Sunday, 29 April 2012

Little Dieter Needs To Fly

Title: Little Dieter Needs To Fly
Director: Werner Herzog
Released: 1998
Staring: Dieter Dengler, Werner Herzog, Eugene Deatrick

Plot: Documentary about pilot Dieter Dengler, who in 1966 had his plane shot down over Laos, were he was captured and tortured, before finally managing to escape to rescue.

Review: One of two documentaries by Herzog to make the “50 Documentaries To See Before You Die” list with the other being “Grizzly Man”, this film has been on my to watch pile for awhile (like so many of Herzog’s films) and with the forthcoming death row documentary “In The Abyss” set for it’s UK release, I thought it was about time I finally watched it.

In Dengler it is clear from the beginning that Herzog feels he has a kindred spirit, with both growing up in the rubble strewn Germany of World War 2. Dengler also openly confesses that his earliest memories are of Allied bombers destroying village and that during one such attack one of the planes flew so close he was able to see the pilot, sparking in the young Dengler a life long obsession with wanting to fly. Emigrating to America at 18, he is soon enlisted in the Air Force, but frustratingly cannot gain his pilots license and leaves after two years to attend college before then joining the Navy, were he finally gets to complete his flight training before the events of  Feburary 1st 1966, which form the main meat of the story.

To meet the Dengler at the start of the film it is hard to imagine the ordeal he would go through, as he speaks with a constantly positive tone to his voice and always seems to be in an upbeat mood, though the events have clearly left their scars, with Dengler shown constantly opening and closing doors to reinforce his fragile sense of freedom, while also showing Herzog his stores of food which he keeps hidden under the floorboard of his house.

Herzog however is keen to not just do a standard talking head documentary with actors reinacting the events of his capture. Herzog instead uses the documentary as a form of makeshift therapy for Dengler, who seems just as happy to co-operate as Herzog takes Dengler to airfields to sit in planes which also shows the sheer passion that Dengler has for flying before more shockingly taking him back to the jungles of Laos to almost relive various points of his capture by the Pathet Lao, as well as his imprisonment later by the Viet Cong, with each process closely narrated by Dengler. These moments of personal narration Herzog knows are key to the audience getting the full picture of Dengler’s ordeal especially with many of these scenes frequently bringing back some painful memories for Dengler. Frequently he drives himself to frequently to the edges of sheer panic, especially during the scenes were he is lead handcuffed through the jungle, with his additional voice over confessing that he could feel his heart pounding in his chest, during the whole sequence.

Dengler frequently goes into the most indepth details about even the minutest details of his capture and torture, painting an extremely vivid picture about the torture, bugs and disgusting conditions they lived in. Here malnutrition would see them frequently hunting for the rats and snakes which lurked in the faeces covered ground below were they were imprisoned, while this uncomfortable picture only being added to by the exposition piled on by Herzog. Many have criticised this fascination on covering even the smallest of details, were as I found it only made for a more riveting account of what he went through, while Dengler clearly is keen to make the most of this opportunity to exorcise some of his demons which still clearly haunt him years later. Still Dengler does not bare any grudges against the Vietnamese’s people, as he is shown hugging and apologising to one of the villagers who happens to be standing next to him as he tells the story of how he was mentally tortured by one of the guards who tried to take his wedding ring. Still Dengler’s general mindset regarding the events which happened, are very much of that it was a time of war and during war these are things that people do, after all he was there with the purpose of dropping bombs on people.

Dengler’s story would be later remade by Herzog as “Rescue Dawn” with Christian Bale, a clear sign of the impact which the story had upon Herzog, even though Dengler tells the story with such clarity that we do often feels as if we went through the ordeal with him, that at time you feel as if you have gone through it with him, especially as it’s his situation continually goes from bad to worse. Still despite what he went through Dengler still flies today, with Herzog’s narration revealing that he suffered a further three crashes while working as a test pilot and philosophising that “Death did not want him” while ending the documentary in the Aeroplane graveyard in Nevada, which judging by the ecstatic expression on Dengler’s face it truly his own vision of heaven, which is reassuring seeing how Herzog essentially puts him through hell to get there.

A gripping documentary aswell as amazing story of not only survival, there is no doubt that anyone who watches this documentary will find it hard to not be drawn in by Dengler’s story much less won over by his intoxicating lust for life, as Herzog presents a fascinating portrait of an amazing man.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

2-Headed Shark Attack

Title: 2-Headed Shark Attack
Director: Christopher Ray
Released: 2012
Staring: Carmen Electra, Charlie O’Connell, Brooke Hogan, Gerald Webb, David Gallegos, Geoff Ward

Plot: A group of students are left stranded on a deserted atoll, after their boat is attacked by a mutated two-headed shark. However the atoll is slowly starting to flood and soon none of them will be safe from the double headed terror.

Review: There seems to be something timeless about sharks which have made them the subject of countless movies, all of which have attempt in one way or another to tap into our fear of these perfect killers with the most memorable of these of course being “Jaws” which in many ways could also be blamed for sparking this fear in the first place, scaring most of us (myself included) so that we still ask if it’s safe to go back in the water.

Needless to say since then there has been a constant stream of movies wishing to capture that same fear that “Jaws” encapsulated and it’s unsurprising that this over saturated market has lead to a certain element of artistic license being brought to the shark attack movie, as each new film fights to be noticed in this sea of imtators and hence why we have seen more movies like “Shark Attack 3: Megalodon” and most memorably “Mega Shark Vs. Giant Octopus” being released while certainly pushing the boundaries of plausibility and arguably in their own way leading to this latest mutation of the genre.

Scraping up another seemingly shameless group of no name actors and D-list celebrities, it would seem that “The Asylum” are actually spending more money than per usual with these latest production, especially seeing how I actually recognized who most of the lead actors were, with Carmen Electra being unconvincingly cast as the ship doctor, while we also get Jerry O’Connell’s brother Charlie and Brooke Hogan proving that she is none the more convincing as an actor than her dad was back in the early 90’s! Still this seems a far cry from the usual no names or cult figures that make up their usual casting fodder and even more shocking there is not even a former 80’s pop star in sight here!

The plot is as to be expected from "The Asylum" the usual b-movie nonsense with our scantily clad group making countless random, let alone questionable decisions throughout as it soon become clear that their only real purpose is to provide shark chowder, while our mutated shark surprisingly looks as if they have taken at least some effort with the still admittedly bargain basement CGI with some random shifts in scale throughout, but at least some effort has been made to make the shark look at times pretty decent, while also using a small amount of practical effects for some of the shark attacks, which while limited to just brief shots of it’s head, is still a refreshing change from the usual all CGI attacks which tend to plague most of the recent Shark movies and it only makes it more of a shame that they did not make more use of these effects.

Even more surprising though is that this is one of the few shark movies which actually delivers the goods when it comes to deaths, with the film clocking up an impressive body count, while actually ensuring that the audience get to see some frequently gory (if heavily CGI) death scenes, rather than playing the tease and cutting away at the last second, while what is even more of a rarity for these films is that it actually delivers on it’s promised box art in it’s opening scene, making it perhaps only the second film (the other being "The Beyond") that I could remember doing this. Still the death scenes are all kept within the framework of the plot, rather than just introducing some random nobody to help boost the body count, even though we do get some highly questionable decision making happening throughout such as the scene were the teens now stuck on the atoll find two working speedboats, but rather than trying to find a way off the island, instead use them for an impromptu speedboat race, let alone the fact that the shark is trying to sink the atoll by simply knocking against it.

This lack of disposable characters, however does not still mean that we get a huge amount of characterisation with Electra as the questionably qualified doctor spending the whole film sunbathing, while most of the teen cast are on the whole largely interchangeable with each other, with only a few select members of this group being given any kind of character other than “loud shouty teen” or "dumb jock", though perhaps the standout amongst this group being Cole (Ward), who is also the closest the film gets to actually having a bad guy, who not spends most of the film hitting on any random female in sight and flexing his muscles, but also has the ultimate asshole moment, when he literally jumps ship when he figures out that the shark is following the noise of his boats engine.

Helmed by Director Christopher Ray, the son of legendary b-movie Maestro Fred Olen Ray, whose most memorable movie “Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers” Christopher Ray had an uncredited role in as “Kid in bar” and here continues his current partnership with “The Asylum” for whom he previous directed “Mega Shark Vs. Crocosaurus” and “Thor” cash-in  “Almighty Thor”. Thankfully he atleast has the advantage here of being given one of their original features which have frequently proved to be their strongest titles, rather than helming another of their now legendary Mockbusters. Despite this I still got the feeling throughout that Ray would rather be directing “Girls Gone Wild”, especially with the camera always seeming to focus on the boobs of his female cast, especially when they spend pretty much the whole film as skimpily dressed as possible, while unsurprisingly also ensuring that the male cast members are killed off first.

I guess it is impossible to expect high art from a film entitled “2-Headed Shark Attack” and it’s clear that Ray has the sense to realise this and instead focuses here on providing a largely fun movie with a generous amount of on screen carnage, let alone a providing some cheap thrills with its scantily dressed cast whether you want to look at girls in cleavage heavy bikini’s or guys constantly flexing, there is something to suit either taste, especially when this frequently seems to be more were Ray is focusing than on the titular shark, but compared to some of the recent shark efforts this is certainly one of the better ones.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

My Movie Year: 1999

Back in 2006 the film magazine “Empire” launched an X factor style competition called “Thunderdome” were each week the nominee’s would have to complete a challenge set by the Judging panel (a panel comprised of various Empire staffer’s including my hero and critic inspiration Kim Newman) with the loser getting eliminated from the competition with the winner getting what could best be described as a glorified freelancer position with the magazine.

The opening challenge to find their contestants was deceptively simple, as all you were asked to do was “Write a 200 word review on the best film of 1999”. A challenge that I too took on and sadly did not make the final cut, though I did receive a very nice and hand signed rejection letter, which for the longest time was framed and hung up in my kitchen as a weird form of inspiration.

What this challenge did highlight for me though was just how good 1999 was for cinema, for as a century of film making drew to a close, it was not the studios who were making the most exciting movies, but indie directors like Spike Jonze, Paul Thomas Anderson and Sofia Coppola and writers like Alan Ball and Charlie Kaufman who were the ones making the most waves while also ushering in a whole new exciting era of film making, which not only challenged how films were made, aswell as how these stories could be told and inspiring a new breed of film maker in their wake, as they paved the way for the likes of Richard Kelly, Rian Johnson, Jason Reitman, Michel Gondry and Darren Aronofsky.

So allow me to present to you as part of the "My Movie Year" Blogathon being run by "Fandango Groovers Movie Blog" the five films which truly justify why 1999 was such a great year for cinema.

American Beauty

Every now and then you will have a talent who seemingly comes from nowhere, to create one of the most original films of that year and this was certainly the case when first time writer Allan Ball wrote the screenplay for this film, which would also be directed by first time director Sam Mendes, whom up to that point had been known purely as a theatre director, though looking at this film you wouldn’t believe it to be his first, while also containing one of the most recreated money shots of all time!

Following depressed suburban father Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), as he tires of his so called life and instead embarks on the mother of all midlife crisis, as he quits his job, starts smoking pot and working out, while lusting over his teenage daughter’s best friend Angela (Mena Suvari). Meanwhile his family are none the less screwed up with his success driven wife (Annette Bening), horrified by his sudden change of direction, while his socially reclusive daughter (Thora Birch) is embarking on the relationship with Ricky (Wes Bentley) the oddball student film maker and drug dealer living next door.

Darkly funny and highly original, Ball pushed the boundaries with his script which comes off completely fearless, while giving Spacey one of his more memorable roles as he attempts to break out from his daily grind and finally do what he wants to do and in many ways it would serve as blueprint for Ball’s writing style which he has since carried over into his TV projects “Six Feet Under” and “True Blood” and even years later this film seems as fresh as the year it was released, as the themes of alienation and conformity continue to ring painfully true.

Essentially driven by three plot lines of each of the family members, despite appearing that it’s Lester’s story the film aims for a complete picture of this dysfunctional family, as it constantly switches the focus between the three family members as they all in their own way follow Lester in breaking away from their own daily grinds. While the cast are all great, with Spacey clearly having a blast playing Lester, for me though Birch is easily at her most memorable, as she once again proves why she is the most underused actress currently working today. Still this is the sort of film you watch and instantly want to talk to someone about and a key movie of the year in question.


An ambitious film by no stretch of the imagination as it sets out to tell the epic story of seven characters over the course of a day and seeing how their lives intertwine more often than not unwittingly with each other, as well as looking at the powerful effect of coincidence.

A fascinating follow up to his homage to the porn scene of the 70’s & 80’s, this often overlooked film (no doubt due to it’s daunting length) was another example of the how storytelling in films was challenged, as finally directors / writers were actually having faith in their audience to be able to follow such complex plotting, let alone the occasional curveball, seeing how it memorably rains frogs at one point.

Director Paul Thomas Anderson once again assembles another great cast here giving some great performances, with Tom Cruise’s motivation speaker Frank Mackey easily being of one of Cruises’s best, as he essentially brings to the screen what many would see the real life Cruise as being like, as Mackey lectures rooms of date hungry men on “taming” women as part of his “Seduce and Destroy” program.

Thanks to its colorful characters it is both a touching and funny film, while Aimee Mann provides a really kick ass soundtrack, including a great cover of One Dog Night’s “One Is the Loneliest Number”. So if you can spare a few hours, why not lose them in this one.

Fight Club

Upon it’s release this film exploded into pop culture, while no doubt also being responsible for introducing a whole new audience to the twisted and surreal world of Chuck Palahniuk, aswell as perhaps an increase in food terrorism at the hands of disgruntled serving staff.

Like “American Beauty” this is another tale of one man breaking out of his daily grind in possibly the most extreme fashion, as our narrator is an insomniac who can only sleep by attending support groups for illnesses and diseases he doesn’t even have, though it is a chance encounter with the mysterious and charming Tyler Durden, with whom he is soon forming underground fight clubs and unwittingly starting his own revolution.

Another example of the ground breaking films which were being released this year, after all how many films open with a high speed journey through the synapses of it’s narrator before pulling out to find them with a gun being held between their teeth by their supposed best friend? This film pushed not only the censorship boundaries with scenes of brutal bare knuckle brawls, but also in terms of taste as it features soap made from human fat and splicing porn into kiddie movies amongst it’s numerous tricks it holds with in, with director David Fincher perfectly casting Brad Pitt as Tyler Durdan the man we all wish we could be while Edward Norton is every bit as horrified and strangely curious as you’d want from the narrator, while at the same time using every trick from his background in music videos and commercials to tell the story, as it challenges everything we see around us and perfectly capturing the askew world view of Palahniuk’s source novel, while the film would spark numerous copycat antics from more impressionable audience members as amusingly documented by Palahniuk himself in his Non-fiction book “Non Fiction” and earning the film numerous grumblings from more sensitive members of the press especially from it’s trailer campaign were Tyler is shown to be inspiring his followers to go out and start fights with strangers, but it’s intoxicating mixture of mischief and mayhem, still makes it one of my all time favorites….now if only there was a planet Starbucks!

Cruel Intentions

This was the film which I named the best film of 1999 and it’s a choice I’d happily stand by if asked the question again, for this MTV style reworking of the classic novel “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, which has over the years has been adapted no less than thirteen times, with certainly the most well known being the 1988 version released as “Dangerous Liaisons” while this version would be by far the most original as the story is relocated to modern day New York, as step siblings Kathryn (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Sebastian (Ryan Phillippe) play games of seduction, with their latest target being the virginal Annette (Reese Witherspoon) with the challenge being set by Kathryn that Sebastian cannot bed her before the start of the school year, while Kathryn sets about also corrupting the naïve Cecile (Selma Blair) as part of a plan of revenge against her ex boyfriend who left her for Cecile.

While it may have been released in the same year as “American Pie” this film proved to be a much smarter drama and with a sharper sense of humour, but none the less sex crazed which came as something of a surprise to Geller’s fans who were more used to her playing Buffy on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” so for her to be reeling off such lines as “In English? I'll fuck your brains out” all of course greeted with whoops of joy from most of the male audience, much like the much talked about experimental kissing scene between Geller and Blair, all from a film bizarrely marketed in some places as a chick flick, when it contains plenty to appeal to most audiences.

The cast at the time were largely B-list or unknowns, yet all embody their various characters, while for some the film marking a rare high point in their careers, still even years after it’s initial shocking dialogue has since been beaten in terms of filth, it still remains a solid drama and a nice twist on a classic novel.

Being John Malkovich

This film marked the start of the feature film invasion of the visionary directors, who’d spent their careers crafting extraordinary and visually arresting music videos and commercials and it’s a group that Spike Jonze belonged to, following hot on the heels of fellow visionary David Fincher, he finally found here a way of making the surreal screenplay by Charlie Kaufman work, as for years this debut screenplay had been passed from studio to studio, but Jonze managed to finally bring this black comedy to the screen in what would be arguably one of the most original films of the year.

The film itself is the story of an unemployed puppeteer Craig (John Cusack), who is married to the pet obsessed Lotte (Cameron Diaz) and who takes a job as a file clerk, were he discovers a mysterious door behind one of the filling cabinets, which leads those who enter into the mind of John Malkovich for fifteen minuites before it drops them into a ditch on the side of the New Jersey turnpike. Seeing an opportunity to make money, he teams up with his co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener) to sell tickets to curiosity seekers, eager to try the experience for themselves.

While it could have easily been made as some form of art house curiosity, especially seeing how it’s selling the idea of a journey into the head of an actor who at the time of it’s releases wasn’t especially well known, yet Jonze keeps all the curiosity and wonder, while still keeping the plot accessible, as he shoots it in a style almost comparable to that of Terry Gilliam.

This is not to say that the film is still not random as hell, for it features a chimp having a flashback to his capture and the curious lowered ceilings of Floor 7½ were Craig works, let alone a game Malkovich taking a trip in his own head and finding a world inhabited by his clones. Still the while the plot might be surreal to say the least it still manages to provide plenty of twists and turns along the way, as in this world nothing is black and white and just because you assume someone is the hero, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are.

A beautifully weird film, it rewards those willing to challenge their cinematic tastes and ushering in it’s wake a whole new exciting era of cinema, as the doors for creativity and artistic freedom were literally blown open by this film, as it reminded us all just how exciting indie cinema really could be.

So there you have it, my five films which show in my opinion just why 1999 was such a great year for cinema, but if you need further proof it’s worth remembering that this was the same year that saw the release of
  • Bringing Out The Dead
  • The Blair Witch Project
  • Dogma
  • Go
  • Girl, Interrupted
  • eXistenZ
  • Man on the Moon
But what was your movie year? Check out more Movie Years from the Blogathon here

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Week of Hong: Balls of Fury

Title: Balls of Fury
Director: Robert Ben Garant
Released: 2007
Staring: Dan Fogler, Christopher Walken, George Lopez, Maggie Q, James Hong, Terry Crews, Robert Patrick. Thomas Lennon, Aisha Tyler, Jason Scott Lee, La Na Shi, Patton Oswalt, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa

Plot: After losing the world Ping Pong championship as a child prodigy, the Def Leopard loving Randy (Fogler) has spent the last two decades peddling his skills on the Vegas strip to pay the bills with his former glory days now nothing but a distant memory. Now hired by the FBI to enter an underground Ping-Pong tournament in a bid to expose the elusive Feng (Walken), the criminal overlord who was also responsible for the death of Randy’s father (Patrick)

Review: On paper this film seemed to have pretty much everything I could want cast wise, I mean not only does it feature our man of the moment Mr. James Hong who we have been looking at over the course of this week as part of the Week of Hong Blogathon, but it also has Dan Fogler, an actor who I’ve become kind of obsessed with since first seeing him as the Rush obsessed “Hutch” in the Star Wars inspired comedy “Fanboys” aswell as more recently in the equally amusing “Take Me Home Tonight” and I was relishing the chance to see him in a leading role, rather than his usual portly sidekick persona. Sadly this film would prove once again that just because you have all the perfect ingredients it doesn’t always mean that you’re going to come away with a tasty dish of a movie.

Opening at the 1988 Olympic table tennis finals, were the twelve year old Randy is not already working his Def Leopard obsession but also seen as a child prodigy of the sport. However thanks to his father (in a whopping ten minute cameo by Patrick so get your fill X Files fans) betting everything they own on him winning, he soon finds the pressure getting to him and while facing the German champion Karl Wolfschtagg (Lennon) manages to knock himself unconscious, meaning he forfeits the match as a result, while at the same time causing his father to be murdered by Feng’s henchmen (Tagawa) due to not being able to pay his debts and sending Randy’s career into a nosedive as he turns his back on competitive ping pong. It’s during this opening that the tone is really set for the film, as this is anything but a serious look at the world of competitive ping pong (incase you hadn't realized), as it opts for the same surreal look at the sport that both “Dodgeball” and “Beerfest” brought to their sports and things only really get wackier as it continues, hence we get Randy turning the sport into what is possibly the worst cabaret act ever, while numerous demonstrations of super human play, as characters play with lightening fast reflexes and frequently keeping multiple balls in play.

The cast all pretty much play their various roles well, with Fogler embodying the overweight slacker Randy, who despite his obvious lack of any form of athleticism still manages to play the role of this superhuman player convincingly enough, while gaining support on his journey back to his former via the blind ping pong master Wong (Hong), whose training methods are almost as suspect of those used by Xian Chow in “Kickboxer”, as he has Randy trying to hit balls using a wooden spoon and more sadistically locking him in a freezer full of angry bees with possibly the worlds smallest flyswatter. 

Joining Randy on his quest for revenge we also have the questionable FBI agent Rodriguez (Lopez) who it would seem has confused the FBI for the CIA / MI6 seeing how he bases his inspiration for joining on fantasies of James Bond exploits. Randy also more surprisingly even gets a love interest in the form of Wong’s niece and protégée Maggie (Maggie Q) who also gets a chance to show off her kung fu skills at various points of the film which is always welcome.

Sadly the weak link in the cast is also one of the biggest draws, as Walken seems to be purely going through the motions with his performance as Feng and while he occasionally shows moments of his normal brilliance, he never seems to know exactly how to play the role, which also brought to mind an interview with Walken I read a few years back, were he admitted to only reading his own lines whenever he was sent a script rather than the whole thing, which might go away to explaining the confused performance here, as well as why he also showed up in “The Country Bears”. The role of Feng, had also originally been the screenwriter Thomas Lennon for him to play, until it was given to Walken while he took on the role of Karl Wolfschtagg, though it only begs the question if this character would have been stronger had Lennon played the role as he had originally intended, even though Lennon is still great fun as the egotistical Wolfschtagg.

Still while Feng might not be the greatest of villains, but he does atleast have some decent support from his lead henchman known simply as Mysterous Asian Man (I’m not kidding they didn’t even bother to give him a name) which see’s Tagawa reusing his epic performance as Shang Tsung from “Mortal Kombat” which works really well and frequently to the point were he is often more intimidating than Feng, so it only makes it more of a shame that like Patton Oswalt he is so underused here and while Feng’s henchwoman the blow pipe welding Mahogany (Tyler), steps up to fill the void it is a presence which is sorely missed once he is removed, though Tyler is not especially hard on the eyes it has to be said and makes more of what would have no doubt otherwise been a less noticeable role.

The Comedy for the first half of the film is solid enough before it hits a horrible lull around the halfway point, from which it never truly recovers. Still with enough jokes being thrown at the screen, it does ensure that the majority of the comedy is more hit than miss, with Fogler proving to be a natural comedic talent, while Hong even manages to make his largely comedic role more enjoyable than you would expect, especially when it plays heavily on the fact his character is blind and hence has him facing the wrong way to talk or just walking into walls, let alone the fact that the film also features a joke based on him not releasing that a Love Courtesan was actually a man, making it only more of a credit to Hong that he manages to make this character work so well. The majority of the comedy here though can be found with Randy’s wacky opponents, which he has to face on the path to Feng, which include a psycho little girl named “Dragon” (Shi) and local champion “Hammer” (Oswalt) who not only can’t break through his own paper banner, while also has an arsenal of confusing hand gestures, though despite his scenes being amongst the funniest this character is bizarrely never seen again after the initial confrontation, frustratingly adding to ongoing list of underused characters within this film. 

Even now reflecting on my viewing experience of this film, I can't decide if really enjoyed it enough to watch it again and while it's certainly has it's moments, it's one that's best watched with friends and a laid back atmosphere of low expectation, though it's safe to say that ping pong has never looked cooler....shame the same can't be said for Def Leopard.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Week of Hong: Big Trouble In Little China

Title: Big Trouble In Little China
Director: John Carpenter
Released: 1986
Staring: Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun, James Hong, Victor Wong, Kate Burton, Donald Li, Carter Wong, Peter Kwong, James Pax, Suzee Pai, Albert "Al" Leong

Plot: Jack Burton (Russell) is a wisecracking truck driver making what should have been a regular drop off in San Francisco, only to find himself in a whole heap of trouble when his best friend Wang Chi’s (Dun) fiancée (Pai) is kidnapped, by the 2000 year old magician Lo Pan (Hong).

Review: Seeing how this week is the “Week of Hong” blogathon being run by “Lost Video Archive” paying tribute to the living legend James Hong, who has over the course of his career amassed (as of the time of writing) 366 credits  as an actor, so I thought I would revisit one of his few roles which allowed him to step outside of his usual supporting character roles and instead cast him as the central villain.

Another big film in my childhood celluloid memories, it’s one of the few films from that period which still stand up to those happy early memories when revisited years later, while also certainly being one of my all time favorite John Carpenter movies, in what would be sadly his sole jaunt into the Martial Arts genre, something which had long been a desire for Carpenter before he returned to the horror genre once more. Still any movie which reunites Carpenter and Kurt Russell, can never be a bad thing, especially with Carpenter being responsible for pulling out some of Russell’s most memorable performances, with this film being yet another example of this great working relationship that they have together, especially as Russell was suffering with the flu during filming, yet under Carpenter he still pulls off another amazing performance.

Originally intended to be a western much like Carpenter’s “Assault on Precinct 13”, it was during the rewrites of the original script that the action was shifted to modern day San Francisco, while retaining the Chinese fantasy elements. To enter into this film blind though it starts like nearly every other 80’s action movie with Wang Chi’s fiancee being snatched by the Triad gang “The Lords of Death” at the airport, setting both him and Jack on a mission to get her back. It’s only during a gang fight which Wang Chi’s and Jack suddenly find themselves in the middle off, that things suddenly take a supernatural turn with the sudden introduction of Lo Pan’s henchmen “The Three Storms” (Wong, Kwong & Pax) , which honestly had I not known what sort of film this was in advance, this would make for a surprising change of direction, especially with no hint of this change being given in advance of it happening. Needless to say though that when Carpenter does unleash these supernatural elements he goes the whole hog and hence why we get lighting bolts being welded, a giant centipede monster and insane midair sword fights to name but a few of the delights contained within, as Carpenter once again showcases the excess of 80’s action cinema, while clearly having fun playing with the elements of Hong Kong cinema he chooses to homage here.

“Big Trouble In Little China” is a true memento of 80’s action movies with it’s outlandish action scenes and wisecracking hero in the form Jack Burton who is the quintessential 80’s action hero model, for Jack is a blue collar, sexist and egotistical truck driver with strangely cat like reflexes, who when not giving broadcasting his own personal life philosophies over his truck’s CB radio and chowing down on submarine sandwiches, he can usually be found drinking hard and gambling harder with the local Chinatown traders. Still why he might seem like a jackass, he is still fiercely loyal to his friends, though it’s a loyalty which could also be linked to the fact that those same friends owe him a lot of money which he fully intends on claiming. Still this is essentially were Carpenter throws us abet of a curve ball for while Jack is portrayed as the hero, he is actually more of a bumbling sidekick to Wang Chi, who is much more of the hero here, something especially highlighted when during one of the climatic battles he manages to knock himself unconscious and misses the whole thing.

James Hong is fantastic as the big evil of the film, in what would be a rare lead role for the man who seems to be eternally set to play memorable supporting characters and here he relishes the opportunity, whether under layers of heavy make up as the old man form of Lo Pan, or as his fantastical Fu Manchu form he is brilliant in every scene he appears, while portraying Lo Pan as a man so assure of his own power and ability that he never appears flustered by what is happening around him, to the point were he seems genuinely surprised when he is taken down by Jacks boot knife. It is equally great to see Victor Wong being given more of a role as the Magician and local tour guide Egg Shen, who not only has some of the best lines in the film, but also gets to kick all kinds of ass with his urban ninja army and like Hong it was great to see him getting a more meaty role, as extended screen time for either of these actors is always a welcome thing.

Carpenter’s love of Kung Fu movies is clearly on the screen here, especially with “The Three Storms” being almost a direct copy of “The Lords of Death” from “Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx”, much less how he chooses to shoot these elements of Hong Kong cinema he chooses to incorporate into the film, which is was almost identical to how they would have been shot in those same movies it sets out to homage, with extensive wire work especially being used during the fantastical sword fight during the climax and in doing so gives them a welcome similar sense of style. Needless to say the action is completely over the top, with Carpenter keeping the action constantly moving, making full use of his cast many of whom were genre veterans, with Carter Wong also working as a Martial arts trainer for the Hong Kong Police and it’s an advantage we see used to full effect by Carpenter, while he also pulls out more than a few tricks to surprise even the more established Kung Fu fans and it’s scenes like the ones we see here, which only make it more of shame that he has not since made another movie like this.

Tanking upon it’s initial release, thanks largely to poor marketing by the studio, which would also lead to Carpenter leaving the studio system to concentrate on more independently released films. Needless to say since then it has truly found it’s audience on VHS and later DVD, truly becoming the cult classic it deserved to be and a film which fans still argue over whether it works best on it's own or if it's long overdue a sequel, though personally I'd love to see another Jack Burton adventure, though for now this remains another great one shot adventure.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story

Title: With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story
Director: Terry Dougas, Nikki Frakes, Will Hess
Released: 2010
Staring: Stan Lee, Avi Arad, Nicolas Cage, Samuel L. Jackson, Todd McFarlane, Jon Favreau, Kevin Smith, Brett Ratner, Joan Lee

Plot: Documentary about the life and creations of Comic legend Stan Lee.

Review: Even if you know next to nothing about Comics, there is still a very good chance that you still know who Stan Lee is, especially as he is arguably as well known as his creations and certainly with good reason, as without a doubt Stan Lee has done more for comics than any other writer past or present, having created Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Fantastic Four, X-Men, Iron Man and Thor, to name but a few of his most popular creations, yet for a man who seemingly single handedily changed the face of comics forever he comes off an incredibly humble man, who is always quick to credit the artists he worked with before taking any kind of credit himself.

It’s only makes it more surprising considering the astonishing body of work he has built up, that we havn’t seen a documentary like this before now and it’s his amazing career which this documentary attempts to chart from his inconspicuous debut with “Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge” back in May 1941 through to present day and the founding of his own production company “Pow! Entertainment” where even at the age of 89 he refuses to retire as he continues to create even more new characters, as he continues to see Retirement as nothing but a dirty word.

Built around a mixture of stock footage and extensive interview footage with Lee, who personally leads the journey through his life, with the occasional input from his wife Joan who also has many of the best lines of the documentary, including her openly confessing that her role in their marriage is to spend Stan’s money, while also providing the insights into his personal life, which Stan doesn’t openly revel himself especially with his focus more on his work than his personal life, but still seeing how open Lee comes across here, it doesn’t leave much but what she does revel does help to create a more full picture of the life of this living legend.

Breaking his career down into decade sized chunks; it makes it an easy ride for the non-established fans to understand why Lee is seen as such an important figure in the comics community, as Lee talks through each break through he made with the help of artists like the equally legendary Jack Kirby, with whom Lee would create nearly all his most memorable creations, when during the 60’s they revolutionized the industry by crafting complex and naturalistic characters, who could have bad tempers, arguments with their fellow superheroes and even worry about things like paying the bills and impressing their girlfriend. This game changer Lee is happy to admit was by pure chance, as at this point he was considering leaving the industry and was inspired by his wife to write the stories he wanted to read, especially as he had nothing to loose seeing how he was planning to leave anyway, only to lead to the creation of his most memorable creations, following the success this style of writing had with the newly created “Fantastic Four”. This period also lead to his creations all making a home for themselves in New York, rather than a traditionally fantastical city like Metropolis or Gotham City. Still the most personal of these new creations would be with “Spider-man” for whom his wife admits is essentially based on Lee himself.

Possibly what has delayed this documentary from being made earlier, could possibly be the sheer lack of scandal in his life, making it reminiscent of Bruce Campbell’s fantastic autobiography “If Chins Could Kill” which was equally as positive as this film is, with the sole dark moment coming from the heartbreak of loosing his second child, days after she was born and while it is not necessarily a huge part of the documentary, it is still a touching scene and one which Lee would rather not talk about, leaving it for his wife to tell much like the majority of the footage concerning his family outside of his wife, whom he clearly adores and happily shares stories from their long lasting marriage including his regret at previously macho comments that his wife would not work while they were married to an argument which lead to her destroying his prized typewriter, all regaled with a great sense of humor which carries throughout the film, as Lee’s life has clearly one lived in good humor.

Unsurprisingly there is a wealth of celebrities all wanting to share their stories about either working with Stan or his creations, with celebrity comic fans Nicolas Cage, Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Smith are all on hand to give their insights, though only Cage gets to really express his opinions on Lee’s work, which was a shame especially seeing how both Jackson and Smith would no doubt have given a fascinating fanboy angle, but due to the sheer amount of admiring celebrity fans on hand here all eager to express their love for his work that these interviews are noticeably cut down to what amounts to basically sound bites. Still while the film maker have seemingly been given unlimited access, it’s really at the cost of depth for although it’s a fun insight into Lee’s career, there are no real leaps outside of the conversations with Joan to really get inside of his mind for a fuller picture, but it’s not something that is going to leave you feeling unfulfilled and it does still feel like a full portrait of the great man, even if it’s a picture comprised largely of what he has achieved in his career and the parts he played in the revolution of the comic industry and for most of us it is all we need and want to know.
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