Mini Reviews Too Late

by wjw on February 6, 2010

I’ve seen a bunch of stuff lately. None worthy of lengthy analysis, but some worthy of note.

Dirigible (1931). In Dirigible, a very early film by Frank Capra, we watch our brave hero Jack Bradon (Jack Holt) battle for the future of US Navy rigid airships! (Well, we know how that turned out.)

Our hero is married to Fay Wray, but there’s a triangle with fighter pilot Frisky (Ralph Graves), who is frankly a lot more fun to be around than Jack, who acts as if he’s got a rigid airship shoved somewhere up his fundament.

The climax takes place in Antarctica, where Frisky attempts to conquer the Pole in a mere three-engine monoplane and crashes. It’s the dirigible to the rescue!

There’s some truly spectacular footage in this one, particularly of an air show at Lakehurst, where the US Navy’s entire dirigible armada seems to be on display at once. The special effects are really very good, particularly in the Antarctica scenes and in a scene involving a zeppelin crash at sea. (Incidentally, did you know that every rigid airship built in the US crashed, killing almost all their crews? The ones we got from the Germans did just fine.)

The drawback to this film is the acting, which is downright wretched. All of the actors, including Ms. Wray, exhibit what can only be described as negative charisma. Odd, because the three principals all had long Hollywood careers subsequent to this film. Apparently the audience was watching the zeps, and no one cared what the actors were doing. I advise doing exactly that.

The Happening (2008). Further evidence that M. Night Shyamalan is a one-hit wonder. This story would have made a great half-hour Twilight Zone episode, but is very flabby at 143 minutes. The latter parts of the film are so dull that a spooky old farmhouse with a menacing old lady was added to provide some tension. (A plague causing the entire population of the Northeast to commit suicide wasn’t scary enough, I guess.)

The acting is very flat, and a subplot added to provide texture to the principals’ relationship is ludicrous. Avoid.

Lost in Austen (2008). Jesus Christ, do we really need a romantic comedy that’s three hours long? Okay, it’s three episodes of a UK miniseries stuck together to make a feature for US release, but still . . .

It’s a comedy with one joke. (Modern woman enters fictional realm, takes place of Elizabeth Bennett.) And yes, we’d all like to kick Mr. Collins in the balls, and chew out Mr. Bingley for being a gormless twit. And the acting is good, and the dialog gives a genuine feeling for the period.

But three whole hours . . . ? My God, Miss Bennett, those are three hours that I shall never again see!

Redbelt (2008). Macho playwrite David Mamet writing and directing a martial arts movie? Damn, I’m like so totally there!

It’s not what you expect. It builds to all the traditional beats of a martial arts film— including the one where the warrior gets tired of taking endless shit from these remorseless corrupt sacks of dog crap who run his life and the world in general, and then goes for his katana and gets all samurai on their asses!— except that doesn’t happen. Mamet is a master of the unexpected, and though all the beats are there, he rings changes on all of them. (Okay, mixed metaphor there.)

The result is a film that is set in a much lower key than the conventional martial arts movie, but that has its own satisfactions. It also has a very, very twisty plot that I found myself admiring a lot— but then I’m Plotboy, and that’s the sort of thing I like.

The Hidden Kingdom (2008). Speaking of martial arts movies, here’s an amiable kung fu flick that won’t surprise you at all, but that keeps every promise that it makes. It features Jackie Chan doing wire-fu rather than the amazing physical stunts that built his reputation— and that’s sort of like getting a Mercedes SLC Gullwing to play the role of a 1975 Ford Pinto— but what the hell. If he doesn’t mind, I guess I don’t.

Ian McDowell February 7, 2010 at 6:46 am

Although I liked much of REDBELT, and am a big fan of the leading man, whom I've loved in everything from DIRTY PRETTY THINGS to KINKY BOOTS to SERENITY, I had some problems with it.

The twisty plot doesn't really make sense. I don't buy that all these people would devote so much effort to stealing the hero's not so remarkable idea. And, while I'd LIKE to believe that idea that a "real martial artist" doesn't need to compete to be a world class fighter, I'm not sure that I buy it.

I think that, in the real world, a guy like Terry, who spends most of his time in the dojo teaching other people, which necessitates that he do a lot of standing around and talking rather than rolling constantly on the matt, would have his ass handed to him by a guy who's been intensively training for months for a big fight. We talk about the "True Spirit" of martial arts a lot, and it does matter, but in a real fight, conditioning and muscle memory matter more.

This doesn't bother me in more stylized and fanciful martial arts film, but REDBELT aims for a degree of surface realism. And in the real world, pro boxers, pro Muay Thai fighters, pro Sambo fighters, pro San Shao fighters, pro MMA'ers, pro Shootfighters, or even amateur judokas and boxers who train at an Olympic level, clean the clocks of even the greatest sifus, senseis and coaches. It may well be that "competition weakens the spirit," but when a serious competition fighter goes up against someone who's not been full-out training every waking hour for the past few months, that serious competition fighter usually wins (unless, of course, he's fighting somebody from a radically different discipline who has techniques in his arsenal the champ has never encountered before, but that's not the case here).

Ian McDowell February 7, 2010 at 7:12 am

As for THE HIDDEN KINGDOM, what bothered me was seeing Jackie and Jet play second fiddle to a really boring and charisma-free gweilo.

Jackie's LITTLE BIG SOLDIER, which he made in Cantonese last year, is his best film in years and years. No big stunts this time, and the fighting, what there is of it, tends to be just Jackie bobbing and weaving, but his performance is really good. And Jet is even better in the period epic tragedy THE WARLORDS, which has a little wirework but which is mostly realistic Kurosawa-style mass warfare, set during the Taiping Rebellion. Acting in Mandarin, Jet steals the picture from his co-stars Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro. He won Best Actor awards in Hong Kong and Taiwan for it.

Oddly, Sammo Hung seems to have aged better than Jackie, despite being older and both bigger-boned and (of course) fatter. In recent films like SPL, aka KILLZONE, where he has a bruising and vicious fight with Donnie Yen that mixes kung fu and MMA, and in the comedy KUNG FU CHEF, he's demonstrating physical skills that Jackie, with all his injuries, doesn't seem to have any more.

This teaser for Donnie Yen's IP MAN 2, the second of his still-in-progress trilogy about Bruce Lee's sifu, ends before Yen's Wing Chun using hero and Sammo's Hung Gar master villain actually fight, but look at how badass Sammo appears here, even in what's little more than a glimpse:

Here's Sammo w. staff vs. Wu Jing w. sword in 2008's FATAL MOVE:

And here's the fight between Donnie Yen and Sammo in SHAO PO LONG, aka S.P.L., retitled KILLZONE for American release. Yen has been getting into MMA of late, and incorporating it into his choreography (Tony Jaa has also been a big influence on him).

dubjay February 7, 2010 at 8:32 am

Re REDBELT, I take your point, but I'm not so sure. The bad guy was not in his comfort zone. He wasn't in a ring, with officials and a referee, he found himself in an unscripted backstage brawl when all his plans involved him being in a fixed fight.

Re HIDDEN KINGDOM, I suppose we all know why the white kid had to be the hero. Just as we know why, in a fight between Jackie Chan and Jet Li, neither can win, and neither can be a bad guy. Yet there is something to be said for harmless entertainment, and this was it.

Ian McDowell February 7, 2010 at 3:36 pm

THE HIDDEN KINGDOM is definitely more fun than I expected it to be. As for REDBELT, I don't think I would have minded so much if Mamet hadn't stressed Terry's "competition weakens the fighter" philosophy.

Ty February 8, 2010 at 8:27 pm

I have to say, as someone who studied and competed in martial arts, but who also has been in far more than his fair share of street fights, I kind of agree with Terry's assessment. If I was in a fight with someone who'd only ever fought in the rigidly controlled confines of competitive martial arts, I'd feel pretty good about my chances. All other things being equal, of course.

This is more true of very rigid and stylized martial arts, and less true of brutal anything-goes competition like MMA. Most MMA fights pretty much ARE street brawls, with someone there to make sure on one gets killed.

Where this sort of breaks down is that Terry is not shown as someone who's getting in a lot of street fights either. They do however intimate that he spent some amount of time as a special forces operator.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post:

Contact Us | Terms of User | Trademarks | Privacy Statement

Copyright © 2010 WJW. All Rights Reserved.