Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Image Of Bruce Lee (aka Meng nan da zei yan zhi hu/Storming Attacks) (1978)


I sometimes feel bad for Bruce Li. A perfectly capable martial artist with a passing resemblance to Bruce Lee, he was re-branded and thrust into stardom in a series of Bruceploitation features meant to take advantage of the popularity of the late star following his death. Not that he resisted starring in these films, but he certainly had the charisma and ability to have done quite well for himself outside of these often shaky features. The Image of Bruce Lee actually has very little at all to do with Bruce Lee, and is instead a retitled contemporary action crime film with a few minor references to the dragon's films- most notably the opening sequence where Li is dressed very similarly to Lee in Game of Death, as well as a character briefly mentioning his resemblance. The film, which resembles a cop show from the 70s with plenty of kung fu and nudity thrown in, is actually quite entertaining, and it's unfortunate that it's lumped into the often exploitive sub-genre.

Bruce Li stars as Special Squad Leader Dragon, though is never actually referred to by that name. After a brief miscommunication (which leads to a scuffle), he's teamed up with Inspector 'Moustache' Wang, and the two are tasked with bringing in a crew of counterfeiters who have been distributing false U.S. currency into Hong Kong. The baddies are led by Han Tin Lung (Ying-Chieh Han) and his son Steven (John Cheung), who have operations reaching into London and Tokyo. The Tokyo branch is led by Kimura (Enter The Dragon's Bolo Yeung), while the printing paper is being brought to Hong Kong from London by Donna (Dana), the daughter of an associate. Soon, kung-fu is breaking out all over as Dragon tangles with Han's men, Kimura, Steven, more of Han's men, and eventually Han himself. Meanwhile, Donna gets naked and Inspector Wang spends most of the movie following her around. I won't spoil the twist, but the final scene is eye-rollingly goofy.


Actually much more entertaining than its title might imply, The Image of Bruce Lee fits wall to wall action into its rather standard counterfeit plot, making sure to throw in some decently choreographed fight scenes every five minutes or so. Li is quite impressive during these scenes, throwing some great kicks and generally looking like he could kick the ass of anyone within a ten mile radius. He's only ever challenged when totally outnumbered, or when faced with the martial artist's kryptonite: a gun. As for the baddies, John Cheung (who apparently is somewhere in Enter The 36th Chamber of Shaolin) shows off some impressive fighting skills, and Bolo is his usual Chinese Hercules self. The fights tend to run together, but there's a fun altercation in a dojo which leads to Li taking on a dozen guys by himself, and the final rumble - which begins among some dilapidated buildings and ends on the beach - feels appropriately climactic.

Director Chuan Yang, who fronted dozens of films of various genres, tackles the action perfectly fine, showing off his stars and tossing in a few impressive slow motion shots. While lacking in style, the frenetic pace and copious amounts of action and nudity keep things from ever getting bogged down. The plot is generic, but is handled competently. The music feels just like the soundtracks to American cop shows of the era, with plenty of wah-wah pedal and funky bass.


As per usual, the dubbing here is pretty wretched. Kung-fu fans will probably recognize a number of the usual (British and Australian) voices here, but the sound is often rather muffled which makes some of the dialogue difficult to hear. Visuals are soft but thankfully the image is letterboxed to 1.85:1 (though the IMDB says that the original shooting ratio was 2.35:1), and except for some early dark scenes which are difficult to watch the image quality is quite reasonable.

Part of the Millcreek Public Domain 50 Kung-Fu film collection, The Image of Bruce Lee features no extras besides the usual four chapter stops.


An entertaining and action-packed film that is unfortunately usually lumped in with more exploitive bruceploitation efforts, Image of Bruce Lee shows off Bruce Li's considerable talents while filling in the plot with requisite amounts of nudity and gunplay. Fast paced and featuring some impressive kung-fu, it trumps most of its public domain brethren and is deserving of time for those looking for cheap thrills.

Capsule Review: Rope (1948)

While mostly regarded as a technical exercise – Alfred Hitchcock shot the film in long takes, with edits covered to make it appear to be one long take – Rope still holds some thrills with its tale of casual murder by two upper class (possibly) homosexual intellectuals. It’s necessarily theatrical, but fascinating nonetheless with Jimmy Stewart giving a terrific performance as the boy’s suspicious professor. Based loosely on the real life Leopold and Loeb murders, Rope doesn’t really rank with Hitch’s best, but it has enough moments of genuine suspense to make a viewing worthwhile beyond witnessing a unique film experiment.

Capsule Review: Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Running only 45 minutes, Sherlock Jr. hardly qualifies as a feature, but Buster Keaton packs his tale of a lonely, daydreaming projectionist who yearns to be a detective with a constant stream of inventive gags. Featuring a long fantasy sequence with Buster as the titular hero – interesting to see him as a more competent and confident character – the film has many wonderful moments, particularly the scene where a sleeping Buster leaves his projection booth and enters the film, but gets tripped up by a constantly changing background. Buster actually broke his neck making this film, the dangers of performing such a physical style of slapstick, but he was rarely in better form than here.

Capsule Review: Our Hospitality (1923)

Our Hospitality begins with an extended prologue setting up the age old feud between the southern McKays and Canfields (obviously based on the Hatfields and McCoys) that is played almost totally straight, and is wonderfully staged, before we move right into the story of the naïve Willy McKay (Buster Keaton) returning to his hometown blissfully unaware of the feud. It’s when he finally understands (and falls for the youngest Canfield daughter) that things get interesting, as Southern hospitality keeps the bitter Canfields from murdering Buster as long as he’s a guest in their house. This leads to various scenes of Buster desperately trying to remain an inhabitant, going to extremes while the family tries in vain to get him to leave. While not as continually satisfying as The General, or as inventive as Sherlock Jr., Our Hospitality remains one of Buster’s best – and the waterfall climax is certainly one of his greatest moments.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


A few hours ago I was walking by a Redbox DVD rental machine and happened to overhear two women loudly discussing the fact that MICHAEL JACKSON'S THIS IS IT was released today, and neither could find a copy to rent anywhere. This made me think back on when I watched it with my wife a couple of months ago.

I had managed to avoid it while it was out in theaters. My wife had mentioned she wanted to see it, but it seemed to me to be too much of a hassle. Coworkers would come into work, discussing that they had seen it the night before. They described packed screening rooms, hysterical women crying during the movie...just not my scene. Also, I was never what anyone would call a big fan of MJ, and I didn't see the need to drop $10 to see this. When a screener copy fell into my lap, I didn't have a reason to put it off any longer.

I also must admit that the back story to the release didn't interest me at all. Rehearsals filmed for MJ's first new tour in years, the "making of" DVD was already planned for a small Christmas release but the promoters decided for a huge push after Jackson's untimely death. Random behind the scenes footage bunched together from a couple of months of filming reeked of exploiting the dead.

To my surprise, this documentary actually shows how great a tour this would have been. Michael appears to be in pretty solid shape. He wasn't at all the fragile, frail individual he'd been made out to be. He looked strong. He looked sharp. He was really into coordinating all aspects of the concert.

There's not much to say about the actual film. It basically boils down to a Greatest Hits CD performed live, with the title song being the only new song performed. Watching the film, however, there is no doubt how talented a musician, dancer, and performer Jackson was.

With the DVD release of THIS IS IT, I have to wonder when the Tupac-ing of Jackson's unreleased material will begin. A decent amount of fans will wonder "what could have been" of one of the most iconic figures in our culture, and that is when the milking of Jackson's catalogue will begin. It has been rumored that there is more than enough material already produced for quite a few new albums. My guess, it will not be a long wait.

The War of the Stars: A New Hope Grindhoused (1977/2009)


I know i'm hardly the only one who was irritated by the revamped Star Wars films of the late 1990s (Han shot first!), but one of the main reasons I disliked them is that it – along with the re-releases of E.T., Apocalypse Now, etc – makes it difficult to determine which version of the film truly represents the director's vision. Even when it's the original creator spearheading things, there is obviously a large difference between the George Lucas of 1977 and the Lucas of 1997 (demonstrated rather clearly by the quality of the Star Wars prequels). However, this could just as easily represent my own inability to accept a film as being a fluid and evolving thing that can be manipulated into an unlimited number of forms. Perhaps my wish to categorize a certain version of a film as being the 'true' version comes out of my own need to critique and compare.

Which brings me to the fairly recent practice of unauthorized re-editing of films, made possible by the preponderance of video editing software and an organized community of, well, geeks. I recall first hearing rumblings of this practice after the initial DVD release of The Phantom Menace, where a group of fans re-edited the film to remove all traces of the annoying Jar Jar Binks and bring it closer to what they believed a 'true' Star Wars prequel should be. This Phantom Edit got quite a bit of press at the time, and communities started to pop up to try their own hands at “improving” their favorite films. Now, I doubt that any of these fan efforts could replace the originals in the eyes of anyone but the most devoted dork, but the practice does bring some interesting questions to the forefront. These re-edited films are made with comparatively small amounts of resources, but with plenty of passion for the material and (generally) with a respectable amount of care. Which in turn opens the door for a certain amount of experimentation. Enter The War of the Stars.


The War of the Stars is a re-edit of Star Wars: A New Hope which uses outtakes, new musical cues, judicious editing – as well as a surprising amount of added special effects – to create a film more in line with the Grindhouse exploitation films of the 1970s. It's an often interesting and fun exercise, and one certainly not designed to replace the original film in any way, but instead to show the potential artistic possibilities of re-editing. George Lucas might not agree with adding judicious splashes of gore to scenes of Stormtroopers being blasted by lasers, and if a fan were to consider such changes sacrilege i'm not sure I could disagree – but for someone wanting to view the original film in a slightly different light the result can be fascinating.

Beginning with an appropriately decrepit widescreen print of A New Hope – with added grain and damage for good measure – the changes come fast and furious from the opening frames. The famous opening story crawl has been changed (and significantly simplified) and runs over a desert scene instead of the traditional starscape. Soon we're being introduced to C-3P0 and R2-D2 (now with subtitles!), and the evil Darth Vader – whose dialogue has sometimes been altered with quotes from other James Earl Jones films, and whose eyes now helpfully glow red every time he uses the force. We also get an opening credits sequence (“Alec Guinness in..”), as well as the inclusion of quite a bit of outtake footage of Luke Skywalker's friendship with Biggs Darklighter. And this is just in the first ten minutes.


Many of the changes are played for laughs, particularly in the Cantina (featuring Neil Young onstage, as well as brief snippets from the Star Wars Holiday Special) and in a brief inserted clip from the Star Wars fan film TROOPS, but they are integrated fairly smoothly. In one of my favorite sections, when Luke returns to home to find his aunt and uncle dead a Judas Priest song plays in the background as he imagines the faces of his dead relatives in the planet's two suns. The quality of the inserted footage does vary wildly, and plenty of exposition has been cut out – total run time is only 97 minutes – but I would imagine most of the people likely to watch this would already be plenty familiar with the original film.

It doesn't all work – the opening credits look pretty cheaply done, and the choice to occasionally switch to black and white to help match up footage is needlessly distracting – and it sometimes gets a little silly, but in some ways that's the point. The War of the Stars isn't meant to be taken seriously, and while it doesn't really feel like a grindhouse film (even with the now trademark burning film reel skip) it does feel very different and when it comes to material this familiar that is definitely a good thing.


Complaining about the image quality would be sort of redundant, since half the point is that the film is supposed to be gritty looking, and the editor here (The Man Behind The Mask) has a text special feature describing the compilation of this 16mm print that has been used and altered for the project. The audio is a mono mix from a Swedish print of the film, and when music has been added it's been done quite skillfully.

The creator has been good enough to include a few special features. First is a music video for "Bob Dylan's Prequels Homesick Blues". Basically a song parody (by The Great Luke Ski) of Dylan's famous Subterranean Homesick Blues edited to a combination of footage from a Bob Dylan concert and footage from the Star Wars prequels. Entertaining enough, though it wears a bit thin. Next is “Laisse Tomber Les Filles” which pairs the famous french song (the english version, “Chick Habit” of which is used by Quentin Tarantino for the closing credits of Death Proof) with footage of Carrie Fisher on Saturday Night Live. Odd, but a fun diversion. Finally, there's a reel of all of the effects that have been added to the film. As suggested on the DVD, watching this reel is better left until after seeing the film.


More a fun exercise than a serious attempt to improve upon the original, The War of the Stars still represents a rather incredible amount of effort to create something (relatively) original out of familiar material. Your appreciation of the result would likely be tied to your ability to see something you theoretically love sliced and diced, but as a bit of ridiculous fun at the expense of a movie that is embedded in our collective consciousnesses it definitely is worth checking out.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Capsule Review: Brazil (1985)

Often overshadowed by the difficulties of its release (which included a rather ridiculous and unnecessary re-edit), Brazil really marks a maturation of Terry Gilliam as filmmaker (first glimpsed in his entertaining Time Bandits), as well as a rejection of the more manic and broad humor in his Monty Python work. Still darkly funny with large chunks of Orwell’s 1984 and social satire thrown in for good measure, this weighty material is paired with astounding visuals and production design. Still the best thing Gilliam has produced, and a fine example of how greatness can come from chaos.

Capsule Review: Braveheart (1995)

Not exactly subtle – and certainly a long way from historically accurate – Mel Gibson’s account of the life (and death) of Scottish hero William Wallace contains enough bloody battle footage, memorable characters, and a simple message (FREEEEEEEEEEDOM!) to sustain its epic runtime. The characters are all broadly drawn, particularly the cartoonishly evil English who do everything short of twirling their moustaches, but as a folk hero brought to life it is intermittently entertaining. Great soundtrack by James Horner lifts the slow bits.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Capsule Review: Cool Hand Luke (1967)

“What we have here is.. failure to communicate.”. Paul Newman’s Luke gets put on a chain gang after being busted for drunkenly cutting the tops off of parking meters, and soon his seemingly endless streak of rebellion is inspiring his fellow inmates to foster some measure of hope for themselves and their place in the world. Luke – obviously presented as a Christ-like figure – is reluctant hero, and someone who seems unable to accept being presented with any level of authority, even when his resistance costs him dearly. Newman gives the material significant resonance, backed by a supporting cast including George Kennedy (who snagged an Academy Award), an impossibly young Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton, and Strother Martin, who gets to deliver the film’s most famous line. During a time when youth were struggling with the concept of conformity, Cool Hand Luke became an icon of the era.

Capsule Review: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

“Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room.” One of my very favorite films, and one that never ceases to both entertain and terrify me in equal measure, Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy masterpiece has lost little of its ability to provoke strong feelings since the end of the Cold War. The story is that Kubrick was working on adapting the novel “Red Alert” by Peter George, but he constantly found the concepts within to be darkly humourous, and he brought in Terry Southern to help bring out this comedic undercurrent. His second stroke of genius was in casting Peter Sellers in three key roles – the American President, the astonishingly British Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, and the eponymous Dr. Strangelove – as well as filling the rest of the cast masterfully. Sterling Hayden is all overpowering grimace as General Jack Ripper, and (perhaps best of all) George C. Scott plays the war loving General 'Buck' Turgidson to the absolute manic maximum. Combine this with Ken Adam’s amazing Production Design and scenes of ridiculous improvisation and you have one of the great films of all time.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Capsule Review: Back To The Future (1985)

Robert Zemeckis found the perfect blockbuster formula with his combination of modern special effects, Spielbergian whimsy, a young star on the rise, and an extremely clever script from himself and Bob Gale. Marty McFly, helping his scientist friend Doc Brown (the amazing Christopher Lloyd) with some experiments, accidentally launches himself back to 1955 where he runs into awkward, hormone fueled versions of his parents as well as the menacing bully Biff. The time travel element barely makes a lick of sense, but this sort of whiz-bang adventure had never worked so well on this scale. Followed by two enjoyable sequels.

Capsule Review: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Setting the tone for adaptations to follow, The Adventures of Robin Hood is packed with swashbuckling and adventure, as well as formidable baddies in the foppish Prince John (Claude Rains) and the conniving Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone). Errol Flynn stars as the titular hero, protecting the Saxons of England while King Richard is off to the crusades, and provides the requisite archery and quips as only he can. Colorful photography and wonderfully staged scenes, particularly the climactic sword fight between Robin and Sir Guy.

Capsule Review: Airplane! (1980)

Striking a unique (and often imitated) balance of farce, parody and general insanity first explored in their earlier The Kentucky Fried Movie, the team of David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams created their masterpiece with this disaster spoof. Taking the basic plot – and a surprising amount of dialogue – from the 1957 plane-in-peril film Zero Hour, the three tailor the story to their gag-a-minute style thanks to a game cast who manage to remain deadpan in the middle of chaos. Most impressive is Leslie Nielson, who reinvents himself as an oblivious straight man –leading to a second career in similar comedies. A timeless comedy (despite a few dated pop culture references) which puts most of its imitators to shame.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Capsule Review: The Bank Dick (1940)

I’m almost embarrassed to say that The Bank Dick is the first W.C. Fields film I’ve watched from start to finish. In fact, I was more familiar with the usual Fields impressions and quotes than his actual filmed work. At first, I had difficulty adjusting to his style of humor, which throws everything into the mix – sight gags, wordplay, slapstick – with the plot (about Fields' character Egbert Sousè accidentally stopping a bank robbery and becoming the bank's new security guard) only serving to tie brief sketches together.Fields plays both the tormented father - his family are wonderfully unpleasant - and the tormenter equally well, and the climactic car chase remains completely mindblowing. Terrific fun.

Capsule Review: The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (1948)

While ostensibly a simple morality tale about greed, B. Traven’s novel is faithfully translated with Huston’s typical eye for detail into one of the most entertaining “westerns” ever made. The acting is top notch, with Humphrey Bogart getting back to his roots as a man twisted by greed, and Walter Huston (father of the director) earning a best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the wizened prospector Howard. While the eventual erosion of Bogart’s morals is never much in doubt, almost everything else remains fresh and exciting – even the photography which makes great use of the rare (at the time) location shooting.

Capsule Review: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Still staggeringly beautiful after all these years, The Wizard of Oz captures a feeling of near limitless imagination still not equaled in most modern fantasy epics. It's become such a part of our collective pop culture – from the music, costumes, red slippers, Wicked Witches, hearts, brains and courage, and flying monkeys – that it almost transcends any sort of criticism. You either buy in or you don't, but there's really nothing like it, and likely never will be. The performances are etched into the American mindset and the music - particularly "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" - are part of our consciousness. It's hard to be objective about a film that seems to exist outside of cinema, to be part of our collective pop culture DNA. Always worth watching.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Return Of The Kung-Fu Dragon (aka Ju ma pao) (1976)

With a number of notable exceptions, the plots of many of the kung-fu films being churned out in the 1970s were fairly standard. Often productions went forward with only the most basic outline of a script (usually based on Chinese Legend or stories performed in Peking Opera), which is why many of the plots usually boil down to basic revenge stories. It's always interesting, therefore, when productions have a bit more ambition in their story, and Return Of The Kung-Fu Dragon certainly has some ambition - though it is throttled significantly by weak production values and editing.

On beautiful Phoenix Island, the Golden City is ruled by a kind and benevolant emperor and his three loyal guards - Chei Chan, Ma Kun and Sian Pau Ting - who have combined their skills into an unbeatable form of kung-fu. One day the Golden City is attacked by General Black and his evil wizard, who storm the palace and murder Chei Chan and Sian Pau Ting, leaving the wounded Ma Kun (who is forced to leave his wife and young daughter behind) to escape with Golden City's princess. He delivers her to Hsiang Chien Chiao before dying.

19 years pass before the now grown princess feels prepared to take the throne, but her kung-fu isn't strong enough so, on Hsian Chien Chiao's advice, she seeks out the children of the murdered guards - starting with the child of Ma Kun, Ma Chen Chen (Polly Kwan), who has been raised by the Empress as her own daughter. After the Empress reveals the truth, Ma Chen Chen tracks down Chan Kwan Yu and Chang Ta, the children of the other two guards, and the three - along with Hsiang Chien Chiao's midget servant - confront the evil Emperor and take back the city.

It wasn't so long ago that the idea of watching a subtitled, widescreen, remastered print of a Shaw Brothers or Golden Harvest production would be almost unthinkable. It's only been in recent years that these films have started to recieve the treatment they desserve, but there are still hundreds of kung-fu films that are available solely in a badly dubbed, pan and scan format. Return of The Kung-Fu Dragon, being in the public domain, is very unlikely to get the royal treatment, so how the film looks in its current incarnation may be the best we can currently expect.

Which is a shame, as while the film is hardly a classic, it's very difficult to review it in its current form, which is obviously quite far removed from the filmmakers' original intent. It suffers from all of the common flaws; atrocious dubbing, tinny sound, and cropping that has characters jumping in and out of frame at random. The zoomed in image is particularly egregious, as this film often has characters approaching each other from the margins of the screen. The kung-fu fights, which are really the highlight of this production, are particularly crippled by this.

Not the the film isn't significantly flawed already. While I praised some of the complexity of the storyline, it's often needlessly confusing - feeling like a dramatically longer work that has significantly cut down. This feeling is enhanced by the odd editing choices throughout; characters appear randomly, music stops suddenly, and occasionally shots are on-screen for a only an instant before it confusingly cuts away. It makes the whole experience of watching rather frustrating.

The high point of the film is the choreography particularly Cheung Lik and Li Chung Chien (Chan Kwan Yu and Chang Ta) who have an acrobatic and hard hitting fighting style. Polly Kwan is great as Ma Chen Chen, particularly when she stamps her foot like a horse when anticipating a fight, but her fighting looks a bit soft and hesitant at times. Hsiao Wang as the creepy, mischievous midget is certainly memorable, and the rest of the cast are fine, though the dubbing certainly hurts their performances.

Part of the Millcreek 50 Kung-Fu film collection, Return Of The Kung-Fu Dragon probably looks very similar to how it did in the VHS days - full-screen, fuzzy, and washed out. It's a colorful film, but the muted colors make already flimsy sets look even cheaper. Online versions seem to look similar, so it's possible there simply isn't a better version of this film commonly available. As usual, we get four chapter stops and nothing else.

While hardly memorable, Return Of The Kung-Fu Dragon is fast paced and has some impressive fights, though this is more than weighed down by a confounding fantasy plot, incomprehensible editing and likely the worst dubbing in this whole collection - and that's saying something. In its original form it might be worthwhile, but this murky, dubbed mess is likely best avoided.

J.T.'s "Scary Shit I Need To See In 2010" list: A Nightmare On Elm Street

If I told you that I wasn't worried about this reboot of this beloved horror franchise, I'd be lying to you.

The menace that Jackie Earle Haley brought to Rorschach in The Watchmen makes me feel confident that there is no better choice than him to bring the malice of Freddy Krueger to a new generation.

The things that bother me are the other intangibles surrounding the new film.

As you probably remember from the original movies, Freddy Krueger is the ghost of a child murdering serial killer who was burned alive by an angry mob of parents that lived on the titular address in question. In the usual manner befitting a revenant, Freddy's evil was so strong that he transcended death and set out on a vengeful campaign to vent his wrath out upon the parents of Elm Street by murdering their offspring.

Suffer the little children, indeed.

The Elm Street franchise jumped the proverbial shark when the producers forgot what made Freddy scary, and that was the fact that Freddy was a villain to be feared and reviled. Once Krueger became a wisecracking anti-hero and his victims became the cardboard cut-outs you'd find in the usual slasher franchise, the Elm Street franchise lost its luster.

Flash forward to 2010, and you'll note that the potential plot driver for the new franchise is that Freddy returns from the grave to claim the lives of the children of Elm Street because he was wrongly accused of being a child killer and subsequently burned alive by the aforementioned angry mob.

Perhaps it is me splitting hairs, but I think I preferred it when Freddy's despicable nature was clear and tangible. I think it is unnecessary to bring any sentiment of sympathy to Freddy's fate, just as I thought it was unnecessary in the Halloween reboot for Rob Zombie to humanize Michael Myers with a tragic backstory.

If that weren't bad enough, the plan for the character of Nancy (up there with Van Helsing and Dr. Loomis in the halls of horror film hero icons) is to transform her from the All-American girl wrestling with the sins of her parents to some gothic social outcast on the lower rungs of the high school social ladder charged with saving the lives of peers she probably wishes were dead anyway.

I really don't see why it is imperative that both Nancy and Freddy be "misunderstood," but that seems to be what the kids want these days. I personally liked it better when Nancy was the apple pie "everyman" stoically confronting an immortal evil with bravery and dignity, while Freddy was the murdering bastard that was omni-present and undying.

We will see if the proposed changes for the reboot work out for the better when this film drops sometime around April.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

A Bittersweet Life (2005)

BSL Title

"The Aesthetics of Violence"

It’s a familiar story: our hero, Sun-woo (Lee Byung-hun), is a serious gangster, an enforcer for Mr. Kang. When Mr. Kang leaves town, he asks Sun-woo to look after his young girlfriend, Heesoo (Shin Min-a). Oh, and Heesoo might have a lover--if she does, kill ’em both.

And so Sun-woo takes on the job, inevitably falling in love with the elegant Heesoo. When he discovers that she does, in fact, have a lover, he is both heartbroken and duty-bound to exterminate them. Except, of course, he shows mercy. Bad form for a gangster.

When Mr. Kang returns, he is less than pleased. Allying himself with Sun-woo’s rival, Baek Jr., Kang sends his son and his men to track down Sun-woo, torture him, and kill him. But Sun-woo won’t go down so easily, and once he decides to go after his old partners in crime, nothing will stop him, not until he kills every last one of those motherfuckers.


So, Kim Ji-woon’s A Bittersweet Life presents nothing new, at least, not insofar as narrative goes. But then again, how many original gangster films are there? It seems like a necessarily limited genre. That’s hardly the point. What A Bittersweet Life does is take a familiar story and tell it with beautiful people wearing beautiful clothing. These beautiful people are filmed with immaculately composed shots--a moving watercolour in Technicolor.

And when violence occurs--and it does, readily--it’s like this veneer of beauty is brutally, horrifically torn open. The violence is at least two-fold--violence to the man, and violence to the image.


What oddly strikes me, on a second viewing of the film, is the focus on clothing. Sun-woo’s suits are sleek, well-tailored, and expensive looking. Hardly what a gangster needs to wear when he’s scheduled for a knife fight. Our (and Sun-woo’s) first glimpse of Heesoo is her feet, as she tries on different shoes. Baek Jr.’s enforcer, when he comes after Sun-woo, is set apart by his eccentric choice of headwear: a shapeless fishing hat. The man’s psychopathology is hinted at, to the audience, not by his actions, but by his hat. A Bittersweet Life is a world of surface. We’re accustomed to looking beneath the surface to find deeper meaning. Here, we just find blood.

In this film, violence hurts. Bullets aren’t just magic dots that render their victims lifeless; instead, they’re little explosions, ripping their victims apart. Bullets don’t just thud into a gangster’s chest, but blow off his fingers, crack open his elbow. Blood smears the aesthetically-designed world around him.

BSL 3>

As I said, the narrative of the film follows a pretty standard trajectory. And that’s part of the fun, I suppose; when you pick up a gangster film, you get some pleasure out of the familiar, out of knowing what you’re in for. The surprise comes from the quality of the acting, and the beauty (there’s that word again) of the film itself.

Kim Ji-woon is a fascinating director. Other than A Bittersweet Life, he’s given us the postmodern “Eastern Western” The Good, The Bad, and The Weird, the psychological horror A Tale of Two Sisters, and the wrestling-centered comedy Foul King, among others. He’s one of Korea’s directors to watch, a group including Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) and Bong Joon-ho (The Host). Korea, to my mind, put out some of the most interesting films of the last decade; here's hoping it only gets better during this one.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Capsule Review: Beauty And The Beast (1946)

An often surprisingly dark and inventive adaptation of the famous Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont story, with a plethora of exciting visual trickery and visual effects - particularly the beast himself, which walks the fine line of being equally charming and repulsive. Filled with unforgettable images - the candles held by human arms, the living statues, the castle itself filled with foreboding shadows - this endearing fairytale manages to overcome some slippery moments, particularly near the end, to become an endearing classic.

Capsule Review: Night Of The Living Dead (1968)

A low budget horror film starring a cast of nobodies and filmed in black and white hardly sounds like the recipe for one of the most influential films of all time, but limitations become strengths in the hands of young, eager filmmakers not handcuffed by the restrictions of mainstream hollywood. Night Of The Living Dead is more than just a lurid title - it represents a conscientious wave in horror, comparable to the cold war Sci-fi of the 50s - where threats can both stand on their own and represent any number of societal ills. Not strictly a political film, the choice to cast an african-American actor in the lead, as well as a shock ending with its own real life reflections at the time, add another layer to the central, terrifying concept of the dead returning to life. A television staple thanks to accidentally falling into the public domain, it's worth digging up some the astounding remastered version (as long as it's not the awful 30th Anniversary version). The remake (penned by George Romero) is worth seeking out as well.

Capsule Review: The Thin Man (1934)

Nominated for multiple Academy Awards despite being filmed in a mere 14 days and featuring a plot that is nearly impossible to follow, the success of The Thin Man - as well as its many sequels - is a testament to the chemistry of the two leads, William Powell and Myrna Loy, who are so much fun to watch booze and bicker that you almost forget that the mystery plot is occasionally putting their lives in danger. The plot is barely important, Nick and Norah Charles get pulled into the fray when the scientist father of an acquaintance goes missing, but the alcohol-tinged, flirty charisma of the leads is infinitely infectious.

Capsule Review: City Of God (2002)

A tale of youth gangs running wild in Rio De Jinero seen through the eyes of a young photographer, City Of God could have easily collapsed under the weighty (and true to life) material, but the director(s) bring a litany of stylish Tarantinoesque tricks to bring energy and verve (and often humor) to the sometimes shocking scenes. Employing musicians (including musician Seu Jorge), some of whom come from the actual city of god, this is a must see. Followed by the film City Of Men, as well as a television series.

J.T.'s "Scary Shit I Need To See In 2010" list: The Wolfman

A couple of Halloweens ago, Doug and I were having a discussion and it dawned on us that as far as the enduring legacies of the three premier Universal monster icons went, there was a significant decline in the number of quality werewolf pictures since The Wolf Man.

Both Frankenstein and Dracula have seen relatively successful revivals over the years in some form or another, but the werewolf's stock has gone down significantly as time has gone by.

I mean seriously. Vampires always remain en vogue and every "mad scientist" or "technology gone horribly awry" movie pays homage to Mary Shelley's magnum opus in one form or another, but for every American Werewolf In London there is an American Werewolf In Paris, for every Ginger Snaps there is a Project: Metalbeast, and for every Dog Soldiers there is a Full Eclipse

But fear not, lovers of the feral! Universal Studios has heard your cries and this February brings the 2010 horror movie I am looking forward to most of all to the theater.

The Wolfman!

I suspect that the story won't change too much as Lawrence Talbot (Benecio Del Toro) returns home to investigate his brother's death only to become the latest carrier of the family curse. Hugo Weaving, Emily Blunt, and Sir Anthony Hopkins round out what appears to be a very respectable cast.

Purists may scoff at the CGI in the trailer, but these are modern times and the iconic transformation scenes need to be fluid and dramatic, and they should be comforted by the fact that movie make-up maestro without peer, Rick Baker, is on duty.

From the looks of the teaser currently in circulation, the GCI folks have really gone out of their way to accentuate the metamorphosis sequences so that they really emphasize the agony Talbot endures as he assumes the form of his lethal alter ego.

I'm happy to see that Universal Studios is not shying away from a solid R rating for this movie. You can't really appreciate the ferocity of the predator until you can see the effects of his fury, and that means that blood has to be spilled by the bucketload.

Keep your silver-headed cane close by and purchase your tickets for this one as soon as they are available!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Capsule Review: The Stranger (1946)

While Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons are rightfully regarded as classics, they were not financial successes upon their release and Orson Welles had trouble financing his films for the rest of his career. With The Stranger he was given an opportunity to direct material that he hadn't written, and was promised more work if the film was a success. While fairly taut, the film – about an escaped Nazi who is living as a teacher in a small town, and the police officer (Edward G. Robinson) on his trail – is hardly notable compared to Welles' masterpieces. Similar ground is covered in Hitchcock's far superior Shadow Of A Doubt, and Welles goes incredibly overboard with his leering performance. Touches of Welles directorial bravado shine through, particularly in the shadowy climax, but those expecting a lost classic will be disappointed.

Capsule Review: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Frank Capra gets a lot of grief for the often schmaltzy content of his films, but sometimes things come together just right and even a jaded Canadian like myself has to fill himself with patriotic American pride. While the story of a down to earth young American man finding himself elected to the corrupt U.S. Senate might seem a bit far fetched, Jimmy Stewart's amazing performance keeps things grounded in some measure of reality and seeing his faith in the American political system shaken by the greed around him is truly painful to witness. His climactic filibuster on the floor of the Senate is the stuff of legend, with Claude Rains – amazing as always – going toe to toe with Stewart every step of the way.

J.T.'s "Scary Shit I Need To See In 2010" list: Secret Sunday (9 Wat)

Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom put Thai horror on the map in 2004 with Shutter but sadly, subsequent films like Alone and See Prang have barely seen the light of day.

2010 brings with it a zen-flavored gem called Secret Sunday (9 Wat) directed by Saranyu Jiralaksanakul which will hopefully help worthy titles in the Thai horror realm to find their way to my DVD shelf.

Secret Sunday features newly blonde Thai hottie Siraphun Wattanajinda and James Alexander in a story of self-redemption and dire reckoning. It tells the story of an architect and his journey to nine temples to rid himself of a dangerous accumulation of bad karma that threatens not only his life, but the lives of those whom his bad karma has tainted.

It is a common New Year's tradition in Thailand (the Thai New Year hits around April) to make a pilgrimage to Bangkok and visit all nine sacred temples in order to guarantee one's self an abundance of good fortune for the coming year. It is pretty cool to see a variation of this cultural practice serve as the backdrop for a horror film.

I'm under the impression that Secret Sunday (9 Wat) should be released sometime in February but if it is a limited release in some far away major city, I am going to be very pissed off.

J.T.'s "Scary Shit I Need To See In 2010" list: Let Me In

Once again, something old becomes something new and in turn, becomes something even more new.

Just when you thought the vampire genre was down and out and you found yourself wanting to drive to a theater showing Twilight while armed with a shotgun, along came Tomas Alfredson's 2008 masterpiece, Let The Right One In, to renew your faith that someone out there could spin a yarn about vampires in love that you could sit through without projectile vomiting or suffering through some god-awful, bubble gum modern rock song during the end credits.

Let The Right One In drew lots of critical acclaim (because it is a damn fine film) so it was only logical that some sort of remake would be in the works.

Subsequently, Let Me In was greenlit for production and should be released by October of this year.

I was pretty skeptical about the quality of a remake, but Matt Reeves of Cloverfield fame is helming this project, so I am hopeful that he will not miss all of the nuances that made Let The Right One In such a great motion picture.

As was the case with Quarantine and her source film, the wonderfully apocalyptic [REC], I find myself hoping that Let Me In will do well at the box office if only because it might lead to an even wider audience for the very deserving Let The Right One In.

J.T.'s "Scary Shit I Need To See In 2010" list: Dread

As much as I love my fellow blog member, Doug Tilley, like a brother, I have found many reasons to hate Canada over the years. One of the prime reasons is the annual Fantasia Film Festival hosted by Ubisoft is in Montreal, Quebec instead of someplace like.... say... Virginia Beach...


This past July marked the initial screening of Dread and from what I gather, it is a rather faithful adaptation of the Clive Barker short story of the same name. I know what you are thinking, but Dread being faithful to the source material is a good thing because the short story is one of Barker's finest tales hands down and is clearly the strongest singular piece of work in his Books of Blood chronicles.

Unlike most of Barker's trademark splatter-horror yarns, Dread takes an uncharacteristically psychological bent and focuses on a deranged (if unflappable) intellectual named Quaid and his cold, relentless pursuit to understand the essence of what it is to be truly afraid.

Naturally, in order to understand this most basic and primal concept, Quaid's first order of business is to find out the very thing that terrifies someone and subject that person to that same stimulus......

..... over and over and over again.....

As with most of Barker's early work, you will probably see the ending coming a mile away but if the payoff of the movie is half as satisfying as the prose, then this will be matinee money well spent.....

.... even if Dread's 2010 debut apparently will come courtesy of the oft disappointing "8 Films To (Allegedly) Die For" After Dark Horrorfest film series which will span from January 29th to February 4th at a theater near you.

J.T's "Scary Shit I Need To See In 2010" list: Daybreakers

Well, 2010 is here and it is time to start thinking about the upcoming films that make your fingers tingle. Over the next few entries, I will be giving you a head's up on the upcoming horror movies that will probably earn my patronage in the months to come.

Unless you're still suffering from that New Year's drink on, you've noticed the trailers for Sperig brother's vampire epic, Daybreakers. I'll be the first to admit that the trailer's "What if Blade had failed?" vibe makes my forehead wrinkle in not so good ways, so I am not expecting much and am prayerful that I will be pleasantly shocked.

Daybreakers features Ethan Hawke and Sam Neil and answers the question left on the cutting room floor after the first Blade movie (and subsequently answered in the travesty known as Blade: Trinity to fill in a gigantic plot hole).

Namely, "If everyone on earth is a vampire, where in the holy hell will all the human blood need to feed them come from?"

I have to say that the thing that intriges me most isn't the struggle for the vampire cure. It's the whole notion of Sam Neil's vampire antagonist character and his reasons for wanting to destroy the vampire cure.

He doesn't seem to necessarily enjoy being a vampire, so he isn't driven by the traditional vampire movie plot motivation of needing to stay at the top of the food chain. The root of his opposition is pure capitalism.

Simply put, the cure will prevent him from exploiting the bank accounts of the world's bloodsucking population by selling them an untested (and mutagenic) blood substitute while keeping the supply of pure human blood limited and driving up prices for the rare commodity!

That, folks, is as fucking epic of a dig at corporate greed as you'll ever see.

Daybreakers hits theaters tomorrow (January 8th), so I will see you at the flicks, beloved readers.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Capsule Review: Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)

The British crime caper gets a fresh coat of paint thanks to the impressively stylish visuals and dialogue from newcomer Guy Ritchie. While sometimes criticized for his one-note writing style, Ritchie has a knack for creating memorable characters, and finds a mix of humor and violence that transcends the Tarantino-disciples of the time. Good performances and a great soundtrack certainly help things along. Ritchie followed with Snatch, which covers similar territory and might be even better.

Capsule Review: Clerks (1994)

Clerks simply shouldn't work. A slacker comedy featuring sub-community theatre acting and filmed entirely in black and white, with an impossibly low budget and written and directed by someone with no feature experience.. that it ended up one of the funniest films of the 90s thanks to a sharp, inventive script is almost solely due to director/writer/actor Kevin Smith and his game cast of amateurs. A surprising (and, at the time, original) mixture of comedy and frank talk about sexuality influenced a whole generation of (generally lesser) comedies that focused more on talk than gags. It gets a bit bogged down in the final half hour, but it's still hilarious and one of the largest low-budget accomplishments (along with El Mariachi) to come from the early 90s indie film scene.

Capsule Review: Once Upon A Time In The West (1968)

Sergio Leone packs so many memorable sequences and set pieces into his epic tribute to the end of the wild west that it's nearly impossible to list them all. The opening scene with three outlaws (including Jack Elam and Woody Strode) killing time while waiting for the arrival of Charles Bronson (aka Harmonica), the first reveal of Henry Fonda's blue eyes after the massacre of the McBain family, the entrance of Jill (Claudia Cardinale) through the train station into the expansive, under construction town (ably lifted by Ennio Morricone's amazing score), the climactic gunfight between Fonda and Harmonica. It goes on and on. Throw in Leone's trademark shooting style (expect many close-ups of eyes), and a script which contains references to almost every major American Western, and you have the accumulation of everything a Spaghetti Western could be. Perhaps slightly bloated, but completely unforgettable.

Capsule Review: The Passion Of The Christ (2004)

Sadistically violent and unpleasant dramatization of the last days of Christ, focusing on his torture and crucifixion following his arrest. Featuring strong performances by an attractive cast speaking entirely in Aramaic, director Mel Gibson wallows in the gore – particularly in an endless whipping scene - and in watching Jesus attempt to drag the cross to the top of Mount Sinai. The second sequence takes up nearly a half hour, at which point you'll either be enraptured or ridiculously bored. A fine display at just how awful crucifixion as a form of punishment must have been, but it says little of interest about Christ or his supposed teachings.

Capsule Review: Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)

Infuriating but often inspiring, Michael Moore struck a chord with a frustrated and enraged public with this condemnation of the Bush administration and their response to the 9/11 attacks. Moore's narration and public stunts can feel a bit shallow and heavy handed, but honest footage of soldiers desperately trying to come to terms with their situation or a grieving mother wondering what cause her son died for remain powerful and unforgettable. Feelings on Moore's approach to documentary aside, Fahrenheit 9/11 will remain an important time capsule of a frightening time in American history.

Fighting Mad (1978) (aka Death Force)


Cirio H. Santiago directed or produced a number of blaxploitation/kung-fu hybrid films in the mid-1970s (including TNT Jackson and Bamboo Gods and Iron Men) - usually made in the Philippines - but the genre mashing only held so much potential, so during the tail end of the decade he brought together the equally odd pairing of blaxploitation elements with samurai films in his film Fighting Mad (originally titled Death Force). Santiago had a rather keen eye for bringing together disparate elements into something entertaining despite working with low budgets - this one often looks even cheaper than his earlier efforts - and despite taking a little time to get going, Fighting Mad is no exception.

It's actually a rather imaginative concept: Three soldiers return from Vietnam with a slew of smuggled gold bricks. Doug Russell (James Iglehart) dreams of returning to his wife and newly born child, but his partners (including Penitentiary's Leon Isaac) are more interested in running a criminal empire, so on the boat ride back to the States they slit his throat and throw him overboard. Doug washes up on an island inhabited only by two WWII Japanese soldiers who refuse to believe that the war has ended, but grudgingly accept him and - after the usual period of humbling - train him in the art of the Samurai. After hitching a ride back to the U.S. with some visiting soldiers (who don't seem too concerned about being attacked by Doug and his Japanese pal), Russell tracks down his wife (Jayne Kennedy) before taking on the mafia with only his wits and razor sharp samurai sword. Expect a surprising number of decapitations before everyone lives happily ever after.


Cited by Quentin Tarantino as a major influence, Santiago is an exploitation film legend and films like Fighting Mad go a long way to confirming his talents. Far from high art, the film still delivers a great deal of high energy, popcorn fun with the requisite squeaky clean heroes, dastardly villains, and smatterings of gore and/or nudity with the trademark international elements unique to his productions. The Philippines is not always the most convincing double for California, but production values are generally quite high and some strong casting - particularly James Iglehart, who really did make a terrific, charismatic leading man - goes a long way towards keeping things from getting bogged down. While the actual martial arts action doesn't compare to the Chinese or Japanese efforts of the time, it has its own sloppy charm that is certainly never boring.

Santiago doesn't bring much visual flair to the proceedings, but once Phillips arrives on the island - and the film begins cross-cutting between his samurai education and the rise of his criminal antagonists - the pace picks up as well, speeding up considerably once Doug reaches the U.S. and starts taking care of business. A fight between Doug and a hired goon in a barber shop, in particular, shows off some fine orchestrated destruction that is a lot of fun because of its lack of polish, and the finale get appropriately bloody once Doug's family are (of course) kidnapped and he has to go to Mexico to get them back.


Leon Isaac is appropriately dickish as the main baddie, though it's a tad uncomfortable to watch him beat and attempt to rape Jayne Kennedy, his future wife. Jayne gets to sing a few songs (which slow things to a halt), but doesn't have a lot to do here. The two Japanese soldiers are quite good, adding a few moments of (fairly stereotypical) comic relief - particularly in a conversation regarding the term "mother humpers" - and an air of legitimacy once the three bond and start seriously training. Strangely, the entire film is rather badly dubbed, though it appears that most of the actors are speaking with their actual voices. I don't recall the dubbing being quite so obvious in some of Santiago's earlier films.

Sex and violence and surprisingly subdued for much of the film, besides some messy gun-fights, but things break out in the last ten minutes as Phillips starts lopping off heads left and right - with appropriately messy arterial spray included. There's a brief sex scene - as well as the mentioned attempted rape - but no nudity, and certainly nothing quite as obviously wonderfully exploitive as the topless fight scene in TNT Jackson. Music is by genre mainstay Jaime Mendoza-Nava (The Town That Dreaded Sundown, Vampire Hookers), but is fairly forgettable.


Part of the Millcreek 50 Kung-Fu film collection, Fighting Mad is presented in a muddy, full-frame transfer that is likely comparable to the film's (many) VHS releases. Somehow a number of Santiago's films fell into the public domain, so it's unfortunately unlikely that we will see a cleaned up version of the movie in its original aspect ratio any time soon. The few night scenes are a little dark and murky, but things are generally soft, but quite watchable.

As per usual in this collection, all we get is four chapter stops. Fun!


A silly but fun revenge action film, Fighting Mad holds up its end of the bargain by delivering all the promised amounts of action and bloodshed, and doesn't overstay its welcome. A novel concept, strong performances, and a director with a strong grasp of what his audience wants - and a willingness to deliver - makes this one a pleasant surprise, and definitely worth checking out.

In fact, why not do that right now?