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Kung-Fu masters with heavy metal hair kick each others’ bodies apart while the Ol’ Dirty Bastard raps about running game. This is the first five minutes of the RZA’s heavily anticipated directorial debut, and it is exactly what we were hoping for. The action is frenetic, and bloody as hell, and the music, while sliding toward the more traditional as the film goes on, completes it to create a satisfying whole. The hip-hop/martial arts aesthetic has never been better, and The Man with the Iron Fists is not only an essential piece of that legacy, it’s self-aware and exciting niche entertainment.

A decently complex but well-designed story structure is held together by running commentary of the Blacksmith (RZA), who feels at once out of place, with his modern locution, and spiritually engaged. We move from character to character under this guide, learning who the players are and how every piece fits into place in anticipation of the final showdown. The plot builds toward what promises to be an explosive ending, telling of a shipment of gold that’s headed through the violent Jungle Village, where seven deadly clans have gathered to wage war. Infighting in the Lion Clan has put a warmonger on top, a goofball psychopath named Silver Lion (Byron Mann) who seeks to claim the gold.

He stays in Lady Blossom’s (Lucy Liu) hotel, the same place where later a mysterious gunfighter, Jack Knife (Russell Crowe), will establish his lethal presence. Meanwhile, Zen-Yi (Rick Yune) is told of his father’s death at Silver Lion’s hands, and treks back to Jungle Village to avenge him and take the clan back. Predicting this course of action, Silver Lion dispatches his chief assassin, Brass Body (Dave Bautista), to deal with it.

Everyone needs a weapon, and so they all turn to the Blacksmith, who only wants to leave with his woman, a Blossom Prostitute known as Lady Silk (Jamie Chung). There are many characters here and a lot of recognizable names. As a co-screenwriter, the RZA manages to balance all of them equally, allowing for even minor characters like the Gemini Killers (Andrew Li and Grace Huang) ample screentime for badassery. There are also some key cameos, though apparently I missed Eli Roth’s. Watch for that one, I guess.

With RZA as a director, this does in a few ways feel like a debut film. The camera isn’t always confident or well-placed (though a few shots are downright beautiful), but the action is great — hyperviolent, flamboyantly bloody, and visually stimulating. There’s a rhythm to it that I assume a rap producer must have a feel for — the speeding up and slowing down for crucial moments and amplification of impacts is second nature to someone who not only lives and breathes musical timing, but has gorged himself on a lifetime of martial arts cinema to know well what works and what doesn’t.

And the story is perfectly structured for this premise. It’s an action movie, so there’s no muddling of the action with boring mythology or cliché and boring characters as in the last live-action Hollywood Chinese martial arts movie — The Forbidden Kingdom. Though this lacks the star power of that movie, it has a cast that not only looks great in their crazy costumes, but provides energetic or appropriately brooding performances. A particular standout is Byron Mann, whose Silver Lion enjoys what he does just a bit too much.

Though the RZA as an actor seems to take a backseat to the others, he shows his stuff in the moments he provides for himself, playing the Blacksmith with a subdued rage and mystical spirit that comes through in those sad, sad eyes. His voiceovers are just so damn entertaining, and his physical performance is believable in its own, fantastical logic.

On the writing side, there is a lot of dialogue that works, but is somewhat ‘dropped’ by awkward shot choices. There’s a moment early on where one of Silver Lion’s cronies agrees with a fellow soldier in that very obvious, bandwagon way, and the Silver Lion begins to call him on it, which feels like the setup to a punchline that never comes — there’s never a reaction shot of the dude, or really any change in frame at all from Silver Lion. It’s the small things like these that will eventually have you wondering abour later moments, like when the female Gemini notes that the Blossom cook’s beef is spicy, and he responds, “Oh goooood,” rather strangely but seemingly deliberately. Why include that moment at all?

Complaints are small and those are all of them. The Man with the Iron Fists is a hugely entertaining action movie with memorable characters and a plot that builds and intrigues, rather than complicates and alienates. Tarantino provides an introduction and trailer for Django Unchained before the RZA’s movie starts, and the Jamie Foxx-led ‘southern’ looks damn good, but the bar’s been officially raised for balls-out, exploitative, genre-literate violence.

The Wu-Tang Clan created a unique sound in the 90s by sampling old kung fu movies into violent but passionate hip-hop lyrics — there was a combination of the east and west that was slightly more celebratory than the other east/west mashup where 90s rap is concerned. This fusion of martial arts’ philosophical themes and styles with the poetic and hard-hitting music creates a fascinating aesthetic that’s sustained a multitude of titles since. We’re finally seeing a major, mainstream entry in this legacy, with directorial guidance from the RZA himself — an expert in martial arts films and no stranger to the movie industry.

If you want to know what to expect with The Man with the Iron Fists or just want to see where the RZA is coming from, check out the following…

Samurai Champloo

This doesn’t have direct involvement from the RZA, but director Shinichiro Watanabe is familiar with combining a distinct musical style with specific film genres. Here it’s chambara film and hip-hop, with a killer opening song and frequent, kinetic action scenes. Champloo is a very good anime series but suffers from Watanabe’s own filmography — his previous Cowboy Bebop is considered to be the greatest anime series of all time. When you follow that with a very good anime — well, you can do the math. The series is consistent, dramatic, and frequently humorous. The characters are fun, and the overall feel is hip and stylish. The ending song is also great.

Shogun Assassin

This is one of the few movies where the English dub is actually mandatory. If you see it in the original language track you’ll miss the dialogue that the GZA sampled into various instrumentals on Liquid Swords. It’s small wonder why this film made such an impact on the Wu-Tang founder — it’s a strange little gem, completely unafraid of excessive sprays of blood and even violence against women: the kind that might make you cringe, but it’s all in good fun. And what’s more fun than seeing a badass baby riding around in a baby cart built of weapons with his stoic samurai dad? The ultimate family movie. It’s actually an edit of the first two Lone Wolf and Cub movies, so it takes all the action bits, and leaves out assumedly plenty of story. The Lone Wolf manga was penned by Kazuo Koike, author of among other things, Lady Snowblood, the adaptation of which had a major influence on the next on the list…

Kill Bill

Yep, that’s him alright. An alarming deletion of scene from Part II, where Bill fights this let’s say, Dynamite, Samurai

The RZA scored this, the original ‘two tickets, one movie,’ dealio back from when we didn’t know about a Harry Potter 7 or Twilight 4. Luckily this is one of Tarantino’s best, a balls-insane mashup of Italian westerns, Shaw Brothers kung-fu, samurai epics, and the gorier pieces of Japanese cinema a la Fukasaku and Miike. The Man with the Iron Fists is being produced by Tarantino, so I imagine the RZA will be benefitting here from an established creative relationship, as he does consider the great genrebuster a mentor. It might also, however, be like Frank Miller coming off of Sin City with The Spirit. Let’s hope not.

Afro Samurai

I’ve only seen the first episode. Interesting, but I haven’t heard great things about it. This is probably more hip-hop than samurai, if Champloo was more samurai than hip-hop, but I’ve never heard anyone call it better than its Japanese counterpart.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

Before the RZA’s directorial debut, Ghost Dog was definitely the quintessential Wu-Tang movie. It features Forest Whitaker as a Mafia hit man who lives by the code of the samurai. It’s a mostly tacit lifestyle, filled with night-driving and hanging out with the odd gallery of friends he amasses in a French ice cream truck guy and a scholarly little girl. It is a lifestyle punctuated by violence nonetheless, and the action in this movie is sparse but effective, particularly with Ghost Dog’s first kill.

Ghost Dog ‘sheathes’ his silenced pistols much in the way a samurai would a sword, and practices martial arts on the lonely New York rooftops, up there with the pigeons, his preferred mode of communication with the outside world. This is a quirky if uneven film, funny in places and dark in others, but overall an iconic example of the gangsta/samurai aesthetic, and proud piece in a legacy following films like Le Samourai and those of Kurosawa — it isn’t revision so much as it is celebration.

Celebration I’d say is a key theme. There’s an appreciation of many cultures, and a tolerance of such things that’s unprecedented in violent macho movies. Ghost Dog is very in tune with his inner spirit, and is able to communicate with his best friend the ice cream guy by pushing through the language barrier — it’s a deeper connection. The most telling scene is when the ice cream guy, fascinated by a man building a boat, yells down from a rooftop in French: “That’s incredible! How are you gonna get that out?” and gets “I don’t understand, but I have to get back to work!” as a response, in Spanish. The ice cream guy smiles and Ghost Dog nods, walks off.

This embracing of other people and foreign cultures is a cornerstone of this ‘subgenre,’ and I think there’s a lot to be gained in blending cultures, mixing philosophies and aesthetics to create modern mythology in film and music.

The RZA, who scored Ghost Dog, does appear in this film, credited as the “Samurai in Camoflague,” and though his scene is brief, it is perhaps the most appropriate role for him. Better at least, then the crackhead who gets killed in American Gangster. We’ll see truly how his acting skills (among other things) shake out on the 2nd of next month, but I have high hopes. He’s such a cool guy; it’d suck to see his movie fare poorly.

Oh, and the Italian gangsters in this movie are just crazy. If nothing else, watch this movie for them. They are not unlike the depiction of cosa nostra in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

So that should give you a general idea — these various titles the with direct involvement of the RZA, or that follow his approach to genre, are the Wu-Tang aesthetic and philosophy manifest in film and TV. The ultimate piece will be The Man with the Iron Fists, and if Ghost Dog and Kill Bill were the RZA’s film background, he’s in good shape.

Well shit — you see that picture with the eyeball!

 

It took me two and a half viewings to realize that after all, I did enjoy the Inglourious Basterds; the experience was just muddled by some requisite qualifications. This is not the QT’s finest hour, though it does follow the path he’s always followed, which was made most obvious in his most finest hour with the first half of Kill Bill. Indeed what worked so beautifully in the Kill Bill saga begins to fall apart here, so this is one of those cases where it’s a swing and a miss, but it’s a hefty swing.

The genre filmmakers to look out for nowadays seem to dabble in making movies paying homage to the flicks they grew up with – you know, your Eli Roths and Robert Rodriguez’s, even Edgar Wright and Takashi Miike – and leading them is Tarantino. By this time we could judge what Tarantino’s favorite genres are by just reviewing his small but impressive filmography, and note that western is high up there. There are moments in Basterds that feel downright Leone (or possibly Corbucci, but I suppose we’ll see that in Django Unchained), and these are the moments that work the best.

 

Otherwise you can break the movie down into a few pieces: tense dialogues, lighthearted dialogues, and really boring bits that seem to do nothing. Practically every moment with the character Shoshanna was unmemorable and really rather dull to me; I didn’t care for this character when she’s so obviously standing in the shadow of a tried and true archetype – the squad. The titular Basterds are The Dirty Dozen, are the Inglorious Bastards, are every men-on-a-mission movie men on a mission we’ve ever seen. When they’re on-screen, the movie actually comes across as more of a western, and this is hugely entertaining. When Shoshanna is on-screen, she’s usually just plotting, and this is so goddamn boring.

The best that this movie can be is entertaining, and I suppose that’s just what Tarantino set out to do with this one. Whereas legitimate themes could be extrapolated out of Death Proof, I feel that Tarantino wasn’t trying to say much here. Rather, he crafts an intricate escapist fantasy where Hitler was brutally murdered by Jewish soldiers, and everything is just like it was in the movies.

 

 

The genre-mixing and film-within-a-film are what pay homage to earlier movies, and it sets up this fantasy world where the one goal is entertainment. And it is entertaining – people don’t make movies like this, QT is one of a kind and I’m thankful for his cinematic contributions. When the movie slows down and gets involved with its characters, who by purpose must be archetypes, I too slow down and check my watch.

Unfortunately for Inglourious Basterds the movie also just made me wish Tarantino had done a straight western, and nix the war setting altogether. Even if he didn’t, he really should’ve called the movie Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France. Bit of a mouthful, but the joke would’ve landed better.

 

Quentin Tarantino. At this point I’d say he’s infamous – after his involvement with Grindhouse and the completion of his two-part magnum opus, people began to look back on his older stuff and realize that he’s been doing the same thing the whole time; he never changed. Reservoir Dogs was an homage to movies of its ilk, and Pulp Fiction was a melting pot of just about everything. Maybe people think he’s a one trick pony because this is all he does, on top of writing cute dialogue, but hey as long as he’s the only one doing it – or the only getting it right – I’ll eagerly await the releases of his future projects.

Major Spoilers for Death Proof

Grindhouse is a strange entity. Its two halves are Planet Terror, as directed by Dreck Fiction favorite Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. Both are homages to an earlier time, earlier genres, and earlier attitudes. It’s critical consensus that while Planet Terror is the truer half, as it’s fun and creatively gory, Death Proof is the better film. In my opinion, they’re both surpassed by the film from years earlier, From Dusk Till Dawn, which was the spiritual predecessor to Grindhouse (just check out every review of the movie ever written, and you’ll find people jumping all over it for being two movies in one). I do think that on the whole Planet Terror is more fun, and that’s the one that I chose to have on the Blu-ray Disc. I guess you can only have one.

That’s another problem with Grindhouse; because one of the major criticisms of fans was that it was too long, which seems rather imbecilic, the home release was split up into two movies. Rather than having Grindhouse on DVD and PSP we have Grindhouse Presents Planet Terror and Grindhouse Presents Death Proof, I believe. Nowhere except for on the Internet can the fake trailers be located. At least, they aren’t on Planet Terror‘s disc, aside from Machete, which remains better than the expanded version by ten miles.

Death Proof, just like its parent in Grindhouse, is a strange entity. It too is split up into two movies, or at least, we have two major groups of characters in two separate plotlines. The first, which drags, follows around potential victims of serial killer Stuntman Mike. Most of the action takes place in the bar, and invariably, these characters – four girls – are overshadowed and outdone by the surprise faces in the bar like Eli Roth and of course, Quentin Tarantino. QT is found playing the one role he always plays, perhaps the role he was meant to play – some scheezy guy.

Once this segment is out of the way we’re introduced immediately to a group of girls that are most interesting in every way. Among them is Rosario Dawson, who I’ve always been enamored of, and who’s kind of a cult favorite after movies like Sin City and Clerks 2. We also see Mary Elizabeth Winstead, mentioned earlier in the Scott Pilgrim vs. The World review. She plays a much different character here.

In Scott Pilgrim vs. The World she plays a darker, more broken character. Yet she is in a comedy film. Here, in this horror/comedy, she is the comic relief. We’re supposed to laugh at her because she’s too damn happy, too dumb, too girly. The disparity between Lee in Death Proof and Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World really speaks to a subtle acting prowess – she’s entirely convincing in both roles, yet one appears very distracted and sunny, and the other is serious and more complex.

Lee plays a significant role, just as all the other girls in the film do. This is a movie about females, about female empowerment and film postmodernism. Death Proof overall is about Quentin Tarantino, and his DJ stylings – he takes characters from the mythology of film and mixes and matches. Here we find a serial killer from a Wes Craven slasher movie – but the twist is that he’s out of place. We have a commentary on the passing of time in film as enhanced by the theme of female progression. The ultimate triumph in the story is of girls over the slasher, and this happens only after the slasher’s been taken out of his 70’s environment, where he has the power to kill Rose McGowan and all the other girls of the first group.

In order to arrive at that point we need to experience the various female cliches and archetypes established by earlier movies. Lee’s character is summarized in her appearance – despite being an actor playing an actor, she’s the cheerleader. She is nothing other than the cheerleader, thus she’s happy, dumb, and girly. Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thoms are the adrenaline junkies – sort of the idealized strong woman in Quentin Tarantino’s eye. Zoe Bell plays herself, and was a real surprise. When we first see her she’s this Australian chick with the cute accent and a sunny face, but as it turns out, she’s the biggest adrenaline freak of them all; she’s the one who gets on top of the speeding Dodge Challenger to duel Stuntman Mike’s death proof car.

The cheerleader gets left behind, which is an uncomfortable moment in the movie (not as uncomfortable as the lap dance however, which is retained in full for the DVD release [allegedly in theatres Tarantino slipped in the ‘missing reel’ gag over it]), and we only have the strong women to overcome the slasher.

The other group of girls were manipulative and got drunk all the time – really the opposite of role models. As we learned in that YouTube video, something like “Tarantino PWNS some woman named Jane,” QT believes that the girls he depicts on screen are women that little girls should not only be watching (all of his movies have been hard-Rs) but taking after. That’s what Kill Bill was all about. These girls however, don’t have it in them to overcome the baddy.

And what a badguy; Stuntman Mike was perfectly cast here, and it follows the theme of postmodern filmmaking. What do we remember Kurt Russell for? We remember him for two movies – Escape from New York, and Big Trouble in Little China, two of the most iconic Carpenter flicks around, in a filmography filled with icons of cinema. The characters of Snake Plissken and Jack Burton reinvented the hero by being A-grade badass and A-grade clumsy respectively.

Stuntman Mike, twenty or so years later, is purely evil. The badass still remains, but it’s a new take on a familiar face; not something we’re used to. This shake-and-bake* approach to genre filmmaking is rare and it’s something that if overdone would get old, like the documentary approach for District 9 (fingers crossed Elysium will be different), but that’s why Quentin Tarantino is one-of-a-kind, and this is a good thing.

Tarantino rip-offs are usually always a bad idea; The Boondock Saints for example stands out, which needed to take more cues from Rodriguez than QT, and he makes these glorified B movies with the artistry and skill of a master. No, he’s not one of the A-list directors like the Spielbergs and Jacksons of the world, but he’s a niche filmmaker who can do niche things that have only really recently taken on wide popularity, as we’ll see next.

Death Proof is the deeper half of Grindhouse, which itself is a great movie. Watch Planet Terror to see Rodriguez go nuts with an excellent cast and extreme effects, and watch Death Proof for what is truly the truer grindhouse flick.

Planet Terror plays it safe in terms of its homage; it’s a cheapo exploitative movie with a budget (like the equally brainless Sin City and From Dusk Till Dawn), so it’s something new, but retains the staples of what we think of when we think of exploitation: nudity, guns, blood, and visual quality that appears to tear at the seams. It celebrates the feel of grindhouse cinema, which can’t be pegged for a specific genre but a range – certain kung fu movies are considered grindhouse, as were blaxploitation and sci-fi movies and of course, those infamous women in chains movies.

On the other hand Death Proof celebrates the chase movies and slasher movies by reinventing them, by combining them and seeing what fits. It may not be a perfect movie – like I said the first half drags like the knuckles of Cro-Magnon Man [sigh] but the noted chase scene at the end was really rather exhilarating, and meant something. The final shot of the movie is just perfect, and the second group of girls really embody the strong-woman archetype that Tarantino began to observe with his magnum opus, continued through Death Proof, and stopped with Inglourious Basterds. I really didn’t give a fuck about Shoshanna, but we’ll get there.

Celebration was the goal here, to pay homage to an earlier age in film. As only Quentin Tarantino can however, he also pushed forward.

*Is that gay?
Yes.

The end scene in the diner, according to the final draft of the screenplay, at one point found Jules shooting ‘Pumpkin’ through the table and killing Honey Bunny as well. He then wakes up, so to speak, to find Pumpkin still there, barking the same orders at him as we see in the completed film. This would serve to reinforce the idea that Jules could be headed down two paths, the one he’s always been on, and the one where he’s a sheperd battling the tyranny of evil men. The daydream where he shoots the young couple would naturally be Tarantino-violent, and we’d see that this isn’t what he wants to do, as he says later in the conversation he has with Pumpkin.

While this would have certainly been interesting to see, I’ve decided that he made the right decision to leave it out, if it was his decision. This reflects upon the characters in the movie, and what they mean in the scope of the narrative, and in all narratives. Seeing into Jules’ mind at that moment would have been detrimental to his character, because he isn’t really human. The characters that Quentin Tarantino creates here and has always created up until Inglourious Basterds, are larger than life, possess that mythical quality cribbed from the films of Sergio Leone and Martin Scorsese. Jules is compelling not because of his sordid past or his complex relationship problems, but because he’s so damn cool.

That is his character, and that’s what Pulp Fiction is all about. Indeed, something I have a lot of trouble with is critical perception of characters such as Vincent, Jules, Butch, and Marsellus. They are intriguing but they aren’t complex; I can accept that but haven’t found that everyone can. What Tarantino did in the 90’s revolutionized the cinematic tale, as Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction were adverse to everything ever. Pulp Fiction was revisionist noir, where your classic pulp adventures were stripped of all their noir elements, and modernized into a pop culturally adept, hip, shocking experience. Of course, that’s common knowledge and in fact I am quite late to the party, having seen Pulp Fiction only a few days ago.

Something that I have trouble with in terms of Tarantino as a writer is what his movies are about, the themes and ideas he explores in writing. Indeed his methods are so postmodern and unconventional that they baffle me, and I do my best to see things like this. My problem, if it can even be called that, is that he never says anything in these movies, and so insight on the filmmaker stops at cinemaphile. His genre literacy is above most other filmmakers, and his movies have always reflected that, most significantly in the Kill Bill movies. Messing around with genre conventions, tropes, characters, themes, and visuals, displacing them and reimagining them is always interesting, and sometimes profound, but I don’t see much beyond that.

It’s more an issue of confusion than frustration – I like QT’s movies just the way they are, and his next movie, Django Unchained, is just so awesome based on title alone, and you know exactly what it’s going to be, but I wonder if he’ll ever speak to some higher or more universal idea, and I’m immediately reminded of something I heard awhile ago related to my favorite filmmaker Robert Rodriguez. A friend of mine was explaining that when Machete was coming out, his father was complaining that this was a guy who kept making goofball movies (echoing an old Ebert criticism as far back as Desperado), and here was yet another one.

Machete and the Mexico Trilogy are just the movies that Rodriguez sets out to make – films akin to the action movies of Carpenter. Comical, over-the-top, 80’s movies, no doubt about it. And these are just the movies that Tarantino makes, and as we’ll find out later, some of his movies are pretty deep. Pulp Fiction isn’t necessarily such a movie, but it doesn’t have to be. It just has to be entertaining as all hell, and it is.

 

Tarantino is famous for cool dialogue and infamous for his passion for cinema. His next movie, Django Unleashed, just seems so obvious that I face-palmed when I read the title – it might seem he’s been on an homage kick as of late, and this just falls in line, but no, appreciating the history of film has been a constant in the filmmaker’s career. Those two elements, dialogue and cinemaphilia, are what make the writer/director great in my eyes, and often intermix, whether it’s Samuel L. Jackson talking about John Woo movies or the girls in Death Proof arguing over Vanishing Point/Pretty in Pink, it’s all great stuff, and it seems to come so naturally to the guy.

Part of what makes his dialogue so good is not what typically makes writing great. Tarantino dropped out of high school halfway through, so I imagine his literary background is relatively small in comparison with other writers of his kind. He also said “hell no” to film school, but I don’t know what they teach in film school. So his diction and syntax and all that conventional mechanical stuff isn’t what makes Tarantino’s writing, what makes his writing is his talent to create cool characters. Jules in Pulp Fiction, The Bride in Kill Bill, Jackie Brown, Aldo Raine in Inglourious Basterds, and of course Zoe Bell as Zoe Bell in Death Proof all have mythological depth in terms of cinematic and genre language.

That, and they’re just really cool characters, and once Tarantino takes the massive effort to construct a very cool character, it becomes easy for him to make them say things that are equally cool, which is the part that translates directly to the screen – and it seems effortless. For the audience, these guys are just fun to watch.

However.

As of late, Tarantino has caught a lot of flack I feel, and I’m beginning to notice that each successive film he makes gets worse and worse paced. Reservoir Dogs ran at a fairly brisk pace, but Inglourious Basterds and Death Proof were bizarre with their unbalanced chapters. I feel like as Tarantino delves deeper and deeper into genre revisionism, he alienates certain audiences (not so many ‘got’ Death Proof, but Inglourious had general appeal for the most part) and it doesn’t help that the movies drag, and some of the dialogue bits are just too much.

So I’ll start this with what some consider to be his greatest movie, Pulp Fiction, and work my way up to Inglourious Basterds, which I just watched back-to-back with… Ponyo?

I liked Ponyo.

As a not so avid viewer of the films of Hayao Miyazaki, I haven't quite been desensitized to his message, so I ended up enjoying this quite a bit

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