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Cloud At Last

I’m shocked. This year was a damn good year for new movies. There were ups: Dredd, Total Recall, Argo, and downs: Prometheus, Looper, Flight, and the in-betweens: Django Unchained, John Carter, The Avengers, and this stands in direct opposition to the last couple of years, whose downs and in-betweens weren’t nearly as interesting. 2010 is defined to me as purely Scott Pilgrim, and 2011, purely Drive. 2012 on the other hand saw a deluge of good movies… but still not enough for me to compile a top ten list.

Maybe if I actually managed to see Life of Pi like I set out to, and maybe if I lived in a major city to see Zero Dark Thirty when it came out, but no, shut up — this is Dreck Fiction’s Top Ten Movies of 2012 Rundown, a list of questionable raison d’etre, outside of making ten arguably quality recommendations…

10. The Dark Knight Rises (2012) Dir. Christopher Nolan

I hate myself. When The Dark Knight came out and everyone loved it, I could not see the value in it. Nolan’s sequel was boring, overwrought, and dumb as hell. Now, when The Dark Knight Rises comes out and people are generally positive on it but don’t think it’s as good as it could’ve been, I scratch my head yet again. I loved The Dark Knight Rises. It’s visually stunning, socially resonant, and exciting. So am I a contrarian for the sake of being a contrarian? At this point, I can’t tell, all the way over here in my lonely, argumentative corner. In some ways, I don’t care, because The Dark Knight Rises and it’s lack of Batman, introduction of neat visual icons, and cool dystopic story, keeps me welcome company.

9. Persepolis (2007) Dirs. Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud

From what little I understand of comics, Persepolis and other autobiographical comics that dominated the underground scene of their time… set the medium. Nowadays any serious comic is like this, but I’d be hard pressed to find an artist with as powerful a story as Marjane Satrapi’s. This movie is beautifully animated, and tells a heartbreaking story of a difficult coming of age during bloody history in the making. It’s a microscope pushed all the way in during a greater conflict, and the humanist themes found are just as emotionally sweeping as in any great war epic.

8. Total Recall (2012) Dir. Len Wiseman

With every remake, we ask: did we really need a remake? The answer is almost always “no,” but I’m glad for a few reasons we got Total Recall 2012 (maybe in fifty-eight years we’ll get a Total Recall 2070). One reason is that for a sci-fi action movie, it isn’t boring as all get-out. There is action from start to finish, which is plainly shocking. How did they afford that? Typically the action movie dynamic is: all the action scenes are super expensive so they can’t be all the movie, so let’s pad this out with exposi — oh shit we forgot to write a story. Here, it’s not only action but action in a lavish sci-fi world. A familiar one, yes, but hey. How many movies are set in current day L.A.? I could stand to see a few more set in 2019 L.A., if I’m being honest.

7. The Man with the Iron Fists (2012) Dir. RZA

This movie and Cloud Atlas really bum me out. In twenty years, people will look back on them and call them cult classics. Movies that fucking failed financially, finally fulfilling forgotten… (where am I?) finally gaining notice only when it’s too late for the filmmakers to benefit and make another. These movies are really something else, and it totally upsets me that people call for originality and novelty in their movies, and then slam these two for being different. I don’t have much new to say on The Man with the Iron Fists, other than I’m so glad I saw it in theatres. I’ve missed way too many modern cult classics — Slither, Grindhouse, and Scott Pilgrim come to mind — when they were in theatres and making no money.

6. The Raid: Redemption (2011) Dir. Gareth Evans

I curse The Raid: Redemption for only one reason — it partially ruined the otherwise perfectly fine Dredd. This is a martial arts movie that goes for the hard hits, and even though I’ve seen that meth lab battle a few times, I always wince at the big impacts. I haven’t been this physically affected by an action movie since the first and second viewing of Crank 2, in all its nipple-cutting glory. I love energy in movies, so if you want to be blown away by a pure action spectacle (think 300 but with no slow motion and an actual story), The Raid: Redemption is just as good as everyone says.

5. Chungking Express (2005) Dir. Wong Kar Wai

Wong Kar Wai is a vicious filmmaker who goes after cinematic conventions like a Charles Bronson-esque vigilante. Though I can’t get my head around how he does it (I assume, with his method, he’d have to fuck up at some point — he’d have to), I’m glad he makes movies as good as this, Chungking Express, often considered his best movie (though I prefer 2046). This movie is two parts — two love stories featuring gorgeous people in a gorgeous city looking despondent through windows at each other.

4. Battle Royale (2000) Dir. Finji Fukasaku

Django Unchained wins points for its tremendously bloody violence, but there isn’t too much of it in the end. Battle Royale somehow manages to keep its chaos going throughout its run, and though it’s generally difficult to stomach (fifteen year olds in school uniforms machine-gunning each others’ bodies apart), the adrenaline matches your guilt. I don’t like the idea behind this movie, I think it’s a little too harsh, but it does create the scenario I love from horror-comedies (this is not horror-comedy, for the record), where characters react realistically and funnily to an insane situation. I think to that scene where two students are shooting at each other at the start of the game, hesitating and stumbling over each other like the fisticuffs in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. I’m a little dissapointed that Chiaki Kuriyama went out so quickly, and that after Kill Bill: Vol. 1 she didn’t do much high-profile stuff… but the shotgun dude was cool, and he made up for it.

3. The Road Home (2000) Dir. Zhang Yimou

As much as I might bellyache over The Road Home‘s core conceits, that of good ol’ fashioned, freeze-your-ass off transcendental living, y’all goddamn cityfolk, and one person’s definition of feminism in the obsession and stalking of a man, I can’t help but be utterly silenced by its sweeping, rollercoaster romance. Its got easily my favorite score I heard this year, with that main theme swelling in just the right points in the narrative, keeping the tears inside on a steady flow. For such a tiny story where scope and scale are concerned, there are moments that feel like punches to the gut — this is exemplary cinematic storytelling, audio/video as literary device akin to In the Mood for Love. The sequence of our heroine’s initial courting of the dude builds brilliantly: she attempts to wait for him as he walks along the road (home), but gets cold feet and ducks behind the bushes three or four times. When she finally sums up the courage, she passes him on the road (home) and he gives her a nod. She smiles really big and the theme swells — no dialogue, all expression.

2. Cloud Atlas (2012) Dirs. Andy and Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer

Like I said earlier with Iron Fists, this makes me so sad. You’ll notice that when critics talk down on Cloud Atlas, their criticisms are vague as hell. I don’t believe they know why they hate the movie, and frankly, sir, I don’t believe I know why I like the movie. But I felt it as I sat there in an uncomfortable ass, stadium-seating-impaired theatre, craning my neck upward. The movie pounded with life and imagination, it was like a guided tour through three of the most creative minds in film. I don’t know what we were meant to take away from the film (a reason why it’s not #1), but I feel like if I were to begin deconstructing it, I’d ruin the purity of experience for myself. Also, go Keith David!

1. Brokeback Mountain (2005) Dir. Ang Lee

“Are they gay?” my friend asks when I’m watching it for a second time.
“I think… they’re confused.”

The right answer is simpler: it doesn’t matter. Labels have no place here. This is a story about individuals who are destroyed by such things — cultural expectations, masculine and familial priorities — so any frazzled critic who shouts that calling these characters homosexual marginalizes the bisexual community needs to sleep on it (back in 2005). The characters at various points in the movie maintain that they’re both straight men, and this represents a major failure in American (and global) society. Brokeback Mountain doesn’t point fingers or complain, it does a movie’s job, and makes a much more powerful statement in doing so. One of its most sympathetic characters is actually one of the two men’s wives, and indeed, the film illustrates the destructive power of intolerance in the female characters it reaches indirectly. In my opinion, one of the most heart-wrenching (if somewhat hokey) lines is delivered by Delmar’s (Heath Ledger) second girl.

For a supposedly straight male, I tend to concern myself a lot with LGBT issues (there’s that contrarian again?), but Brokeback Mountain doesn’t speak to The Man Inside me (who will one day walk free of the pain), but the humanist I aspire to be.

So there you have it. See you round.

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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!

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