Friday, April 29, 2011

Scream 1-4

Scream, Scream 2, Scream 3
last seen online via YouTube


Scream 4

seen @ Jackson Heights Cinemas, Jackson Heights, Queens, NY
4.27.11


SPOILERS FOR SCREAM 4


From the first time I saw the trailer I knew Scream was different from most horror movies. I’m not a big horror movie fan, though there are plenty of them that I like, but I knew enough about the clich├ęs of the genre, especially the slasher flicks, to recognize their subversion in Scream.

The meta-textual elements get lots of discussion, of course, but in re-watching the original, I had forgotten that it’s genuinely scary too. The opening scene with Drew Barrymore sets the stage perfectly. I was grinning at first, speaking familiar lines along with the movie, but by the time she gets whacked I wasn’t grinning. This scene is still as creepy and disturbing as anything Wes Craven has done before or since.

The march of technology in the Scream movies is notable. In the first one, “Ghostface” calls Barrymore on a (cordless) land line telephone, and cellphones are still regarded as new technology. When the police chief questions Billy, he asks why he has a cell at all, as if it was unusual for teenagers to have them! Billy, of course, being a modern American teenager, answers, “Everybody’s got them.”

Personally, I remember seeing Mulder and Scully use them on The X-Files and thinking, well, they’re government agents, of course they need them. So this scene in Scream rings true with my memories of cellphones at this point in time. They weren't quite as ubiquitous as they are today, but they were getting close. And of course, the obscene phone caller-as-killer idea goes at least as far back as films like Black Christmas, which I’m sure Craven was well aware of.


I had forgotten how affluent Woodsboro is. In re-watching Scream, I was a bit shocked at the lavishness of all the homes, something I had never paid attention to in all the times I had watched this film before. I suppose that’s a part of the slasher horror genre too – the notion, never overtly expressed, but there below the surface, that not even the suburbs are safe from deadly violence. The suburbs, for many years, was the source of white flight from the inner city, and sure enough, the Woodsboro residents are almost exclusively white. Now that urban sprawl has proven to be an unsustainable form of growth, we’re seeing many people returning to the cities. Scream 4 doesn't reflect this change in society, but I didn't really think it would.

Scream 2 was entertaining but I didn’t feel like the stakes were sufficiently raised. The motive was simple revenge, as there’s a connection to someone in Scream, but we never got to see that connection; indeed, this connection is only fleetingly mentioned in the first movie, so the revelation kinda feels like an ass-pull, like “Where did that come from?”


I liked the development of Cotton Weary, even if he did come across as an obvious red herring. Specifically, I liked how he felt he was owed a shot at stardom, even if he was falsely accused of murder by Sidney. His obsession with fame reflects a common, and disturbing, trend in society of killers – or anyone who misbehaves in public – becoming media stars. As we’re currently seeing with Charlie Sheen, the media, and by extension the public, are more than willing to reward bad behavior. One can hardly blame Cotton for wanting his fifteen minutes.


Scream 3 is where the franchise really falls apart. The revelation of the killer and that person's relationship to Sidney comes completely out of left field, which is bad enough, but I also wasn't interested in the cannon fodder supporting characters. Their deaths meant nothing to me. Plus, this one is by far the silliest. I mean, Jay and Silent Bob? Really?


By this point three primary characters have emerged - Sidney, Dewey and Gale - and it's become clearly apparent that no matter what they may go through, they'll survive no matter what, and this pattern continued in Scream 4. I have to wonder why, though, especially if 4 is meant to kick-start a new trilogy. We've seen these movies self-referentially explore the horror genre - and by extension, the movies in general - front to back and inside out by now. Isn't it time to shake things up story-wise?

In 4, I would've had Jill kill Sidney
and get away with it. She was setting herself up as the sole survivor, the "final girl" in genre parlance, even though she was also the killer. Why not run with that idea for awhile? That would provide a much better rationale for a fifth movie: the killer as protagonist. We could see, for the first time in the series, how the killer sets up for a kill (which would justify the Peeping Tom reference in 4). And she would play the innocent the whole time, with Dewey being the only one who suspects otherwise. That would've given the series the kick in the pants it needs - a kick that I doubt will come now.

I remember seeing the second movie with Jenny at a theater that's no longer around: the predecessor to the IFC Center in the West Village (whatever its name was). I don't recall how much she liked it. Jenny loves horror movies, but her tastes run more towards cult stuff. Although I do recall watching
Children of the Corn at her house one time and both of us laughing at how silly it was.


I've written about the Jackson before. It seems they've got new management now, although I wonder if it's affected attendance any. The early evening showing I went to didn't even have a dozen people. I got there ten minutes before showtime, but the movie from the previous showtime was still screening. I looked through the window of the doorway to the auditorium and, regrettably, caught a glimpse of Jill holding a knife, clearly addressing Sidney. So while the ending was kind of spoiled for me, at least I didn't know the context of what I fleetingly saw.

I had to wait in the lobby for another 10-15 minutes. At one point some guy who must have been the manager looks at me - the only person in the lobby other than the girl behind the counter popping popcorn - and asks if I need any help. I told him my situation and he said, "Just a few more minutes." I can't recall if this has ever happened to me before. I was tempted to sneak into the adjacent auditorium for a few minutes, where
Rio was showing, but I changed my mind. Thankfully, the previous show declined to roll the closing credits so the next show could start sooner - but they had to throw in a couple of ads first, of course.

The Jackson has hung on for a long time. I fear its best days may be behind it now, but I hope I'm wrong.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

For your consideration

I have to admit, I kinda like the fact that we LAMB bloggers can campaign for the LAMMY Awards in this fashion, as if they were the Oscars (just as long as no one pulls any Weinstein-esque dirty tricks!). Anyway, for all you fellow LAMBs out there, I sincerely hope you'll remember me in your ballots this year. I post consistently, I've been part of the community, and I believe I've got a legitimate shot at a nomination or two, so if you agree, please put me on your ballot, won't you?

The Dark Crystal

The Dark Crystal
last seen online via Youtube
4.26.11

LAMBs in the Director's Chair is an ongoing event in which LAMB bloggers discuss the work and career of a given director. The current subject is
Frank Oz. The complete list of posts for this event will go up May 2-3 at the LAMB site.

I almost wish I hadn't re-watched The Dark Crystal. It had been years since I had seen this movie, and initially I was excited about seeing it again because I fondly remember how much I loved it as a kid. What kid wouldn't love it? A magical alien world, an epic quest, a wide variety of beings, both good and evil, and all created through the muppet magic of Jim Henson and Frank Oz? You can't ask for much more than that. I was already a huge muppet fan; every weeknight I'd faithfully watch The Muppet Show on television, and in my mind, they were (and still are) as real as my closest friends. So a movie like this was tailor-made for me.

Now that I'm grown-up, though, I can't look at Crystal the same way anymore. Watching it last night, I found I couldn't ignore the nagging, unanswered questions: what was the Crystal's original purpose? How did the shard get lost in the first place (and how did it end up in Aughra's possession)? Who wrote the prophecy of a gelfling being the one to restore the Crystal? And why a gelfling anyway? Why didn't the Mystics do anything to stop the Skeksis wiping out all the gelflings? And on and on.

I know, I know, I'm not supposed to wonder about stuff like that, but I can't help it. It's easy to think that anything is possible in a fantasy setting, and I suppose that's true, but in movies like this, sometimes it feels like the plot dictates what the characters can and can't do. The audience needs an exposition dump? Have Jen and Kira read each other's minds when they first touch! Jen and Kira are trapped on a ledge with nowhere to go? It's okay - Kira can grow wings! I don't wanna sound like I'm dumping on this movie, though. It's visually spectacular and genuinely fun to watch once you get caught up in it all.

When it comes to muppets, I've always been a little leery of wanting to know too much about their creation, because like I said, characters like Kermit and Fozzie and Miss Piggy are real to me and always have been. Still, I've always recognized the work Henson, Oz, and others have put into them. As I watched Crystal, I thought of Avatar for a moment and wondered whether a CGI fantasy land is that much superior to one created out of latex and plastic. It seems to me that the latter can compete very well with the former. Perhaps modern audiences have perhaps lost their taste for it? That would be unfortunate if it were true.

So I have to say something about Oz as a director, but I can't think of too much to say. Besides Crystal (which he co-directed with Henson), I've seen The Muppets Take Manhattan, Little Shop of Horrors (1986), What About Bob?, In and Out, and Bowfinger, and while he's obviously great at mixing real actors with muppetry, his non-muppet movies are kinda meh. They're okay (Bowfinger in particular was better than I expected), but none of them are the kind of movies I'd want to own so I could watch them again and again. Still, it's good that Oz was able to spin out a directing career of his own.

----------------------
Previously in LAMBS in the Director's Chair:

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Gibson speaks

I’ve never treated anyone badly or in a discriminatory way based on their gender, race, religion or sexuality -- period. I don’t blame some people for thinking that though, from the garbage they heard on those leaked tapes, which have been edited. You have to put it all in the proper context of being in an irrationally, heated discussion at the height of a breakdown, trying to get out of a really unhealthy relationship. It’s one terribly, awful moment in time, said to one person, in the span of one day and doesn’t represent what I truly believe or how I’ve treated people my entire life.
I'm still trying to formulate an opinion on all of this, but here's what I've got so far: on the one hand, I do feel a certain amount of pity for Mel Gibson. He had no way of knowing that not only would his ex record their conversation, but that it would go public. And if this were an isolated incident, I might consider giving him the benefit of the doubt when he says that the things he said did not reflect how he really feels. But this is hardly an isolated incident, is it?

Still, I'm certainly not gonna sit in judgment over Gibson. Does he make me feel uncomfortable? Of course. Right now I'm not sure if I could be in the same room with him for long. The man clearly has issues that he's still in the process of working out, however, and I believe him when he says he could walk away from acting. What does acting matter to him now when he's got a family to look after?

As for The Beaver, the more I think about it the more I keep returning to Jodie Foster. She's stood by Gibson throughout this whole ordeal, which is remarkable in itself. But also, given her recent comments about how difficult it truly is to be a woman director in Hollywood, I feel more certain that she, not Gibson, is the reason I will see the movie.

So what do you make of Gibson's interview?

Monday, April 25, 2011

S.O.B.

S.O.B.
seen online via YouTube
4.24.11

Ever since Blake Edwards died late last year, I'd been meaning to take a closer look at his filmography. First of all, I'll admit to having a deliberate blind spot for Breakfast at Tiffany's. As much as I would like to be able to enjoy that movie on its own merits, I can't get past Mickey Rooney's character and I doubt I ever will. Whatever. I don't feel like I'm missing a great deal.

I haven't seen all of the Pink Panther movies, but I've seen enough to know and like them. You can't go wrong with Peter Sellers, and that also includes The Party (my friend Steve, who I used to work video retail with, loves that movie). The Days of Wine and Roses is mighty tough to watch, but it's one of Jack Lemmon's best performances. My father loved this movie too.

I vaguely remember as a kid seeing TV ads for 10 and Victor/Victoria and thinking that they must be really raunchy. I was, of course, way too young to see these movies and my parents would've never taken me to them, so all I could do was wonder. I certainly recall how popular 10 was, and how big a pop culture sensation it was. I had a general impression of what it meant to be a "10," but again, I associated it with the adult world and thus it was far beyond my reach. And I certainly couldn't make heads or tails of the gender-bending of Victor/Victoria. One day I'll have to watch both of these movies and see how they match up with my childhood impressions.

S.O.B., according to what I've read, is semi-autobiographical, inspired by the commercial failure of Edwards' film Darling Lili. We see lots of big-budget films flop at the box office, but we rarely see how they affect the filmmakers. Watching this, I was reminded of the recent travails of one of my favorite contemporary directors, Kevin Smith. While few of his films have been huge successes, they've been profitable enough for him to have a devoted following, and while he's never been a stranger to controversy with his films, he continued to persevere.

In 2010, Smith released Cop Out, a big-budget action-comedy, one he didn't write, and one fraught with tension between him and star Bruce Willis. It bombed spectacularly, and Smith lashed out at the critics as a result. Now, he's taken an entirely different approach with his forthcoming film Red State. Like Edwards' stand-in character Felix Farmer in S.O.B., Smith bought his own film, in part as an act of defiance against the studio system which he felt failed him. Smith will self-distribute Red State, on the strength of a recently-concluded roadshow which earned his film's budget back. An unusual set of circumstances, but one precipitated - like the events in S.O.B. - by a box office bomb.

It takes resiliency to not only rebound from a public misfire, but to have it inspire one's future work, and I give Edwards credit for that. While I thought S.O.B. ran a little too long, it was funny, and seeing Julie Andrews topless certainly didn't hurt either!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Soundtrack Saturday: The James Bond movies


I've never been a huge Bond fan, but how can you not love the theme songs? Here are three of my favorites. The videos are the opening credits from their respective films.

Tom Jones, "Thunderball"

Sheena Easton, "For Your Eyes Only"


Chris Cornell, "You Know My Name" (from Casino Royale)

Friday, April 22, 2011

Game of Death


It's Everybody Was Kung-Fu Fighting Week! All this week we'll look at some notable martial arts films, from the ridiculous to the sublime.
Game of Death
seen online via YouTube
4.21.11

And now, five fun facts about Bruce Lee, courtesy of Wikipedia:

1. Young Bruce was a street fighter while growing up in Hong Kong. Gang violence was everywhere, and he was getting quickly caught up in it by the time his father decided Bruce needed to learn martial arts.

2. He taught martial arts in Seattle, opening his own school where he taught his version of the Wing Chun style, which he first learned at the age of 13.

3. The Green Hornet was called "The Kato Show" in Hong Kong because of Lee's immense popularity there. Lee was a child star in a number of short black-and-white films thanks to his opera star father.

4. Lee is believed to have been an atheist. He was influenced by Eastern religions, including Taoism and Buddhism, and read many books on martial arts and fighting philosophy, but he is quoted as having said, "All types of knowledge ultimately leads to self-knowledge."

5. Game of Death was originally conceived in 1972, but production on it stopped when Warner Brothers offered Lee Enter the Dragon. After Lee's death in 1973, the film was completed with stunt doubles and released in 1978, but only fifteen minutes of the real Lee was used.

I did not know that this was Lee's last film, nor did I know that it had so little of him in it. If I did, I would've watched a different movie of his. Still, it certainly has its moments - a fight with Chuck Norris in the beginning, a fight with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar towards the end (the main appeal for me). I knew something was up with this movie by the many ways in which Lee's character's face was either obscured or disguised. For a moment, I thought I was watching Dark Passage again! I noted the Bond-like opening credits and John Barry music; turns out George Lazenby was going to be in the original version. The final sequence, where Lee ascends a pagoda and fights a different guardian at each level, struck me as being a lot like a video game, though I doubt that this was meant to be the "game" implied in the title.

I think I'll hold off talking further about Lee for now, since we don't really get to see him in all his glory in this movie. Perhaps I'll watch a different Lee movie later on.

----------------

Previously in Kung-Fu Week:
Drunken Master
The Last Dragon
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon


It's Everybody Was Kung-Fu Fighting Week! All this week we'll look at some notable martial arts films, from the ridiculous to the sublime.

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon
from my DVD collection
4.20.11

The first time I saw Michelle Yeoh was actually at a kung fu festival. This would've been sometime around 1996-97, I think. Cinema Village, a tiny little theater in the heart of Greenwich Village, was showing a bunch of martial arts films around the Christmas season. I've been to Cinema Village a few times; they show lots of foreign films. Anyway, "A Kung Fu Christmas" was still going on when Jenny and me, along with our mutual friend Abby, went there on New Year's Eve to catch a doubleheader of Asian films featuring this female action star I'd never heard of. It was Abby's idea; she was a fan. It was an unusual way to spend New Year's Eve, but I was game.

I'm not sure what the two films were - looking over Yeoh's IMDB page, I'm pretty sure one of them was Wing Chun, and the other may have been Supercop. I thought the movies were alright, although to be honest, I was beginning to doze off a bit later in the evening and I was kinda looking ahead to midnight, so I was distracted towards the end and ended up not paying as much attention.

So Yeoh eventually came over to America and became a Bond girl, appearing in Tomorrow Never Dies. I saw it on video. I was impressed with her stunts, and I thought it was really cool to see a woman be an action hero, but I still didn't get a full appreciation of her. If I had seen her films to that point under better circumstances - especially if I had seen them on a big screen (the Cinema Village screens aren't exactly wide) - I might've gotten more excited by her, but I wasn't.

Then I saw Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. I believe I saw it at the Regal Cinemas E-Walk in Times Square, so it was definitely a wide screen. It was opening weekend, and not late at night, so the circumstances were perfect. From the first time I saw her on the screen, my entire perception of Yeoh changed. For one thing, seeing her face larger than life and close-up, I noticed for the first time how utterly beautiful she was (and is!). I couldn't take my eyes off of her, and she hadn't even done anything yet other than talk with Chow Yun-Fat. There have been plenty of female movie stars, past and present, that I've been hot for, but there are few who have left me as smitten as Yeoh. Certainly part of it was her character, but it was something about her beauty that left me gobsmacked. Still does too.

Oh, and then she starts to fight. And boy, can she fight! Re-watching Tiger on DVD last night, her fights still left me breathless, both hand-to-hand and with swords. Seeing it for the first time, it was like nothing I'd ever seen before - and not just because of the wire work that had everybody floating and leaping great bounds. Tiger was the movie that finally made me sit up and take notice of Yeoh as an all-around movie star.

Last night I watched Tiger with the audio commentary from director Ang Lee and executive producer/co-writer James Schamus for the first time. Among the many things they talked about was Lee's approach to making a kung fu movie for the first time, as well as his ideas about the sub-genre in general. They noted that because Tiger is a period piece set in an Eastern culture, there was a huge challenge in trying to make this movie appeal to modern, Western audiences. As a result, the screenplay had to take some liberties with the time period. There's a lot of talking about feelings, for example, something one would not see in an Asian movie like this and certainly not something that the Chinese of this time period (the 19th century) would do.

Lee compared kung fu movies to musicals, where "anything goes in broad strokes." He acknowledges that he took risks, storytelling-wise, such as the long flashback sequence with Jen and Lo in the desert, or even the simple fact of devoting as much time to drama as to fights, something, he said, that's unusual in most kung fu movies. He said a good fight scene can take months to film.

Lee also talked about the master and student relationship in kung fu movies, which is an important recurring element in Tiger. Jen is Jade Fox's protege, but she learns stuff outside of Jade Fox's realm of expertise, and a big deal is made of how Jen is capable of surpassing her mentor. According to Lee, normally a student is not supposed to surpass their master. There's always a little bit of knowledge that the master keeps to him- or herself.

I admit, even with all of this new information, there are aspects of Tiger that I still don't fully grok, but the more I watch it, the more I'm able to gleam tiny bits of understanding from it. Lee also said that for all of the kung fu conventions that it subverts, there are plenty that it retains as well. Indeed, Tiger is eminently re-watchable in part because Lee approached the fight scenes as an extension of character. Add the love-story element and an outstanding score and you've got one hell of a movie.

-----------------

Previously in Kung-Fu Week:
Drunken Master
The Last Dragon

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Last Dragon


It's Everybody Was Kung-Fu Fighting Week! All this week we'll look at some notable martial arts films, from the ridiculous to the sublime.

The Last Dragon
seen online via YouTube
4.19.11

I vaguely remember seeing The Last Dragon as a kid and I don't think I was all that impressed with it then either. Still, at least it has some camp value. It's produced by Motown impresario Berry Gordy, so the whole thing looks like one big music video, but I wouldn't call it a musical despite the many cheap excuses to insert songs throughout the film. It's also a love letter to Bruce Lee (who we'll look at later this week) to the point where he probably should've gotten credit as a cast member. This movie screams 80s: arcades, day-glo colors, breaking and popping, synth-heavy music - it's embarrassing and yet amusing at the same time.

I knew I wanted to watch one black martial arts movie, and I almost went with Jim Kelly in Black Belt Jones. When I saw this, though, I guess it was my not-even-half-formed memories of it that made me want to see if it was anywhere near as good as I remembered (and like I said, I didn't remember it being all that good anyway). What can I say? I'm a child of the 80s. And besides, I didn't want everything I watched this week to be serious.

Dragon actually reminded me of a completely different movie - Breakin'. They're both very 80s-glitzy, sanitized, Hollywood-friendly versions of sub-genres that have grittier roots. Actually, Dragon has a bit more profanity than I remembered, but between all the little kids who get involved in the big fight at the end, and Taimak's character's virginal innocence and his chaste "romance" with Vanity, it seems as if the filmmakers were trying to appeal to a wide audience.

If Sam Jackson really wants to remake this, as has been reported, he can only improve on it, though I kinda like the idea of having a bad guy dressed like a Klingon in a traveling Star Trek roadshow - again, for purely camp value. But do we really want a grim 'n' gritty, gangster rap, Dark Knight version, like we'd probably end up with? I don't know.

I don't have too much more to say about this, though at some point down the line perhaps I will watch Black Belt Jones after all. Oh! Almost forgot - I was shocked to see a young(er) William H. Macy in a single scene early in the film. That alone made this entire movie worth re-watching!

-----------------

Previously in Kung-Fu Week:
Drunken Master

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

'The Help' and black literature

...I confess I put the book down very early on because I couldn't get past a black maid carrying on about how much she loved the white children she was raising. (And, yes, novelist jealousy might have had a little something to do with it too.)

For the record, I believe all writers have the right to tell stories about people different from them. But I believe part of the reason this book did so well was because the author was white. I have a hard time imagining the word of mouth would have been as great if the author were black. If only because if the author were black, most of y'all wouldn't have even been told about the book.
So the trailer for the upcoming film The Help, based on the hugely successful novel by Kathryn Stockett, has dropped, and I'm sitting here trying not to judge it. At this stage, my gut reaction is "Blind Side 2" - sympathetic Southern white woman helps uplift poor colored folk. I don't think people fully realize how surprising, and yes, game-changing, the success of The Blind Side was. It certainly helped make this movie possible. I don't wanna get into that aspect of The Help, though, at least not now.

I wanna address the preceding quote, because I believe there's a lot of truth in it. It comes from author Carleen Brice, a black woman, who runs a wonderful blog called White Readers Meet Black Authors, in which she tries to expand the potential readership for black books beyond other black people. Carleen's perspective on this is invaluable (full disclosure: I've written for her blog and she's a Facebook friend of mine). Her first novel, Orange Mint and Honey, was turned into a Lifetime movie called Sins of the Mother, starring singer Jill Scott. While this makes for an exceptional debut as a writer, especially a black writer, there are many more examples of books by black authors that struggle mightily for recognition.

So along comes this book by a non-black author, which is deeply rooted in the black experience, and it becomes a runaway smash hit which quickly gets scooped up by Hollywood and made into a major motion picture (and probable Oscar contender). I think it's a perfectly fair question to ask: if The Help had been written by a black author, would we see the same level of success?

I strongly suspect not. Look around Carleen's blog and I guarantee you'll find many black books that, while they may be critically acclaimed and have a strong fanbase, you won't find in your local Borders. And I'm not even talking about the ghetto-lit wave of books that has taken off in recent years (an entirely different subject in itself); I mean romances and dramas and sci-fi and mysteries and a whole diverse world of black lit that flies under the radar of most mainstream bookstores.

In the same post, Carleen has a review of The Help from another black author, Trisha R. Thomas, who liked the book. At this stage I think I'm gonna wait until after seeing the movie before I read it myself, because I also agree with Carleen in that reaching outside one's own experiences to write about others' is what makes for good literature.

I also want to follow Carleen's example and recommend some black books that anybody can read. There are two I discovered directly from her blog: Sugar, by Bernice McFadden, and Wench, by Dolen Perkins-Valdez, the latter of which is comparable to The Help. And an author I've long admired is the late great Bebe Moore Campbell. Try any of her books; you'll find much in them to treasure.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Drunken Master


It's Everybody Was Kung-Fu Fighting Week! All this week we'll look at some notable martial arts films, from the ridiculous to the sublime.

Drunken Master
seen online via Crackle
4.17.11

Bibi and Eric actually have a cat named Jackie Chan. It's one of three cats they own - they're huge cat lovers. One of the cats (I'm not sure if it's JC or not) loves to bat away balls of paper whenever you throw one at him, and he can do this fifteen, twenty times in a row. It amuses Bibi and Eric to no end.

One of the many awesome things about old Asian kung fu movies is that everybody knows kung fu in them. You can be some old woman who only appears for a couple of scenes, or a funny-looking comedy relief character, or even a fat dude, it doesn't matter - everybody in a kung fu movie knows kung fu and has the potential to kick your ass if you're not careful. It's hilarious and amazing at the same time.

I was never that much into them, but sometimes I'd watch one if it was on TV on a Saturday afternoon, back when local TV stations still played Saturday afternoon movies. I talked recently about dubbing versus subtitles in foreign movies and I briefly mentioned martial arts movies as an argument against dubbing in general. However, here in America, an entire generation grew up with dubbing in these films (not to mention Asian monster movies), and for us, it's part of their charm. In recent years, younger generations who have become more familiar with Asian culture thanks to anime and horror films have come to demand a higher standard - for instance, I watched Kamikaze Girls subtitled, not dubbed - but for me, and others like me I suspect, watching an old martial arts film subtitled seems wrong somehow.

That's why I was so happy to watch the Jackie Chan classic Drunken Master dubbed. I'd seen one or two of Chan's Asian films before, so I had an idea of what to expect with this. I still remember when he was being touted as The Next Big Thing in the 90s. I wasn't that impressed with his first starring role in an American film, Rumble in the Bronx, but I did like him - and in watching Drunken Master last night, I remembered why.

Chan is as serious a martial arts master as Bruce Lee, Michelle Yeoh, Jet Li, or any of them, but the comedic element he brings to his fighting style is breathtaking in its elaborateness. I love the way he'll take an object, any object, and balance it, play with it, or use it as a weapon or a shield in the middle of a fight. And his fights take on a level of slapstick that rivals the Three Stooges. While this was a fun movie, I thought it was a little too cartoonish at times. I prefer the humor when it comes from the characters and their personalities, like the early scene when Chan is trying to get a girl to kiss him, and not when it's punctuated with silly sound effects.

The term "over the top" doesn't seem to exist within the Chan oeuvre, but for the most part, that's okay if it means fights like the ones in this movie, of which there are many. That's another great thing about old kung fu movies - they never, ever forget what it is the people pay to see! Plus, it's such a nice change to see a fight filmed in such a way that you can actually follow what's going on, without a bunch of extraneous cuts or peculiar camera angles.

So where would you rank Chan amongst the all-time martial arts movie stars? I'm inclined to put him at number two, right below Bruce, despite the many crappy Hollywood movies he's made.

Friday, April 15, 2011

X-Men

X-Men
first seen in New York, NY
2000

At some point in my childhood after I started reading superhero comics, I decided I wanted to make some of my own. I don't recall what exactly led to the decision. I had developed a keen interest in drawing for awhile, and I suppose I simply needed an outlet for it that was different from the usual art class material. I would've been around eight or nine, I think. Maybe even younger than that. But one day, I grabbed a stack of blank pages and my colored pencils and went to work.

Needless to say, these early self-published comics were highly, almost embarrassingly derivative of the Marvel comics I was reading and the Saturday morning cartoons I was watching. (Hanna-Barbera's World of Super Adventure was a definite influence. I used to think that show was the greatest thing ever.) I didn't know anything about making comics, but I had figured it out from reading enough of them, even if I couldn't articulate it: one image follows the next in sequence, dialogue goes in little bubbles with a pointer aimed at whoever's talking, good guys fight the bad guys and win every time. What more did I need to know?

Eventually, though, I realized that I wanted my characters to look more like the ones in the comics. So I put more of an effort into my drawing, and I figured that the only way to get my work to look like the comics was to practice copying the images in them. I could've traced them, but I thought it was more important to copy them by eye - and the one I remember doing it the most with was Uncanny X-Men.


Fantastic Four was my favorite comic, and it had the best artwork, in my opinion, but everyone wore the same outfit, and I wanted to be able to draw different costumes. Plus, the characters in X-Men were so very unique looking: Wolverine with his claws and hairy arms, Colossus with his steel skin, Nightcrawler with his tail and three-fingered hands. I copied images from other comics, but I liked trying to draw the X-Men the best.

I got older and my drawing improved. I went to an art high school and an art college and I learned how to draw figures better. I got back into comics in college after a brief hiatus. A few of my comics-making friends were getting work at Marvel and DC. I wanted to as well, so once again I went back to my old comics and made a greater effort to draw like the pros do. I drew some sample pages with the X-Men again, along with other Marvel heroes, and went to comics conventions in New York to show them to critiquing editors and artists. I was gently encouraged to continue drawing, but was not offered any contracts.

Then I chose to self-publish my own comics, which I thought would make good training for when I eventually broke into the business. Long story short, my work went through some more evolution, from a standard superhero style to something much more individualistic and expressionistic, and I learned that this was not a bad thing. In fact, one could do quite well for oneself in comics with a drawing style that didn't look like it came from a superhero comic.


By the time the X-Men movie came out, I had fully embraced my new style and had made a few comics with it, both alone and in collaboration with others, and received positive feedback. I was no longer interested in drawing for Marvel or DC either. Self-publishing comics was no longer a means to an end - it was an end in itself. I was still reading superhero comics, of course, and I eagerly went to see the X-Men movie like everyone else, but I was also interested in the wider range of subject matter to be found beyond superheroes.

Now I've taken another hiatus from comics, and I don't read X-Men or any other new stuff anymore, but I still remember the care and patience I took in trying to draw like those old X-Men comics, and how much superheroes in general meant to me once upon a time.

------------------
Related:

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Pawnbroker

The Pawnbroker
last seen online via YouTube
4.12.11

I find it hard to believe that Sidney Lumet has died without winning the Oscar for Best Director, but it's true. 1958: David Lean wins for Bridge on the River Kwai. As great as 12 Angry Men was (and is), it was his first movie and he wasn't gonna beat Lean. 1976: Milos Forman steamrolls over the competition with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. I don't think anybody else had a chance that year, not even Lumet with Dog Day Afternoon.

I think his best shot for the Oscar might have been in 1977 with Network. That was the year of Rocky, where director John Avildsen took home Best Director, but look who else was nominated: the legendary Ingmar Bergman, Alan J. Pakula for All the President's Men, and the first-ever woman nominee, Lina Wertmuller. (Martin Scorsese is cruelly shut out for Taxi Driver.) Network also won Actor, Supporting Actress and Original Screenplay, but Rocky was the feel-good underdog movie, and ultimately, as challenging and powerful as Network was (and is), from the Academy's perspective it was a bitterly cynical drama that ends on a down note. (Historically speaking, this was a fascinating year for Oscar.)

Some of my father's favorite films were by Lumet, including 12 Angry Men and the film I watched last night, The Pawnbroker. It was him who first told me about it, and I found myself thinking about him quite a bit as I watched it. Like me, he really dug hard-hitting dramas that speak to the times we live in, and The Pawnbroker, with its themes of race and class, was right up his alley. He would've definitely appreciated the multi-ethnic cast. He was a social worker, and I suspect he probably dealt with many people like those who come into Rod Steiger's character's pawn shop. I could even imagine him walking the Harlem streets, since there are a number of great location shots. I would've liked to have watched this with him.

The editing is intense at times. The flashbacks to Steiger's past in a Nazi concentration camp come in an almost strobe-like fashion, in micro-second cuts that intrude on the present with a disturbing intensity. But then, that's the point of them.

I haven't even mentioned other stuff like Serpico, Fail Safe, The Verdict, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, even The Wiz! Lumet was as much a New York-themed director as Scorsese or Allen. He was awesome... but I'm still kinda mad that he never won Best Director.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Thank you, Alamo Drafthouse, for giving a damn


...If there is a loud group of patrons in the theater disrupting the show, a customer can raise an order card to alert staff to the problem. The complaint is delivered right away to management who then comes into the theater to listen and identify the talkers. If they hear talking, they issue a warning, something to the effect of “we have had complaints from the other customers, if we receive one more complaint, we will have to ask you to leave.” If there is a second complaint, the manager again enters the theater and waits to hear talking. If they do hear talking again from the same group, we kick them out. That’s been the system for a long time, and we have quieted and/or kicked out hundreds of groups over the years for being disruptive.
Upon reflection of our failure to quiet the group of talkers on last Friday, however, I am hereby changing the policy company-wide.
A few weeks ago I offered some suggestions for improving the movie theater experience, and look at this - a little over a week later comes this statement from the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, who not only already has a policy against excessive talking in the theater (which presumably would also include cellphone use, as I wrote about), but they plan to improve on it. I've never been to Austin, but I hope to go one day just so I can see a movie at one of their wonderful theaters.
This comes at around the same time as the news that the studios are interested in capitalizing on the video-on-demand system by offering first-run films a mere 60 days after their theatrical release. Naturally, the theater owners (and some filmmakers) are less than thrilled at the prospect. They should be. This is nothing more than a cash grab by the studios that does not address the fundamental problems I discussed weeks ago - problems that, as we see, can be overcome with just a little bit of care and attention.
I've said that if I had the option, I'd probably watch a first-run movie in the comfort of my own home with all the tricked-out extras... but I would not want to do it all the time! Especially not if there were more theaters like the Drafthouse around who are willing to go the extra length to ensure a great night out at the movies. This proposed VOD program would cut into the livelihood of the first-run theaters, so it's good to know that the theaters are fighting back, but the Drafthouse's example proves that there's still more that they can and should do.
Thoughts?
Update 4.13.11: Proving once again that great minds think alike, here's another post addressing the moviegoing experience, questioning whether or not it's even necessary.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Meek's Cutoff

Meek's Cutoff
seen @ Film Forum, New York, NY
4.10.11

Meek's Cutoff invites some comparisons to True Grit (either one): old, scruffy, morally-questionable dude undertakes a mission of great importance on behalf of (and in the company of) tough frontier woman, one that takes them through the untamed wilderness of the old West. My main interest in this movie was Michelle Williams, whom I love, but I was also impressed with Bruce Greenwood. As long as we're making comparisons with True Grit, I thought Jeff Bridges' performance was a little overpraised. Rooster Cogburn is supposed to be somewhat loutish and even disreputable, but I thought he pushed it too far in that direction for most (but not all) of the movie. Here, Greenwood's Stephen Meek feels less like a parody and more like a proper badass anti-hero. I loved the constant tension between him and Williams; it served as a reminder that she and the rest of the wagon train were putting their trust in this man who may not be entirely reliable. Also, you can actually understand what he says!

I was pleasantly surprised to see that this was an original screenplay, though not by director Kelly Reichardt (whom I'd like to see more of, after this and Wendy and Lucy). She had a great eye for detail, not only with the period costumes and props, but with getting the cast to do the little everyday things that the people in a wagon train would have to do to survive and actually showing them. There's one scene that lingers on Williams loading a shotgun and firing it, and you see the process of filling it with powder, stuffing it down the barrel, locking and loading it, taking aim and firing. Meek, like many recent Westerns, de-glamorizes the genre to a great extent. Reichardt didn't even shoot it in widescreen; the very opposite, in fact. The frame is very small, restricting those sweeping, panoramic vistas we've come to expect from Westerns and providing a much different feel.


Quiet movies like this, with a very minimal score and lots of ambient sound, really test the audience you see it with. You trust them to be as quiet and attentive as they can and you hope they don't blow it (things like the occasional cough or sneeze are acceptable, of course). This opening weekend crowd was fine, although the woman next to me simply had to check her smart phone twice. She didn't talk on it, just fiddled with the screen for a minute or so before putting it away again. A third time and I would've told her to put it away, but fortunately there was no third time.

A few words about the Film Forum: I like the place a lot, but I hate the huge pillars in the auditoriums. You have to be careful where you sit, because in some places the pillars obstruct the screen. The backs of the seats all have small plaques dedicated to a financial donor, I would imagine, since the Forum is a non-profit cinema. I always wonder whether a certain donor would want to sit in his or her "seat" whenever they come down there for a film. Before the movie began, they played a bunch of Western-type music, which I thought was a great touch. There was some Morricone-sounding spaghetti Western score, "Don't Fence Me In," "Ghost Riders in the Sky," some other Western scores, stuff like that. And in the lobby they had a couple of mannequins with costumes from the film.

The Forum's popcorn has a great reputation, but I thought I'd try something different to eat: I had a slice of chocolate orange bundt cake. It wasn't bad; it was thick and sumptuous, and lasted quite awhile for a relatively small slice. Actually, I'm just now reminded of the last time I went to visit my pals Bibi and Eric and Bibi tried to make a chocolate orange bundt cake. She fussed over it for a long while, and while the result was alright, I liked the Forum's version better.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Spider-Man

Spider-Man
first seen @ UA Union Square Stadium 14, New York NY
2002

When I was a kid, I'd get my comics from a magazine store. I still remember it, too, though I'm pretty sure it's no longer there. It was several blocks south of my junior high school, a small shop which sold cigarettes, candy, soda, and all along one side, magazines and comics. Often times I went there after school, but mostly I went whenever I felt like it. I'd go in, peruse the selection carefully, and happily pay for the ones I wanted most. I didn't time my visits to the new-release day; I went there so often it didn't matter when new releases came in. I could count on my favorite comics being there. In fact, the first comic I remember buying was in a magazine shop - a different one than this, though.

Then, I discovered comic shops. Every Saturday, my father would drive me to this place out in Bayside and I'd go through their new releases. (I wish I could recall how I discovered the place; I might've passed by it one day while going to summer day camp or something.) Shopping in a place devoted exclusively to comics was a very different experience. It felt like I was in a store that was made for me, that catered to my specific tastes, providing me not only with comics I wanted, but comics I didn't know existed.

Comic shops were a vital element in the growth of the comics industry in the 80s and early 90s, but by catering more towards the comic shop audience - the hardcore adult fans who dutifully dropped in every Wednesday for the new releases - and less towards the casual readers, including parents and little children, the industry suffered a major economic downturn in the mid-90s. As a result, many comic shops closed, and the market for comics contracted significantly.

When Hollywood took a renewed interest in making movies based on comics, beginning with the surprise hit Blade and continuing with the blockbuster X-Men, the industry responded to the resurgence in comics' popularity with an annual promotional event called Free Comic Book Day, in which comic shops made a concerted push towards attracting new readers, especially kids, by giving away special edition comics. And what better time to hold the first FCBD, the reasoning went, than the day after the release of the long-awaited Spider-Man film?

On FCBD, I brought my friend Lysa and her son to Forbidden Planet in Manhattan, across the street from the theater where I saw Spider-Man the previous day. I met Lysa several years ago when we were both in an acting class. She actually aspired to be a filmmaker, but wanted to experience what it was like on the other side of the camera as well. We kept in touch long after the class ended, as much as her growing family would allow. I knew her son, who was about 6-8 years old at the time I think, liked comics, so I figured inviting them to FCBD was perfect. They were exactly the sort of people the event was catering to.

I had written about the experience, but unfortunately, I don't recall everything I said about it. I do recall that Lysa ended up getting something Spider-Man-related for her son. I tried to turn her on to some of my favorite comics at the time, but she wouldn't bite. Still, I think she dug the whole scene. There were certainly a great deal more kids in the store, and it definitely had a festive atmosphere - generated in large part, from the movie, which most people loved, including me.

These days, digital distribution has meant one no longer has to exclusively depend on the comic shop or even the magazine store to find the comics they like, as I did all those years ago. But for me, the comic shop has always represented a haven for like-minded fans to meet and discuss their favorite books and creators. Unfortunately, for years, many shops have presented an unwelcoming atmosphere for casual readers and parents due to a boys-club mentality that can be pervasive and off-putting to the uninitiated, particularly women. In the almost-year I worked in a comic shop, I did my best to reverse that trend, though that's a tale for another time.

I think comic shops, at least the ones I've been to in New York and Columbus, have gotten smarter. They know that in order to survive, they need to cater to a wider audience, not just the fanboys, and as long as they maintain that attitude, they should do alright.

-------------------
Related: