Monday, April 28, 2008
There’s something refreshingly old-school about THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM, a kung-fu adventure that, oddly, marks the first time Jackie Chan and Jet Li have shared the screen. It’s very much a tribute to the history of wire-fu extravaganzas, reaching back to the early days of the genre to produce a fun and colorful romp that’s a welcome change from the more glum martial arts epics that have become common in this decade. The ads have cunningly concealed what’s already a sore point among genre fans- namely, that the real protagonist is a white kid from New York- but this isn’t handled too badly, and even adds to the retro vibe. A kind of NEVERENDING STORY for Shaw Brothers fans, as it were.
The white kid in question is Jason (Michael Angarano, who was the lead in 2005’s SKY HIGH), a teenage kung-fu enthusiast who frequently browses a Chinatown pawn shop for the latest bootlegs. A local gang bullies him into helping them break into the shop after hours, and when the elderly shopkeeper is shot, he hands Jason an antique staff, telling him to return it to its rightful owner. Jason is chased by the hoods, falls off a building, and ends up in- well, Mythic China, the spirit-infested medieval world of so many kung fu films. Jason falls in with Lu Yan (Chan), a drunken master of kung fu who tells the boy that the staff belongs to the Monkey King, an immortal spirit imprisoned by the evil Jade Warlord (Collin Chou), who now rules the land with the proverbial iron fist. The staff must be returned to the King to free him and defeat the warlord, so Jason and Lu Yan, assisted by the beautiful and vengeful Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu), head towards the titular kingdom, and the fortress where the petrified Monkey King waits. There’s one problem- Jason knows no actual kung fu, unlike the Jade Army and pretty much everyone else, and when Lu Yan starts to educate him, he’s the classic slow learner who doesn’t understand the point of all these meaningless repetitive exercises (one would think he’d remember such things from the films, but then maybe he fast forwarded through those parts.) The group is completed when a mysterious monk (Jet Li) shows up wanting to learn the secrets of the staff, and he and Lu Yan decide to teach Jason together.
From the opening credits, featuring a montage of poster images from 70s kung fu epics, you can tell this is a film made by people with a deep and abiding love of the genre. Granted, I’m not sure anybody else makes martial arts movies, or at least any worth remembering, but the level of self-awareness in this particular adventure adds to the appeal. We’re meant to have a little fun with all of this, and enjoy it as a reinforcement and reconstruction of the central tropes of these films. I think what makes a successful pastiche is both the inherent enthusiasm and an understanding of what makes the genre work- we get the good parts, with most of the cruft cut out. (The early training sequences, wherein the kid still resists the messages of discipline and control that Lu Yan is trying to impart, do go on a bit, though.)
The characters are simple but strongly defined- Chan is essentially doing his “drunken master” character, Li’s enigmatic monk will be familiar to his fans (his characterization seems a little odd but is eventually explained), Golden Sparrow is the one with the personal vendetta against the bad guy, and the kid is, well, the kid. Certainly, building the whole thing around a white wanna-be kung fu master isn’t going to make Edward Said happy, and the ad campaign for this film has been unfairly deceptive, but in the end Angarano plays the part well and makes his character’s journey interesting. His lessons are the kind of psuedo-Zen wisdom that’s familiar to anyone who’s watched these films, but is still good to hear. Kung fu is described as an art, something done through intuition and the development of a clear consciousness, something that can’t be overthought or forced. It was a nice reminder for me since good writing is done in much the same way (at least before editing.) The villain has a generic lust for power, but is appropriately fearsome.
The fantasy world of the film is a vivid one, replete with elixirs of immortality, giant temples leading to the top of the world, lush jungles, and vast deserts. The sets and costumes are nicely elaborate, and the special effects are fairly convincing. The actual kung fu action doesn’t have any particular standout stunts, but serves the story. The film’s never very serious, animated instead by the playful spirit of the Monkey King himself. Chan and Li are both in superb form, and their physical and verbal sparring is quite fun.
THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM marked the first time I’d actually been to the movies in a while, and it’s the kind of spectacle you may as well see in a theater. Certainly you can afford to miss it, but it does what it does quite well, and left me with a pleasant feeling as I left. Consider it a kung-fu appetizer before the big summer movies start rolling out, and enjoy.
Written by John Fusco
Directed by Rob Minkoff
Thursday, April 24, 2008
What do people think of Woody Allen these days? There were a couple Woody Allen posts on a blog I read (because I got into a fight with one of them last year) that made me realize, to my surprise, really, that I have seen 2 Woody Allen films from the last 20 years. This is more surprising because I had seen almost everything he made in the 80s when it came out - some of them (Zelig and Broadway Danny Rose) more than once, and happy to do it. He was, it occurs to me, the first filmmaker I probably learned to recognize and seek out. But now - who cares? How did that happen? Once I got geeky about films, I didn't give a crap about Woody Allen anymore...
But what do other people think? I don't remember seeing a lot of talk about Allen - not as a filmmaker anyway. What do you think? Answer the poll! Express an opinion! try to talk me into renting something other than Sleeper or Zelig again! Help explain why I couldn't' care less about Woody Allen yet like very much (to love) the likes of Whit Stillman, Noah Baumbach, Hal Hartley, etc.
Friday, April 18, 2008
Nothing exciting, just a nice little bit of small town America. The biggest hassle in this process is actually my somewhat antiquated laptop, which doesn't allow me to edit pictures quite so well as I might otherwise. That one came out a little bit bigger than I would like... But otherwise - technology is great fun!
Monday, April 14, 2008
Friday, April 11, 2008
Thursday, April 10, 2008
Hands down, my favorite opening credits sequence is from Beetlejuice. The blaring, completely awesome Danny Elfman score suggests macabre things going on in this sleepy little town we're flying over, and...what's that? A spider on the...? Heeeeey!
Anyway, for this installment, let's look at PULP FICTION.
So simple, yet so ostentatious- here the music's the thing, with Miserlou's ferocious surf riff telling us that things can only get wilder after the opening. Of course, the great title design helps- the way the title itself is used, almost filling the screen, implies a largeness to the entire project. This may be a low-budget film, but it's going to be a bit epic as well. And then, of course, we change stations, throwing us a bit off and transitioning into the next scene, without losing any energy.
Any more thoughts?
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
A day or two after the first episode aired, I remember reading newspaper articles about the outrage Carvey's show was causing. Sponsors were threatening to pull out! How dare he depict Bill Clinton...breastfeeding...puppies. Well, at least we know that hysteria over television content has always been as ridiculous as it is now.
The show was canceled after seven episodes aired. For years now, I've been hoping to see it again on DVD. While that hasn't happened yet, Netflix has the next best thing: you can watch every episode online using their "Watch Instantly" feature.
Naturally, some of the humor is dated. Bob Dole Is Old and Refers To Himself in the Third Person jokes expired a decade ago, but the wackier material is still a hoot. Alongside Carvey, the cast included Steve Carrell and Stephen Colbert. The writing staff boasted Robert Smigel, Louis C.K. and Charlie Kaufman. And let us not forget the skinheads from Maine:
There's really no reason not to check this out.
Sunday, April 6, 2008
Charlton Heston has died. Many links and tributes can be found through Greencine. He was every bit the movie star.
I will commemorate him with some clips from the best film he was ever in. His performance isn't always given its due - he's stiff and strange and about as Mexican as I am, but I still think he came pretty close to nailing it. He gets across a mix of heroism and high rectitude that defines the character perfectly. Watching that last confrontation, tailing Quinlan and Pete under a bridge, then facing Quinlan alone in the garbage - it might be Welles' finest hour, but it's hard to imagine it working as well without Heston. He plays off Welles' tragic decay, emotionally, Vargas all business, cutting through Quinlan's excuses and guilt and defeat, and physically, with his sleek athleticism, and almost complete control. Welles gives him just enough to do, physically, to make the point. It's good stuff.
Maybe I should leave Heston's politics out of it - but looking at a Touch of Evil, can I? The end of his life, devoting his authority and reputation to dubious ideas (at least, dubious extensions of ambiguous ideas), has a bit more in common with Hank Quinlan than it should. We shouldn't let it obscure what he did on screen.
Especially when he had a director who knew how to put pictures together....
Cross-posted at my blog.
Saturday, April 5, 2008
Friday, April 4, 2008
Hou was commissioned by Paris' Musee d'Orsay to make the film, which is loosely modeled after Albert Lamorisse's 1956 short film The Red Balloon. Apparently, everyone in these United States except me was shown that film at some point during their childhood; I had to wait for a college screenwriting professor to grace our class with it. I vividly remember looking in shocked disbelief at a classmate who labelled it "dumb" -- I thought the dialogue-free story of a little boy befriended by an independently mobile red balloon was among the most joyful, bittersweet things I'd ever seen.
Those warm-and-fuzzies came back tenfold watching Hou's film, which alters the balloon's function in his story. No longer a constant companion to the boy, the balloon just drifts in and out of young Simon's story from time to time -- it even disappears for long stretches. Hou focuses on the relationship between Simon, his frazzled mother (an electrifying Juliette Binoche) and his new nanny, a Chinese film student played by newcomer Fang Song. All three are artists of various experience: Binoche stages carefully crafted children's puppet shows (yes, there are shades of Hou's wonderful The Puppetmaster), Song is planning a film based on the Lamorisse work, and Simon is a budding piano player. There's little drama between the three -- the loveliest part of the film is watching them get along. What tension there is comes from Binoche's contentious relationship with a tenant in her building, and the prolonged absence of her husband. It's not a movie about big dramatic confrontations, but about little moments of kindness between the three leads.
The film unfolds in beautiful long takes, the acting is subtle and naturalistic -- some might think these are code words for "boring", but I found it to be pretty damn riveting. If virtuoso camera work and small moments of delight aren't enough to entice you, at least go to see Binoche deliver the best work of her career. I could not have loved this film more. Gush gush gush!
Also, let me quickly add my voice to the chorus telling you to tune in, set the DVR, or whatever for the fourth season premiere of Battlestar Galactica tonight on the Sci Fi channel. Those who find every movie on the Iraq war lacking might just find what they're looking for here. It's a show refreshingly free of absolutes -- no character is all good or all bad, cathartic moments in one episode can easily be erased in the next episode's opening minutes. There's no other show on television operating at this level. Get caught up!
I'm on the mailing list for dictionary.com, so I get a word in the mail everyday. Look at today's offering:
deus ex machina \DAY-uhs-eks-MAH-kuh-nuh; -nah; -MAK-uh-nuh\, noun:
1. In ancient Greek and Roman drama, a god introduced by means of a crane to unravel and resolve the plot.
2. Any active agent who appears unexpectedly to solve an apparently insoluble difficulty.
Were you guys aware of this word/phrase? Were you aware that was what Fellini was showing in La Dolce Vida? I believe it's in one of the opening shots, right?
I'll always miss Fellini. He is one of the all-time greats for me. No one was like Fellini.
Tuesday, April 1, 2008
Another marker of the seasons might be the return of that very hardy perennial, the Argument about Auteurism: here hosted by Girish, which may help ensure a higher light to heat ratio than usual. Though I'm soon to join in, which is bound to dissipate much of the energy.
I don't know if I should add this or not - but I helped play an excellent April Fool's day prank on myself today. A co-worker came complaining, "My mouse does not work!" I supplied her with a new mouse - it still did not work. "Hey," I said, observant as they come, "your keyboard isn't working either!" It was not. So we plugged things into various USB ports, but no changes. So we took the laptop out of the dock and lugged in the keyboard and mouse - Worked like a charm! So I said, "This is a problem with your docking station - you have to call the Help Desk!" She grew petulant. But she called the help desk. The support fellow went through all the basics, having her try things in different ports, coming in remotely to check the drivers. She scowled. She put the man on mute - thus saving some small trace of dignity in this saga - and says to me, "he's having me check all the plugs! We already did that!" I said, " they have to go through the kabuki; when he's done he'll send you a replacement." She said, "I know, but it's a waste of time - I told him - I work for IT!"... Anyway - he finished the kabuki - he said he'd send her a replacement. I went away.... Some time later, another coworker went by and heard all the complaining, and kindly offered to track down an extra dock while the sufferer was waiting for the replacement. She then leaned over the desk and said - I am told: "Where's the power cord?"