Sunday, January 30, 2011

Capsule Review: La meglio gioventù (aka The Best of Youth) (2003)

Any review of The Best of Youth can't help but mention its epic length. Originally a mini-series, the film runs a rather encompassing 6 hours, though forgoes the languid pace of similar lengthy features to instead tell a brisk history of two brothers over almost forty years, as well as their family and their respective relationships as they intersect throughout Italy (and elsewhere). While the film touches upon notable periods in Italian culture - the student riots, the 1966 Arno River flood, the red brigades - it's not a travelogue through history like Forrest Gump, but instead a dissection of these familial relationships and the way in which people are pulled apart and brought together. Filled with touching moments of victory and tragedy, it features a collection of magnificent performances - particularly Luigi Lo Cascio and Alessio Boni in the leads. While the two may not age very convincingly over the time period in the film, they both give affecting, powerful performances that brighten would could have been scenes of maudlin sentiment. A beautiful, touching film that was also a massive undertaking by director Marco Tullio Giordana, it slows slightly in its second half (where meetings between characters start to get a little unbelievable), but finishes strongly with moments of honest emotion. Definitely worth the investment.

Friday, January 28, 2011

My Top 10 films of 2010 (5-1)

5. True Grit

A superior adaptation of the Charles Portis novel (though inexorably linked with the John Wayne original), True Grit contains elements of the Coen Brother's trademark quirk and expert cinematography (by Roger Deakins), and pairs them with a collection of memorable performances - not the least of which is the startling lead from newcomer Hailee Steinfeld. After the death of her father, Mattie Ross (Steinfeld) hires the wild (and filthy) Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track down and kill her father's murderer. A simple tale that borrows much of its language directly from the novel (and, therefore, has some massive similarities with the earlier film version) but there's a roughness and wildness to the proceedings - along with touches that are purely Coen - that make this adaptation superior in nearly every way.

4. The King's Speech

Describing the plot of The King's Speech might rapidly send the average genre fan off to sleep - King George VI must employ a speech therapist to help him overcome a serious stammering problem and maintain the respect of his people during the beginning of England's involvement in World War II - which is part of its relaxed genius. The script by David Seidler (based on a real relationship) is full of good (and broad) humor, having plenty of fun with the audiences expectations of stuffiness. The acting is marvelous across the board, particularly from Geoffrey Wright finding himself uniquely restrained as a Shakespeare loving Australian speech therapist. Much credit should go to director Tom Hooper who manages to find a lovable balance between humor and pathos that makes some difficult material endlessly entertaining.

3. Never Let Me Go

If you were told that a hot-shot music video director was going to tackle a dystopian science-fiction film, you might have expected an effects-filled summer action film like Michael Bay's The Island. However, when that director is Mark Romanek (who also directed the underrated One Hour Photo in 2002) and the work is an adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go (adapted by Danny Boyle's collaborator Alex Garland), your expectations will be roundly (and happily) shattered. In fact, this alternate reality tale has very few special effect sequences and is instead a heartbreaking character piece focusing on three friends and their lives together (and apart) as they are raised for.. well, I don't want to give that away. The leads are played wonderfully by Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield, but it's Romanek's sure hand with the content that will keep you enraptured. A beautiful film, and one that deserves more attention.

2. Winter's Bone

The Academy Awards nominations came out a few days back, and I was delighted to see multiple nominations for Debra Granik's intense adaptation of Daniel Woodrell's 2006 novel Winter's Bone. A carefully textured and detailed film, it stars Jennifer Lawrence in an awe-inspiring performance as Ree Dolly, who is tasked with tracking down her father after his disappearance may lead to her family (which includes two younger siblings and a mentally ill mother) losing their house. Her extended family includes many members involved in illegal methamphetamine labs, and her life is soon at risk as her poking around begins to uncover family secrets. John Hawkes - who I knew from Eastbound and Down and Deadwood - gives a darkly unhinged performance as the girl's uncle, while the photography (by Michael McDonough) brings out the cool bleakness of the Ozarks. Builds to almost unbearable intensity, with a collection of terrific character actors (including another Deadwood alumni, Garret Dillahunt) carrying along the mystery of the whereabouts of Ree's father. Haunting.

1. Exit Through the Gift Shop

Street Art is a topic I've had a fascination with for years now, but was hopelessly undereducated when it came to its nuts and bolts. Perhaps this is by design (so to speak), as by its nature street art is rebellious, underground and often illegal, so the idea of creating some sort of oral history would be an incredibly difficult undertaking, particularly as these artists tend to be necessarily mysterious. Perhaps none is as mysterious - or playful - as Banksy, the director of Exit Through the Gift Shop who is assisted greatly by the seemingly endless amount of footage of various artists taken by French immigrant Thierry Guetta (aka Mr. Brainwash) who begins as the documentarian before the film takes a massive shift to focus on his own rise as an "underground" artist. Many questions have been raised regarding the film's (and Guetta's) legitimacy, but what's certain is that the humor is very much intentional and you can't help but walk away from the film with an increased appreciation for the tremendously ballsy art-form, while still questioning the legitimacy of those who choose to profit from the mass production of it.

Monday, January 24, 2011

My Top 10 films of 2010 (10 - 6)

I tend to avoid any sort of "best of the year" list for one simple reason - many worthwhile films don't have theatrical runs in the city where I live, so I'm required to wait until they come out on DVD/Blu-Ray to see them. Since some of the very best films come out late in the year, putting together a list in December simply doesn't work for me. Putting together a list at the end of January isn't ideal either, but having spent most of the month seeing as many of the well-reviewed and respected films of 2010 I finally feel comfortable in at least compiling a preliminary list. There are some notable films I've yet to see that may deserve a place on this list, but at the very least I feel like these films are all greatly worth your time. I'll note at the end some of the more revered films that I've yet to see.

But that's enough preamble. Here are my top 10 films.

10. Catfish 

Audiences have wised up in recent years regarding the manipulations inherent in most documentaries, and 2010 found a group of docs that made their own unreality part of their appeal. While I'm Still Here ended up rubbing some viewers the wrong way, I was particularly dreading watching Catfish - which details the online friendship between photographer Yaniv Schulman and the 8 year-old painter Abby and her family - since reviews began questioning its legitimacy immediately upon its release. I put on a mask of skepticism when I sat down to watch it, which made my strong emotional reaction to the material surprising to myself. I lean towards the whole thing being 100% legitimate (or as legitimate as a documentary can be), and in that case it's the most gripping documentary I've seen since 2009's The Cove. To reveal anything would be unfair, but needless to say this is a film that explores the necessity of illusion as a motivator in many of our lives. Surprisingly heartbreaking.

9. 127 Hours

The backlash on Danny Boyle's adaptation of the harrowing true life survival tale of Aron Ralston, who after being trapped in an isolated canyon was forced to cut off his own hand in order to escape, began almost immediately. I'll admit to rolling my own eyes at the initial tales of audience members fainting from shock (a very William Castle promotional move), and Boyle has shown a tendency towards unnecessary flash in the past that has rubbed me the wrong way. Color me surprise that I found 127 Hours to be absolutely gripping, with Boyle occasionally falling into his bad habits (and a few achy moments of schmaltz) but treats the material beautifully, assisted greatly by a subdued and sympathetic one-man-show performance by James Franco. This could easily have fallen into TV movie territory, but this is a thankfully sincere and rapidly paced tale of legitimate courage. 

8. Winnebago Man

Before Youtube your best bet at finding pieces of video oddness came with underground tape trading, and one of the most memorable of these pre-viral videos featured profane outtakes from a 1989 promotional video for winnebagos. The "star" of this video - Jack Rebney - soon became known internationally as the 'Winnebago Man', and his anger amused hundreds of thousands; including documentary filmmaker Ben Steinbauer who decided to see what effect this video had on the life of Mr. Rebney. What transpires is often sad, sometimes hilarious, but always riveting. After quite a trial tracking the man down, Steinbauer discovers someone who seems to both reject attention while craving the excitement of being listened to - though he's a difficult subject to summarize (or tolerate). During a year when it seemed like there was another internet-based sensation every week, it's fascinating to examine the real effect that fame (even minor) can have on a person's life. 

7. Black Swan

Make no mistake, this is a horror film. There are shades of Cronenberg and Lynch, but the sheer commitment to daring is pure Aronofsky and scenes that would become hokey in the hands of a lesser filmmaker somehow succeed to becomes a distillation of the pressure to succeed in the world of ballet. In many ways a companion piece to Aranofsky's previous film The Wrestler, Black Swan similarly has a powerhouse performance in the lead as well as a reliance on handheld photography that brings out the simple beauty in an artform that can sometimes feel aloof or distant. Beautifully bold, and worthy of repeat viewings to further unlock its secrets.

6. Inception

Many wonderful filmmakers - from Stanley Kubrick to the Coens - have been unfortunately (and often unfairly) labelled as being emotionally distanced from their films. Inception is a clever exercise and work of immense technical skill, and as challenging a blockbuster as has ever been released, but the characters do sometimes feel a bit flat an uninvolved and there is a sterility to the proceedings that I felt removed me from the universe in which it takes place. However, Christopher Nolan deserves plenty of credit for simply keeping all of these disparate elements in the air and somehow wrapping things up as neatly as one could reasonably expect. This is a filmmaker who is still growing and evolving, and if he sometimes seems a little in awe at the toys he has available to him, he could hardly be blamed. Tremendously entertaining work, though you may find yourself searching for a pulse.

I'll be back later in the week with my Top 5!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Dark Knight Rises: Trust in Nolan (But Tie Up Your Camel).

Well, unless you are a club-footed troglodyte who should turn in his movie nerd license, you've already heard the news concerning the casting for what may very well be Christopher Nolan's final Batman film: The Dark Knight Rises.

Anne Hathaway (The Devil Wears Prada, Havoc) continues to add distance to her Princess Diaries days and will portray comic book fandom's favorite kleptomaniac, Catwoman.

Tom Hardy comes off of a strong breakthrough role in Nolan's Inception and will tackle his biggest role yet as Bane.

I am reluctant to admit it, but I have to say that I do feel a sense of disappointment as I was really looking forward to a Riddler-based plotline and was absolutely stoked when the rumor mill had both David Tennant of Dr. Who fame and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (also hot from Inception) as the front runners to portray the Criminal King of Conundrums.

Let it be known that I have no problems with the actors themselves. Anne Hathaway has done an admirable job in making the transition from child star to dramatic actress and I admire her for successfully navigating the waters that have claimed so many before her.

She is a phenominal artist with full control of her craft.

I can't say that there is a Tom Hardy film I've seen that I disliked. Tom Hardy has the chops for any role put in front of him and if you think that Hardy will have problems with the physicality of being Bane, then you should probably rent, Bronson.

Tom Hardy's ability to play a diesel psychopath with a genius-level intellect is the least of my worries.

I guess the problem lies with the cartoon personages. Catwoman is as much of a one-trick pony as you will find in the DC Universe and I won't lie to you. The biggest reason I have for wanting to see Catwoman on-screen is to see whether or not Nolan draws his inspiration for Catwoman's look from the absolutely fabulous covers of artist, Adam Hughes.

Yep, I am a complete sucker for the Audrey Hepburn / Catwoman re-imaging. If Anne Hathaway is in a costume that looks like that, then I will be the first in line with admission money.

The issue for me concerning the use of Bane in this movie is that the scenario strikes me as a move similar to the use of Venom in the oft-maligned Spider-Man 3. Bane is very popular with the Batman fan base so I wonder if Nolan actually embraces Bane, or if the decision to use Bane was a studio directive dictated to Nolan just as the use of Venom was allegedly dictated to Sam Raimi.

If that is the case, then it fills my heart with trepidation because unbridled fan service has lead to the implosion of more projects that can be numbered. Bad things always happen when great creators aren't allowed to create.

That being said, the plotline for Knightfall does fit snugly within Nolan's prescribed direction for the third film and if Batman Begins can include liberal usage of the Scarecrow's fictional fear toxin, then certainly it shouldn't be a huge leap of faith to accept a showdown between Batman and Bane 'roided out on Venom.

Venom... hmmm... There is that word again... Anyway....

We all know that when Nolan enjoys his work, we all benefit so I really do hope that the use of Bane is Nolan's own doing. If that is the case then I have faith that Nolan will deliver yet another earth-shattering film and cement his legacy as one of the best directors ever to sit in the chair.

For now, I will reserve final judgment until I see the first trailer. My reservations about the late Heath Ledger's casting as The Joker were crushed beyond recognition by the stark grandeur and magnificence of The Dark Knight, so I hope that I will have a similar experience with this movie.

I have faith that Christopher Nolan will complete a trilogy for the ages, so long as Warner Brothers gives the man room to work.

Shooting for The Dark Knight Rises is supposed to begin in May, so there may very well be a teaser out by the time that Green Lantern hits theaters to usher in the 2011 Summer Blockbuster season.

Failing that, I imagine that we will have to wait until October when the big WB action horror film, Contagion, arrives in theaters to challenge Parnormal Activity 3, The Apparition and The Dibbuk Box for your Halloween ticket money.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Bloody Nightmares #29: Vampire Hunter (2004)

Well, here's something a little different. Actually on the surface Sean Gallimore's Vampire Hunter appears to be a particularly cheap knock-off of any number of late-90s vampire properties - from Blade to Buffy the Vampire Slayer - except it was originally lensed all the way back in 1995 (though not completed and released for nearly a decade). But what really sets this movie apart isn't its prescience, it's Gallimore himself who might be the only martial artist/actor/director/writer/cheesecake nudie artist/animator that we're likely to see in this collection. This was obviously a labor of love (and extreme geekiness) for Gallimore, and what its missing in technical aptitude (which is a LOT), it makes up for in enthusiasm and a commitment to ridiculousness.

Gallimore stars as Sean O'Ryan, a bad-ass who trained in martial arts in Japan, but now spends his days surrounded by super-hero action figures selling the sort of art you see on the cover of Heavy Metal magazine. We're introduced to Sean as he demonstrates his abilities with a variety of weapons (including a particularly impressive nunchuku display) in his garage, which has everything from swords to throwing stars mounted on the wall. O'Ryan's wife books him a meeting with a local gallery owner, the mysterious Ramone (Frank Suarez) who immediately rubs Sean the wrong way by hitting on his girl before being attacked by vampire hunter Morgan Bane (Leonardo Millán) sporting a super-soaker full of holy water. Later returning to the gallery to track down a misplaced portfolio, Sean is attacked by one of Ramone's many frumpy mid-90s looking vampires which sets up the vampire warning bells in his head. After his wife is kidnapped by Ramone, it's up to Sean to team up with Bane to take down these tie-died, mom-jeans wearing creatures of the night. This involves a lot of kicking, punching and crossbows, as you might expect.

To have any hope of enjoying Vampire Hunter, you're going to have to ignore some pretty glaring flaws right off the bat. For one, the whole thing was shot on video - not a rarity in this collection - but it's particularly poor looking due to its age and it obviously being transferred from a VHS tape (there are tracking issues and a big purple mark that goes along the right side of the screen). Even worse are some serious sound issues which persist through most of the film, the audio sometimes being totally unintelligible - particularly in the early scenes - which can be a bit tough to tolerate. To give up at this point would be a bit of a shame, however, as a patient viewer can find a lot to enjoy in this ultra low-budget action/horror flick.

Gallimore is bland but perfectly fine in the lead, but the rest of the cast - particularly Frank Suarez as the vampire leader - stumble a bit. The vampire minions (many of whom dress exactly like you would expect people in 1995 to dress) are forgettable, but do manage to get their butts kicked convincingly, which I suppose is most of the reason they are there in the first place. Even considering the low standards of shot-on-video vampire movies (and I've seen my share) the performances are pretty dire - and certainly not helped by the technical issues.

The film's greatest asset is obviously Gallimore himself, since no technical limitations can hide the fact that he's a very skilled martial artist, and as an exhibition of his impressive abilities the film succeeds. Aside from his own physicality, he also does a strong job on the fight choreography and the direction of the action scenes. Don't expect Shaw Brothers level (or, heck, even Godfrey Ho) fights here, but it generally looks fairly smooth and makes great use out of a wide variety of weapons on display. A big step up from most of the "action" scenes featured in the films in this collection. You'll still see the occasional punch or kick miss by a foot, but some obvious time was spent putting these scenes together and it pays off.

Gallimore is also obviously a genre fan, and there's a lightness to the proceedings which helps ease through the rockier acting moments, including a classic "gearing up for battle" montage that could have been ripped right out of a mid-80s action film. Special effects focus mostly on various projectiles embedding in the cast, but they look fine and - unlike Suburban Sasquatch - ambitious (awful) special effects don't become a distraction.

As mentioned, the version of Vampire Hunter available in the Bloody Nightmares collection is obviously sourced from a VHS copy (available for sale on Sean Gallimore's website) and is presented in sometimes shaky fullscreen. The soundtrack music feels like it's right out of a videogame, which suits the cheesy action atmosphere on display. 

As per usual, there are no extras. A shame as I'd love to hear more about what made him decide to complete and release the film after so many years. Gallimore is self deprecating about the film on his youtube account, but I'm sure there are some great behind-the-scenes stories.

Rampant technical problems and a generic plot make for a sometimes tough watch, but some impressive action and a strong lead performance (as well as a 71 minute runtime) reward those who stick with Vampire Hunter. The cast and crew are obviously trying very hard, and Gallimore's passion for what he's doing (and his obvious fighting skill) help the film overcome its limitations and become surprisingly entertaining. Shaky, but fun.

Capsule Review: Mean Streets (1973)

It's hard to think of Martin Scorsese as anything but directorial royalty at this point, but in 1973 he was another in a long string of talent making exploitation films for Roger Corman (having helmed Box Car Bertha for Corman in 1972). These films showed obvious chops, but it was the intensely personal Mean Streets that heralded Scorsese's true arrival as a film auteur. Based partly on Scorsese's own experiences growing up in Little Italy, the film features a cast of instantly recognizable actors playing material overflowing with grit and texture. Harvey Keitel plays Charlie, a Scorsese surrogate rising in the ranks of the local mafia while attempting to live by a particular moral code, which involves taking care of the unpredictable Johnny Boy (an electric Robert De Niro) even as his behavior threatens to upset almost every part of his life. Propelled by a dynamite soundtrack and a collection of unforgettable scenes - the pool hall fight is classic - Mean Streets provided a template that Scorsese would return to throughout his career, and contains the highly original camera work and background detail which would define his work over the decades to come.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

RIP, Peter Yates

Peter Yates passed away on Sunday, January 9th, 2011. He was 81 years old. I recently reviewed one of Yates' many masterpieces, "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," here last year. The performance that Yates gets out of Robert Mitchum is one of the best of his career

Yates is most famous for "Bullitt" and its masterful car chase sequence -- a scene barely topping another amazing chase sequence in Yates' other great crime masterpiece, "Robbery."

This is one of several excellent chase scenes throughout the film. It was Steve McQueen who saw this film in England and then recommended Yates for the Bullitt gig asking that he replicate and top the London car chase sequences, which he did. Unfortunately, "Robbery" is currently unavailable on DVD in the states, though streams of it pop-up on-line from time to time.

Though best known for this trio of crime films, Yates also directed the cult-fantasy epic "Krull," as well as some more mainstream dramas like "Breaking Away" and "The Dresser."

The New York Times has posted a detailed obituary for Yates here:

Monday, January 10, 2011

Great Assbeatings In Movie History: Road House (1989)

Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, Road House is an open apology letter to every man in America from Patrick Swayze (may he rest in peace) and it reads as follows

"Dear fellas,

I know that I owe you all big time for the success of Dirty Dancing.

I appreciate your patience and quiet suffering as I know that your girlfriends, wives, and significant others dragged you to see that movie dozens of times and you probably spent small fortunes in dinners, movie tickets, and refreshments.

That movie made me bucketloads of cash so in return, I am going to make a motion picture for you featuring hot women and yours truly beating the everlasting aspirations out of several men.

This is my gift to you. Appreciate it.

Your brother,

Patrick Swayze"

And what an apology it was! Not only did this film have the common decency to show Kelly Lynch in a barely there dress you have to see to believe and feature a cameo with TERRY FUNK, we got to see one of the best movie fights ever as Dalton (Patrick Swazye) and Jimmy (the totally awesome Marshall Teague) squared off by the lake and tried to put each other either in traction or the grave.

I have to give a lot of props to Marshall Teague because he played the role of Jimmy with such menace and vicious intent that I couldn't wait for the son-of-a-bitch to get the rib stomping he so richly deserved.

By the time the fight rolled around, I was in such a state of enraged anticipation that the climactic Eagle Claw goozle rip death scene was far more satisfying to me than it probably would've been on the merit of pure bloodletting alone.

Not to discount the bloodletting. That part was awesome!

I still think that it was Jimmy's comment about prison rape that earned him his impromptu larynx surgery and not the fact that he wussed out and pulled a gun on Dalton.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Capsule Review: Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993)

Smartly avoiding the usual trappings of biographical films, Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould - as its title implies - is comprised of 32 short pieces on the famous composers life in a variety of disparate styles. While such an exercise could easily go wrong, in the hands of Canadian director François Girard (and writer Don McKellar) the film moves along at a breathless pace - punctuated by a wonderful soundtrack of Gould's playing - jumping from traditional interviews, recreations, experimental pieces, and animated sequences that somehow gel as a fine portrait of a fascinating artist. Much credit should be given to the great actor Colm Feore, who accurately envelops the character of Gould in a variety of stages in his life, and whose distinctive voice provides some consistency throughout. Not every segment is equally as captivating - a weakness of most anthology-style films - but each section is short enough that an audience could hardly feel a dip in interest before the next piece begins. A wonderful, original experiment that will fascinate even those - like myself - sadly ignorant to the intricacies of classical music.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Great Assbeatings In Movie History: The Protector / Tom-Yum-Goong (2005)

Sometimes the best way to enjoy something is to appreciate it for what it is.

When I went to see Ong Bak a few years ago, I had heard so much hype about how it would revolutionize the martial arts film as we knew it. I didn't really pay much attention to the buzz and as a result, I left the theater with a great sense of satisfaction at the end of the movie.

Ong Bak and Tom-Yum-Goong have a lot in common with their Hong Kong kung fu film ancestors. Both Ong Bak and Tom-Yum-Goong are little more than showcases of the amazing athleticism of Tony Jaa and have just enough plot to justify multiple scenes of Jaa beating the breaks off of numerous underworld thugs.

To ask of these movies would be absurd. You didn't pay your hard-earned ticket money to hear Jaa recite Shakespere; you came to see Jaa elbow someone in the jaw as hard as he can.

While Ong Bak is my preferred film of the two, my favorite fight scene of either film is the jaw dropping six-minute festival of carnage that goes down as our hero, Kham (Tony Jaa), pushes forward to force a showdown between himself and the villainous, transsexual Chinese gangster, Madame Rose (played by actual male-to-female transsexual actor... er... actress.... Xing Jing)

I couldn't make up something that great if I tried.. anyway..

Just like the hallway fight in Oldboy, this scene went to the film can in one glorious take and it is simply amazing to take note of the little things like Jaa's uncanny agility and the unbelievably insane risks that the stuntmen take for the sake of the film.

It takes a special kind of crazy to fall from the heights that those guys did or to stand there and have Jaa execute a flying knee that shatters a porcelain sink against your chest cavity.

The fact that Jaa is visibly winded when he confronts Johnny (the equally bad-ass Johnny Nguyen from The Rebel) speaks volumes about the amount of physicality involved in the previous moments of that particular scene, but Jaa is a damned machine and he makes it look easy.

Oh, and I would be remiss if I didn't equally praise Nathan Jones, Lateef Crowder, and Jon Foo for providing more of the menacing opposition our intrepid hero faces throughout this movie.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Great Assbeatings In Movie History: Enter The Dragon (1973)

No list of Great Assbeatings from Movie History would be respectable without at least one fight scene featuring Bruce Lee; arguably the greatest martial artist that ever lived.

From a purely mechanical point of view, most fights featuring the Dragon would tend to rank low on paper when it comes to cinematic perspective as they tend to be terribly one sided, but that is where the beauty lies.

Let's look at it from a realistic point of view. These fights are supposed to be lopsided in favor of Bruce Lee because these poor schmoes are trying to pit skill against skill against the best pure fighter to grace Planet Earth with the imprint of his foot upon the soil.

You don't have to be Stephen Hawking to solve that equation.

Bruce Lee's disdain for traditional martial arts film choreography is well documented. On the whole, most kung fu films from the sixties and seventies (especially the films from the respective golden ages of Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest) were heavily choreographed affairs where actors would not fight as hard as they could because the camera simply could not keep up with their movement.

The scene in Enter The Dragon where Lee combats a seemingly endless wave of Han's minions best expresses Lee's view on fight choreography. The camera serves as the eye of the audience and a true master displaying his full prowess is going to act so fast that the naked eye will be unable to follow him and that was how it ought to be.

The tao of Jeet Kune Do stresses economy of motion and full usage of power, speed, and leverage.

Lee felt the rapid ferocity of the attack and the devastating results of the strike should define the ability and skill of the fighter, rather than the intricacy of movement and acrobatic display found in most Hong Kong martial arts films of the sixties and seventies.

Fights did not need to be long and draw out affairs because a martial arts master isn't going to fool around with his attackers. A martial arts master is going to perform to the best of his ability regardless of the skill level of his opposition and as a result, will go through lesser trained assailants like a spoonful of Liquid Plumber.

Being able to see the delivery of the blow did not matter. What mattered was being able to witness the destructive aftermath as yet another guard was knocked completely senseless and fell into a heap on the cold stone floor.

To that end, the genius-level sound editing and Foley work add the quality auditory enhancements necessary to fool your brain into thinking that the poor chuckleheads rushing in to fulfill a death wish in this masterwork of bodily harm are on the receiving end of an actual assbeating for the ages.

Scenes like this led to the rise of the urban legend that the fight scenes in Lee's films were always full contact. To my knowledge, the only Bruce Lee fight scene I aware of that may have been full contact was the climactic brawl between Lee and Chuck Norris in Way Of The Dragon (1972) but I have never been able to confirm or deny that.

And it should go without saying, but if you are not dumbstruck by the famous Nunchaku display every time you see it, you should probably not be allowed to watch any action films from here on out.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Great Assbeatings In Movie History: Oldboy (2003)

To refer to Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) as one stubborn son of a bitch would be an understatement, but can you blame him for how feels or acts? The poor guy spent fifteen years imprisoned in a hotel room with his thoughts spiraling between feelings of suicide and unbridled hate.

Now that he's free, someone has gotta pay. Unfortunately for Oh Dae-su, he will learn shortly that sometimes the pursuit of the truth is far more satisfying than the learning of the truth.

You won't find too many Asian Film afficiandos that don't consider 2003's Oldboy to be Park Chan-wook's magnum opus. It is a mind-blowing and soul-crushing tour de force that hits home on many levels: emotional, visual and philosophical.

I think Robert Ebert said it best when he commented that, "[Oldboy] is a powerful film not because of what it depicts, but because of the depths of the human heart which it strips bare."

Park's middle entry of the beloved Vengence trilogy is a triumph in more ways that one; the least of which is the absolutely brilliant fight scene nested smack dab behind one of the more visceral scenes of torture that won't allow you to look at a claw hammer the same way twice ever again.

The best thing about this wonderful shellacking isn't the fact that it single-handedly paved the way for Oh's eternal place in the Bad Ass Hall of Fame.

The best thing about this scene is these four minutes of beautiful mayhem were shot in only one take! Talk about having faith in your acting staff and stunt team!

It is this trust, dedication to his vision, and sense of reckless abandon that mark Chan-wook as one of the finest directors in the business and perhaps one of the most talented of all time.

Great Assbeatings In Movie History: They Live (1988)

I am not sure about what it is about a good fight scene that makes me smile.

I used to watch old Shaw Brothers kung fu films on late night television with my grandfather when I was a kid, and perhaps it is that sense of familial comraderie and nostalgia that carries through to this very day and causes me to enjoy the act of another man kicking another man's teeth out more than I should.

Or maybe it is just my Petersburg mean streak showing? Who knows.

Arguably the best movie brawl ever captured on film is the nigh-legendary exchange of violence between George Nada and Frank Armitage in the 1988 John Carpenter sci-horror epic, They Live.

I think this is my favorite movie brawl because there is nothing fancy about it. It is a mean-spirited fistfight of the highest order of magnitude. This is all about one guy trying to smash another guy into pieces. It is as simple as that.

This fight isn't tremendous because of the action itself; it is tremendous because it begins due to Frank's blatant refusal to wear the enhanced sunglasses required to view the alien invaders in their true form.

Therefore, Nada concludes that the only way to enlighten his friend about the cosmic threat to humanity is to beat the dog water out of Frank and force him to put on the magic Ray Bans.

This, folks, is the most awesome expression of tough love you will ever find anywhere.

Egg Shen was right. All great things start off as something very small.

To add insult to injury, despite trying to beat the living bejesus out of Frank, the only thing Nada really apologizes for is the accidental breakage of the window on Frank's car.

I suppose the notion that the intended target of Nada's two-by-four was probably Frank's spinal cord or the fact that Nada punches Frank full in the junk a scant few seconds prior was totally irrelevant, but such details sometime go by the wayside when you are in the heat of battle.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Capsule Review: The Sound of Music (1965)

An enchanting - though front-loaded - musical filled with timeless music and beautiful photography, The Sound of Music has entered our collective pop culture so completely that - perhaps without even realizing it - you likely know a great deal of the music going in. Songs like "Do-Re-Mi", "My Favorite Things" and the title song anchor a tremendous collection of music by Rodgers and Hammerstein, though even tolerant audiences may start to grow weary as they repeat themselves towards the end of the 174 minute run time. An adaptation of the stage musical (which was in turn adapted from the memoir of Maria von Trapp, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers), the film concerns the free spirited nun Maria (Julie Andrews) who is assigned as a governess to the precocious von Trapp children and their strict father Georg in 1930s Austria. While generally dealing with the eventual acceptance of Maria by the family (and the children's musical success), the last section concerns family fleeing the country after the annexation of Austria by the Third Reich. This adds a bit of life to the proceedings, though even at its worst the film holds a charm that is extremely difficult to resist.