Undisputed III: Redemption

Undisputed II: Last Man Standing was arguably one of the best martial art/action films I’ve come across in the last decade.  Although it went largely overlooked, the combination of Michael Jai White and Scott Adkins brought about a perfect storm of screen fighting that really hadn’t been seen before.  An up and coming Adkins really cut loose, and the film for all intensive purposes, was choreographed beautifully when it came to camera angles and very complex fight maneuvers.  This was largely due to two guys: action director Issac Florentine who is at the helm for part III as well, and who is the man behind the camera of many of Adkins’ martial art bonanzas–including Jean Claude Van Damme’s The Shepard: Border Patrol, and the virtually unknown Ninja.  Consequently, he just won an award for Undisputed III back in April at ActionFest as Best Director.  The other guy responsible for this crazy barrage of awesome action cinema is Larnell Stovall, the film’s stunt and action coordinator, who just so happened to take home the award for Best Action Choreography at ActionFest.  It was certainly an overdue tip of the hat to a man that’s been lending his skills to some of the best action the states have produced in decades, including Michael Jai White’s Blood and Bone and Black Dynamite, and he’s even dipping into the more popular arenas of television doing stunts on the critically acclaimed HBO show, Treme.

So when it comes to Undisputed III, we’re not only seeing the most seasoned guys from behind the camera, we’re seeing some of the best action actors ever caught on film.  The film offers major action, chalk full of mind-blowing stunts delivered through the ever famous plot vehicle of injustice and impossibility, leading to vengeance and of course, REDEMPTION. *manly fist pump*  However, this time around, we’re left without an awesome Michael Jai White–but never fear, Adkins and company deliver the goods just the same.  It seems a constant theme with the Undisputed series that the previous movie’s antagonist becomes the next movie’s hero and our previous hero disappears into the mist–George “Iceman” Chambers becomes the good guy in the second installment, and now we have Uri Boyka becoming the protagonist.  Not that it makes for a crappy movie, quite the contrary.  It’s actually refreshing to see a deviation from most movie sequels where it’s star continues to take on the same tasks against the same villains.

The movie opens up a lit bit after the second chapter, where we find Uri Boyka (Adkins) growing out the hair and beard, looking like somewhat of a hermit.  He now hobbles on a bum knee after it was broken by Chambers, making it a constant reminder that he was beaten in the ring.  He now works as the prison’s “toilet cleaner”, pushing sludge around with a padded stick.  After learning about a tournament that is being held for the world’s best prison fighters to compete for their freedom, Boyka begins his comeback as “the world’s most complete fighter.”  Strengthening his knee by rigging up a pulley attached to a huge bucket full of water, he makes his way back into the running for Gaga (Mark Ivanir from Undisputed II) to take him to the international competition.  Once there, Boyka is pitted against seven other fighters from seven other prisons around the world, including an loud-mouthed and unlikely pal named Turbo (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) as well as the movie’s juiced up villain, Dolor (Marko Zaror).  Set up as a tournament, a bracket of eight is created to decide who is the best in the world, giving the champion their freedom.  From here, you can pretty much guess where the plot goes, but what you can guess is how awesome the action gets from here on out.

The only problem I have with the film is the fact that Florentine decided to do a lot of the stunts in slow motion shots.  I don’t mind a little bit of speed alteration for action’s sake, but doing it as much as we see in the film kinda takes away from the pace of the fights.  The parts that are supposed to be quick and brutal end up taking longer and take the surprise away from the action.  However, I do appreciate the lack of visual aids, i.e. wires or CGI (except for one kick that couldn’t avoid its use) which really show how good of athletes these guys really are.

I can’t talk enough about how superb the action was in the film.  Some great actors signed on for this one, including the Brazilian capoeira master, Lateef Crowder, Korean Tae Kwon Do master, Ilram Choi, and Chilean martial arts sensation Marko Zaror.  Lateef first caught my eye with his fighting skills in Tony Jaa’s Tom Yum Goong (The Protector), and as part of the Zero Gravity Team, his skills are being called upon more and more, currently set to play the iconic role of Eddy Gordo in the upcoming Tekken movie.  Lateef gives the audience a lot to marvel at, keeping his movements practical, instead of the flashy dance elements of typical capoeira so that we believe he’s actually in a prison fight.  Ilram Choi as the Korean fighter gets the early match against Marko Zaror’s character where we see one of the more exciting aerial fight scenes in the movie.  Even though we only get to see him fight once, it’s quite a spectacle, plus we get to see more of Zaror.  I hadn’t heard much about this guy until now, but he’s evidently been making big waves as the newest action star from Chile in movies such as Mandrill, and he was also honored at ActionFest as an emerging star.  His moves were absolutely phenomenal and certainly rivaled the skills of anyone else in film.  Adkins and Zaror were definitely the two best high-fliers in this one, but we can’t forget about Mykel Shannon Jenkins, a man that I’ve never really heard of before this film either, but he fit the bill for his role nicely.  His boxing skills were well-tuned for his fights and Florentine made him look almost as good as Michael Jai White did in his boxing scenes for Undisputed II.

Overall, a show-stopper as an action movie with fights galore as well as a story which is pretty decent even if the premise is a bit hackneyed.  There’s a fresh perspective here to the genre while Florentine and his crew are carving out their own new niche in the action cinema kingdom.  Surprisingly, these films are actually starting to rival the production value of the typically superior Hong Kong actioner.  Hong Kong has long upheld their reputation as I’ve discussed recently with new pictures like Ip Man 2, etc, but it’s finally nice to see some effort going into productions throughout the world, while supporting these extremely talented actors and choreographers.  Just like what Tony Jaa is doing for Thailand’s action scene or what Johnny Nguyen is doing for Vietnamese cinema, we find actors like Scott Adkins actually getting westerners excited again by making movies of this caliber.  Give these guys a generous Hollywood budget already–you won’t regret it.

A-

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Classic Throwback – Dragons Forever

I watched this late last night for probably the twentieth time and every time, I undoubtedly see something new and awesome.  I never gave much thought to the interim scenes between Jackie being the suave lawyer and Sammo trying to swoon with Miss Yip, but then suddenly, it dawned on me how much better the movie is when all three stars share the screen together.  I don’t think Yuen Biao ever got his  due credit as the acrobatic brother of the group, but his skills sometimes astounded me even more than Jackie’s use of props or Sammo’s improvisation and dexterity.  Throughout the late 1970’s and 1980’s, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better aerial martial arts actor and I think his skills were widely sidelined by a more famous (though very deserving) Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung.  If you look at a period of five years in between 1983 and 1988, it was literally a gold rush of Hong Kong martial arts movie mayhem.  This period widely marked the end of the classic-kung fu-period picture and ushered in the advent of modern screen fighting, which Chan, Sammo and Biao completely revolutionized.  In this short time span, you have films like: Project A, Winners and Sinners, Meals on Wheels, Police Story, My Lucky Stars, Millionaire’s Express, Eastern Condors…the list goes on and on.  Dragons Forever has always felt bittersweet to me, because it marked both the pinnacle of these three stars on screen together, and at the same time, their final collaboration to date.  You look at the physical comedy gags that they perform in the middle of the movie while Chan’s character is on a date, and you can’t help but laugh at the farcical exchange between them.  Filling in the gaps between fight scenes with this humor made the film complete, a flaw most action flicks develop when you’re not interested in the story, but rather when the next fight’s happening.  Dragons brings in a generous amount of everything. It’s because of this that Dragons holds a special place in my heart.

The film opens with two scenes laying down the ground work for the plot.  We’re first introduced to the villain, Boss Wah (Yuen Wah), a ruthless businessman who kills his business partner when he finds out a shipment deal has gone south.  Then we meet Jackie Lung (Chan), a lawyer who’s trying to convince a woman to take some money and avert a bully named Cheng from attacking her.  Just then, Cheng’s posse show up to slap some fear into the woman, but Jackie reveals that he’s not only a lawyer, but a skilled fighter who dispatches the gang easily.  Jackie portrays a different role from his typical fair in this one, playing the smooth talking Casanova instead of the happy-go-lucky underdog we’re used to seeing.  Next we find Miss Yip (Deannie Yip) meeting with Boss Wah to ask that he stop dumping his polluted waste in the water near her fishery.  After refusing an offer to buy her fishery, Miss Yip threatens legal action against Wah.  Fearing it will slow production of his mysterious “product,” Wah orders that a lawyer be put on the case to mess with Miss Yip and slow down her legal injunction. Of course Jackie’s hired and in doing so meets a love interest in Miss Wen (Pauline Yeung), who’s Miss Yip’s attorney and cousin.  Jackie then hires Wong (Sammo), an arms dealer and close friend to woo Miss Yip. He also gets a crazy inventor and criminal, Tung (Biao), to bug Miss Yip’s apartment for any evidence.  Wong and Tung inadvertently realize they were both hired by Jackie, and hilarity ensues as Jackie invites Miss Wen for dinner while trying to keep his friends from killing one another in the next room.

Later on, the head of another gang (played by Dick Wei) orders that Jackie be killed, because he’s seems too smart and he’s working for his rival, Wah.  Jackie then takes Miss Wen to a yacht for lunch, where we see one of the best fight scenes in the film.  Tightly filmed, this inventive close combat rumble has the legendary James Tien and his gang try and kill Jackie, but to no avail as he’s too quick and nimble, using every part of the ship to his advantage.  Meanwhile, Wong is trying to get Miss Yip to go out with him, finally succeeding after a ridiculous attempt using a bullhorn, and we begin to see romances take shape between Wong and Miss Yip, as well as Jackie and Miss Wen.  The honeymoons are short-lived though when Tung spills the beans about the whole operation and calls out the other guys for not playing it straight.  A pissed off Wong and Jackie start fighting with Tung and with each other in what I believe is the first and only time all three fight each other on screen–and it is magnificent! Detested by Miss Yip, Wong vows to get her back and prove their love is true by going to Wah’s factory and figuring out what’s being dumped in the water.

Finally reconciled, Wong brings Tung along with him to photograph the evidence.  They realize that Wah is involved in manufacturing drugs as Wah’s main henchman (Benny Urquidez) is sucking heroin through a straw.  The henchman catch Wong snooping around, take him hostage, and inject him with drugs while Tung escapes to tell Jackie and the others.  Jackie professes his love to Miss Wen in court and explains that their relationship is in direct conflict with the case.  Jackie therefore removes himself from the case, and just as court is adjourned, Tung arrives to tell Jackie and Miss Wen what happened.  Once at the factory, we bare witness to one of the greatest fight scenes ever filmed.  Here we have Jackie Chan’s stunt team as well as Sammo’s stunt team, along with Yuen Wah, Benny “The Jet”, and Billy Chow–it’s pure mayhem, and it’s marvelous.

Overall, this film is a martial arts spectacle, with performances that can never be replicated.  The best on screen fights come from Billy Chow and Biao as they navigate a catwalk above the main room, flipping onto I-beams and agilely flying through jagged pieces of glass.  The stunt teams almost felt like they’re trying to one up each other–from getting kicked through a glass table to huge falls off of factory vats.  We also see another classic performance from Yuen Wah as the cigar-smoking  leader, puffing on his stogie while scaling up the side of a staircase.  The best performance though comes from Benny and Jackie, as they change things up from their previous bout in Wheels on Meals back in 1984.  This time around it’s less about a test of kickboxing skills and more about survival.  Sammo, as well as Jackie and Benny create some of the most mind-blowing choreography you’re ever going to see. Most people who have seen all of Jackie’s films will argue that his two fights with Benny are the best of his career, and after watching them, it’s hard to argue.

Go watch this now. Here’s a taste.


A+

Leaves of Grass


I just recently saw Primal Fear again, Edward Norton’s first major role where he plays the convicted murderer stricken with multiple personality disorder…or so we’re made to think.  The challenge here was  not only how to portray his character to the audience but also to the characters in the film.  It’s since become an iconic performance and most likely what led to even greater roles like a Derek Vinyard in American History X. I bring up Norton’s abilities in this respect because he returns to those early acting roots in Leaves of Grass, performing in a dual role of brothers caught up in a ridiculous web of circumstance, chance, and maybe even a little irony.  An up-and-coming Tim Blake Nelson writes and directs this insightful black comedy, throwing humor and tension-filled drama together for both of Norton’s characters to sort out.

The movie opens on Bill Kincaid (Norton), a philosophy classics professor at Brown giving a lecture to a class who’s fixated on his every word.  You quickly learn Bill’s intellect is off the charts and that every academic is drooling over him, most notably Harvard, who want him start a philosophy department in their Law School.  Little does the academic world know that Bill is simply a native Oklahoman who’d rather forget his family consisting of his drug-loving-hippie mother, Daisy (Susan Sarandon) and his equally brilliant pot-dealing brother, Brady.  We first find Brady trying to explain his principles on selling marijuana when we find the powers that be in the Great Plains want him to start thinking about expanding his business. The dilemma causes Brady to lure his estranged brother back to Oklahoma by sending word that he was killed in a crossbow blunder.  Bill arrives home and comes to find Brady alive, well, and working on a way to deal with a local businessman, Pug Rothbaum (Richard Dreyfuss).  Cleverly tricking  Bill with his own guilt, Brady gets him to stay for a few extra days in order to hatch his hair-brained scheme.  Of course, things go very wrong and as a result, Bill’s life as a hotshot academic begin to quickly unravel–but not before meeting a love interest in Janet (Keri Russell), who is (surprise, surprise) a poet and high school English teacher.

The first part of the film was excellent and leaves you wondering where the story is headed.  The dialogue was extremely witty and well-written where Norton character is concerned–his opening monologue sets up the tone of the movie and gives it direction.  The following scene involves Bill and his lovestruck student as they discuss a topic for his class, when she begins to strip and confess her love for him in Latin.  It’s a hilarious scene where Norton’s character shows a rigid awkwardness, traits which become directly contradicted in the following scene involving Brady’s explanation on why he’s a pioneer of growing hydroponics in his state-of-the-art grow house.  And when both brothers reunite, we see the best interactions of the movie, Brady methodically trying to guilt his brother into staying while Bill tries make heads as to what’s going on.  Brady tries to understand Bill’s academic studies by commenting on how all academics ever do is write about a person who wrote about a person who wrote actually something original.  Billy’s only response after being pressured into smoking some of Brady’s finest is that he just eloquently described academia.  It’s a classic scene showcasing Norton’s fantastic acting range.

Then came the second part of the film, which might have felt a bit iffy at times.  The plot starts to really unfold and things seemed all too coincidental when random occurrences materialize that would otherwise seem ridiculous.  One of the sub-plots involves Bill meeting a Jewish orthodontist, Ken Feinman (Josh Pais) who’s having financial woes living out in the Midwest.  Through a varying set of circumstances, Ken and Bill meet up again on more interesting terms, feeling way too convenient that their paths would cross again so easily.  Norton is there though to save all the scenes that need saving and actually empathizes with the audience towards the end, saying that this is too much coincidence, even for him.

Edward Norton’s performance was amazing to watch–he went seamlessly from brother to brother playing the uptight academic square one second to a pestering, influential con man the next.  Tim Blake Nelson also plays the role of Brady’s best friend Bolger, who had a fantastic part in the movie as Brady’s right-hand man, and who felt every bit as smart our protagonists, but knew how to keep it low key.  Sarandon also played an interesting role as their mother, although her role didn’t require much depth.  Keri Russell played what felt like a one-dimensional role and the romantic scenes between her and Norton felt too empty.  The relationship between Bill and Janet seemed like a weaker point in the film even though I felt there was chemistry there. Russell did an okay job as the “I don’t care, I’m a free spirit” shtick, getting Bill to loosen up and realize the error of his philosophical ways, but ultimately, it was kinda lame. Even though it felt forced at times, I still enjoyed the tough, catfish noodler and Walt Whitman reading, free verse poet that Russell brought to the table.. Richard Dreyfuss probably played the weirdest, and ultimately the worst role in the movie as a Jewish-Oklahoman businessman who is secretly a mobster.  His attempts at the Okie accent felt so unauthentic, even for someone who lives on the east coast, and I can guarantee it felt the same way even for a native. On the other hand, watching him slug it out with a menorah was quite amusing to watch.

Grass is a quirky and fun adventure piece that really grabs a hold of you.  It’s got a blatant humor about it, but doesn’t fail to deliver on its excellent subtle nuances.  Norton alone was worth the price of admission in this one, so invest in catching this one when you can.

A-

Ip Man 2

If you saw the first Ip Man, chances are you were interested in seeing the sequel.  For me, the trailers certainly provided enough evidence of an awesome follow-up, boasting the returns of both director Wilson Yip and action choreographer Sammo Hung, who also gains a starring role this time around.  Martial art movie fans alike were thrilled to learn of the return of Sammo and his first on-screen duel with Donnie Yen since 2005’s Sha Po Lang (S.P.L.). After finally getting a chance to catch a viewing of Ip Man 2, I can safely say that while it definitely has an exciting cast and a good amount of fight scenes, it doesn’t quite hold up to either the hype or the original.

— Note: Next 4 Paragraphs contain SPOILERS —

Taking place several years after the first film, Ip Man (Donnie Yen) and his family move to Hong Kong in hopes of Ip establishing a Wing Chun school.  Times are tough of course–his wife, Cheung Wing-sing (Lynn Hung) is pregnant and his son needs money for his school tuition.  Ip gets help from an old friend, Leung Kan (Pierre Ngo), a newspaper editor who finds a rooftop spot for Ip to teach. Business eventually picks up after meeting his first student, Wong Lueng (Huang Xiao Ming) who doesn’t believe Ip’s hype at first and who then brings more guys to the school after a quick, but thorough ass kicking.  We also learn that Chow Ching-chuen (Simon Yam), the man who helped Ip and his family escape the Japanese occupation in the first film, suffered brain damage from a gunshot wound, which left him crazy and unable to remember anyone, even Ip.

Later on, Leung is tacking up posters for Ip’s Wing Chun school when he’s accosted by Cheng Wai-kei (To Yu-Hang) who’s the head student of the Hung Quan school.  Although Leung clearly beats Cheng, his gang beat up on Leung and take him captive.  Ip is told to pay for Leung’s release, but instead fights with what seems to be most of the town, armed with knives and staffs.  Ip makes it to the outside of the market where he meets up with Jin Shanzhao (Fan Sui-wong), the reformed bully from the first Ip Man, who now wants to help Ip.  In struts Hung Chun-nam (Sammo) who is the head of the Hung Quan school and the apparent martial arts master in town.  After a quick explanation, Hung explains that in order for Ip to be recognized as a Wing Chun master/teacher, he has to meet with all the masters in town for a challenge.  Ip, Jin, and Leung are all subsequently arrested when a Chinese police officer named Fatso (Kent Cheng) says they’re causing a ruckus.  We also learn that Hung and Fatso are close friends as nothing happens to Hung after the altercation.

Ip shows up at the hall where all the masters are and begins to fight them one at a time on a round table surrounded by stools laid upside down *gasp*.  It’s obvious he’s better than everyone there, swiftly Wing Chun-ing everyone in their face.  Hung doesn’t appreciate this and finally challenges Ip.  After a draw, there seems to be an admiration from both fighters and a show of mutual respect that there is no clear winner (but you, the viewer can obviously see Hung is exhausted and had the fight gone any longer, Ip would’ve prevailed).  Hung accepts his Wing Chun but tells him he has to pay for his school’s protection. When Ip refuses to pay the so-called neighborhood association fees, Hung sends his pupils to once again cause trouble, prompting Ip to close the school due to neighborhood complaints.

Ip meets up with Hung at his dojo, and explains that he’s still not going to pay the fees.  Hung explains that it’s not just about fees, but for protection and money to the foreigners  (aka the British).  They scuffle a little before Hung almost kicks his lollipop-holding son in the face–Ip of course averts tragedy and stops right as Hung’s entire family comes in.  It’s a key scene where they both come to a mutual understanding about the importance of family, and Hung let’s Ip know that there won’t be any more trouble.  Hung then invites Ip and his students to a boxing tournament being held against the British and their champion, Twister (Darren Shahlavi). Of course racial tension builds up and the British ridicule Chinese boxing as inferior, causing Hung to fight Twister in hopes of restoring their honor.  But alas, Hung is beaten to death after a couple of rounds and it’s now up to Ip to take down the British Empire…you guessed it, just like with the Japanese in the first film!

End of Spoiler


All right, so the movie wasn’t terrible. The best fight of the movie was easily between Donnie and Sammo, showcasing some vintage Sammo (circa 1985) and Donnie’s ridiculous speed.  It was part classic-Sammo fight choreography  and part wuxia wire fu, which was a nice blend and a good homage to period films before it.  I can’t believe how Donnie seems to be getting quicker in front of the camera since his re-introduction to Hong Kong cinema–movies like SPL, Seven Swords, Dragon Tiger Gate, Flash Point, and Ip Man have really showcased a much more versatile Donnie Yen.  I’m  thrilled with Donnie’s movies since he stopped being the small, underdeveloped character in American movies–remember Highlander: Endgame? Blade II? Shanghai Knights? Yeah, me neither. As a leading actor in Hong Kong now, I think he’s really found a niche and if Sammo’s career is any indication, I think Donnie’s got a lot of years left to make some excellent martial art films. Sammo was still doing his thing as both actor and action choreographer–his movements were still so sharp and you could tell where he lent his wisdom to the action direction and to the other actors.  He brought out a lot of different martial art styles from the period to showcase and it was fun to watch.

Unfortunately, a majority of the problems laid with the English actors and their overall delivery.  Superintendent Wallace (Charlie Mayer) was a convincing bad guy, who you love to hate throughout the second half of the film, but his delivery felt too contrived. It’s either the villain who can fight or the one who can’t, and he’s the latter.  As for the former, I’m still torn over Darren Shahlavi’s performance as Twister.  On the one hand, I was so pumped to see him as the silly villain type he’s famous for (get Bloodmoon on NetFlix if you haven’t seen it!)–he had the cocky demeanor and it was quite clear he showed up in shape to fight.  But just like his character in Bloodmoon, his acting and delivery were almost laughable when he’s not throwing a punch. His on-screen fighting is top drawer with Sammo and Donnie, but his overacting is evident when he’s outside of the ring.  For a hokey movie, it might have been better received, but this was supposed to be a serious biopic. Knowing I’m never going to see a Bloodmoon sequel, I was okay just watching him duke it out with Sammo and Donnie.  I would’ve also liked to see the kickboxing skills, but I knew they had to stay relevant to the history–however, if they’d taken so many liberties with Ip Man’s life, it wouldn’t have been blasphemy to see Shahlavi throw in some Bloodmoon kicks.

Finally we come to the overall tone of the movie.  This sequel  wanted so desperately to be a story about Ip and teaching Bruce Lee, but there were problems gaining the rights from the Lee family.  So instead, they choose to go the hackneyed route and rehash the theme of the first movie where instead of a Japanese occupation in Foshan, the British are now occupying Hong Kong.  The first Ip Man did an outstanding job of displaying this sentiment while its predecessor wasn’t as convincing.  Ip Man in the movie was also a different man–in the first film, after seeing his fellow Chinese brethren being killed by the Japanese, he unleashes a brutal barrage on ten men at once.  Although outlandish, it was one of the finer points in the film and showed a ferocity that made you want more.  Here, we see an older, maybe wiser Ip, which maybe isn’t such a bad thing. The final fight in the original was amazing and showcased a spectacular bout between Chinese and Japanese martial arts, but this one left you feeling a little unfulfilled.  I’m not saying I wanted Ip to be as brutal to the British as he was to Japanese, but after Hung was killed, I was expecting some  of the same intensity from Donnie’s character in the first film.

Overall, it was a pretty entertaining film.  You’re going to notice that the second half of the film bares a striking resemblance to a movie like Fearless, but nevertheless, I don’t think it takes anything away from it.  At the end of the film, they decide to tease you with the entrance of a young Bruce Lee, who asks Ip for some lessons.  It was a cute added scene where they clearly wanted to make room for a third installment about Bruce training with Ip in his teenage years.  I’d be interested to see where they go with it, but Donnie has already spoken about the possibly of Ip in a third film by saying that Ip’s story has basically already been told. With that little bit, I doubt we’ll see Donnie in the role again, but I think it’s a good choice because you don’t want to beat a dead horse too many times.

If you haven’t already, check out the first Ip Man that’s due out on blu-ray July 27th.  Ip Man 2 website

B-

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – Criterion Collection

benjamin_buttonBenjamin Button, Criterion Collection’s #476, gets released tomorrow both as a two-disc DVD and two-disc Blu-ray.   But a lot of people seem to be up in arms over Mr. Button getting “the Criterion treatment,” mostly because it’s a new movie that hasn’t had a chance to stand the test of time.  Why does it matter?  I love the Criterion Collection and it amazes me how people get pissed when they realize a mainstream movie is being put on the Criterion label.  What’s more, who cares?

David Fincher has proved himself as a director, not to mention the fact Criterion previously released Se7en and The Game on laserdisc the SAME YEAR they came out.  In fact, CC released several laserdiscs that coincided with their release date in the 1990’s, so it seems strange that every time a new film gets picked up by Criterion, people act like such elitists.  These are the same people that praise Robocop and The Royal Tenenbaums for having a Criterion spine number, but turn around and shun the fact that Armageddon and The Rock were also released (okay, they should’ve probably thought that one through more), but the point remains that Criterion has a pretty good track record and they’re eventually going to run out of classic and foreign films. I think there are plenty worse choices than Benjamin Button to complain about.  I’m not saying Criterion hasn’t put out some questionable titles, but I doubt someone could collect their entire catalogue and not be completely satisfied for having such an extensive and important film library.

Also important, Benjamin Button is a pretty damn good movie.  The directing was great, the story and screenplay were excellent, and the acting was far superior to some of the fodder most people go to see at the movie theater on a weekly basis.  I think an important reason CC released Benjamin Button was because of their relationship with directors like Fincher; just like other directors that are still living and have a film on Criterion, most have the label that say “Director Approved” on the packaging. Criterion takes good care of the movies they inherit, so I have faith they’ll do a good job; I bet some of the whiners might even be taken by surprise.

The two-disc Criterion Edition DVD and two-disc Criterion Blu-ray include the following special features:

  • Interviews with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett
  • Audio commentary featuring Academy Award-nominated director David Fincher
  • Never-before-seen footage revealing the innovative techniques behind the Academy Award–winning visual effects and makeup
  • Step-by-step examination of the motion-capture process aging Brad Pitt
  • In-depth exploration of David Fincher’s creative process on the set
  • Interview with acclaimed composer Alexandre Desplat about the score
  • Featurettes on the film’s storyboards, costumes, and Academy Award–winning art direction
  • Stills galleries, including costume design and candid behind-the-scenes production photos
  • Optional French- and Spanish-dubbed soundtracks
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing, and optional French and Spanish subtitles
  • PLUS: An essay by film critic Kent Jones

Based on F Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, the film is an excellent tale with excellent characters who provide an excellent performance.  There aren’t many movies like Benjamin Button, which is probably why Criterion choose it as one of their rare inductees into their elite collection so soon.

order The Curious Case of Benjamin Button:   DVDBlu-ray

B+

Sansho the Bailiff – Criterion Collection

sanshoI’m a big fan of Japanese samurai movies—I collected every one that the Criterion Collection offers so far; The Samurai Trilogy, The Sword of Doom, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Rebel Samurai box set, Ran, etc, etc. I haven’t gotten very into the other film facets of Japanese cinema but I picked up Sansho the Bailiff because I thought it was another epic samurai-period piece.  To my surprise, Sansho was definitely not the movie I thought it was.  This movie brought about an inspiration that very few filmmakers are able to accomplish, but veteran director Kenji Mizoguchi encapsulates all of film’s finest elements on screen.

The same year Akira Kurosawa finished his masterpiece, Seven Samurai, Kenji Mizoguchi released Sansho the Bailiff, which like Seven Samurai was an epic period piece that explored and dissected the depths of the human condition. This movie brought about an inspiration that very few filmmakers are able to accomplish, but Mizoguchi brings with him his directorial wisdom and vision to make the audience part of the film’s experience.

Set in the Heian period (794 – 1185 A.D.), this historical piece (jidai-geki) takes place in an age where Confucianism and many other Chinese influences were at their peak, and because of this saw tremendous contributions within the arts, especially poetry and literature.  Throughout the film, Mizoguchi does an extraordinary job of conveying these sentiments through the dialogue and the emotional hardships Zushio and Anju go through.  Although nothing is explicitly explained to the audience, it becomes painfully evident throughout the film that this is an inescapable tragedy.

The story begins as an honorable governor is forced into exile from his village, but not before making his children promise to remember his teachings of principles and morality.  His wife and children (Zushio and Anju) are sent to live with his brother but several years later they are captured and the children are sold into slavery.  The film then depicts the awful treatment the children are subjected to as they grow up slaves at an estate run by Sansho, a bailiff.  As they grow up, their paths begin to separate more and more—Anju retains her father’s teachings while Zushio represses them, considering only how to survive.  Zushio adopts the nature of the bailiff, void of regret and morals, but his newfound authority leads him only to find that he can’t escape his ultimate fate.

The contrast of the film shows the solitary fate of the mother compared to the brutal nature of the exiled son. In the final scene, the blind mother is only concerned with what happened to her daughter, feeling that her son had died long ago.  Mizoguchi talks to his audience without words—his musical score permeates through difficult scenes while others are filled with the silent ambiance of his masterful storytelling.  What’s more, his long and difficult shots allow you to see the incredible beauty that’s engulfed by symbolism—in Mizoguchi’s case, water seems to be a heavy influence, providing both grief and tranquility.

Mizoguchi proved his mastery of the jidai-geki genre in previous efforts, from The 47 Ronin to Ugetsu, which provides the setting for nearly half of his post-war films.  Dealing with increasing control and censorship in pre-war Japan, Mizoguchi found that a period piece was the only type of film the Japanese would allow him to make.  Experiencing this during the making of The 47 Ronin, Mizoguchi recalls, “We were virtually forced to make it.”

Overall, Sansho shows Mizoguchi as a master auteur, who has a unique vision in storytelling and visuals, but like Kurosawa believed, making a samurai film was not a skill Mizoguchi possessed.  According to Kurosawa, he didn’t understand the Samurai emotion in Ugetsu and The 47 Ronin, citing that 47 Ronin even lacked the vital final samurai battle scene.  Although Kurosawa makes a valid point, their directing styles in samurai period pieces are vastly different.  Mizoguchi seemed more concerned about women in society compared to a Kurosawa continuously focused on his male main characters and their own personal battles, whether external or internal.  While Sansho doesn’t really fit into the classification of a samurai film, I would argue that samurai emotion showed through its characters regardless, starting with the governor’s code of honor, all the way to the tragic final scene of mother and son reunited all too late.

Besides the obvious genius of the film, the way in which Criterion restored this film, as they do with virtually every one, looked marvelous.  Sansho was presented in its original aspect ratio, 1:33:1, which was digitally transferred in high definition—created on a Spirit Datacine from a 35mm fine-grain master positive.  They also cleaned up the image quality by removing dirt and scratches from the print, so watching this on a blu-ray player was really enjoyable, even for a film that was made in 1954.

This picture is a definite must see for any film enthusiast, make sure to enjoy the little nuances that Mizoguchi apparently enjoyed creating, from the score to the acting to the story.  Criterion released this title as spine #386 which comes as one disc, featuring video interviews with critic Tadao Sato, assistant director Tokuzo Tanaka, and actress Kyoko Kagawa on the making of the film, along with a 75 page booklet featuring an essay by Mark Le Fanu and two versions on the story which the movies were based upon—Ogal Mori’s 1915 “Sansho Dayu,” and a written form of an earlier oral variation, in a new English translation.  Invest in this one.

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Sansho the Bailiff – Criterion

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JCVD

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I don’t think I ever stopped enjoying a Jean-Claude Van Damme film.  He was the first action hero that I identified with—in my mind at least.  I missed out on Sly’s Rocky and Rambo and Arnold’s Conan and Terminator in the late 70’s and early 80’s, (don’t worry, I learned of their importance later) but Bloodsport and Kickboxer were movies that I can still remember seeing on the screen.

His first years in film were my favorite—No Retreat No Surrender as a Russian mob thug, a revived Vietnam Vet in Universal Soldier and I even liked The Quest and Double Team with Dennis Rodman…hey, it had awesome one-liners and a halfway decent amount of fighting (some of it was sans Van Damme).  But the point remains that Van Damme was on top of the game for quite awhile, until his bankability sank steadily leading up to Universal Soldier: the Return.  It was meant to be a good idea and Michael Jai White is pretty kickass, but even I, JC’s biggest fan, had finally seen how far he’d fallen.  Drugs, bi-polar disorder, problems with his family and trying to fight Chuck Zito sent JC hitting rock bottom.

But then something miraculous happened—Jean-Claude made JCVD, a movie about his real life, having no money, a fading career, a child custody battle, and all of the ridiculous situations that come along with it.

Van Damme goes back to his home in Brussels for a much-needed break, only to find himself a hostage in a bank heist gone wrong—and due to an unfortunate mistake, the police think he’s the bank robber.  In the end, JC is stripped down to his barest delivering a monologue right into the camera about his life and regrets and it’s there that Van Damme takes control of the film.  JCVD becomes more than an emotional comedy, it becomes crafty film. But Van Damme is tired of being Van Damme, and while everyone from the bank robbers who both worship and taunt him to the public’s love/hate relationship with him, JC just can’t deal.

It’s quick, humorous, and entertaining, but it also delivers a brutal honesty.  You can say this is Van Damme’s Wrestler, proving that not only is he back, but he really can act.  Like Mickey Rourke who played a wrestler way past his prime, Van Damme finds himself close to the edge too—but he realizes it and takes this opportunity to let us know that he’s in on the joke too.

Let’s face it, this isn’t Cyborg, but it’s still awesome.  And Van Damme might have the rejuvenation we’ve all been looking forward to—Universal Soldier 3? Check.

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