there’s more fighting. And more fighting. And eventually everyone meets back up again and there’s a big climactic fight with the villain and the teacher and students tag each other in and out and use all the techniques they’ve learned in their time apart.

There’s certainly a lot of humor here, with tongue in cheek characterizations and lines. I wish I could hear the original delivery and read the translation subtitled because while I suspect that things like “Your method of instruction is lousy!” and “[I come] from a far away place… all the way from HELL!” were intended to be hilarious, I can’t quite tell if they’re faithful to the original. It’s all so very silly. But I would say the dubbing takes away from that. It changes the timing and delivery on lines and exchanges and I can’t say this is a problem exclusive to this movie, it certainly could have been done better.

One thing I do like about the soundtrack we have here is the music. Again, no clue if it’s in the original, but man is it fantastic. It runs the gamut from cheesy late 70s jazz to hilarious 80s synth. It’s an incongruous combination of music and movie and there’s something so perfect about it. It adds into the whole vibe of the movie and I’ve got to say I thoroughly enjoyed it, dubbing and all. There’s just something fun and mindless about it. I didn’t even have to do any reading to enjoy this movie. I just sat back and enjoyed the fight scenes and humor and music and really, that seems to be the whole point of this movie.

May 12, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 409 – Hero (2002)

Hero (2002) – April 13th, 2011

After last night’s bizarre entry in our collection, with its lack of understandable dialogue (in any language) and plodding plot, we decided to go for something very much the opposite tonight. Not in English, no, but far from unintelligible. The plot isn’t fast paced but it certainly isn’t plodding. It’s a slow and beautiful dance and it was a joy to watch from beginning to end. To be honest, even two hours after finishing it I’m not sure I’ve sorted out my feelings on it.

This is part of the problem with this project. Much as I enjoy it most of the time, the review aspect can be a little difficult. It’s not like we get a lot of time to write these. They’re done in the hour or two or maybe three if we’re lucky after we finish the movie. Often we don’t quite finish the reviews until after midnight even if the movie is long over. And some movies are easy. Something we’ve seen many times before and know how we’ll review even before we put it in for the day? Yes. No problem. Something vapid and fun or something thoroughly rage inducing? I can plunk a review like that down in no time. But something like this makes me think and I don’t have enough time to do that in enough depth. Some day I’m going to have to revisit some of these reviews because they simply don’t do some movies justice.

This is going to be one of those nights. This movie was achingly lovely and bittersweet and conflicted and just plain difficult in places, but not in a negative way. And it’s so rooted in Chinese history and culture, I don’t feel well equipped to really dig into it in the way I believe it deserves. Because there are certainly things being said under the surface of the movie. While the director and cinematographer have said that the saturated dominant colors used in each section of the movie were for aesthetic purposes, not symbolism, one can’t help but look at them a bit (and here is a simply fantastic graphic to assist if you want to do just that: Colours in Cultures ). There are threads tied to politics and cultural history that I only know the surface of. I feel like there’s so much I’m missing but the fault lies in my own knowledge, not the movie. Because the movie is fantastic.

I mentioned the colors in each section. They’re impressive, to say the least. We meet our protagonist, Nameless, and learn that he has studied the art of the sword his whole life after being orphaned and never named. He approaches the king of the state of Qin, who has been hunted by three famed assassins. Nameless tells him he has defeated all three and brings their weapons as proof. The dominant color here is black. Lots of black. But it gets splashes of color here and there. The king invites Nameless to tell him how he bested the assassins and Nameless settles in to tell his story. First we hear about his encounter with Sky, who fought with a spear and was bested at a chess house. Were I going to go into this academically, I’d probably be poking at game theory and the black and white of the pieces shown and the black worn by Nameless and the white worn later on by other characters. I’m not going into this as an academic though, so go ahead and do that on your own.

Now, after we hear about Sky we move to the next section, which takes place at a calligraphy school where the other two, Snow and Broken Sword have been living. They are lovers who haven’t spoken in some time and Nameless explains how he studied them while asking Broken Sword to write him a huge scroll with the character for sword on it. As he tells the story we see it unfold in vibrant reds and scarlets, billowing silk and splashes of ink. He claims to have ignited a jealous fury between the two and used it to make them turn on each other. And when he is done, the king nods and tells him he’s totally full of it.

Not in so many words, of course. The king knows more than Nameless realized. So we get his vision of how things really went, with the saturated reds replaced by ice cold blues and cyans. It felt like the screen had been doused in ice water. When the two versions have been told we see yet more. Things as they really went, with everyone in white and the starkness of it all laid bare. Flashbacks from within the story are told in greens and still the king’s palace and all his soldiers and Nameless are in black. The visuals of this movie are so incredibly stunning you could watch it with no sound and still be blown away by them. The fight sequences are gorgeous and the wire work is fantastic but the cinematography and bold colors make this movie so visually arresting that it took my breath away. It sets such fascinating moods and underscores the various emotional moments and I am incredibly impressed by it all.

What I truly loved about this movie is that even though on the surface it is a story of a man on a mission and how he accomplished that mission. Or didn’t. It’s a story about a king on a mission as well, and whether that mission is for good or ill is, I believe, not entirely settled by the movie. It leans distinctly in one direction, but without giving it away I believe an argument could be made for there being some hesitation there still. A window looking out on the other side, as it were. But despite that surface, it is, on another level, the story of Snow and Broken Sword, who, as we learn, are truly and deeply in love but conflicted over their views of the world around them. It isn’t the full focus of the movie and yet it is so important to its core. Without their relationship and their conflict, much of the movie wouldn’t happen as it does and in the various scenes we see them in we see Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu Wai give performances that made me ache for them. They were phenomenal. People in the US may recognize Jet Li as Nameless and Ziyi Zhang as Broken Sword’s apprentice, Moon, before they recognize any of the rest of the cast. But good as they were, Snow and Broken Sword were the heart of the movie to me, largely due to the performances.

I wish I could comment on the messages this movie probably carries for people with more in-depth and personal knowledge of the history of China, both ancient and recent. I can’t and I feel like I should be and that makes me so sad. Regardless, though, I thought it was a beautiful movie. Well worth putting on again if only to have something so gorgeous playing in the background but more likely because I’ll want to see the whole thing again, even knowing that it will make me cry.

April 13, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 395 – Kung Fu Hustle

Kung Fu Hustle – March 30th, 2011

Clearly we need to get more Stephen Chow movies in our collection. And he needs to make more movies. Because there is something so bizarrely awesome about the two that I’ve seen and I think I need more of it in my life. It’s not just that it’s funny and full of good action. It’s the type of humor combined with the type of action. It’s a perfect mix of cartoonish comedy with unreal fighting.

There is something about this movie that puts me in mind of the old Roadrunner cartoons. And it’s not just the chase scene where two of the main characters go racing off along a dirt road with their legs blurred into whirlwinds while the scenery whizzes by. Though that is a fairly iconic image, so it figures in. But it’s that spirit of absolutely everything that happens being so thoroughly over the top and ridiculously dangerous, and while the people involved get banged up, for the most part they bounce back. Okay, so that’s not true of everyone in this movie, but once we pass the halfway mark? Yes, it is.

We begin our story with the introduction of the Axe Gang, who all wear black suits and top hats and carry little hatchets. They dance with them. This is about where I fell in love with this movie, because anything that has men in dapper suits dancing in formation while holding bladed weaponry is a-ok by me. Alas, there’s not much more dancing in the movie, but there is a lot of the Axe Gang, who’ve apparently taken over much of the city. They’ve got a nasty leader who’s not afraid to hack a man to death and they run whatever they feel like running. Then we meet the residents of Pig Sty Alley, who are all too poor to be worth the Axe Gang’s time. The residents are a motley bunch who seem to live hand-to-mouth and all owe back rent to the landlord and landlady of their buildings.

The landlord and landlady are interesting figures here, because while the movie starts out by setting them up as antagonists to the people who rent space from them, they end up being rather heroic. And I like that. I like that while the real bad guys are truly bad, and the good guy ends up being truly good, there’s plenty of gray area for everyone to spend some time in. I am all about the gray area. It’s nice to have characters who don’t neatly slot into Good and Bad sometimes. So anyhow, we’ve got Pig Sty Alley and its denizens and in walks Sing, a petty criminal who’s attempting to extort a little money out of folks by claiming to be with the Axe Gang. Unfortunately for him, and for the folks of Pig Sty Alley, he’s not in the gang at all. So when they show up, they’re not happy. And then the fighting starts.

The fight scenes are amazing. They’re varied and fun and fast but not too fast. There’s always something happening in screen but not enough to make it confusing or muddled. And during one of the big scenes I pondered aloud “So, this is the movie, right? It’s going to be another hour of fight scenes, right? Cause I can get behind that.” And okay, not quite. There’s plot in between the fight scenes, where we learn that the neighborhood has not one, not two, not three but five Kung Fu masters just hanging out incognito. We see the Axe Gang bring in hired killers to take out the folks who humiliated them. We see Sing try to get into their good graces by agreeing to do just about anything they want if they’ll let him join the gang. We get some background for Sing and find out that he was cheated out of his life savings by a con man who sold him what seems to have been a worthless kung fu manual. There’s a bit with a girl and a lollipop. The girl with the lollipop doesn’t get much in the way of time. She’s basically a symbol of Sing’s lost innocence and hope. Ah well. No movie’s perfect.

So wrapped around this plot are the fight scenes. There are the three masters in the beginning, fighting against the Axe Gang first and then two kung fu musicians, who use a guqin to make music that forms ethereal blades, fists and skeletal warriors to strike at their enemies. There are the other two masters who show up later and fight against the musicians and then against the Beast, freed from an institution by Sing at the Axe boss’s command. There’s Sing’s huge battle against the Beast that I swear takes up a third of the movie. And it’s all fantastic. And I mean that not only in that it’s good, but that it’s fantastical as well. It’s magical and outrageous as a movie like this should be. It’s the perfect combination of comedy and action and I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it outside of Shaolin Soccer, which is, of course, another Stephen Chow movie. So I repeat what I said at the outset: I need more of him in our collection. Because this was awesome.

March 30, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ranma 1/2 The Movie: Big Trouble in Nekonron, China

February 10, 2011

Ranma ½ The Movie: Big Trouble in Nekonron, China

Man does this bring back memories. Back in the late nineties when Amanda and I worked at TLA video we began to explore the large anime collection the store offered. By far the largest series we had available to us was Ranma – a never ending series based on the works of Rumiko Takahashi (the same woman behind the never ending Inu Yasha.) I have to admit that I love the Ranma series. It’s so charming and ludicrous.

The Ranma series centers around a young martial arts expert who has a unique problem. While training in China at a set of cursed hot springs they fall in. After that incident Ranma’s father Genma turns into a panda any time he is soaked in cold water and can only become human again if doused with warm water. Ranma himself stays human in cold water but turns from a black haired boy into a red headed girl. The series starts with the two of them arriving at the Anything Goes School of Martial arts run by Genma’s old friend Soun Tendo. Ranma has long been betrothed to the youngest of Tendo’s three daughters, Akane. Of course Akane and Ranma profess to hate each other, and the central theme of the series is their ever so so gradual coming together as a couple. Along the way there is an enormous cast of other characters, most of whom are either in love with Ranma or Akane (or both.) Some, such as Ryoga and Shampoo, are also cursed by the same springs. Others are just blinded by their obsessive love. As the series wears on it gets a little repetative, but even so it continues to be fun to see Akane and Ranma denying their love for one another while more and more suitors keep coming out of the wood works.

This OVA takes place well after the series has gotten under way. It starts with the lecherous and tiny martial arts master Happosai causing a ruckous when he frames Ranma for the theft of some of Akane’s underwear (it makes sense if you know him from the series.) We get a very quick introduction to just about every major character from the series as one after another they join into a mad chase after Happosai and Ranma. It’s a fun way to become re-aquainted with the characters if, as with us this evening, it has been several years since you last watched an episode. At the conclusion of the chase a mysterious girl astride an elephant shows up and attacks Happosai. In the process she hands a magical scroll to Akane, which causes further chaos when a ship descends from the clouds bearing a prince with magic chopsticks and his six legendary protectors. He sees Akane with the scroll, declares her to be his betrothed, and abducts her, floating away in his majestic airship. (This is a fairly average day, really, in the lives of the Tenmas and Saotomes.) So everybody hies off to China in pursuit of Monlon, the seven lucky gods, and Akane.

For me it’s fun just to see all these familiar characters on another adventure. The animation isn’t brilliant, and the plot is nothing particularly new, but we do get to see many references to familiar tropes from the series. Akane demonstrates her astonishingly bad cooking. Ranma risks all in a martial arts showdown to save her and yet continues to profess his disdain for her as a tomboy. (Early on in the series she cuts her hair short, and I’ve never understood why she didn’t let it grow back out, unless maybe she enjoys his barbs.) Everybody who has been cursed by the springs transforms multiple times. All in all it’s just a slightly longer episode of the series, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.

There’s not much else I can think to add tonight. This is one of the shortest movies in our collection (and tomorrow’s movie is even shorter) but it’s slightly too long to consider a TV episode. And yet it has imprinted itself upon our lexicon. Once in a while Amanda or I will exclaim “PICKLES!!!” when discussing pickled cucumbers – and you’d have to watch this movie to understand why.

February 10, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 177 – Unleashed

Unleashed – August 24th, 2010

I should apologize right now, because I’m about to get all serious in here. Serious about an action/martial arts flick. I know that’s not usually how these movies are meant to be watched, but watching it I found I couldn’t help but think serious thoughts about the plot. When we put it in tonight, I thought I’d be getting mindless action, some cool fight scenes with Jet Li, and all in under two hours so we could finish in time for me to write my review. No problem! And instead I’m thinking about child development and present-day slavery.

None of the coursework I did in grad school covered this sort of stuff. We mostly talked about literacy. So let me start by saying that the alphabet book Danny’s got near the beginning? The one he’s fascinated by and spends so much time looking at? Well, it makes a great prop for the movie, but a shitty alphabet book. An abstract concept like love? Tough. I don’t doubt there are books that have used it, but still. It prodded my librarian brain. It said “Cute idea, but not realistic!” Which sort of sums up a good portion of the movie for me. Oh, I enjoyed it, let me assure you, but like I said. I’m getting serious.

See, the movie takes this plot, with a loan shark, Bart, who’s got a fighter he’s trained up to be his muscle. And the fighter is Danny, who’s been with Bart almost his whole life. And he’s well trained to attack on command. You know, the alternate title of this movie is Danny the Dog. All Danny knows is to be quiet until his collar is off and when the collar’s off, attack on Bart’s command. And he’s lethal. Ruthless. Emotionless and efficient. The perfect tool. Not a human being at all. And as the plot goes, Danny escapes and meets a man named Sam who tunes pianos and lives with his step-daughter, Victoria, and they take Danny in and show him what a normal life is like until, of course, Bart shows up and wants Danny back and then there’s lots of fighting. Look at that plot. Look at it hard. This is slavery we’re looking at here, and while I’m sure we’d all like to think slavery’s a thing of the past, it would be painfully ignorant to believe it.

Slavery, the owning and using of another human being, is the gimmick that drives the movie. Danny hasn’t been free to make his own decisions and live his own life since he was seven. I know I’m taking this far more seriously than some, given that this is an action flick, but then there’s the whole middle section with Sam and Victoria. The writers wanted to show the effects Bart’s abuse has had on Danny, from his ignorance of cutlery to his total disregard of violence happening nearby. We’re supposed to see the bad stuff. And I think this is what bothers me, even though I did enjoy the movie. It’s presenting this horrible situation, with a man being kept as an animal and made to fight, and I know that slavery exists in the real world, and then it also asks us to accept that this unspeakably hideous damage done to the main character can be undone in a matter of weeks or months. Maybe I am taking it too seriously. It would be nice if some cooking and music lessons could undo decades of abuse. Maybe it’s better to just think of the movie as a fantasy. It’s rooted in reality. Painful and ugly reality. But it’s not real.

So, fantasy it is. And as a fantasy it does just fine. After all, the fight sequences are almost magical themselves. They’re full of slow motion cuts where near misses are lovingly captured for the viewer to admire from several angles. Jet Li as Danny spends every fight sequence doing moves that defy belief, bouncing from one enemy to the next and back again until they’re all gone. The movie starts with him up against a group and that’s really a thing for this movie. One on one fights are just so boring! We need multiple assailants to really spice things up, so every fight has a couple of people for Danny to beat on. And if the fights had been the whole movie it would have just been a very nicely done martial arts action movie. But then there’s that plot.

Now, I’m not going to complain about Morgan Freeman as Sam. I love Morgan Freeman, and he does play a good fatherly figure. When we review Batman Begins I’m sure I’ll get to wax rhapsodic about him and Michael Caine overloading the paternal wisdom intake in my brain. And I’m not going to complain about Kerry Condon as Victoria. She’s got an odd quirky character to play and she manages to make Victoria endearing instead of annoying. And I rather like their little family, brought together by tragedy and loss and kept together by music and compassion for one another. It’s a nice theme. It just strikes me as so oddly unexpected in the middle of a movie that starts with a fight sequence.

I guess what my problem is, is that while I enjoyed the movie, I was too aware of all of the nitpicky stuff. When I let go of all of that, it was a fun movie to watch. The performances are great, especially Bob Hoskins as Bart, and the fight scenes are a treat for those who like that sort of thing (and I do). So I’d suggest not doing what I did and getting bogged down in the particulars and realities unless you really want to do some serious thinking. If you want to enjoy a fun action movie, just let it go. Pretend it’s set fifty years from now or something. Because it’s an unexpected sort of movie. An action movie with a heart. And while it’s worth thinking about, it’s also worth just watching.

August 24, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment