The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode XIV – Fury World

Ordered by my increasing opinion of them.

Walk Away:

Incidentally, I think the black rhino just went extinct this year.

Robin Williams (Hook), Edward Norton (Moonrise Kingdom), and Catherine Keener (The 40 Year Old Virgin) star in Danny DeVito’s Death to Smoochy (2002). How you could make a black comedy about the seedy underbelly of children’s entertainment so bafflingly unfunny is anyone’s guess. You would think the jokes would write themselves. I remember wanting to see this when it first came out, hearing it was terrible, then hearing it had a cult following and wasn’t that bad. I thought maybe it would be like Ben Stiller’s The Cable Guy, reviled for being so dark but discovering reports of its suckitude were greatly exaggerated upon my own personal viewing. Nope. This is a garish groaner that thinks it’s wackier than it really is. Stick with Matilda or War of the Roses.

Meh/Misguided:

Terry might be the most comically evil character in cinema history.

OK. OK. OK. The Karate Kid, Part III (1989) is in no way anything less than a ludicrous mess of nonsensical garbage piled upon a plate made of lunacy. It’s messages are contradictory. It’s thrills are awkward, comically contrived, and unearned. It’s lead actor (Ralph Macchio) is clearly coked out of his mind. It’s motivations are embarrassingly childish. Yet, all these truly ugly miscalculations make it humorous in the same way we enjoy Troll 2 and The Room.

Get it? It’s eating “Jaws”. It’s a metaphor. You know, symbolism? Darn it all, we are clever bastards. …On another note, how many sharks must they go through a day to feed this thing. Great whites can’t be cheap.

I wanted to like this one. Dinosaur movies are something of a rarity and I was excited to go back to the park. Alas, Jurassic World (2015) is a joyless, candy-painted shot of novacane. It looks colorful, but I felt nothing the whole film. The original Jurassic Park (1993) is a cherished classic, yes, and two of the in-between sequels are sort of okay to varying degrees, but this latest entry feels even more geared toward children and the Marvel superhero audiences. It isn’t the overuse of CGI, either. For me it lacked character, discovery, tension, or genuine thrills (you need character for thrills to register). The best, most highly rendered special-effects in the business can’t save a foundering script or a lack of charisma. Ironically, the film’s central satirical parable of the necessity of upping the ante to awaken jaded audiences produces the blandest entry in this ever diminishing franchise. It’s faster, hammier, cheesier, lazier, stupider, less challenging, and ultimately has trouble forcing the fun. The first Jurassic Park was a milestone of cinema at the time and it was unlike anything audiences had ever seen before. In Jurassic World‘s failed attempts to infuse steroids into the series, its creators have fashioned a movie that looks exactly like all the other sterile, terrible kiddie action movies of the last several years. Instead of being happy it’s less insulting than the Transformers movies, we should be asking for better movies. At least dinosaurs fight each other in it.

Guilty Pleasures:

“I Love Lucy”? Oh, so your parents were talented. I see, Desi, Jr.

Horror legends Vincent Price (House of Wax), Peter Cushing (The Curse of Frankenstein), Christopher Lee (The Wicker Man), and John Carradine (House of Dracula) star in the creaky comedy-horror B-flick The House of Long Shadows (1983). The actors’ ages are showing and you’re worried for their joints every time they lift a pewter goblet and, truth be told, the story is dopey and the script, for the most part, fails at being either comedic or horrific. However, if you’re a fan of the withering cinematic warlocks listed above, you’ll probably enjoy watching them effortlessly outshine both the silly script and Desi Arnaz, Jr.

I’m gonna hijack the Declaration of Independence.

Con Air (1997) is of historical significance if only because it may be the first film Nicolas Cage’s zaniness broke free of its previously Oscar-winning tethers. Donning the worst mullet, worst Southern accent, and worst back-story, Cage and a stuffed bunny board a prison plane full of psycho mutinying inmates (John Malkovich, Ving Rhames, Dave Chappelle, Steve Buscemi, Danny Trejo, and others make up the airborne cast). It’s dumb, loud, and a mostly unintentionally hilarious blast in the spirit of Face/Off. It’s nonstop nuttiness in the guise of a serious action thriller. Also features John Cusack (1408) and Colm Meaney (Get Him to the Greek).

Interestinger and Interestinger:

ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa…

Right after I heard the news of Christopher Lee’s passing I watched Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966). Hammer vixen, Barbara Shelley (Village of the Damned), co-stars in this loose biography of the bizarre Russian mystic who weaseled his way into the last Czarina’s good graces. It may not be the most memorable movie, but it’s got some good moments and Lee gives a fun performance as the titular hypnotizing wacko. Tom Baker (Dr. Who) is still my favorite Rasputin though.

God…all the plaid.

Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt) puts some gorgeous black and white photography to good use in Nebraska (2013). Bruce Dern (Silent Running) and Will Forte (SNL) star as an alcoholic, dementia-addled old man and his good-natured, long-suffering son respectively. Woody Grant (Dern) believes he’s won some prize and demands to go to Omaha to retrieve his cash (everyone else knows it’s all a scam). Reluctantly, his son David (Forte) agrees to take him—if only to ensure the stubborn patriarch’s safety. When Woody starts telling family and locals of his dubious earnings before he’s even collected the nonexistent dough, the small town drama begins…but not without some comical Midwestern moments. It’s pleasant, humorous, and ultimately a tender little film.

They’re just reading about the Rachel Dolezal thing.

This film is timely, intriguing, and—while somewhat high on its own cleverness—raises a lot of good points…if in a smug and sort of pretentious manner. Justin Simien and Adriana Serrano’s Dear White People (2014) is the closest thing we have to a Do the Right Thing for generation-blog. Black, white, and mixed race ivy league students verbally spar over racial privilege and politics. It’s wonderfully cast and hits its points efficiently and does a good job of leaving enough ambiguity for audiences to mull over. And it delivers its messages in a genuinely funny and entertaining way. For a movie dealing with so many hot button issues it’s a wonderfully watchable film.

Beyond Our Borders:

Me and my shadow…

Set in a weird Iranian town called Bad City, Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) is a sumptuously photographed off-beat vampire flick that feels like a slowly creeping dream. It’s dark, doleful, deliberately paced and, while it most assuredly won’t be for everyone, it’s a rich example of inventive horror that explores vampire tropes in ways that rival Let the Right One In or Only Lovers Left Alive. You’ll never look at the ghostly specter of a flowing black burka atop an aimless skateboard the same way again…if you’ve ever seen that before to begin with. Like a lot of offbeat neo-vampire fair, it’s a wry but sexy slow-burn.

Ever see Hogan’s Heroes?

La Grande Illusion (1937) is a classic jailbreak POW movie directed by Jean Renoir (La bête humaine). The story concerns French officers and soldiers being held captive by the Germans during World War I. What sets La Grande Illusion apart is its daringly human portrayal of the enemy. People are people and just happen to be French or German. For a classic war movie, it is almost refreshingly absent of nationalism. It’s rightfully ranked alongside The Great Escape, Stalag 17, and The Bridge On the River Kwai.

Finding Our Way Through the Shadows:

Yup. Looks like traffic court.

Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) adapted a story by Franz Kafka with Anthony Perkins (Psycho) in The Trial  (1962). Shot in Europe, the story unfolds like a subtle nightmare. A man is put on trial, but is never told the charges and he becomes entangled in the fuzzy dream logic of this world’s chaotic legal system. It feels like a trip down the rabbit hole and the cinematography and gritty interiors and landscapes add such strange beauty and texture to this peculiar project that was apparently, like many of Welles’ films, under-appreciated at the time of its release.

The mummy strikes!

Here’s a challenge readily embraced by director Delmer Daves: can you hide your protagonist’s face for the first half of your movie? Better yet, film most of it in POV. Somehow Dark Passage (1947), starring Humphrey Bogart (The Maltese Falcon) and Lauren Bacall (The Big Sleep), nails it and, rather than it coming off as a cheap gimmick, really utilizes the unfamiliar technique for solid narrative effect. It’s a classic mystery noir about a man who escaped from prison (convicted for the murder of his wife). While there are many brilliant scenes in the movie and clever camera angles, my favorite bits might be the conversation with the taxi driver and subsequent meeting with the plastic surgeon. The POV really pulls you into the story in a surprising and effective way.

Admittedly, I’ve only seen Bullitt on a plane, but I liked this better than Bullitt.

A quiet getaway driver played by Ryan O’Neal (Paper Moon) is trying to avoid being set up by an obsessed police detective (Bruce Dern). That’s really all you need to know for Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978). Not to be bogged down with too much dialogue or too complicated a plot, The Driver is all gorgeous 70s style and fantastic car chases. The film exudes coolness. Isabella Adjani (The Possession) also co-stars. Watch it. It’s great.

Really, a Tough Call:

That honestly can’t be good for the rabbit.

Fans of the Coen Bros.’ Fargo may be familiar with the oft reported case of a Japanese woman who, believing the film to be a true story, went searching for where Steve Buscemi buried the suitcase full of money in the snow. The Zellner Bros.’ Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (2014) is a fictionalized version of how that woman came to America in search of that money. Rinko Kikuchi (Pacific Rim) gives a heart-breaking and deeply internalized performance as Kumiko, a sad misfit obsessed with treasure hunting. Her journey from the alienating officetels of Tokyo to the isolating snowdrifts of Minnesota is weird, awkwardly comical, and touchingly disconsolate. This movie comes highly recommended. It’s a quiet and vaguely surreal film that sits with you hours after watching it.

Maybe even more enjoyable than The Road Warrior.

Everyone saw it. Everyone loved it. And, truly, I get it. Mad scientist George Miller’s fourth installment of his Australian cult series, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), really is a masterpiece of dystopic action and brutal but balletic car carnage. There’s an adrenaline that doesn’t quit and a score that pulses aggressively forward and an explosion-filled chase crammed with Frankenstein vehicles that doesn’t let up. It’s got a lot typical Miller quirk and visual inventiveness. Tom Hardy (Bronson) and Charlize Theron (Prometheus) stoically lead the way through a stark, unforgiving desert, but it is Nicholas Hoult’s character, Nux, who gradually becomes the real emotional core of the film. Motorcycle grannies, bungee guitar mutants, muscle cars souped up with spikes and tank treads, and chainsaw-wielding gas-mask guys atop 50 foot pendulums swinging over erupting furnaces of vehicular devastation not your thing? You may not enjoy this, if that be the case. Whether you’re a longtime fan of the Mad Max series or a newcomer, this is gleeful, calculated, visceral mayhem. It ought to be a crime to be this bonkers and badass.

Satellite of the Simians 3: Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil’s pawn.

Et tu, Brute?

Et tu, Brute?

It is fascinating to watch the goals and underlying social themes shift in the Planet of the Apes series. I’ll come out and say it. I love the series. The original Planet of the Apes from 1968 starring Charlton Heston is one of my favorite movies. Definitely one of my favorites from the sixties. I just got out of a showing of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), the latest incarnation and direct sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). Without hesitation, Dawn is the new second best Planet of the Apes movie.

For starters, I should begin by mentioning that I saw it in Korea and, while the dialogue was in English, whenever the apes were signing things the subtitles were all in Korean. At first I was concerned I might be missing crucial plot points, but kudos to the amazing effects team at WETA and the motion-capture performers for making silent ape dialogue wholly understandable. I feel bad for the 5 year old Korean girl who sat next to me and buried her terrified face in her hands for the film’s duration.

Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!

Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!

Our story begins where Rise left off. The intellectually enhanced and organized ape revolutionaries had escaped into the forests beyond the Golden Gate Bridge. An infected pilot, unwittingly carrying a deadly virus developed in a lab, embarked on a tragic journey that would effectively spread the disease to every corner of the world, wiping out a majority of Earth’s human population and all semblance of order and civilization. Now, several years later, the humans live in a tribal post-apocalyptic nightmare and are quickly running out of power and means to utilize their limited resources. Meanwhile, ape society is flourishing in the wilds and a developing culture is forming strong social bonds. Caesar is the leader of the apes.

Well, I'd be crapping myself.

Well, I’d be crapping myself.

The troubles in this movie begin when humans stumble into ape territory in search of a lost dam that might help restore power to their ailing ruins of society. A shot is fired and a chimpanzee is hit. Caesar, rather than having his mighty army make short work of the lost search party, shows mercy and banishes them. This introduces the conflict that is firmly seated at this movie’s core: trust and tribal bonds. Caesar has a clear duty to protect his people (and he, and the rest of the chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans harbor an understandable fear and hatred of humans—*see previous film) and the humans have a clear duty to themselves to protect their own and get the power back to avoid more violent anarchy. Communication proves difficult for no matter how well-intentioned some peace-seeking individuals on either side of the table are, it only takes a few reckless or wicked individuals to keep tensions high and trust destroyed.

The movie is intelligently written, well acted, and like the previous film features some top-notch computer special effects and spectacular action scenes. I really liked Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but in all honesty Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is easily the superior film. Rise was great, but I had a few problems with it (mainly archetypal cartoony human characters like the evil money-loving bureaucrat, the benevolent scientist, the ape racist who works with apes, the girl, etc.). Thankfully, most of the problems are corrected in Dawn. The strongest chapter of Rise was the ape sanctuary scenes where Caesar, an intellectually superior animal, has to learn real ape society rules and rise to power to become their leader. With almost no dialogue or humans, the film soars to fascinating heights and keeps the tension building in these impressively animated sequences. Dawn plays like an extension of those scenes and centers around the apes cultivating their own society, while the human subplot focuses on mankind desperately trying not to slip back to the dark ages.

And then all the dogs and cats in the hotel sing "If I Had Words" to the tune of Camille Saint-Saëns' Symphony No.3 in C minor.

And then all the dogs and cats in the hotel sing “If I Had Words” to the tune of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No.3 in C minor.

Rise, perhaps, put a little too much into the fun fan-service of referencing the 1968 classic. Without knowing what the signed ape dialogue was specifically, I don’t think I saw much evidence of this in this new film. The only reference might be the music which did remind me strongly of the original in places. Dawn still has a weaker human storyline, but their role is vital for the story. Dawn is about establishing peace and trust in a volatile situation. Mankind itself is not the enemy. There are a few cartoonishly dickish humans who muck up the works more than a few times, but they are symbols of the fear and closed-mindedness that is also present in the ape society. Koba, a chimpanzee (or bonobo, who knows?), is the real villainous foil. His fear, anger, and hatred—regardless of how personally justified or rooted in past experiences—stands for the fear, hatred, and self-interest that blocks cultural progress everywhere.

While we're on the subject, Dracula vs. Planet of the Apes? Eh?

While we’re on the subject, Dracula vs. Planet of the Apes? Eh?

Questions:

1. Where did the apes get the horses?

2. What are the ape sentiments toward monkeys and tarsiers? Slow lorises?

3. Why no gibbons? Gibbons are apes.

4. Not a question, but we were so close to seeing a bear fight a gorilla in the first 10 minutes! So close! And they blew it by having it fight some chimps.

5. Why aren’t there more orangutans? I love orangutans.

6. Why is it apes versus humans? Humans are technically apes too. The title “Planet of the Apes” is actually not that descriptive. We currently live in the “Planet of the Apes.”

Chimpanzee firing two machine guns while riding a horse. If that doesn't make you want to see this nothing will.

Raging chimpanzee firing two machine guns while riding a horse. If that doesn’t make you want to see this nothing will.

I said at the beginning that what I find interesting is how the same series can change its tone and message with the shifting of the cultural tides yet still operate under the same basic rules. The original Planet of the Apes from 1968 was about dogmatism versus science and the possibilities of the collapse of human society and the possible future of ape evolution. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) was about making more money. That’s about it. A little bit concerning the dangers of nuclear weapons at the end. Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) dealt with how we react to outsiders and how we defend our own self interest at the expense of outsiders (because they be different!). Conquest of the Planet of the Apes(1972) was about racism and revolution. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) was about making money again, but also about how some of the best social rules must sometimes be compromised or broken to keep the peace (hit on again in Dawn—one very appropriate nod the earlier movies). The Tim Burton one (2001) was about “remember these movies?” Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) shifted tone to be about scientific ethics and perhaps ecology, especially in how we treat animals. It asked questions like: Is it okay to treat animals the way we do simply because we don’t perceive them to be on our intellectual level? Are we really the most important species? Could another surpass us? Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) focuses much of its energy on the tenuous nature of diplomacy in hostile territory where emotions run high. It basically states that emotion should not rule the roost when it comes to maintaining peace—and that this message rings strongly for both sides. In a sense, Dawn is a critique on the hazards of nationalism and isolationism and how it only takes a few extremists to characterize and demonize an entire social group. It is easy to see how a simple tit for tat exchange can escalate quickly to tragic ends. This is something we witness throughout history and today in human geopolitics and conflicts.

Moral of the story: peace is hard and destruction is easy.

Peace: difficult but not impossible.

Peace: difficult but not impossible.

All in all Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is probably one of the more socially significant blockbusters out there at the moment. It suffers from some less interesting human characters (minus Gary Oldman who manages to be more than the archetype you might expect from the trailers). The effects are mesmerizing to watch and the fight sequences are high octane, high emotion thrill-scapes. If you enjoyed anything about the earlier films this is a welcome treat with a bigger brain than most of the series and what appears to be a genuinely prescient conscience concerning escalating real-world geopolitical tensions. I recommend it.

Seriously. Where are the damn gibbons?

Seriously. Where are the damn gibbons?

Picture references:

http://www.truemovie.com/2014moviedata/DawnofthePlanetoftheApes.htm

http://blogs.indiewire.com/boxofficeinsider/cool-trailers-part-2-robert-downey-jrs-the-judge-kevin-harts-the-wedding-ringer-and-the-final-dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-trailer-20140623

http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/movies/final-dawn-planet-apes-trailer-premieres-article-1.1836336

http://herocomplex.latimes.com/books/firestorm-dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-prequel-novel/#/0

 

Everyone Was Kung Fu Fighting: the Story of Ip Man

For all the serious, highfalutin movies I watch, I do confess I have a weakness for the kung-fu flick. Action is fun to watch and as a guy it’s sometimes hard not to be fascinated by violence and destruction in movies. Watching a building collapse or a high speed car chase or dinosaurs fighting each other or Bruce Willis jumping off a roof with a fire-hose bungee cord is fun and exciting. Naturally the martial arts epic must enter one’s peripheries at some point. Ever since I saw a Jackie Chan marathon on TV as a kid I was hooked. The kung-fu movie gets a lot of flack sometimes for being fairly thin when it comes to plot, but the incredible athletes and personalities that have emerged from it are what draws us. Every move Bruce Lee does is astonishing to watch and there’s something eternally fascinating about using only your body as a weapon.

Still one of the best.

Still one of the best.

Recently, it seems, there has been a rebirth of kung-fu (for the west anyway). Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) reminded everybody that you could have a good mythical storyline alongside ballet-like violence. Then we got Jet Li in Zhang Yimou’s  Hero (2002) and Stephen Chow gave us an incredibly zany Looney Tunes-esque action comedy in Kun Fu Hustle (2004). These films were all wonderful (maybe more wuxia than traditional martial arts) and had great action and stories, but they were more stylistic and employed more wire-fu and special effects than the traditional martial arts films from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Out of Thailand came action star Tony Jaa in Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior (2003). The stunts were real and gritty once more and the action was great, but the story was now missing again. I am happy to report that another martial arts epic has come about and puts back good old-fashioned fights with a really decent story. Wilson Yip’s Ip Man (2008) stars Donnie Yen (The Iron Monkey,  Shanghai Knights) as the legendary grandmaster of the Chinese martial arts technique known as Wing Chun, Yip Kai-man (1893-1972), and the man who would eventually train Bruce Lee and many others.

Donnie Yen.

Donnie Yen.

I confess that as a westerner my actual knowledge of the history and meanings behind all the various styles of kung-fu is pretty minute, and admittedly I do not recall actually hearing of Ip Man before this movie, but it definitely filled me in…even if the movie is a rather loose treatment on the real man’s life. It’s also insanely nationalistic, but you can’t have everything.

The film takes place in Foshan, China in the 1930s during the Japanese occupation. Ip Man (Yen) is a leisured aristocrat and well respected member of the community. He has a loving wife (who does not exactly support his martial arts practice) and a young son who he realizes he must spend more time with. The citizens of Foshan regard Ip Man as a quiet but deadly master of Wing Chun, but he would honestly rather not fight anybody (reminded me of John Wayne in The Quiet Man). A foreign bully from the north (played by Fan Siu-wong  of Riki-Oh: the Story of Ricky fame) arrives in town and, desiring to set up a martial arts club in Foshan, he viciously beats up every master in town save for Ip Man. The fight that follows is indeed wildly entertaining.

How embarrassing.

How embarrassing.

The story jumps ahead a few years after the town of Foshan is oppressed by Japanese occupation in the Second Sino-Japanese War. Ip Man has lost all of his possessions but maintains his dignity and lives in a rundown shack while his dedicated wife pawns everything to buy rice (kinda reminded me of Omar Sharif in Dr. Zhivago). To support his starving family he gets a job as a coolie shoveling coal in a filthy quarry. It is not long before a former Chinese friend has returned as the mouthpiece for the Japanese army and announces that the quarry workers can earn a bag of rice if they defeat Japanese karatekas for the amusement of General Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), who is an obsessed karate master. Ip Man initially refuses but when a friend who volunteers never returns, he decides to go to defend the honor of his fallen brothers, avenge the death of countless Chinese, and reclaim the honor of Chinese martial arts.

Before entering the tournament, Ip Man witnesses another friend and kung-fu master doing battle on the mat surrounded by Japanese karatekas awaiting their turn to fight the Chinese workers. General Miura watches menacingly from the platform above. Ip Man then watches helplessly as his friend is shot through the head following the match (against Miura’s command). Ip Man requests to go next and further requests that he face not one but ten black-belts at once. If this fight does not pull you into the movie then nothing will. His prowess in Wing-Chun, although a bit rusty, is no match for the attacks of his enemies and he glides between them with grace and deadly accuracy as he systemically annihilates them all. He departs enraged and stoically defiant to the General’s questions (although the fearful translator disguises this fact).

The whole movie might be worth it if this was the only fight.

The whole movie might still be worth it if this was the only fight.

Back in the wounded town, Ip Man is asked to defend an old friend’s cotton mill from bandits (led by the northern bully whom Ip Man defeated in battle earlier in the movie) who are stealing their product and demanding money and threatening violence. He graciously agrees to teach the workers Wing-Chun and the audience gets a kung-fu training montage (yep, they still do ‘em). When the bandits return a big battle is ignited as the workers fight back and the bandits up the ante by bringing out axes, but Ip Man shows up and throws down real good with the thugs and chases them off.

Ip Man’s incredible abilities have earned him respect and fascination in the mind of General Miura. Miura seeks to bring Ip Man back for more tournaments, but Ip Man is forced to take his family and hide when he beats up the Japanese soldiers who come for him and attempt to rape his wife. Desperate to find him, the soldiers attack the cotton mill and force Ip Man to show himself. With the soldier he beat up ready to shoot him and General Miura threatening to allow him to be shot unless he trains his Japanese soldiers, Ip Man challenges the General to a public match: a challenge the General’s ego will not allow him to decline. For the final battle all of the stakes are raised to the umpteenth level. A nasty Japanese soldier threatens to kill Ip Man if he wins and his wife and child are forced to flee and all of the town is gathered for the public spectacle…you could not ask for more suspense. All of China’s morale and pride rest in the fists of Ip Man. It is assured to be a match to remember and it will ultimately bring national shame to the losing party.

And people wonder why all the Asian countries still harbor animosity toward Japan.

And people wonder why all the Asian countries still harbor animosity toward Japan.

Ip Man has all of the classic moves a good kung-fu movie should have and the fight scenes (choreographed by Spooky Encounters star Sammo Hung) are fantastic. The story builds and continues to create urgency, suspense, and danger up until the last scene.  It’s a compelling plot about a man who has had his world torn apart and the only thing left to do is stuff his peaceful demeanor and kick butt. Donnie Yen and the rest of the cast give fine performances and the cinematography is also top notch. The story takes its liberties with the real Ip Man’s life, but it is perfectly forgivable when you consider how much fun the movie is as a whole. The kung-fu action movie is back, folks.

The sequel, Ip Man 2 (2010), brings the cast back and features Sammo Hung as a cantankerous martial arts master in Hong Kong and sees Ip Man fighting a cocky, belligerent (and rather obnoxious) British boxer (reminded of Mr. T in Rocky III). Although the stakes are never quite as high, more fights seem bloated or forced, there’s an influx of what appears to be some wire-fu, and the western boxing is never as interesting to watch as the kung-fu business, it is a fun sequel about restoring national pride through the unifying power of martial arts. For fans of the martial arts epic, Ip Man might be exactly what you’ve been waiting for.

The real guy alongside his student, Bruce Lee.

The real guy alongside his student, Bruce Lee.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Jan 12, 2011

A Spastic in North Korea

North of the 38th Parallel. It is one of the most peculiar, enigmatic, and isolated corners of the world. Nobody knows what really goes on in there. What is their culture and society really like? What is their population? How does their economy function? Nobody ever goes in and nobody ever comes out. It must be run by Oompa-Loompas.

That's our kingdom, son. As far as the eye can see. Except for the parts that the sun touches.

That’s our kingdom, son. As far as the eye can see. Except for the parts that the sun touches.

Seriously though, North Korea is one of the strangest places on earth. It’s another planet! It is a fascinatingly hidden, cult-ish culture shrouded beneath an overcast sky and the beaming benevolent portraitures of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il [and now Kim Jong-un]. All media is government controlled and they are suspected of countless Human Rights violations. Even if you get in, you better watch your step and still you’ll only ever see and hear what North Korea wants you to see and hear. Great difficulties arise in any attempts to document and fairly assess this 46,528 square mile mystery. Difficulties, yes, but some have attempted nevertheless. The Vice Guide to Travel did an excellent piece on North Korea (watch it here), and there have been many more incredible amateur docs, but Danish filmmaker Mads Brügger took a slightly different approach with his Borat-esque documentary The Red Chapel (2009).

The hop-marching is kind of weird. I wonder how menacing ten thousand soldiers walking like Groucho Marx would be.

The hop-marching is kind of weird. I wonder how menacing ten thousand soldiers walking like Groucho Marx would be.

Brügger’s film would take both himself and two Danish-Korean comedians, Simon Jul and Jacob Nossell, deep into Pyongyang under the guise of a theater troupe that would be performing a traditional Danish comedy play as part of a cultural exchange for the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. In actuality, Mads really only seeks to expose North Korea as the soulless dictatorship he believes it is.

Simon and Jacob showcase their knack for ridiculous performance.

Simon and Jacob showcase their knack for ridiculous performance.

 

Another twist is that Jacob Nossell is a self-proclaimed “spastic” (he has a severe speech impediment and occasionally requires a wheelchair). This twist serves several purposes. Firstly Jacob can say almost anything in Danish because between the language and his vocal distortions he will be unintelligible to the North Koreans who will be examining all of the footage they take. The second purpose is to test the North Korean rumor that infants born with genetic maladies are euthanized (as reported by several physicians who have defected). Mads suspects the Red Chapel’s embarrassingly bad show is allowed to continue because the North Koreans seek to dispel this grim rumor and so Jacob and the Red Chapel’s show is to be used as propaganda. Brügger does admit that he is probably guilty of using Jacob for his own manipulative means as well.

Like a spastic in North Korea we're wheelchair bound.

Like a spastic in North Korea we’re wheelchair bound.

The Red Chapel alternates between informative tourism and comical rehearsals where the North Koreans gradually deflate Denmark’s play and replace the entire story with even more convolutions, bizarrities, and pro-North Korean ideological propaganda. The irony is that the Red Chapel was compelled to agree not to incorporate any ideological or political themes in their performance and yet by the end of the movie the Red Chapel performers must conclude their show declaring, “One heart. One mind. One Korea. Together we fight. Together we die.” Another big alteration made to their show is the diminished role of Jacob. He must be in a wheelchair the whole show and only communicate via whistle squeaks while Simon does most of the act himself, and at the end of the show he must stand up (but not speak) so the audience will think he was only pretending to be handicapped. In this topsy-turvy world where Simon and Jacob must don Korean uniforms and regurgitate propaganda for a “cultural exchange,” they are constantly micro-managed by their DPRK tour guides who must evaluate, deliberate, and confer amongst each to other to ascertain the possible political themes of every move they make. For instance, what does the “pussy” in “pussy-cat” truly denote? Might it be dangerous to the North Korean government?

Mrs. Pak.

Mrs. Pak.

Several humorous, subversively subtle and ballsy events pepper the movie just to keep the comedy going. At the revered statue of deceased but eternal president, Kim Il-Sung, Mads Brügger requests to read a silly poem as a (rather absurd) sign of respect and as an offering to the great leader in the spirit of cultural exchange. They also present a pizza paddle to be given to Kim Jong-Il. For all the humor and fun being had, whether Simon is leading an impromptu rendition of “Hey, Jude” on guitar, or Jacob is making insightful quips regarding the vacuous horrors of all the emotionless enthusiasm, what really got me about The Red Chapel were the moments of naked humanity. Most of the evil rumors are never put to rest one way or another, but we do see real people. Mrs. Pak, their tour guide, is one of the most fascinating and compelling people on the screen. She is only allowed to smile and be happy (and keep the boys out of trouble). She cries at the statue of Kim Il-Sung, but Brügger tacitly wonders if she is crying out of love, out of fear, or for memories of pains past. After only a few hours of knowing Jacob, Mrs. Pak is embracing him and calling him “like my son…more than my son.” Tearfully she says ‘it is not mother’s work to send a boy like him away’. There appears to be much conflict within this woman at times. I found Mrs. Pak to be more fascinating an example than all the ghostly vacant streets and empty shops of Pyongyang. Does she know she lives under an oppressive government? Would she call it that? Does she truly know what the rest of the world is like? Is she brainwashed or is she really just that gung-ho? In a land where the only images you are allowed to see are propagandistic, can you not still choose to love it of your own volition? I found her presence and unwitting contribution to the film to be incredible. She genuinely wants to show the Red Chapel all that North Korea has to offer, but is her devotion derived out of cultural pride or fear? We may never know.

Cheery.

Cheery.

The constant lying and games of deception—on both the part of the filmmaker and of North Korea—takes its toll. Jacob has a nervous breakdown early on. During a gigantic celebration (that condemns the United States for attacking them in 1950 unprovoked, of course) Mads and Jacob—pushed in his wheelchair by the motherly Mrs. Pak—wind up marching down the square and having to cheer. Jacob alone defies this command and moans complaints unintelligibly. It is an extremely surreal and tense moment that puts the beads of sweat on Mads’ forehead. Beyond Borat, there is far more danger if their agenda is discovered and their charade is uncovered. They are mocking possibly one of the most dangerous, dehumanizing, and restrictive governments in the world. We never see the death camps or horrific prisons for political threats, but the possibility remains and the danger is always there.

Today we will march up and down the square!

Today we will march up and down the square!

On a tour of a school, the boys see doll-like children performing robotic paroxysms all to the glory of their leader. Il-Sung’s and Jong-Il’s portraits eerily hang in every room just to remind everyone that everything is all doubleplusgood in DPRK. Big Brother is watching. They smile and clap as long as the foreigner’s camera is pointed at them. The children practice and perform acts of programmed artistic perfection reminiscent of Disney’s “It’s a Small World” ride. When anyone is asked how they are or how anything is, the response is always one of hyperbolic ecstasy and joyous exaltation. In the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea no one is unhappy. North Korea is always portrayed as the most prosperous nation in the world. Everyone is in unison and the parades of thousands are never out of step. If Kim Jong-Il is as big a film-lover as is understood (so much so that he kidnapped director Sang-ok Shin and his wife and held him hostage to make movies for North Korea) then I just bet he’s a fan of The Stepford Wives. Watch excerpts from their famed Mass Games and you get a glimpse of their frighteningly awesome precision. People are pixels here.

Grand Mass Arirang Games of North Korea

Grand Mass Arirang Games of North Korea

As with The Vice Guide to Travel: North Korea [and their several followups with Dennis Rodman under Jong-un’s rule now], one never gets to see what lies behind certain doors. Movements are carefully planned out and must never deviate from the government controlled itinerary. One only gets to see what North Korea wishes to be seen and that is always maintained to be the very best. The sad, twisted irony of it all is that if what they show is North Korea’s best it still leaves much to be desired. There is a hollowness and a stifled melancholy about this country in its all-too flattering representation of itself. Perhaps I am revealing too much personal bias as an American [and one who lives in South Korea]. Coming from a country where differences are relished and celebrated and where many cultures and perspectives are encouraged and appreciated and where it is considered strange if everyone is the same and there is no dissenting voice, it is quite a culture shock to get a glimpse into North Korean society. Maybe we’re all just misinformed and it’s not bad or wrong at all, but whatever it is, it is the opposite of the American ideal of individualism.

The boys pose with some locals.

The boys pose with some locals.

I enjoyed The Red Chapel immensely. It may not offer more than a familiar peek into North Korea like some other documentaries, but it has a personality all its own. Following Mads, Simon, Jacob, and Mrs. Pak around in this dystopic world is worth the price of admission. For anyone interested in North Korea this is a must-see comedy documentary.

Creepy.

Come to me, my children.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 16, 2011

Satellite of the Simians: Blowing It All to Hell

Do you believe in de-evolution? I do. Watch the Planet of the Apes series and you will too. More than a story of apes developing human-like culture and the subsequent domination of the human race, the franchise offers a glimpse into a world of merchandising hell. Each sequel is a little bit worse and exponentially more ludicrous than its predecessor. Such a shame as the original 1968 film is such a brilliant masterpiece of science fiction and allegory. Revisiting the entire series of five movies was like watching a beloved friend being pummeled into the ground by a parade of increasingly dumber people. I kind of enjoyed it.

A nice spaceship crash preceded this moment.

A nice spaceship crash preceded this moment.

The first Planet of the Apes (1968) focuses on lost astronaut, Taylor (played by Moses himself, Charlton Heston), as he travels to the distant future to a world where everything is run by damn, dirty apes and humans are primitive and mute underlings used primarily for sport in this society . Taylor is tormented by the stiff dogma of ape society that embraces tradition over facts and science. Taylor’s primary primate foe is a rigid, but highly intelligent orangutan named Dr. Zaius, played by Maurice Evans (Rosemary’s Baby). He is helped by two chimpanzee scientists, Cornelius and Dr. Zira, played by Roddy McDowell (The Legend of Hell House) and Kim Hunter (A Streetcar Named Desire). It’s a fascinating story that can be read on multiple levels. It can operate as a comical metaphor for the Scopes Monkey Trial and the battle between science and religion or it can function as a racist parable of white fears and prejudiced paranoia of what the world would turn into if the blacks were given too many rights. Edgy and controversial and lots to think about and discuss. Of course, I’d love it. The film also has one of the greatest twist endings of all time (sorry, Shyamalan). You can really see the Rod Serling watermarks on the script. Also Nova is hot.

Dawkins must feel like Heston every day...that would sound really ironic if I wasn't referring to his character in this movie.

Dawkins must feel like Heston every day…that would sound really ironic if I wasn’t referring to his character in this movie.

The makeup and acting is good and the frustration endured by the main characters is compelling. It’s everything great science fiction should be and it was directed by Frank J. Schaffner (Patton, Nicholas and Alexandra, Papillon, and the kinda screwy Boys From Brazil). So where did it go all go so wrong? Answer: the sequels. If you think all the lousy sequels and remakes Hollywood cranks out by the bushel is a new trend, think again. Remember Spielberg’s classic Jaws (1975)? Remember Jaws 4: the Revenge (1987)? Yeah. Unlike the Jaws franchise, however, that really didn’t have much place to deviate from a plot about a shark that eats more people, the Planet of the Apes had a really novel concept (from the Pierce Boulle novel) and a lot of potential to expand. But instead of evolving like the great apes in this series, Apes got raped, cinematically speaking.

Damned dirty what? Dude! That's our word.

Damned dirty what? Dude! That’s our word.

It starts gradually. You almost think for a brief, fleeting instant that maybe Ted Post’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes [or : how I learned to stop having a face and love the bomb] (1970) might go somewhere that’s not a total waste of time. After all, it picks up right where the first movie left off and hey look, there’s Charlton Heston again…oh, wait. No. He just disappeared into a boulder. Here we go.

At least we still have Nova.

At least we still have Nova.

The director of Hang ‘Em High seems ill-equipped to deal with the Apes series and the movie devolves into a cheaper production with thin elements oversimplified from Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp fiction and wanton rehashing of the original. After Taylor disappears in the Forbidden Zone (not the Oingo Boingo movie), Nova (the lovely and scantily clad Linda Harrison) is left alone until she finds another astronaut from another failed space mission (the one that sought to rescue Taylor…and ONLY Taylor, because forget those other guys). This new fella’, Brent, played by James Franciscus (Valley of the Gwangi) is a tedious replacement, but Linda is still foxy as ever. He spies on ape society and the film decides to portray ape society more at odds with the dimwitted, militaristic gorillas rather than the dogmatic orangutans that plagued the more scientific chimpanzees of the original. 

God is an all powerful atom bomb.

God is an all powerful atom bomb.

Zira and Cornelius return (briefly) to help Brent escape and Dr. Zaius leads an aggressive expedition into the Forbidden Zone where we meet a race of subterranean mind-controllers who worship an atom bomb and like to peel their faces off. Very Burroughs. It’s hokey in a kind of stupid yet enjoyable way but it feels like this is the sort of film more suited to Doug McClure (The Land That Time Forgot) than Heston. SPOILER ALERT: at the end everybody dies—even Nova!!!—and the whole world blows up. The end. Well, if all the characters are dead and the world done got blowed up and crap then we can’t possibly have another movie, right? Dead wrong.

It challenges everything we think we know about our own evolution...shouldn't that bus be like dust by now?

It challenges everything we think we know about our own evolution…shouldn’t that bus be like dust by now?

Next came Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971) directed by Don Taylor (The Island of Dr. Moreau). Nova is missed. Who am I supposed to look at now?! Cornelius and Zira (once again, Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter) evidently found Taylor’s spaceship and somehow got it to fly back in time to earth in the 1970s (not sure how). They just miss the explosion that obliterates earth in the future. All of this information is really only mentioned in passing. It never deals with the actual escape part! The bulk of the film concerns Cornelius and Zira reenacting scenes from the first film only in reverse—apes studied by sympathetic scientists while misunderstood by the general public. The film chiefly features Cornelius and Zira doing press conferences and special events and shopping for clothing.

Double mask!

Wouldn’t they stretch out the sleeves a little?

Although the ape society they came from was pretty basic and they were living in rocks and didn’t have much technology beyond cages and nets, they are never impressed by TVs or cars or anything or even by how much more gracious and accepting humans are of them than they themselves were of Taylor. They continuously believe 1970s earth to be dim and primitive because apes are treated like animals here despite our technology being centuries ahead of theirs and apes actually being animals here. This drove me nuts!

The apes conceal their knowledge of the destruction of earth because they just know that human society will see that apes blow up the world and thus will try to exterminate them to prevent the ape revolution of the far distant future. I know what you’re thinking. It disrupts the laws of cause and effect. You can’t go back in time to be your own grandfather and expect to be in the same timeline. Well, an evil human scientist (who is a self-professed expert on time) misses this detail as well and sends the government out to stop them.

Boasting almost as many conference meetings as Star Wars Episode I.

Boasting almost as many conference meetings as Star Wars Episode I.

Cornelius becomes a fugitive after he kills a hospital orderly by knocking a tray out of his hand. Also Zira is pregnant. Eww. SPOILER ALERT: all the monkey characters die, but not before Zira’s baby is switched with a baby chimpanzee at a circus run by a kindly Ricardo Montalban (Wrath of Khan). Everything Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home did right and had fun with is handled so ridiculously in this movie it defies description. The tone is all over the map. You don’t have happy, campy ape shopping montages and then the brutal slaying of these characters (along with a regular baby chimp) in the finale.

My god. When I go back I'm gonna pitch an idea for an ape Price Is Right.

My god. When I go back I’m gonna pitch an idea for an ape Price Is Right.

The last shot isn’t bad and it’s a decent twist. Zira’s baby in the circus grabs the bars and says “mama” over and over and the credits roll. Chilling.

Mama...mama...mama...

Mama…mama…mama…

So the last two sequels were getting progressively silly, but there was still a bit of odd appeal to them. This time things get so unbelievable and stupid that you feel bad for even laughing at it. For Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) Don Taylor leaves the directing chair and hands over the franchise to J. Lee Thompson. How could the guy who directed The Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear screw up so bad? Well, he also did King Solomon’s Mines. It doesn’t help matters that Paul Dehn who wrote the last two sequels is still attached. Wait! Paul Dehn has been writing these things? The guy who wrote the scripts for Goldfinger, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and Murder on the Orient Express?! What is going on? It’s a mad house! A MAD HOUSE!

See the symbolism? That means it's a good movie.

See the symbolism? That means it’s a good movie.

Anyway, here’s the big, dumb story in a nutshell: all of the world’s cats and dogs have died in a plague therefore the human race makes apes our slaves, so ostensibly in this distant future [1991] there are only two jobs: fascist ape-hating leaders and people who violently train the apes to do every other job. Everyone else just pickets to try and get their jobs back. You have not lived until you’ve seen grown people dressed as apes dressed as waiters and barbers. Another humorous point is the way they train them is so primitive and bizarre. They hold bananas out and then blast them with fire sometimes, but mostly they sit them in front of any given task (pouring a glass of water or operating a computer) and simply bellow the word “do!” at them and then whip them when they don’t comprehend English. The funniest thing about this whole mixed up society is that the apes are actually comically terrible at most of these jobs and the economy is evaporating and a lot of people seem to be jobless and unhappy, but they stay the course (because the dogs and cats are dead).

Gorillas = dumb. Got it.

Gorillas = dumb. Got it.

Enter Caesar (played by Roddy McDowell who really couldn’t seem to get out of this series), the son of Zira and Cornelius. He leads a revolution because he discovers that he can tell apes to do things via telepathy. A battle ensues and so begins the conquest. There are so many insultingly dopey elements to this film, but perhaps the most insulting of all is the ape makeup. Up until this fourth movie I was under the impression that the civilized apes looked the way they did because they were more evolved or mutated. This film tells me that this is simply what all apes would look like if we put clothes on them. Chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas would all have the exact same proportions as people and I am supposed to accept this because there is a serious commentary about racial oppression in the subtext.

Where do monkeys fit into all of this?

Where do monkeys fit into all of this?

There are too many silly and stupid things in this movie to count. I do wonder about Caesar’s motives too. He is an ape, but can reason and communicate as well as the humans, but he still identifies with the oppressed apes who are still dumb beasts. I wonder if I went back in time and witnessed the enslavement of neadertals by a race of lizard people—who I could actually relate to—if I would lead a caveman revolution. Ultimately it’s sad because it could have been so good. A lot of the societal ideas the movie wanted to explore were fascinating, but poor execution killed it (there is a serious indictment of racism…but it’s a littler racist itself to compare the black Civil Rights movement with the oppression of dumb apes).

Boys and girls, this corpulent, bearded man with the goofy ski goggles is our villain.

Boys and girls, this corpulent, bearded man with the goofy ski goggles is our villain.

Finally comes Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973). Thompson directs again and Dehn writes again, but this film is actually slightly better than Conquest. There is just one gargantuan logical leap you will have to make at the very beginning. This leap is so big that it pretty much destroys any fragment of respectability Battle was hoping for. The leap is this: the film takes place about 10 years after the events of the previous movie and in that time there has been nuclear warfare and all of the great apes have evolved and developed a complex culture, military, educational system, history, morality, hierarchy, and can speak English perfectly. At first I thought maybe Caesar (again, Roddy McDowell) just banged everybody and their kids got his smarts, but no. Caesar has only one child and many of the apes were part of the revolution when they were still non-sentient beasts with no civilization. Some humans are subservient to apes and others try to work with the apes, but many apes are much smarter than people. Don’t make sense, do it?

Not the best matte painting, but we get the idea.

Not the best matte painting, but we get the idea. I think it’s the blue skies.

They live in the forest and build a town and a strongly defined caste system is established along with dogmatic principles of society. The chimps are the brainy ones, the orangutans are wise keepers of law and religion, and the gorillas are dumb and love violence (the gorilla stereotype was hinted at in the original, but ever since the second movie they played it up more and more). There is one really bad gorilla named General Aldo who wants to kill all humans (Bender!), but Caesar wants to keep them around and learn from them.

These films just further the stereotype that gorillas are dumb.

These films just further the stereotype that gorillas are dumb.

When a human tells Caesar that recordings of his parents might exist in an irradiated ruin of a city, they go on the first journey to “the Forbidden Zone.” One new character, Virgil, an orangutan, is a nice addition (interestingly Virgil is played by Paul Williams who voiced The Penguin on Batman: the Animated Series while Roddy McDowell voiced the Mad Hatter). In the destroyed city they discover a warped subterranean culture of radiation-poisoned humans (the seeds of the skinless, mind-controlling, atom bomb worshipers of Beneath the Planet of the Apes???). Caesar’s intrusion is unwelcome and they launch a very underwhelming attack that plays like a poor man’s Road Warrior. A very poor man’s Road Warrior.

Why ARE there so many songs about rainbows?

Why ARE there so many songs about rainbows?

SPOILER ALERT: Aldo kills Caesar’s son—disobeying the first rule of ape society, “ape must never kill ape”—and so Caesar kills Aldo and then we see in the far off future the Lawgiver (John Huston. I know, right!) narrating the events to a group of ape children and human children. So we all live in harmony together in this alternate universe and the first movie never happened. Interesting to note that Caesar claims that throughout all of ape history no ape has ever killed another ape and that only humans kill members of their own species. I think Caesar (or Paul Dehn) should have watched the Discovery Channel.

Ape must never kill ape was a good policy...until you never devise a penalty or deterrant for disobeying the policy.

Ape must never kill ape was a good policy…until you never devise a penalty or deterrant for disobeying the policy.

It didn’t end there, I’m afraid. There was a live-action series and an equally short-lived animated series (the likes of which rival Clutch Cargo for sheer production value deplorability). Roddy McDowell was also in the show. The funny thing is that for all the crap the Tim Burton Planet of the Apes (2001) got, it’s actually a far superior accomplishment in comparison to most of the series. It’s not good, but it’s not laughably bad. How did the franchise fall so far?

This is illegal in 46 states.

This is illegal in 46 states.

Planet of the Apes was a cultural phenomena. It was such a popular science fiction series that they just couldn’t stop. The Apes were on lunchboxes and toys and everywhere. It’s just a darn good thing Star Wars came along. The first Planet of the Apes is still a great movie several decades later and watching the whole series can be fun (if you’re like me and like bad cinema sometimes just as much as good cinema), but man did they wreck it. The new film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) is actually a bit of a remake/re-imagining of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. 43 years later and the Apes ain’t dead yet…no matter how many bad movies they make. I’d still say they already blew it all to hell.

Almost as ill-fittingly iconic as "Soylent Green is people." At least the end to "Omega Man" was kept safe...and once you see "Omega Man" you will never see the intro to "Friends" the same way again.

Almost as ill-fittingly iconic as “Soylent Green is people.” At least the end to “Omega Man” was kept safe…and once you see “Omega Man” you will never see the intro to “Friends” the same way again.

A parting shot. We miss you, Nova.

She doesn't speak. She doesn't wear much. She's very devoted without expecting anything in return. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Chauvinist's Perfect Woman.

She doesn’t speak. She doesn’t wear much. She’s very devoted without expecting anything in return. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Chauvinist’s Perfect Woman.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 20, 2011.

Kurosawa’s Ran: Japanese King Lear

Legendary Japanese filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa, is a legend for a reason. From parting the sea to America with Rashomon (1950) to the epic Seven Samurai (1954), Kurosawa paved the way for generations of Asian films to gain greater accessibility to western audiences. There are many masterpieces in his pantheon, but one of my personal favorites is Ran (1985).

Bad day.

Bad day.

 Kurosawa adapted many foreign works including Dostoevsky (The Idiot and Red Beard), Gorky (The Lower Depths), Tolstoy (Ikiru), Hammett (Yojimbo), McBain (High and Low), Arsenyev (Dersu Uzala), and, of course, Shakespeare (Throne of Blood, The Bad Sleep Well, and Ran). Like Throne of Blood, Ran sets the Bard’s epic tale of an old king’s folly against a vivid, feudal Japanese backdrop. Ran (translated as “chaos”) is an ambitious and sumptuous retelling of “King Lear.” Although based on the classic English stage drama, Kurosawa masterfully adapts it to the big screen while making it all his own and very Japanese—the story is also fuses with the Japanese legends of Mori Motonari.

Wabbit season.

Wabbit season.

The story opens with the aging Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai) in the middle of a boar hunt atop a sea of rolling, green hills. We hear piercing flute tones and the gallop of horses. Lord Hidetora is feeling his age and reveals to his hunting party that he will be stepping down as Lord and giving his three castles to his three sons Taro, Jiro, and Saburo. His son Saburo (Daisuke Ryu), servant Tango (Masayuki Yui), and jester Kyoami (Peter), alone express their concerns regarding this hasty decision. Hidetora treats their concerns as treachery and dissent and banishes his son and servant.

Family picnics were never the same after Toshiro admitted he had sexual feelings for vegetables.

Family picnics were never the same after Toshiro admitted he had sexual feelings for carrots.

Taro Ichimonji (Akira Terao) becomes ruler of the first castle, but his manipulative wife, Lady Kaede (Meiko Harada), twists the foolish son into demanding more control and usurping Hidetora’s power further by forcing him to remove all his authority as Great Lord. Distraught and backed into a legal corner by Taro and his men, Hidetora, angrily signs away his power and disowns Taro and takes his entourage to Jiro’s (Jinpachi Nezu) castle.

ran13

Haha.

Jiro treats Hidetora most unfavorably, as if his own father were just another ruler under suspicion of attack. Jiro’s Buddhist wife, Lady Sue (Yoshiko Miyazaki), alone shows compassion toward the betrayed Lord, but Hidetora has trouble accepting her kindness because of his lingering guilt for murdering her family and conquering her house. Hidetora leaves the second castle in a huff and takes his hungry entourage out into the countryside, but his pride will not allow him to accept charity or food from farmers. The banished servant, Tango, shows up again to warn the former Lord of his sons’ plans to destroy each other and him too. Kyoami (the fool) cracks a joke and gets banished along with Tango. In an act of desperation, Hidetora takes his entourage to the third castle: the castle that would have gone to Saburo had he not been banished.

Hell is other people. War is hell. War is other people.

Hell is other people. War is hell. War is other people.

In what is sure to be one of the finest battle scenes ever filmed, the third castle is stormed by Taro’s army and Jiro’s army. Kurosawa drops all sound out of the film for this horrific battle. All we hear is Toru Takemitsu’s haunting score as we flash from silent bloodied soldiers, terrorized concubines killing themselves, and unyielding gunfire to the ominous clouds moving across the sky as if to proclaim the heavens’ impetus or indifference to interfere in the violent horrors of men. Hidetora’s forces are completely annihilated and, amidst the violence, Hidetora scrambles to find a blade with which to commit seppuku. The castle is burned to the ground (Kurosawa actually burned down the castle they had constructed for the film at the base of Mt. Fuji). Taro is assassinated by one of Jiro’s men. Lord Hidetora goes mad and walks out of his ruined fortress and into the wilderness, alone and broken.

Only you can prevent castle fires.

Only you can prevent castle fires.

Tango and Kyoami find their beloved Lord wandering around in the wilds, completely mad. They and the exiled Saburo (the three Hidetora banished and forsook) are the only ones left who remain loyal to Hidetora.

They lodge with a blind peasant in the hopes that the Lord will become well again. In a most tragic, nightmarish turn, they discover that the peasant is Lady Sue’s brother, Tsurumaru (Takashi Nomura). He lives alone because Hidetora killed his family and gouged his eyes out years ago. When Hidetora recognizes Tsurumaru and sees his reluctant mercy, the distraught Lord flees in anguish. Hidetora plummets further into madness and torment at the evil deeds of his bloody past as he wanders the old battlefields of his youth.

You think it's my time of the month, do you?

You think it’s my time of the month, do you?

Meanwhile, the conniving Lady Kaede is manipulating her new husband, Jiro. She demands he kill his former wife, Lady Sue, and that he further destroy Hidetora and go to war with Saburo (who has made an alliance with another Lord and has been amassing his army). Lady Kaede meticulously moves the political pawns across the ever bloodstained chessboard. Unlike Lady Sue, who has found the power of forgiveness through Buddhism, Lady Kaede seeks revenge against the entire Ichimonji clan for the wrongs committed against her and her own murdered family.

Oh, we got way more people this movie needs to kill.

Oh, we got way more people this movie needs to kill.

Go on. Make me unhappy.

Go on. Make me unhappy.

It all culminates in another huge battle between Jiro’s army and Saburo’s army (who is also marching with the Fujimaki and Ayabe armies—who are interested in Ichimonji land for themselves). The war wages, many men are double-crossed, and many more are killed. In classic Shakespearean tragedy fashion, almost everybody dies, but not before the ultimate in tragic and horrific letdowns can be revealed to them and they writhe in the grisly realization that all this evil and bloodshed was birthed from their own misguidance and blind foolishness. As the few surviving characters collect themselves and recall the tragic course of events that has become their lives, they cry out to the heavens and speculate on the motives of the gods and the awful follies of men. The death of the Ichimonji clan and the bloodshed of the innocent are truly stingingly tragic and the tragedy does not reach its zenith until the very final shot. It is a moment of ultimate insanity and despair.

Holy Shakespearean tragedies, Batman.

Holy Shakespearean tragedies, Batman.

Ran is a superbly directed, wonderfully acted, stunningly visual, lavish, and expansively epic film that feels like a knife cutting into your soul. And I mean that in a good way. Certain images stick with you and certain emotions will not be easily shaken. This is a film that aggressively assaults the senses and challenges views of humanity with lush, Shakespearean strokes. The way Ran uses characters, colors, juxtaposition, sound, music, makeup, and violence is truly remarkable. I consider Ran to be Akira Kurosawa’s magnum opus and it should be required viewing.

"The weight of this sad time we must obey; speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. The oldest hath borne most: we that are young shall never see so much, nor live so long."

“The weight of this sad time we must obey; speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. The oldest hath borne most: we that are young shall never see so much, nor live so long.”

It’s one of my favorite movies. Watch it and tell me I’m crazy.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” December 8, 2009.

This Island Ain’t Big Enough for the Two of Us: Marvin vs. Mifune

The ageless tale of survival in an unfit environment meets up with classic World War II drama in John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific (1968), starring legendary international cinema tough guys, Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune. This film stands out because there is a slight twist to the standard war movie plot. There are only two actors for the entire film and it all takes place miles away from battle.

What have you done with Wilson?

What have you done with Wilson?

The backdrop to this cool concept and character study is an uninhabited tropical island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Gruff screen mug, Lee Marvin (The Caine MutinyBad Day at Black Rock, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Dirty Dozen-1967, and many more man-movies), plays a nameless American pilot who has crash landed on the island, and the man from Japan, the explosive powerhouse that is Toshiro Mifune (Rashomon, Duel at Keymaker’s Corner, Seven SamuraiThe Samurai trilogy, Throne of BloodYojimbo, and the sword-swinging list goes on), plays the marooned Japanese navy captain.

Alone and desperate, the two testosterone-fueled brutes wage their own personal WWII on the island. Control of the beach, drinkable water, food, and supplies are the objects of their game. The winner gets to survive a little while longer. Another odd thing about this movie is that since neither character speaks the other’s language the dialogue is very minimal and unnecessary for the telling of the story. The viewer doesn’t need to know English or Japanese in order to comprehend exactly what is going on or what each character is thinking.

Mr. Lee Marvin

Mr. Lee Marvin

John Boorman (Point BlankDeliveranceZardoz, and Excalibur) directs this suspenseful and intriguing journey into the minds of these two stubborn and starving characters with much complexity and humanity. Hell in the Pacific is much more than a war movie. It’s anthropology. It’s a study of clashing cultures and a fascinating survivalist story. The American pilot (Marvin) and the Japanese naval officer (Mifune) represent a sort of microcosm for the thoughts of America and Japan during this time in history. Distrust, ethnocentrism, anger, and fear are all featured prominently in this film and capture the mindset of the time, but Boorman puts it all down to two men who are miles away from civilization. Despite their removal from all of their cultural mandates that demand they behave certain ways toward their so-called enemies, the American pilot and Japanese naval officer maintain their preconceptions and paranoia. The added complexity of their impassable language barrier makes things even more difficult to overcome. The film does not remain in this limbo of hate and fear for its entirety however.

Mr. Toshiro Mifune

Mr. Toshiro Mifune

After smoke, fire, sticks, bullets, urine, and other means of sabotage and psychological torment to undo their opponents, Lee Marvin’s character is captured by Toshiro Mifune’s character, but Marvin escapes and batters up Mifune pretty good and makes him his prisoner. The whole scenario is odd because both characters know full well that it is not accepted to take prisoners in a survival situation like this and that they are supposed to kill all enemies, but something seems to stay their hands. Could it be the fear of being truly alone? For whatever reason, they keep each other alive.

Exasperated by the increasing unlikelihood of rescue, Marvin eventually sets Mifune free and shouts “Well, do something!” Mifune is about to run away or attack, but begins to realize that Marvin has given up being a soldier. Their only real enemies right now are the ocean and the jungle. The two develop an uneasy alliance and decide they need to take matters into their own hands and find a way off the island. The only other human for miles may be an enemy—according to their respective governments—but right now they are their only chances at survival. They build a raft (after many inarticulate arguments over how to construct it) and man it together, pass the breakers, and sail on into the ocean. The movie becomes dreamlike as the days dissolve into each other and waves pound against them all night and the sun scorches them all day. Amidst it all, the two battered men begin to show each other bits of human kindness. Marvin tries to flag down a passing US plane, but Mifune stops him for fear of being killed if Americans rescue them. That’s right! —there’s a war still on.

SPOILER ALERT: if you would like the rest of the film to be a surprise and if you haven’t seen it then stop here.

Who's got the conch, now?!

Who’s got the conch, now?!

The final act and finale are also peculiar to the war genre. The two men spot another island and make way toward it. When they discover a Japanese base a rush of memory of who they both are and where they come from floods back, but they have still cultivated something of a friendship together and this supersedes their soldier duties…for the moment.

Mifune runs out to announce their presence, telling Marvin to stay hidden, but Marvin spots some US equipment and quickly realizes the Americans have captured the base so he runs out screaming not to shoot and shouting that the Japanese soldier is his friend. The base, however, is completely deserted. They clean up and shave off their unkempt beards and recline by a makeshift fire, drink sake, and glance over months-old magazines. A bit tipsy, they begin laughing like old friends (reminds me of another cultural gap crossed via alcohol—the scene in Fiddler on the Roof where the Russians dance with the Jews in the bar). The happy moment is abruptly terminated, however, when a drunken Lee Marvin starts abrasively inquiring why the Japanese don’t believe in Jesus Christ and Toshiro Mifune discovers photographs of slaughtered Japanese soldiers next to advertisements and pictures of sexy women in an American magazine. Unable to communicate, the two men begin shouting and becoming increasingly angry with one another. The animal within is back! In the distance we hear aircraft cutting through the night sky and bombs being dropped, ever gaining. Each fed up, they stand and start to leave, bitter enemies once again, but a bomb is dropped right on the deserted base by a passing plane and they are killed together. Despite all their progress, they die foolishly like enemies.

Yeah, that Life of Pi guy was a wussy.

Yeah, that Life of Pi guy was a wussy.

A puzzling ending? A maddening ending? A cop-out ending? I’ve heard it called all three and more. Maybe it is a bit of those, but I think what’s more important is what we learned and not what the characters lost. The DVD release actually features an alternate ending where they are not bombed and they just gather their things and walk off in opposite directions. The DVD also features subtitles for those curious as to what Mifune is muttering through the whole movie (most of it being a combination of “shut up” and “white beard”).

After watching Hell in the Pacific several times and watching almost everyone’s disappointment with the ending I wonder why it still doesn’t bother me so much. It may not have been the best ending, but I got so much out of watching these two characters grow, and my heart was genuinely disturbed by how fragile it all was. I knew things could never be lastingly happy between these two erratic men. Hell in the Pacific is a social and cultural character study more than a war movie and when you take it as such I think it is a much more rewarding experience. . . On another interesting note, both Marvin and Mifune served in WWII (adds another fun dimension to it all, I think).

And you thought "Saving Private Ryan" had a downer ending.

And you thought “Saving Private Ryan” had a downer ending.

Why did I like it? Well, if it’s not already obvious, I am a fan of both Lee Marvin (ever since I saw The Dirty Dozen as a kid) and Toshiro Mifune (ever since I saw Seven Samurai and started getting into Kurosawa). These are two awesome, salty, manly actors with wonderful screen presence and power. Putting them together to fight and survive on a small island Lord of the Flies-style is great. Having them teach me about another time and different mindset is just the icing on the cake. It’s a pleasure watching these two guys on film and I think the story is more than worth their efforts. It’s smart and different and I love that. I am also a fan of war movies from the 50s and 60s so that adds a lot (some of my favorites being Stalag 17, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Paths of Glory, The Guns of Navarone, and The Devil’s Brigade). Hell in the Pacific easily makes my list of great must-see war movies. If you love classic war movies, Lee Marvin, Toshiro Mifune, or stories of survival than you really shouldn’t miss Hell in the Pacific. I strongly recommend it.

For another movie about WWII soldiers stuck on an island (but with vastly different themes), check out Gabriele Salvatores’ Mediterraneo (1991).

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 16, 2010.