A Touch of Zen
A Touch of Zen is a 1971 wǔxiá film. Wǔxiá is a type of martial arts film from China which takes place in a mythical golden age or even parallel world (Jiang Hu) wherein fighters attained levels of skill never seen in our time; allowing them to run across water and trees as well as achieve near perfect aim and defensive moves. The plots concern warriors who live by codes of honor based on Buddhist principles which frequently place them at odds with the law enforced by corrupt authorities. The Communist government of China banned the genre in the 20th century, not having to strain hard to see how the genre could be used to attack them. During the reforms of the 1980s, the ban was finally lifted, resulting in more recent, Chinese-produced films wǔxiá films like Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers and Hero or Chen Kaige’s the Promise.
Filming for A Touch of Zen began in 1969 (during the Chinese ban) in Taiwan where, along with Hong Kong, wǔxiá flourished after beginning in silent era. Set in the 14th century, it’s seen through the eyes of Ku, an un-ambitious, nerdy painter who lives with his mother in a decaying, abandoned fort believed by the superstitious locals to be haunted. When the mysterious Yang Hui-Ching crosses his path, he’s immediately smitten with the icy stranger. To his surprise and delight, she beds him and then she fills him in on her background – she’s a fugitive being pursued by a Eunuch named Wei who murdered her father and is now seeking to obliterate her entire family. Ku’s eager to help and, combining his scholarly background and Yang’s out-of-this-world fighting ability, they route her pursuers.Continue Reading
Atanarjuat (Fast Runner)
Atanarjuat is set roughly 1,000 years ago in the Inuit village of Igloolik. The plot is based on an ancient legend about a community under the curse of an evil shaman and torn apart by human failings. One man, the heroic Atanarjuat, goes on a Homeric quest and offers change.
The screenplay came from writer Paul Apak Angilirq’s interviews with eight Inuit elders whose stories he combined and fleshed out and added personal touches. Sadly, he died of cancer during production. The film, shot on digital cameras, takes a Dogma-like approach that places the viewer in the middle of the action. The affect is akin to watching a pre-millennial episode of COPS set in the tundra.Continue Reading
THIS JUICE BUGZ Somewhere between Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Batman there is Tim Burton’s feature length sophomore effort, Beetlejuice. Upon a recent rewatch, I realized I’d forgotten how truly amazing, wildly inventive and original this phantasmagoric odd-ball comedy was! It’s quite frankly the purest Burton experience for me. It’s just silly how much of JUICE’s visual language oozes with Burtonisms! Add to that the sweet (as in cool) dialogue and characters created by co-authors Michael McDowell and Larry Wilson. I’m kinda in love with it lately!
THE DIRT ON THE DEAD… Adam and Barbara Maitland just died. Played with great wholesomeness by Alec Baldwin (Adam) and Geena Davis (Barbara). So they die. But for a while they don’t know it. It becomes more apparent to them when they find a copy of the Handbook For The Recently Deceased laying around the house and the rude awakening that the Deetz’ are the new occupants and owners of their house! The Deetz family comprises of the artistically manic Delia (Catherine O’Hara), her uptight hubby Charles (Jeffrey Jones), and their ever morbidly morose daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder).Continue Reading
Clash of the Titans (1981)
CLASH DANCE The well known and much revered stop-motion special effects guru Ray Harryhausen has brought numerous beings of various shapes and sizes to life over his career (The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, Jason and the Argonauts, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger). In the mythological world of Clash of the Titans there are many interesting characters and creatures. Playing God behind the camera one frame at a time, Harryhausen has brought some of his most memorable offspring to life (Medusa, Pegasus, Giant Scorpions, the Kracken).
STORYLINE OF THE GODS Here’s the deal, Zeus (Laurence Olivier), in one of his many amorous exploits, has had a son named Perseus (Harry Hamlin). Due to Zeus’ favoritism of Perseus over the Goddess Thetis’ (Maggie Smith) son Calibos, a clash begins [insert opening credits and dramatic musical score here]. From that point on Perseus sets out on a quest to "fulfill his destiny" by defeating numerous obstacles, slaying fantastic beasts, and winning the hand of the doll-faced Andromeda (Judi Bowker). The script was penned by Beverly Cross who also scripted other Harryhausen films such as Argonauts and Eye of the Tiger.Continue Reading
Call me crazy, but recently I stumbled across the 1976 King Kong remake, the one that is now known as Jessica Lange’s first movie, and for some reason, I really enjoyed it. (I saw it years ago as a kid, but didn’t remember it too well.)
Don’t get me wrong—the original ’33 flick really is a classic, and if you have kids, it’s a great introduction to both older and adventure films. And everyone agrees, even with its archaic special effects, the film still holds up as a thing of beauty. Well, guess what—so does this version.Continue Reading
Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb
The Bolex Brothers production, The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb, is a creepy, yet enchanting, twist on the classic fairytale. It conjures up all sorts of menacing, unnerving, and violent imagery—unlike that of the traditional tale. It's set in a seedy tenement building where an unsuspecting couple conceive a tiny baby—a child so small that they name him Tom Thumb. We quickly see that the world is a harsh place, as Tom's mother is slain and he is kidnapped by sinister men who want to use him for experimentation and genetic research. The plot unfolds around how this tiny creature, with the help of some very unusual friends and the love of his father, escapes the evil forces holding him hostage; the subtext revolving around how this amazing child remains innocent and caring in a world full of fear, reactionary hatred, and prejudice.
The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb uses stop-motion animation in ways that I have never seen before to create scenes of epic discomfort and fear. Live actors are combined in scenes with clay-mation figures, which causes an uncomfortable, almost anxiety driven performance by the actors, who move with a lurching stagger and speak with a mumbling coo. It took dozens of hours to animate the live actors for seconds of film—an amazing feat! But it's not just the way the live actors are animated that makes this a visual triumph. Every scene is covered in tiny animated insects, the walls seem to breathe, and the earth to shake. The sets are awe-inspiring, to say the least.Continue Reading
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
GILLIAM’S ISLAND From the clunky, cluttered, and effectively eclectic mind of director Terry Gilliam comes this fabulous wunderkind of a film known as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. One of my personal favorites indeed! Munchausen comes as the third installment of Gilliam’s unofficial trilogy. The previous two films include Time Bandits and Brazil.
A CITY UNDER SIEGE In the midst of a war-torn city its residents are struggling for survival. Momentarily distracting themselves from their distraught surroundings they watch a depiction of Baron Munchausen’s adventures being put on by a local theatre company, Henry Salt And Son [“It’s traditional”]. However this reenactment becomes interrupted by the authentic Baron Munchausen (John Neville) himself! He’s old and cranky and he clamors onto the stage to set the record straight about himself and his adventures. Did I mention he’s a liar? Or is he?Continue Reading
Beastmaster is classic of early '80s swords and sorcery films. Providing all of the staples of the genre, as well as providing some head scratchingly original material. Although it's one of those action films that you really need a sense of humor to appreciate, (Beastmaster is a total B movie) there is a coherent enough story line, interesting characters, and some pretty decent effects for the time, making it clear why this film has, over the years, gained a growing cult following. The Beastmaster begins with 3 disfigured witches peering into a cauldron and casting spells. After seeing a vision, they inform Maax, an evil high priest (Rip Torn) that he will be slain by the king's unborn child. Maax, in order to sacrifice the baby, sends one of his witches late at night to the child's bedside with a cow. The witch transfers the baby into the cow's womb with magic and escapes with the child to a remote place. Just as the witch is finishing her ritual, about to deal the killing blow, she herself is killed by a passing peasant with a bladed boomerang.
The peasant then returns to his village with the child and begins to raise the boy. In his childhood the boy, now named Dar, discovers that he has a telepathic ability to speak with animals and see through their eyes. Soon after the boy Dar becomes a fully grown Beastmaster, played by Marc Singer, his entire village is destroyed by savage, animalistic, barbarians. Dar then does the only thing any respectable Barbarian, animal controlling, orphan would do. He begins a quest for revenge.Continue Reading
Niankoro, a young man in the powerful Malian Kingdom, is relentlessly pursued by his evil sorcerer father Soma in this mythological tale set in the 1200s. It seems Niankoro has stolen secret knowledge reserved exclusively for a secret society of old men with the intention to share it openly. He seeks out his father's twin and fellow sorcerer, Djigui Diarra, for protection. Niankoro's travels take him through the lands of the cosmologically-oriented, cliff-dwelling Dogon and the Peul, whose king enlists Niankoro's aid in protecting them from raiders and giving him a child - which he does (although not through magic) and Niankoro picks up a wife in the process. Niankoro avoids his father but Soma won't back down, however, and the confrontation between father and son becomes inevitable.
Cissé attended the Moscow School of Cinema and Television on a scholarship and Yeelen, based on Bambara legend, is very reminsicent of the Soviet films of Tarkovsky or Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami with a slow, methodical pace and lots of quiet space. Salif Keita and Michel Portal's score is minimal and used sparingly. The use of magic is handled similarly without flashy special effects along the lines of Tarkovsky's Stalker or Peter Weir's Picnic At Hanging Rock. There's ritualistic drinking, sniffing and smoking of various unnamed substances and Cissé depicts everything with an appropriate sort of hazy, dreamlike detachment. For a genre not generally known for restraint, this is one of the calmest films you'll ever see.Continue Reading