Saturday, 24 July 2010

Elwood's Essentials #3: Iron Monkey

It’s sometimes hard not to forget that Yuen Woo-Ping is a director in his own right, especially when more commonly being better known for his fight choreography for films such as “Kill Bill” (2003) and “The Matrix” (1999) aswell as helping to bring art house kung fu to mainstream audiences with his work on “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000), while his work as a director seeing him being responsible for other equally great films such as the classic early Jackie Chan movies “Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow” (1978) and “Drunken Master” (1978) while for myself “Iron Monkey” (1993) remains one if not the best of his films, while at the same time also proving a highly accessible movie for newcomers to the Kung Fu genre.

Centring on the city doctor Yang Tianchun (Rongguang Yu), who by day treats the citizens of the city, while at night becoming the titular “Iron Monkey”, a vigilante and hero to the town folk and essentially a Kung Fu version of Robin Hood, stealing from the rich governor of the city, who has become obsessed with capturing Iron Monkey.
When the martial artist Wong Kei-ying (Donnie Yen) arrives in town with his son Wong Fei-hung (Sze-Man Tsang), he is mistaken for being Iron Monkey and arrested, only for the real Iron Monkey to disrupt his trial. Now to free his son he is forced into making a deal with the governor to capture Iron Monkey for good.

“Iron Monkey” is far from a serious Kung Fu movie, which is essentially what makes it such an assessable movie, with its jokey tone throughout making it easily comparable to other similar films in the genre such “Police Story” (1985) and “Magnificent Warriors” (1987), which when combined with some truly great fight sequences only adds to it’s appeal, though the quality of these sequences will come as little surprise to anyone familiar with Woo-Ping’s work as here he manages to balance both choreographing duties as well as directorial ones, to a powerful effect especially when blending the fantasy elements of wire work with more traditional martial arts and making it only harder things to understand is why it has taken, so long for Donnie Yen to become such a recognised martial artist, only having truly come to the forefront in the last couple of years, having spent so many years in the shadow of the likes of Jackie Chan and Jet Li and once again he is on great form here, with Woo-Ping knowing exactly how to get the most out of not only Yen, but the whole cast, especially when it comes to the fight scenes for which throughout seems to be a constant game of one up man ship, as the fights and martial arts sequences continue to get bigger and better as the film goes on, building up to it’s memorable battle atop of flaming wooden poles, which is without a doubt one of my favourite fight scenes, especially for how fluid the fight remains, despite the heavy use of wires and location being fought in, which is truly a credit to the choreographing talent of Woo-Ping as it could easily have not been sold as well as it is, even despite being heavy in Wuxia styling.
It is also certainly also a ballsy move to introduce one bad guy, only to remove him in third quarter to introduce an even tougher bad guy, with the rogue shaolin Monk Hin Hung (Yee Kwan Yan) and his team of rebels arrive in the city, not only providing a tougher challenge but also helping to ramp up the action, as both Iron Monkey and Kei-ying face these much tougher opponents, whose fight sequences make up many of the highlights of the finale.

Outside of the spectacular fight sequences, the story is not just there to provide a way to move proceedings from one fight to the next, but instead provides enough interest to be more than filler, as it combines Jackie Chan style humour with occasional bursts of supposed eastern philosophy, while at the same time even finding time to include several scenes of actual true emotion, especially when looking at the back story of Orchid (Jean Wang) and how she came to become the doctors assistant, having previous been a prostitute whose child died during birth, or even the father son relations ship between Kei-Ying and Fei-hung, as Kei-Ying tries to remain a strict teacher, while at the same time feeling the weight of his responsibilities as a father. It is also worth noting that Fei-hung is actually the younger version of the Chinese folk hero of the same name, whose life would be further explored with the “Once Upon a Time in China” films and Tsang does a great job of playing the child version of this character and though you have to look past the fact it is a girl playing a male character, she still manages to portray him with great martial arts ability even at this young age.

Re-released stateside by the Weinstein’s in a butchered cut with re-worked soundtrack this film loses a lot of it’s charm and I would instead recommend watching it in original cut, as released under the “Hong Kong Legends” label, who have also done a good dubbed version, of which I own the VHS copy and which for myself is my preferred way to watch this film, especially with so much action happening on the screen, it not only helps maintain your focus on the action, but also adds that level of old school kung fu cheese to the proceedings, even if it easily rises above the more forgettable titles of similar style to this film, which exist in the genre and which are also best viewed in this way, especially more so when throughout this film it seems like Woo-Ping is set on cramming in every martial arts cliché in the book, not that your care, especially with the level of action on offer here.

True “Iron Monkey” might be flawed, but it is essentially a fun and exciting film, which isn’t about taking itself seriously and more about entertaining the viewer, as it continuously builds upon itself throughout, while providing welcome relief to those of us getting slightly over whelmed by the more arty and thought provoking martial art movies such a Hero (2002) and while they might be undeniably good movies, it’s often just as good to check your brain at the door and just loose yourself in the Kung Fu goodness of a film like this which like so many Godzilla movies, truly is cinematic junk food for the soul.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Elwood's Essentials #2: Ninja Scroll

Back when I first started getting into Anime, it was a completely different scene than it is today, were both Anime and Manga are readily pretty much everywhere, as the popularity has in recent years has literally exploded, which in turn has only helped to increase the variety and quality of anime available. This wasn’t always the case, as the anime which was available, when I first started getting interested mainly consisted of extreme horror with titles like Gô Nagai’s “Devilman” (1990) and the infamous Hentai “Legend of the Overfiend” (1989), which unbeknown to most viewers had originally been made for Japanese Sex cinemas, mainly thanks to censorship laws which meant that you could show more with a tentacle than a penis. Still there were occasional exceptions to this orgy of school girls, demons and tentacles, as occasionally something more arty like the legendary “Akira” (1988) or "Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise" (1987) would slip though and blow my mind, with the ideas being explored and how animation could be used for something, a lot less saturnine sweet than what Disney was churning out. Then of course there were those films which fell between these two worlds of anime that had been created, by the titles released here in the UK and “Ninja Scroll” was well and truly one of those kinds of anime.

The plot of "Ninja Scroll" follows Jubei, a Ninja for hire and general badass who travels through the Feudal Japanese landscape, following his own code of honour and working for those who can afford his services. Meanwhile a strange plague grips the land, leading to a team of Ninja’s being dispatched to investigate, only to quickly get slaughtered by an evil team of ninjas “The Devils of Kimon”, the sole remaining survivor of the ninja team, being female ninja Kagero whose body is poison to anyone she comes into contact with, is luckily rescued by Jubei who in turn soon finds himself hired by the spy Dakuan, forcing him to investigate how the Devils of Kimon are linked to the mysterious plague and despite initially refusing Dakuan’s request, soon has little choice but to take the job, after Dakuan infects Jubei with a slow working poison. Faced with little choice, he teams up with Kagero to investigate, as he takes on the mission, which will force him to confront an old foe from his past the evil and recently resurrected Gemma.

“Ninja Scroll” is a real old school anime especially with its visual styling and frequent disregard for any sign of restraint, which is more frequently shown by more modern anime which have in recent years have largely moved further away from the grime of the old school, which almost prided itself on the high levels of animated sex and violence it was bringing to western audiences, who having grown up believing that cartoons were mainly for kids, outside of a couple of notable exceptions such as “Fritz the Cat” (1972), had truly never seen anything like it and which would lead to predictable upset from the press, all issuing thier call to “ban this sick filth” as they lumped all anime under the same banner, while typically not bothering to actually research the genre.

This film was one of two sole anime that director Yoshiaki Kawajiri created with the other being the equally classic “Wicked City” (1987), before disappearing from the anime scene, only to return to the anime scene, to work on “The Animatrix” for which he directed the short “Program” which continued his interest in feudal Japan by being set in a battle simulation set during this period.
Kawajiri ensure that it hits the ground running with Jubei being ambushed by his disgruntled former collegues and keeps up a blistering pace throughout, in a true tribute to the pop samurai movies such as the “Babycart in Peril” series, as limbs are hacked off and the screen fills frequently with hosepipe arterial sprays of blood, as realism is set aside for sheer spectacle, which despite what it might seem isn’t just about gratuitous violence, with each sword fight and battle only serving to push the plot further forward, as Jubei battles his way through each of the Devils of Kimon, who all process their own talent, often involving some supernatural talent from the stone golem Tessai and the explosives expert Sakuro, in the lead up to the final confrontation with the evil Gemma.

The character design is so fantastic, that it’s hard to find any single character who isn’t interesting to watch or essential to the plot, let alone pick a particular favourite character, with the Devils of Kimon being especially true of this, seeing how every time Jubei is faced into a conflict with one of them, it is always exciting to see exactly what special ability that particular devil will be bringing to the fight, with these confrontations making up a large part of the appeal of the film, especially as no two fights are the same from the graceful samurai sword fight in the bamboo forest against the blind swordsman Utsutsu, to the blood and snot final confrontation between Jubei and Gemma aboard the ablaze ship of the shogun of the dark, which is less about subtly and more about pure vengeance and despite the fact that this Anime was made back in 1993, these fights are still just as exciting and fresh as they were, back when the film was first released, even compared to more modern anime and the more modern animating styles, it still can hold it’s own as still containing some of the most exciting fight scenes seen in anime, even when it’s clearly pushing the boundaries of plausibility seen when Jubei single handily carves up an entire ninja army and an explosion of arterial sprays and amputations, which Kawajiri chooses to show in such rapid cuts is almost impossible to keep up with, as your bombarded with an unrelenting slew of violence.

Since its release it’s been quite surprising that more ninja anime didn’t follow in its wake, with the only noticeable release being “Ninja Resurrection” (1998) which despite being marketed as a sequel, was in fact unrelated and only based on the same source material. Sadly due to production costs it remained uncompleted with only two of the intended four episodes getting made leaving it something of a curiosity as to if it could have been a more noteworthy title had it been completed, especially with it’s slant more towards actual demons and increased sex and violence, garnered it a cult following over time. However lately there would appear to be an increase in the popularity of Ninja anime, even if its leaning more towards contemporary styling than anything resembling historical accuracy, with the hip hop infused Samurai Champloo (2004) and Afro Samurai (2007), as well as “Samurai 7” (2004) the steam punk reimagining of Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” (1954) all of which despite being noteworthy, never have quite lived up to this films legacy, which even includes the series it spawned in 2003, while the promise of Ninja Scroll 2 continues to become all the more exciting, with Kawajiri from current reports still attempting to find a suitable script to turn into the sequel, but until then I guess I will have to just contend myself with the original, which after all these years is still carving a blood soaked path into the conscious of a whole new generation of anime fans.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Boxset Binges #2 - True Blood (Season 1)

Okay lets start by clearing up a couple of things, the first and most important being I really don’t like vampires, which lets face it are the most humdrum of the horror monster back catalogue and basically an excuse for certain guys to grow their hair long, hang around in trench coats pretending to be all moody and dark....usually failing badly. This opinion is especially driven home, with there being only a few notables exceptions in the genre popping up occasionally, more often than not these films involving said vampire being portrayed by an acting master like Christopher Lee or Bella Lugosi.
The second notable point is the recent explosion in the “Paranormal Romance” genre, since publishers cottoned onto the fact that “Twilight” made a pile of money for Stephanie Meyer, creating a boom in the market as publishers began pumping out ropey romance novels, which no one would usually care about, except perhaps the more hardcore of the mills and boon crowd, but because these story were usually reworked to cram some vampire love interest into the story. From this wreckage of a genre, which we used to commonly refer to as “books for women not getting enough” (thanks to a certain member of our "Stitch and Bitch" knitting circle for pointing that one out) when I was working at Borders, however out of the masses of imitators emerged Charlaine Harris to pick up the fans left wanting more after the end of the Twilight saga with her “True Blood” series, so it was really only a matter of time before someone found a way to cash in on the series, luckily for Harris it was HBO who got in first turning the first book of the series into this first season, with the added advantage of having Alan Ball adapting, who is probably best known for writing both “American Beauty” (1999) aswell as one of my favourite TV shows “Six Feet Under” which if anyone was going to write a show about vampires, that I was actually going to like, it was probably going to be him and maybe explain what the hell it is about vampires, that seems to get women so darn frenzied.
So as I sat down to watch the first season, after hearing all the usual fans talking about how good it was, I have to admit I was sceptical not only about watching the whole boxset, but making it through one episode.

Okay I'll admit it, I really liked this first season, not only for it’s great writing, but for how frequently it managed to surprise me over the twelve episodes, which make up it’s first season which seemed actually quite short, especially when most shows tend to have a twenty four episode season, but seeing how the focus it would seem is on turn each book in the series into a season of the show, it was probably for the best as it saves the material from being stretched too thin, which is always the worry with a straight adaptation.

Set in the small Louisinna town of Bon Temps, the series follows the telepathic waitress Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) and her relationship with the vampire Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) and their attempt at having a normal relationship, in a society were Vampires have not only been acknowledged as existing, but are now recognised as legal citizens, after the creation of a synthetic blood called "Tru Blood" which has provided an exceptable subsitute for vampires to feed from, along with a supply of willing volunteers, who it seems are in endless supply especially with Vampire sex proving a growing popular craze. Meanwhile a crazed killer is stalking the town, killing women seemingly all connected with Sookie’s oversexed brother Jason (Ryan Kwanten).
For myself one of the strong points of Ball’s work, has always been with the supporting characters, who here are really a colourful bunch, from Sookie’s outspoken best friend Tara (Rutina Wesley) and her cousin Lafayette, who has a hand in most of the illegal dealings in town from working as a Gay Prostitute to selling vampire blood (or V as it’s known) which when taken by humans provides an addictive high, which over the course of the season Jason becomes increasingly addicted to, while getting involved with fellow V junkie Amy (Lizzy Caplan)

One of the most refreshing aspects of the series, is how the vampires arn't just another carbon copy of every other freaking vampire we have seen before and most reconisably aren’t still under the impression that they are in the 1800’s, but just wearing modern clothes, as although the Vampires here might make references to the era’s in which they were turned, with Bill in perticualr having a flashback episode to his former life as a civil war soldier, they are still highly modernised and concerned with current issues, in perticular the discrimination they face, from society in perticular the Zealot Christian group “The Fellowship of the Sun”, with the whole fight for equal rights for Vampires, in places though out the series bearing numerous references to the Gay rights movement, with a sign declaring “God Hates Fangs” appearing in the opening credits, along with the phrase “Coming out of the Coffin” also being mentioned.

Bell already established his love of death and gore with “Six Feet Under” and once again it is present here, with bloody staking and violent deaths, it’s nice to see a mainstream series such as this, not caring whether it is isolating key parts of the Vampire fanbase, especially those with a penchant for sparkly vamps, as thankfully these vampires still have a severe dislike for sunlight, highlighted by the worst rescue attempt ever by Bill and bites are bloody oozing affairs, with the level of violence and gore actually taking me by surprise throughout, having expected to see nothing more violent than what had already been seen in “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” or it’s darker spinoff “Angel”, so kudos on once again bringing gore back to the genre.

I guess my main gripe with the series has to really be with casting hatchet, which is swung far too broadly throughout the first season, as several likable characters fail to make it through this first season, with some of the targets being truly disagreeable and certainly characters I wanted to see more off, while more irritating characters remained. True it might make it all the more interesting not knowing whose gonna make it through each episode, but when you look at the sheer amount of main characters, facing the wrath of the hatchet, it verges on comical and raising more than a few grumbles from myself, as I saw another of my favourite characters removed.
The other grumble with the series has to be with Anna Paquin, whose accent changes in pitch to a nice southern drawl to a pitch which is like a cheese grater in your brain, which is bad for a supporting character, but when it’s your lead actress is kind of more of a problem, still I guess there is the benefit of copious gratuitous nudity, with something for everyone, which will no doubt keep some of you with the series, but then gratuitous nudity does tend to patch over a lot.

So it seems there might be life left in the Vampire genre, which hasn’t been overly romanticised or turned into more sterilised garbage for the masses and despite it’s faults I’m already looking forward to watching the second season, even if I’m now the wiser as to why women are still getting far to excited about vampires, aswell as to see if Ball can continue to build on these foundations he has laid with the first season, or whether it will all fall apart as he gets caught up in the human drama, which essentially was were “Six Feet Under” failed in the later seasons, were it pretty much forgot that it was supposed to be about dead people, though I guess it will be interesting to see whether this show can still keep the interest once the Vampire novelty has worn off, especially with the Paranormal Romance market, only becoming all the more saturated with imitators.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Welcome To The Dollhouse

Title: Welcome To The Dollhouse
Director: Todd Solondz
Released: 1995
Staring: Heather Matarazzo, Matthew Faber, Daria Kalinina, Brendon Sexton Jr., Eric Mabius

Rating: 4 / 5

Plot: Seventh-grade is tough, especially if you’re Dawn Weiner (Matarzzo), facing constant hassle from the other kids, who frequently refer to her as “Weiner-Dog”, a situation not especially helped by her Nerdy older brother Mark (Faber), a sickeningly sweet Ballet obsessed younger sister (Kalinina) or the fact that her parents want to tear down her “Special People’s Club” clubhouse, she has to contend with all of this, while also at the same time harbouring a crush on Steve (Mabius) the older guy in her brothers band.

Review: The world of Todd Solondz is not an overly cheerful place, a feeling all the more assured by this film, which despite being his second feature, still won the grand jury prize at the 1996 Sundance Film Festive, back when it was still a festive celebrating raw indie talent, rather than the corporate playground it is these days, especially as it frequently becomes less about the films and more about whose in attendance. Still this film is Solondz, fierce argument against the sunny childhood nostalgia films, which traditionally tend to paint it as a happy go lucky time of your lives, before you’re chained to the baggage of adult life, as Solondz instead opts to paint a picture of grim realism, highlighted with only the darkest of humour, as he sets out to remind many of us of the hell of high school and just how cruel kids can be.

It’s so hard, having seen the films which Solondz has inspired in the wake of this movie, not to feel the urge to draw comparisions to films such as “Napoleon Dynamite” (2004) and in particular Terry Zwigoff’s “Ghost World” (2001) for which this feels more like Enid the early years, even more so when you look at the amount of similarities between the characters of Enid and Dawn, seeing how both frequently find themselves the target of their so called normal peers, for the way they look and dress, while at the same time carving out their own personal identity, as the world around them frequently strives to work against them. Still despite the fact by the end credits Solondz resists giving the shiny happy ending with everything tied up, your still sure that Dawn will go onto better things, later returning to pour scorn on those same tormentors, who will no doubt have been dragged down into menial jobs and failed dreams, though Solondz for his own twisted reasons, would ensure that things didn’t work out so well for Dawn, when he revisited her character in “Palindromes” (2004) whose opening revealed that she went to college, gained a lot of weight and committed suicide… I said Solondz doesn’t really do happy go lucky movies.

Solondz does a fantastic job of introducing what is essentially the day to day life of Dawn, opening in the school cafeteria as she struggles to find a seat, wandering through the minefield of social cliques, finally finding a seat only to then be told that the only reason it is free is because of someone threw up there earlier that day, followed soon after with an accusation of being a lesbian by a group of cheerleaders, clearly not only relishing the chance to turn her once again into the butt of the joke, but also clearly establishing who is truly at the top of the social pile. Still it is these moments, along with moments of her fellow students referring to each other as retards or faggots, which Roger Ebert (a man who I’m recently gaining increasing respect for) rightfully pointed out while proclaiming his personal love for the film, that these kids don’t see these labels as offence, but rather just another way to humiliate each other and it’s these details, which feel in many ways like Solondz, revisiting his own possibly bullied childhood, while at the same time feeling the urge to challenge his audience only further, by frequently pushing the boundaries of taste, with one particular tormentor Brandon (Sexton), openly threatening to rape Dawn, after reporting his attempt to copy exam questions from her to the teacher, though the way he states this is pretty much stated as an everyday kind of comment, while certainly providing one of numerous dark humoured moments scattered throughout, feel more natural than anything written to be intentionally funny.

Still despite a large focus being towards Dawn being targeted for being different, Solondz also looks at how she handles the typical problems of growing up, in particular her crush on Steve, who bizarrely somehow manages to turn her brothers band from a bunch of tone deaf wannabe’s into a fully functioning band after a single practice. Not knowing how to get Steve to like her, she instead follows a mixture of misguided advice from her brother, who assures in one scene that he will go out with any girl who is willing to put out, while also attempting her own seduction technique as she plies him with junk food. Still as clumsy and shocking as these scenes seem, they are a lot more grounded in reality, than the majority of high school dramas, featuring characters that spew out crafted dialogue and witty one liners, instead these are kids talking like kids actually talk, making this in so many ways almost like a study of human nature in general.

The main gripe I have with this film is with its final reel, in which it seems like Solondz has doubts about the story he has told already and for some reason decided to jam in a kidnapping storyline, which not only makes no sense, but also failed to capture my interest seeing how it’s only purpose seemed to cram in an extra shock factor, by having the kidnapping descriptions containing paedophile undertones, which are so subtle that only the most keen eared or repeat viewers will catch them, only making these scenes all the less needed.

I know a lot of people who don’t like this movie, finding it too dark or not getting its warped humour, but then I guess it depends on what sort of time you had at school, for those who found themselves to be the underdogs, usually tend to like this movie, while the more popular kids never seem to get it. Still I didn’t get “Napoleon Dynamite” which I found to be found excessively grating throughout, unlike this film which in many is the film it wishes it was.
Whether it pushes things to far out of a desire for sensationalism, or it’s a painfully true portrait of high school life can be debated, but the only true way of knowing is to watch it yourself, which I urge you all to do.
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