The Man with the Iron Fists (2012)

Don’t you hate it when a movie or some other piece of pop culture you have been waiting for—in some cases the wait feels like an eternity—finally comes out, only to leave you disappointed and dejected, barely able to (slowly) walk to your car from the theater in the dark, left only with your thoughts as they swirl about one’s brain matter in a frantic effort to deduce just what went wrong?

I sure as hell do. Those experiences suck.

Regretfully, this is how I felt last night after viewing RZA’s directorial debut, a film that has been in some level of development since the ‘90s when he created Bobby Digital and the album of the same moniker, which originally intended to be used as the soundtrack. RZA has been floating around Hollywood for sometime now, showing up in different capacities; sometimes as actor for Ridley Scott’s American Gangster or bringing the funny for Judd Apatow in Funny People. The lyrical legend has also left his stamp on the film industry as a composer with serious chops, as his score for Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is nothing short of sweet, sweet candy for one’s eardrums. To any film fanatic (or causal fan of music who happens to love RZA and follow his career closely), it was becoming readily apparent that he was biding his time, soaking up cinematic knowledge from the masters of the medium he associated with (Jarmusch, Tarantino, etc.) in preparation for the time a studio would be good enough to entrust him with a film production of his own.

And for those who know anything about him or the Wu should have had no doubt in their minds as to what genre he would take on. Of course, I speak of Kung Fu—Grindhouse style.

RZA plays a freed slave named Thaddeus Smith, now a blacksmith in Jungle Village, China, after the ship he stowed away on encounters a brutal storm that washes him ashore, beaten but not broken, lying unconscious amid the vessel’s remnants. His love interest goes by the handle of Lady Silk (Jamie Chung), a prostitute by trade–employed at the Pink Blossom brothel–and as soon as they save enough funds, they plan to run away together. Of course, as it often does, fate has other plans and Thaddeus gets caught up in some serious Chinese shit when he helps out an injured Chinese warrior named Zen-Yi the X-Blade (Rick Yune, the black hole of charisma), who’s trying to get revenge on Silver Lion for sending his father, Golden Lion (Chen Kuan-tai, Iron Monkey), to an early grave as well as prevent him from stealing a shipment of gold. Also arriving in town is Jack Knife (Russell Crowe), a stranger with mysterious intentions, except when it comes to libations and ladies (hint: he REALLY likes both). The battle for the gold and, more important, the power that comes along with it, threatens to rip apart the town. Hopefully, Thaddeus and his new found allies can put a stop to it before too much mayhem and property damage ensues.

If you know me and my film tastes, you should know that the synopsis outlined above appeals to me greatly. If a movie has characters going by the handle of Angry Hippo or Brass Body, features wire work by the legendary Cory Yuen, and pays homage to the cinematic output of the Shaw Brothers (man, RZA nails the shaky opening credits and old-school freeze frame of the end title card) and the movies found down on 42nd Street in its hayday, that’s fine by me, just tell me when and where to be and I’ll be the first to line up. That being said, for all the things that he gets right in his directorial debut, the things RZA botches loom large.

The number one reason this genre is so popular is the fight sequences. Fans don’t necessarily come to these films for the story or acting (but if both are good, it’s always a bonus), we come to see the stunning physicality that is on display, the lighting fast kicks and punches, the often-times vicious stunt work of the extras, and, most important, to take part in those moments when the audience screams out loud or jumps out of their seats together, barely able to comprehend the badassary they just saw. RZA’s camera placement and cinematography prevent this. Much like the rest of modern action films, The Man with the Iron Fists is shot much too close in, and when accompanied with the frantic editing, it becomes hard to follow the action. If he made the decision to pull the camera back a bit, the problem would be rectified and the scenes would be more enjoyable. Even more curious is his choice to keep the camera locked in too closely and using an abudence of medium shots in dialogue scenes, which wastes what looks to be wonderfully detailed period sets, perfect for wide shots that could allow the viewer a sense of the scope I’m sure he had in mind for the film. Framing is also an issue, with some expository scenes having the actors cut off on the sides of the screen, which, in my opinion, is very irritating.

Further exasperating matters is the odd choice of short fights. Who in the world ever goes to a Kung Fu movie, sits in the dark for an hour and thirty minutes, and then comes out saying:

“You know, that was a pretty kick ass movie, but the martial arts sequences should have been shorter!”

That’s like saying you don’t go to musicals to view the show-stopping set pieces. You’re supposed to show off, that’s what brings the fans in! Remember back to the House of Blue Leaves sequence at the end of Kill Bill Vol. 1. I don’t recall anyone (haters excluded, remember, I’m talking about lovers of this genre) mentioning that sequence and including the thought that it was too long. These fights should be exhilarating, with the goal of taking the audience’s breath away. Hell, they may even want to applaud if you do it correctly. The fights here are best described as fun, but the issues above made it hard for me to fully invest in the film.

All that said, RZA’s personality shines through. It becomes readily apparent that he loves the world he created and that he was full of enough cool ideas that he could have made the movie 3 hours long and would still have had come choice bits left over. He took the approach of “everything including the kitchen sink” here, populating his newly created world and its characters with quirky beats and clothing choices that aren’t period specific but allow his cinematic voice to come out and play, fully uninhibited. This allows his characters to wear sunglasses because it looks cool. It allows the use of Wu Tang’s “Shame on a Nigga” to be played at just the right moment. And most important, it allows the actors freedom to really embrace the type of movie they have found themselves in, especially Crowe. As Jack Knife, the Oscar-winning thespian looks to be having the time of his life, even showing up to principle photography looking like he was in the process of playing Brando, The Island of Dr. Moreau style. I admire the actor for taking on a role that requires him to smoke a boatload of opium and ply three ladies of the night with only his beads, dildos, and devil-may-care smile. What I REALLY hope is that 5 years from now, this performance isn’t the one we pinpoint as the exact moment the actor’s career went from prestige pictures to headlining efforts more in the vein of what Cuba Gooding Jr. and Val Kilmer have been up to for the past 10 years.

This all adds up to a rather schizophrenic viewing experience, as I went from loving the film one moment to wanting to pull my hair out the next. I do hope that RZA gets another shot as a director because I do believe he can work these kinks out and deliver a Kung Fu movie that represents all the love and knowledge he posses for the genre. Sadly, The Man with the Iron Fists falls short as it ultimately becomes weighed down by the learning process of a first-time director. Hopefully, The Return of the Man with the Iron Fists will set the record straight and trumpet the arrival of a fully formed cinematic voice.

-David

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The Master (2012)

In the not-too-distant past, I found myself in Boone, North Carolina, for the first time in what seemed like ages, and I was lucky enough to spend a good chunk of time watching and conversing about film with two of the editors of Film’s Okay, John and Adam. For those not in the know, John’s film collection is gargantuan (taking up a large portion of one room), so it has become common practice for me to sit among his collected cinema, wading through it for new treasures that might have slipped under my radar, all the while geeking out to the tune of a high-level movie conversation that would doubtlessly sound like a foreign language to most people if they chose to listen in. In the course of our talks on this particular voyage to the tip-top of the mountain range, our colloquy included a rather long dissertation from all parties on how we like to display our agglomeration of DVDs and Blu-Rays, John mentioning how he kept his movies separate from his FILMS (capital letters are important here, not superfluous). Under this filing system, popcorn flicks and movies that he would find entertaining but didn’t adhere to the auteur theory or add anything new or noteworthy to the cinematic landscape would go into the larger section of his collection. Annexed in the hallway adjoining his room are the films from the masters of the medium, your Hitchcocks, Goddards, Fullers, Fords, Clouzots, and Jarmuschs. Cinematic efforts from legendary filmmakers; movies that cineastes cherish when much of the general population doesn’t get them and doesn’t want to; films from visionaries that are still in the game that we often anticipate from the moment we hear production begins. Paul Thomas Anderson is one of these directors, and his new film, The Master, is walking on rarified air; it’s a movie that manages to transcend the traditional narrative structure, allowing the movie and its subject—along with its own peculiar creative process—to illustrate exactly what the film is about.

In Anderson’s latest, most challenging effort, Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, an author and self-proclaimed philosopher (read instead, charlatan) who is in the midst of starting up his movement, “The Cause.” The mission statement of his life’s work is to explain, and hopefully cure, man’s ills by rummaging through their past lives in an effort to seek out the historical roots of their malady. When Dodd comes across Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix, he realizes he has found his greatest challenge, and he focuses on containing all of Freddie’s rage and madness. Quell represents the film’s true protagonist, a former sailor who found himself stationed in the Pacific during the war, and who, upon returning stateside, has been diagnosed with an unnamed emotional disorder. The audience is already clued in on this fact, however. As the film opens we watch Freddie, on R&R with his fellow seamen, as he divides his down time by humping an anatomically correct sand sculpture and masturbating in the surf. Not your typical behavior, to be sure.

Once cut free of his obligations to the Navy, Freddie sets forth on an alcohol-fueled odyssey of debauchery. Even in this way, Quell is atypical, choosing to get loaded on his own concoctions, generally created through whatever ingredients he can find at the time, items like fluids from the insides of a torpedo, paint thinner, and film darkroom chemicals. This man that is ruled by nothing more than the sum of his impulses and addictions finally bottoms out, finds himself on the lam from the authorities, and decides to stow away on a boat that happens to be the home of a party and wedding Dodd is throwing for his daughter. The Master immediately feels a connection to this strange individual, insisting that they have met before in a past life, having shared an important interaction. Maybe he is attracted to Freddie’s primitive impulses, maybe the attraction is sexual in nature—or it’s also possible that he genuinely wants to help this man, to heal his broken mind and get his life back on the right track. Whatever the reason may be, from that point on, the writer takes the social outcast under his wing.

Simply put, The Master is a relationship story between these two men. Anderson’s work has always carried the intent to examine the American nuclear family (Boogie Nights) or, more frequently, the dynamic that exists in father-son relationships (There Will Be Blood), and his latest effort is no different, as much of Dodd and Quell’s relationship can be seen as paternal rather than fraternal. But this time it seems that the director has more on his mind as the characters also seem to be two sides of one coin. The Master seeks nothing but calm and order, but his pupil represents pure chaos. Both of these characters have the capacity to indulge in the opposite side—Freddie, when he has to, can morph his thought processes into direct action; Dodd is prone to instant outbursts when confronted with a nay-saying nonbeliever or nitpicky followers get his dander up—making them a true yin and yang, even if their colors aren’t solid, instead swirling around with a drop of their opposite in the mix.

As Dodd’s wife, Peggy, Amy Adams seems to be more of an observer rather than participant, but in the few scenes where she is called on to make an impression, the actress proves herself more than capable, diving into a role that may make it hard for some viewers to rectify her character in this with her past onscreen persona, that of the cheery rom-com genre. I wish there were more to her character, as she puts forth a fascinating performance, one in which lays the heart of a true zealot, consistently pulling Dodd’s strings from the sidelines, course correcting his actions and keeping him fully focused in times of weakness. It becomes obvious that she will (has?) crushed anyone who opposes The Cause, and her mistrust of Freddie leads us to believe she could be the end of him. It is a wonderful, vanity-free performance, I just wished there was more of it.

Joaquin Phoenix’s work here is beyond reproach and I remained astonished at his level of commitment to his character throughout the runtime of the film. The actor creates a performance that is a bundle of ticks and mannerisms, making Freddie appear as if he is always on the verge of a complete and total meltdown. The actor looks 20 years older here, his eyes sunken into his gaunt visage, his gait and posture reminiscent of Quasimodo, perhaps weighed down by his unbridled anger or the poisons he continually pumps into his body. Quell has no doubt been worn down by life and Phoenix truly makes the audience uncomfortable; the performance is committed, real, and no safety net is employed, made all the more thrilling as the actor sticks the landing. Meanwhile, Hoffman continues to show why he is the best actor of his generation. His Dodd is the perfect vision of a preening, phony intellectual, only convincing enough to the lonely and lost around him that he is the only one with answers to their plight. It’s a performance in which the actor is called on to use every ounce of charisma he has as Dodd must constantly slide from cordial and welcoming to authoritative and domineering, and he does it without breaking a sweat.

The Master and its director aren’t interested in point A to point B storytelling;, instead Anderson takes his sweet time, letting his characters be who they are and letting the audience become familiar, all the while explaining The Cause through their practice of it rather than exposition. This allows the viewer’s reactions to seep in slowly, creating a magnificently rewarding (though no doubt trying at times) cinematic experience. The unique and alarming score by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood throbs with menace, helping to accentuate the film’s rotten underbelly, and the photography by Mihai Malaimare Jr. (Coppola’s go-to guy as of late) is nothing short of dazzling, proving that shooting the film in 65mm was the way to go, especially when close-ups of the actors’ faces fill the screen. The homage to Ford’s famous shot in The Searchers is wonderfully done and fits snuggly within the texture of Anderson’s current creation, giving us film nerds another point in the film when we can just look over at one another and nod silently.

The sum of its parts makes The Master the type of film that just doesn’t get made all that often, it doesn’t fit comfortably into the studio system’s cookie cutter frame of mind or fit the profitability mold they prefer. But with Anderson’s persistence and vision to see this effort to competition—which wasn’t easy with Scientology, the most litigious religion ever breathing down his neck—he has been able to guarantee that The Master succeeds in almost every way, fully worthy of the admiration and accolades it has received. It’s as rich and thought provoking as film gets and I can’t wait to see where the director goes from here.

-David

Branded to Kill (1967)

When I last discussed Seijun Suzuki in my post on Tokyo Drifter, I touched on the fact that the director had become bored with the meager, stereotypical offerings from Nikkatsu Studios, as he found their scripts to be lacking in ideas and vision. The legendary director had been churning out comedies, pop musicals, dramas, war films, and action flicks at a rate of 3 to 4 a year since 1956 when he left Shochiku Studios for the supposed greener pastures of Nikkatsu. The end result was a feeling of stagnation, frustrated that his directorial voice was being muted or, in the worst case scenario, not being recognized by the heads of the studio as they believed him to be a B-movie specialist, nothing more. After seeing 39 films to completion, Suzuki, fed up with the restraints imposed on him and his art, would release his magnum opus on the world, a film that Japan, and most important his studio, would not be at all prepared for, resulting in the auteur’s firing and 10-year exile, which would ultimately turn him into a counterculture icon.

Branded to Kill is a film that is wildly eccentric, a cinematic effort that could only have been directed by Suzuki himself. Much like Tokyo Drifter, the story is conventional and straightforward, even if the execution isn’t. The (nontraditional) narrative follows Goro Hanada (Joe Shishido), the third-ranked Japanese underworld hitman, an abnormal, secretive man riddled with peculiarities. In between the execution of his masterful hits and audacious escapes he enjoys the aroma of cooking rice; so much in fact that it acts as a powerful aphrodisiac, used it to arouse him for ferocious rounds of lovemaking with his faithless girlfriend Mami (Mariko Ogawa), assuming of course that the notion of beating her brains silly doesn’t take him first. Goro’s vacillating lifestyle goes further down the tubes when he bungles an unmanageable hit provided to him by Misako (Annu Mari), a mysterious woman he meets one night after his car breaks down on his ride home. Goro’s hubris in taking on an impossible contract results in demotion from his number 3 ranking in the hitman universe and, worse yet, causes him to become the target of the underbelly’s mystical top-ranked assassin, No. 1 (Koji Nambara). The setup leads to the final segment of the film, in which Goro becomes nothing more than a plaything for No. 1. As Goro’s metal state is broken down slowly by No. 1’s psychopathic mind games, he finally snaps, which leads to a metaphorical showdown in a boxing ring, ending the film in a stylized duel that must be seen to be believed.

While the story seems simple enough, only a renegade director such as Suzuki could tell it in this fashion, one that left the studio heads baffled at first, then furious once the initial shock of what they watched had worn off. Branded to Kill had somehow managed to break almost all the filmmaking conventions present at that time, taking the style employed in Tokyo Drifter and ramping it up to a level where the film would, for the most part, only appeal to cineastes. Still jarring even by today’s standards, Suzuki’s masterful piece of cinema jettisons any attempt at a normal narrative structure as exposition and explanation of character is omitted in favor for a game of genre deconstruction so intense in its abstraction that the film’s only counterpart (that I can think of) is Jean-Luc Goddard’s Made in U.S.A. The director regularly cuts away from his narrative thrust to, what appears to be, extemporaneous subject matter, resulting in shots that are disconnected from the film—and by extension, film reality as most know it to be—that begin and end abruptly without explanation, which can leave the viewer disoriented. Action scenes are shot in a fashion that discards the time-honored tradition of an establishing shot, turning Goro’s imaginative kills into mini-cartoons shot through the prism of a fever dream. Sexuality, and by extension nudity, is ramped up as well, certainly pushing the censorship envelope in Japan and obliterating the American Production Code standards at the time, making us look like total prudes and outdated by half. Goro’s girlfriend prances around nude in most of her scenes, even the ones in which it becomes obvious that sex is the furthest thing from the twisted hitman’s mind, and when sex does show up it always involves a healthy dose of hip-thrusting, which was not allowed in Japanese cinema at that time. All of these stylistic flourishes, these visual shenanigans—Suzuki on steroids if you will—add incredible amounts of intensity to every frame as even the most seasoned of moviegoers hasn’t a clue as to what the director has in store for them next.

The film was unsuccessful upon its release, confusing audiences just as much as it did the high-ranking studio heads, and would be pulled from distribution by the president of Nikkatsu himself, Hori Kyusaku, after its initial, contractual play dates had been fulfilled. By ignoring the “play it straight” warning he received after directing Tokyo Drifter, Suzuki had run out of goodwill, entering an exile that would take 10 years to emerge from. Efforts to overturn his blacklisting proved futile for long periods of time as his lawsuit against the studio, which claimed breach of contract and wrongful dismissal among other charges, didn’t yield results until 1971. Despite winning his suit, an act that shook the Japanese film industry and turned the director into a legend, he wouldn’t direct another feature until 1977 when he released A Tale of Sorrow and Sadness; instead, he had to live on the salaries collected from directing commercial and television work.

It wouldn’t be until 1980 that Branded to Kill assumed its rightful place among cinema classics and cult cannons. In that year, Suzuki saw a swell of good fortune as retrospectives and, in some cases, film festivals dedicated to his work began to dot the cinematic landscape. By the time it was released on home video in the States, it had turned into a cult classic with high-profile directors such as Quentin Tarantino and experienced film critics and historians in the vain of Donald Richie and Tony Rayns expounding on the virtues of the film and Suzuki’s long-neglected career. Director Jim Jarmusch (Down by Law) called it: “Probably the strangest and most perverse ‘hitman’ story in cinema.” Smitten with the flick, he paid direct homage to it in his own hitman effort, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, when Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) dispatches a mafia member by shooting up from the basement through a sink drain, just as Goro saw fit to do himself in a memorable scene 42 years prior.

-David