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March 11, 2011

Sub–Legendary Fisting

3 out of 5 stars

Pious, honest Chen Zhen would be the first to admit he’s a made-up person

Legend of the Fist

When the excellent but largely made-up Fearless was released in 2006, Beijing Film Studio was sued by the heirs of Huo Yuanjia, a prominent member of the legendary Jing Wu Athletic Association of martial arts. Huo’s descendents were offended by the film’s inaccuracies, particularly the characterisation of Huo himself, who seems a rascally fellow in Jet Li’s treatment. Why, Jet Li was even summoned to court to explain himself, under oath not to use his Northern Fist to get out of answering the questions. Given this fuss over an alleged biopic, one can only imagine Jing Wu’s bemusement over cinema’s fascination with Chen Zhen, a supposed disciple of Huo who never actually existed.

Chen Zhen first appears in Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury (1972) as a Jing Wu student who discovers that Huo Yuanjia was poisoned by the Japanese and sets about avenging the murder. In reality Huo’s death is a mystery, and he may have poisoned himself with a traditional medicine that contained arsenic. Yet the fiction of murder and the retaliation of Chen Zhen has remained potent, and Fist of Fury has been remade in versions staring Jackie Chan and Donnie Yen, and Gordon Chan’s excellent reimagining of the fiction in Fist of Legend (1994) with Jet Li.

Legend of the Fist is a sequel to Donnie Yen’s 1995 TV series based on Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury. Presumed dead at the hands of the Japanese, Chen Zhen has skipped out to Europe to fight in World War I, and turns up in Shanghai to help the Chinese resistance of the Japanese occupation. Tonally the treatment is light, and very much in homage to Bruce Lee: Donnie Yen makes Lee’s obligatory cat noises when fighting, and – when he is not concealing his identity behind a moustache – Chen Zhen distributes vigilante justice disguised as the Green Hornet. Yet there’s too much plotting, far too long between action scenes at times, and falling back on formula makes much of the film predictable.


Two favourite clichés have driven recent kung fu films. One is the Chinese fighter challenging foreigners to restore national pride, as in Fearless, Ip Man and True Legend (in reality Huo’s Russian and British opponents backed down from fighting him and left town, while Ip Man never really duelled with people). The other is the showdown at the Japanese general’s dojo, a staple of Chen Zhen-based films and [spoiler alert] a major player in Legend of the Fist. Unfortunately, Donnie Yen expends a lot of energy trotting out conventional storylines.

The character of Chen Zhen is useful for imagining possibilities of heroism amid thorny Sino-Japanese relations, but in a limited way. Donnie Yen could do better for his career than recreating Bruce Lee, and there are real-life martial arts heroes that might deserve film treatments rather than rehashing the Fist of Fury fiction. Legend of the Fist attempts to peg a new ending to this fiction, but it’s not enough.

November 09, 2010

The Hoodlum Homecoming

4 out of 5 stars

He may be the mayor of Baltimore, but he’ll fucken burst ye


Good staff can be hard to find, and it seems to apply to henchmen as much as any other kind. Love/Hate opens with middleweight goon Nidge looking up Internet videos on how to operate his new firearm, but his girlfriend bursts in demanding to be taken to Dundrum Shopping Centre. So it goes: as playwright Stuart Carolan tells it in this series, nothing seems to unfold cleanly.

Least happy with this arrangement is the homesick Darren (Robbie Sheehan), who returns to Dublin to celebrate his brother’s release from prison, only for said brother to be gunned down before he’s even had a few scoops or gotten a ride. Revenge is a complicated matter, with Darren at the whim of gangster overlord John-Boy (Aidan Gillen), who reacts to all situations by curling his lip ambiguously and refusing to let us know what he gets off on (although it is bound to be something bad as he is emphatically a knacker). Meanwhile Darren attempts to get back with his ex, Rosie (Ruth Negga), currently in thrall of a man named Stumpy, Nidge decides to get married, and ultra-scobe Hughie (Brian Gleeson) reaches for a cue-ball in a sock if you look at him the wrong way.

We see a lot of Dundrum Shopping Centre as it turns out, and futility and frustration gradually edge out the simple pleasures of evading the police with a truck full of drugs, or some species of female companionship termed ‘Praha Prozzies’. The gangsters in Love/Hate drive around in SUV’s listening to hip-hop, but they don’t derive any satisfaction from the fantasy of being in the Wu Tang Clan or, indeed, The Wire. Poignantly, it’s a despairing sort of violence that makes them wonder why they bother, if it wasn’t that some other fella started it.

September 29, 2008

'The sun rises on a new dawn'

2 out of 5 stars

Once upon a time, before he made very bad movies, M. Night Shyamalan made very good movies.

One of these, called Unbreakable(2000), succeeded excellently because it was built on a solid premise. Shyamalan was well-versed in tales of superheroes. Having read many graphic novels and watched countless films, he realised that the common element that he found most engaging was the rite-of-passage of a character discovering his/her supernatural ability; he undergoes extraordinary experiences, but is a sympathetic figure because he remains identifiably human. Shyamalan decided to make this aspect of superhero myth the focus of his film, eschewing the usual main course of superhero narrative – the cosmic battle between demi-god hero and villain – and portrayed a man coming to terms with his powers at length. It worked well, and I think series 1 of Heroes worked well, at times, for the same reason. And in the successes of Unbreakable and the first series of Heroes, we have hints as to why the second instalment of Heroes is so bad.

What do you do when your superheroes have graduated from their Universities of Superhero Life, when they have bypassed the stage of self-discovery? To me there seem to be three possible directions. The first I call The Eternal Struggle, in which the developed hero is pitted against an endless gallery of worthy foes. The second option is to explore the aspects of the hero that remain human; our Superman needs a Lois Lane. The third avenue is to introduce new characters and start again. Heroes pursues each of these option in series 2, but, faced with the question ‘what next?’ it seems to come up with a wrong answer every time.

To start with, two observations:

1). Series two of Heroes begins with the line, ‘the sun rises on a new dawn.’

2). The person responsible for this felt entitled to join in a script-writers’ strike for higher wages.

This marvellously awful narration signals the standard of dialogue in an impending storyline that exemplifies all that induces sorrow in Heroes s2.

We find ourselves in oIreland.

This is not a typo.

Somewhere in Cork we encounter a family whose members speak with inexplicably different Irish accents that, if containing no regional similarity, share a common heritage of Irish Stereotype. T’be shore, t’be shore, t’isn’t it one o’ them he-roes? A pint o’ Guinness for me Hero friend in the name of Pete. We have arrived in Cork, via an act of Contrivance, in the company of Peter Petrelli, who – brace yourself – has amnesia! The amnesia storyline (such a hackneyed vehicle in drama that it is derided gleefully in Futurama to the tune of every character in the soap opera having amnesia) allows the series to tread water as Peter rediscovers what we already know, meets an oIrish slip of a girl he wants to poke, and weighs up whether a future global holocaust might not actually be preferable to an entire series of this nonsense.

Meanwhile, all your favourite characters are ticking over. Horsey Woman is on anti-hero meds. Annoying Cop is playing house with little girl. Dr Mohinder, the Asian Jose Mourinho, fancies a spot of infiltration, which does jolt a bit of excitement into this twitching corpse. Cheerleader is told by daddy that she can’t cheerlead, until the show’s producers realise it is perilous for viewing statistics not to have her bouncing around in a cheerleader’s outfit. Also, she is told she cannot date and ends up doing so! It’s teenage rebellion, my friends. But it is badly executed, and if there’s a fantastic element to her realtionship with drippy fellow-hero boyfriend, it remains mostly the kind of teen dross I spend my life trying to avoid. The couple of new characters retread old ground covered by special effects. Most times they’re all wondering what to do with themselves while the main villain has lost his powers, an inconvenience to him which also removes the risk of the series having much tension. On it plods through a not-so-mystifying series of murders and confrontations, ending with a visual quote from X-Men that hints we might be back to square 1 in series 3.

The sliver of entertainment that earns this series its two stars is delivered by the cuddly Japanese bear named Hiro. I’d like to tickle him. Hiro travels in time to feudal Japan. What larks he has in the company if a legendary Japanese hero, who turns out to be a white man carrying a much-needed Threat of Villainy. The backdrops are stunning, the storyline has more going for it than any of the others, and Hiro gets some well-deserved booty for a change.

September 01, 2007

The Number 23

2 out of 5 stars

Far from inspiring silly cultish beliefs that can be rubbished as mere selection bias, the number 23 really does have a vast and striking range of significant associations. For example, amidst the leafy suburbs of south County Dublin, the number of my parents’ house is 23. I was 23 when I applied to Warwick’s graduate programme. Coincidentally, I’d give this film 23 marks out of 100. Further still, I can think of at least 23 better things you could do with your time than watch this nonsense. Weird, huh?

Jim Carrey leapt to fame – ruining my childhood meantimes – in a series of low-brow and highly successful comedies; The Mask, Dumb and Dumber, The Cable Guy, Ace Ventura. However, Carrey surprised and impressed with his versatility when he demonstrated his ability to cross over into more intelligent comedy-dramas such as The Truman Show, which won Carrey a number of awards if not an Oscar, and Man on the Moon, in which he accepted millions of dollars to kiss Courtney Love. I suppose it’s a further demonstration of Carrey’s desire to exhibit his belief that he is a Man of Many Talents that he elected to make a supernatural thriller.

But Carrey’s real-life past haunts him, as it were, throughout The Number 23, which seems unable to decide which Jim Carrey it wants to sell us. He’s introduced as Walter Sparrow (no relation to Jack) with an air of ironic humour and it’s unconvincing when, subsequently, he tries his hand at being Troubled and Harrowed. This is symptomatic of the whole film’s weakness. As he reads a novel with uncanny relevance to reality, the number 23 theme obsesses Walter Sparrow immediately, to the distress of his wife (Virginia Madsen), but the idea isn’t developed; no higher, oracular significance is attached to the number’s recurrence. Instead we’re given a number of glossy scenes from the novel shot in slick Sin City-vision amidst Sparrow’s slow-paced detective work. Overall it’s a mess, an interesting prospect gone awry; inchoate, meandering, tedious.

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