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Fists of Fury

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**½

The first two rules of the Grinnell College Eastern Film Society:

1. Don’t pull a weapon on Bruce Lee and he won’t take your weapon away and use it on you.
2. Don’t hurt members of his family.

The villains in this classic break both of those rules, repeatedly. It gets classic status because it is one of the three best Bruce Lee films of all-time. It has one of my favorite lines of all-time: “I’m the smart one!” It is delivered as seriously as anyone can while pointing a thumb at one’s own chest. With writing like that, it is no surprise that they shot it like a blackspoitation film, with acting, gratuitous nudity, sound effects and dubbing to match.

Bruce Lee plays Cheng, who has moved to an island to find work with his relatives, oh and he has given up violence—SPOILER ALERT Bruce Lee eventually returns to violence, with the line, “You know, I broke a promise, never to fight again. HAHAHA!” Hsui Chien—James Tien, who manages to go from angry fighting to smiling greeting at the snap of some fingers—starts with no such limitation preventing him from standing up for the little guys against the corruption on the island. This starts at the factory sending ice down a shoot, but there’s something else than water in the ice! This is a must for any kung fu completist or fan of Bruce Lee.

N.B. This might be hard to believe, but in my gut I feel the following is true. I think that the foreman in the animation studio in the “Clerks the Cartoon” episode where “Bear is driving” was based on the foreman at the ice sliding factory.

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13 Assassins

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****½

Ruling is convenient, but only for rulers.

From the opening shot of this film, you know that it means business. This clear homage to Seven Samurai tries to raise the stakes. Instead of the fate of a village, the fate of the era of peace under the Tokugawa shogunate is at stake. Instead of seven samurai we have twelve—maybe thirteen. As I recall, the samurai in Seven Samurai were a ronin, or masterless samurai. In 13 Assassins there are three ronin, by my count. In both films there are iconic scenes wherein samurai life is harshly critiqued and shown in an unglamorous life. In Seven Samurai that came from the mouth of the esteemed Toshiro Mifune, whereas here Koyata–Yûsuke Iseya–does not mascarade as a samurai, but speaks as a nomadic hunter who deals death with cloth slingshot. Lastly, in Seven Samurai the noble samurai turn the town into a major home field advantage with the aim of driving off about 40-50 bandits. However, in this film the number is greater and the town was to become “a town of death.”

I found it fascinating how that prospect was not horrifying. Or at least it seemed less horrible than particular atrocities committed by Lord Naritsugu—Gorô Inagaki who gave the best performance of the lot. Naritsugu is the half-brother of the shogun and is to become the shogun’s chief advisor within the year. He is also the target of the assassins. His character plays an interesting role in debating the value of human life within the film. I rooted for his death, but he seemed to barely value his own life. Here is an exchange between Naritsugu and his chief advisor, Hanbei:

Lord Naritsugu: [Battle] is magnificent. With death comes gratitude for life. If a man has lived in vain, then how trivial his life is. Oh, Hanbei. Something wonderful has come to my mind.
Hanbei Kitou: Yes?
Lord Naritsugu: Once I’m on the Shogun’s council, let’s bring the age of war.

Entry denied

Hanbei is on the left and Lord Naritsugu is in white.

Lord Naritsugu does not consider himself evil. He is a ruler and does what he wishes because that is his place. He warps samurai logic to calmly explain why he is executing a family, or calls those beneath him “monkeys.” He does so with some small enjoyment, even if he acts without malice. This manifestation of evil was both frightening and powerful.

This is the man, the monster, whom Hanbei has spent much of his life protecting, such is his duty. He knows that the assassins are coming and in fact trained with their leader, Shinzaemon Shimada. Theirs is a battle of duties: the duty of loyalty versus the duty of patriotism. It is not a simple decision for either side to make since once must keep alive a villain who threatens the peace in the country while the other must plot murdering many men in order to assassinate that great threat. Yet the film is  guilty of placing some lives far above others. For each assassin who falls there is about a minute devoted to the death and later a shot of his corpse, on the other hand, many nameless samurai die at their hands with only a slight relief at their passing.

Koyata with his slingAh, the end fight scene. It was epic. With so many samurai to dispatch, there are myriad deaths and ways to create those ends. I question the strategy that Shinzaemon employs, having the high ground and archers and opting for a fairer fight, despite saying “No mercy! There’s no samurai code or fair play in battle! No sword? Use a stick. No stick? Use a rock. No rock? Use your fists and feet! Lose your life, but make the enemy pay!” In the end so, so many pay.

Birds of America

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***½

Some people really like their rules. You don’t get to go around choosing their rules, they do. 

Profundity is risky in film, and it is especially hard to find it in suburbia. The move starts out slow, but after a bit I began to care about the characters. They are a small group comprised of a family of three, two of their wives, and their neighbors. The family centers around Morrie—Friends’s Matthew Perry—who had to raise his younger siblings because his parents died when he was 18. Those siblings are Ida and Jay, played by Ginnifer Goodwin and Ben Foster. It’s an attractive family, but they each have major issues. Morrie’s wife–Lauren Graham–seems like a nice, restrained woman who wants to start a family, but Morrie wants to wait until he has tenure. That lays in the hands of his next door neighbor and his wife—Gary Wilmes and Hilary Swank. They are pretty much suburbanites who play by the boring rules of restraint. So at first it appears that they get along great with Morrie and his wife.

This film has a bit of a juvenile look in the way it is shot and edited, but the performances make it worth watching. Not every character is relatable, or entirely realistic, but perhaps there is more for the neighbors than I noticed in one viewing. In fact, I have pity for those philistines. They care so much about appearances and sounding fun I wonder what their life is behind closed doors with no-one around to impress.

The Shawshank Redemption

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*****

Get busy tanning or get busy frying.

This movie from the developer of the tv show “The Walking Dead,” based on a book by Stephen King, shows the unglamorous life behind bars in a Maine prison back in the middle third of the century. But it’s also about clothing. It must have been cold there, since these prisoners wore jeans. Also of note, every acted like Jeffrey Munn–Dale–was such a great guy in “The Walking Dead,” but no-one talks about how he was the district attorney who wrongfully prosecuted Tim Robbins–Andy Dufresne!

Also, the above quotation is a paraphrase combining something actually said and some good advice for the non-Morgan Freeman characters in the film.

30 for 30: King’s Ransom

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***

I promised my…I wouldn’t do this

Peter Berg’s Kings Ransom tackles the biggest hockey trade in my lifetime. And since I was only five, I do not remember it. I only remember Wayne Gretzky as King and never as a champion. Always “The Great One” but never hoisting the Stanley Cup. This was perfect timing, since I visited the Hockey Hall-of-Fame on Monday in Toronto.

The music and the fast paced editing left a little to be desired, honestly I was nervous that my preconceptions would not get addressed. But eventually whose idea the trade was and his wife’s potential involvement were addressed. It is interesting to see where the rumors came from and the lack of truth behind them.

Black Swan

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***½¹

But we what, Nina? Wait… did you have some sort of lezzy wet dream about me? 

I watched this movie for two reasons: to see Darren Aronofsky’s treatment of ballet, in light of his treatment of professional wrestling, and to see sexy women being sexy. Now I feel that I have been misled. Beyond that though, this movie disgusted me on a physical level.

Disgust is a very strong sensation, but it is not one that cannot be overcome. For instance, in District 9 every scene that involved fingernails made me shriek. Yet I still enjoyed and appreciated that film.

Jumping back in time, when I was 12 years old, I liked ballet and hated pro wrestling. Now, I see them both as very similar endeavors with similarly minded participants. In ballet the men must be extremely strong and the women nothing but muscle and bone. In wrestling the men must look even stronger, shave all their body hair and the women must get fake breasts. Both sacrifice their physical bodies and personal lives in exchange for adulation that expires at a young age. Therein lies the connection between The Wrestler and this movie. However, the prior takes places in our cruel reality, while this is a romance. While this may show the world of ballet, it does not have the same power that the world of wrestling had and I blame the director and the writers for that. Since this was so convoluted I assumed that Aronofsky wrote it, but he did not.

As for the sex appeal, I mentioned how I enjoyed ballet as a kid, but not as much now, that is because I find the undernourished female form to be tragic. Some people may be aroused by tragedy, but not I. This film has two of the most beautiful women on the planet–Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis–but by showing them underweight and injured this was (mostly) not a sexy movie. And I love Vincent Cassel, but he was not sexy in this either. But he is a guy so I guess that is not his fault.

Milas Kunis and Natalie Portman wearing mercifully baggy clothing.

I have decided not to punish this movie for having gone places I want movies to go—mysterious, romantic, fantastic, artistic places—but without working for me. I may have been disappointed, even by Natalie Portman’s performance, but it was still very good. And Mila Kunis was amazing. The movie even certainly elicited a reaction from me, although it was not one of satisfaction or enjoyment. Certainly this is not a movie for everyone—including maybe me.

 

¹I posted this as *** but immediately felt wrong about it.