Archive for August, 2012

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Wednesday 22nd August 2012 1 comment

I haven’t seen many of the Star Trek films: First Contact, the 2009 reboot, and Wrath of Khan (plus Search for Spock, too long ago for me to remember any of it). Prior to watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture, pretty much all I knew of it was that it had some links to a failed attempt to resurrect the TV series in the ’70s, that it was directed by the director of The Day the Earth Stood Still, and that it contains lots and lots and lots and lots of very slow and elaborate special effects sequences.

That point turned out to be very true. We really do spend a very long time admiring the Enterprise, wormholes, and the movie’s Big Dumb Object, which tends to cause reviewers to use words like “interminable”. Now I’m someone who’s a big enough SF/SFX nerd to have watched all the raw model shot footage included on the Red Dwarf DVDs (and found it interesting!), but even I’ve gotta admit that as lovely as all these sequences look (and sound), they don’t half go on a bit. It felt to me as if the lesson Robert Wise took from watching 2001: A Space Odyssey (and Douglas Trumbull took from making it!) is that the key to making a science fiction movie seem Serious is to slow all your special effects down to a glacial pace!

They’re very good special effects, though – even given the fact that I watched the original version, and not the Director’s Cut with its CGI additions. I imagine that if the film was remade today, a lot of the special effects shots would look broadly similar, but would just be achieved using different methods. Sets and shot compositions are nice, too.

I’m all in favour of more science fiction movies about exploration of weird alien phenomena, rather than action-packed battles against conventional baddies. But here, the plot’s a fairly thin version of the Mysterious Alien Artefact Threatening Earth of countless sci-fi tales: trim down the special effects sequences, speed up the pacing, and the whole thing could quite comfortably be told within a 45 minute TV series episode. The film’s not as smart as you’d hope from something that includes Isaac Asimov’s name in the credits. However, towards the end of the film the true nature of said Big Dumb Alien Artefact is revealed, and I found it a fairly surprising and effective twist.

There’s lots of potential in the conflict between Kirk and Decker: the question of whether it really is in everyone’s best interests for Kirk to take charge of the Enterprise, or if he’s just nostalgic for the thrill of command. Unfortunately, not much is made of it: presumably it would’ve helped if the Decker character had been played more forcefully by a better actor. Like so much else, the idea of Kirk’s nostalgia for being a Captain rather than an Admiral was handled better in Wrath of Khan.

The film spends some time reuniting the crew. Athough I’ve only seen a very small proportion of the original series episodes and feature films, I am fond of these characters, and their rapport is good to watch, so there’s a genuine sense that something feels very wrong – a piece of the puzzle’s missing – when Spock turns up acting even more brusque and unemotional than usual. There’s a good line from McCoy (“Why is any object we don’t understand always called a ‘thing’?”), and the very first thing that the character of Ilia dues upon meeting Kirk is emphasise her oath of celibacy – which I took to be a self-referential joke about Kirk’s reputation as an alien ladies’ man!

Unfortunately, there’s not really enough of that sort of thing. Most of the scenes on the bridge consist of the crew standing around either watching special effects, or formally issuing and reacting to commands. DeForest Kelley in particular gets almost nothing to do; as Stephen Rowley put it*, “Bones always did hang around the bridge too much (probably because that was the only decent set), but this becomes particularly embarrassing here.” In its attempts to challenge 2001‘s claim to the title of “proverbial ‘really good’ science fiction movie“, Star Trek: The Motion Picture removes a lot of the fun ’60s-ness of the TV series.

Although this review sounded really negative, I did enjoy the movie: I was curious to know the answer to the central mystery of what V’Ger really was, there were plenty of likeable individual moments throughout the movie, and most of the sci-fi ideas were solid even if they were underexplored.

Also, my interest in movie special effects meant that I found it interesting to look at examples of 1979’s state of the art optical techniques, even when they seemed to be done for the sake of it, rather than because they served the story. Judging by this film, my tolerance for interminable FX sequences is very high!

[3 out of 5]

* His review of this film and quite a few others seem to have been removed from the current version of his site. 😦


Drunken Master II/Legend of Drunken Master (1994)

Monday 20th August 2012 Leave a comment

For years I’ve heard a lot about how Drunken Master II (aka Legend of Drunken Master) is consistently recommended as one of Jackie Chan’s best films. More specifically, one or two of its action sequences consistently get called among the best that he or anyone else ever filmed – Roger Ebert, no less, said of the film’s climax: “This extended virtuoso effort sets some kind of benchmark: it may not be possible to film a better fight scene.”

Unfortunately, the film has always been pretty hard to come by in the UK – at least to someone who doesn’t pirate movies! I’ve never seen it on TV (even though there was a period between the releases of Shanghai Noon and Knights when things like Who Am I?, Rumble in the Bronx and Police Story were broadcast quite often on terrestrial TV channels), and I’m not even sure if it ever got a UK DVD release prior to the current Blu-Ray release (which only came out in April 2012, according to the online shops I checked).

Still, over the years I’ve resisted the urge to watch YouTubed versions of the fight scenes in the hope that one day I’d be able to watch the whole film properly from start to finish.

So I was delighted to see that LoveFilm had put a streaming version online (under the title of Legend of A Drunken Master and with its predecessor’s DVD blurb, for some reason). But before watching it, I went and rewatched the first Drunken Master. In that review, I described how the movie’s main appeal was its off-balance drunken boxing, which was utterly spectacular to watch:

The effect of wine on characters who have mastered the secrets of the Eight Drunken Gods is rather like the effect that spinach has on Popeye the Sailor. It’s incredible to watch the characters staggering around, constantly looking like they’re teetering on the edge of falling over, but actually in complete control of their balance. Their off-kilter motions give an absolutely unique look to the fight scenes, making them fascinating to watch – so it’s a shame that the titular fighting style is introduced pretty late in the movie, only after we’ve seen several fairly standard kung fu fights.

DM2 has much less in common with DM1 than I thought it would. Again Jackie Chan plays Wong Fei-hung, who again displeases his father (again a martial arts school owner), again some of the fight scenes involve drunken boxing, and again the final bad guy is a kicking specialist – but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. It has a very different feel to the original, due to the urban rather than rural setting (with more crowded scenes, and settings like trains and factories), the lack of training sequences, the fact Wong Fei-hung is older and less of a rebellious joker, the much heavier emphasis on props and weapons in the combat, and the more modern shooting style (none of those DRAMATIC CRASH ZOOM STINGS here!)

However, one thing that did carry across to the sequel was my disappointment at how late in the film the drunken boxing is first introduced. According to the film’s IMDb trivia page (ah, those benchmarks of reliability!), Jackie Chan wanted Drunken Master II to emphasise inebriated combat (like I did!), but the film’s director Chia-Liang Liu wanted it to have a heavier focus on normal kung fu styles. Hence there are only a few fight scenes when the drunken boxing is fully on display. Early on in the film, Jackie announces he’s about to use that fighting style, but it’s not really obvious in the short ensuing fight.

So it’s only midway through the film that we properly get to watch the off-balance intoxicated antics we all came to see, in an outstanding fight against several opponents. It’s probably the funniest of the film’s fight scenes, and it also includes the funniest “alchohol as Popeye’s spinach” moment: “What does it mean when there’s a picture of a skull?”…”GOOD STUFF!”

That’s not to say that the sober fights in the film are poor, though! The opening fight is set underneath a train, which makes for an interesting setting for combat. Late in the film we see Jackie and his ally defend themselves against an onslaught of axe-wielding attackers; Jackie’s weapon is a shaft of bamboo, which gradually deteriorates as the fight goes on, until eventually it looks and handles more like a cat o’ nine tails. In some places, the use of props is almost up there with the stepladder fight from Jackie Chan’s First Strike. It goes without saying that they’re all very well choreographed and directed – if some action didn’t register properly, it’s not due to problems with editing, composition or camera motion, but simply because of the amazing speed at which the actors performed the action.

And then we come to that famous final duel. Roger Ebert’s “it may not be possible to film a better fight scene” assertion was extremely bold, but the sequence comes impressively close to living up to it! Jackie Chan’s most spectacular stunts are the ones involving ridiculous heights – there aren’t any of those in this movie, but in this fight he gets to have his clothes set alight, dodge falling weights that slam into the ground, and scurry across burning coals. In the film City Hunter Jackie Chan got to play Chun Li from Street Fighter (it’s true!), but at one point in this DM2 fight he gets to do E. Honda’s flying headbutt move! But again, it’s the teetering-on-the-edge feel of the drunken boxing that really makes it brilliant.

As for other aspects of the film…

I doubt there are many people who watch Jackie Chan movies for the bits in between the fight scenes, but in this one, they really do feel like quite tedious padding. Most of the non-physical comedy in DM2 fell flat for me – although some works, and fortunately the humour always stays relatively high-brow(!) compared to the broadest moments from the first film! 😉

It should go without saying that there’s not much to the storyline, although hilariously, Wikipedia contributors have somehow managed to stretch its plot synopsis out to 1600 words. One interesting thing about the story is that it’s very clearly set during the period of British colonialism in Hong Kong, and prefigures Rush Hour in depicting the theft of Chinese artefacts by a corrupt English ambassador. Everyone knows that we Brits make the best movie villains, and here we’re represented by a cigar-chomping Consul who looks a bit like Charles Dance in Last Action Hero (now there’s a good baddie comparison for a movie to have, but unfortunately the comparison only extends as far as his looks, and the guy is not a fighter and therefore doesn’t get much screen time). I’m not asking for the film to turn into an in-depth examination of Hong Kong under British rule, but I would have liked the film to make more of the colonial aspects of its setting, and the potentially-interesting plot about the smuggling of a country’s national treasures; but instead, time is spent on subplots like the money problems of Wong Fei-hung’s family.

What plot is there isn’t conveyed very clearly (in particular the switcheroo between the ginseng and the valuable artifact) – perhaps that was just an issue with the dubbed version I watched, and I might have preferred a subtitle track using a literal translation? (Speaking of dubbing: while watching the credits, one voice actor’s name stood out. Is that the Bryan Cranston, and I wonder which character he dubbed…?)

So, is this the best Jackie Chan film?

Maybe, but there are a few I’d have to rewatch and lots I’d have to watch for the first time in order to say for sure. The fights scenes in Drunken Master II are unquestionably better than those of things like Who Am I?, Police Story and Shanghai Noon, but as I recall, those films felt more complete and well-rounded as a whole due to the bits between the stunts and fights standing up better.

But you don’t really care about those bits. You come for the fight scenes – in particular the drunken fight scenes. And boy, the drunken fight scenes are incredible.

4 out of – Hic! – 5

Categories: Films, Reviews Tags: ,

Drunken Master (1978)

Friday 17th August 2012 1 comment

Although Jackie Chan’s best known for his incredible death-defying stunts, he started off in martial arts movies that take place firmly on solid ground. Drunken Master is still the only film from that period of his career that I’ve seen, and it’s a good one. The main character is a Chinese folk hero called Wong Fei-hung, probably best known from Jet Li’s Once Upon A Time In China movies, but in Drunken Master Jackie Chan plays him as a rebellious prankster. Have a read of this review of the film for a good summary of why this was such an original portrayal at the time.

Make no mistake – the comedy in this film is broad. Very broad. So broad, it makes the eighth series of Red Dwarf look like PG Wodehouse. Now I’ve nothing against slapstick pratfalls (I wouldn’t be watching a Jackie Chan movie if I did), but there are lots of lowest common denominator gags that make me roll my eyes and question why in the world I’m watching it at all. Fortunately, those bits are balanced out by plenty of humour that works: it’s impossible to resist the scene where cartoonish bumps appear when one character gets bonked on the noggin, and I’m oddly fascinated by another character’s exaggerated teeth – but best of all, the smash cut to the “PAY OR DIE!” sign is brilliant!

The film improves as it progresses: the scenes where Jackie Chan’s character plays pranks at his father’s school are a bit tedious, but the movie really picks up when the elderly Beggar Su turns up and begins training him. This martial arts master is played by Yuen Siu-tien, the father of the film’s director/choreographer Yuen “The Matrix” Woo-ping. The training scenes are great; any fan of the Pai Mei training scenes in Kill Bill vol 2 should watch Drunken Master to understand the sort of thing that Quentin Tarantino was aiming for.

Some time after the first training sequences, the drunken fighting style itself is introduced, which is everyone’s real main reason for watching the movie!

The effect of wine on characters who have mastered the secrets of the Eight Drunken Gods is rather like the effect that spinach has on Popeye the Sailor. It’s incredible to watch the characters staggering around, constantly looking like they’re teetering on the edge of falling over, but actually in complete control of their balance. Their off-kilter motions give an absolutely unique look to the fight scenes, making them fascinating to watch – so it’s a shame that the titular fighting style is introduced pretty late in the movie, only after we’ve seen several fairly standard kung fu fights.

Finally, late in the film that drunken kung-fu is put into practice in two excellent fight scenes: first against the “King of Sticks”, and then against our evil baddie, taekwondo expert “Thunderleg” (Hwang Jang Lee). These two fight scenes are among the best “straight” fights (as opposed to those making heavy use of stunts and props) of any Jackie Chan film – right up there with the one that concludes his 1999 film Gorgeous.

The film could do with being a bit shorter: as I said, I would have liked some trimming from the first half’s standard kung fu fights so that the much more interesting drunken style could have been introduced earlier. Also, there’s a good scene where Jackie Chan’s character is humiliated by the villain, but then as soon as it’s over he thinks back to what happened and we see what he remembers – causing the whole scene to be immediately repeated almost identically, pretty much in full! Sure, it conveys Jackie’s humiliation effectively enough – but the film has great editing in the fight scenes, so it’s a shame that that tedious bit couldn’t have been trimmed down a little as well.

So in conclusion, the film’s length and the broadest, stupidest bits of lowbrow comedy are really the only reason I’ve limited my rating to three stars. If you can look past those moments, there are three very good reasons to watch Drunken Master: the training scenes, the bits of physical comedy that do hit the target, and the incredible choreography of the drunken kung fu fight scenes.

Actually, make that four good reasons: no ’70s martial arts movie is truly complete without a few crash zooms into characters’ faces, accompanied by DRAMATIC audio stings, and you certainly get your money’s worth of those here!

[3 out of 5]