Sunday, February 28, 2010

Rec 2

When I saw Rec (2007) last year, I was more than slightly impressed by the gradually escalating tension, and the horrifying last five minutes.  Set almost entirely in an apartment building in Spain, it started innocuously with a reporter and a cameraman accompanying a few firemen on an emergency call.  A short while later, a resident, afflicted by a psychotic contagion (becoming a fast-moving zombie in everything but name), bites a fireman.  The contagion spreads, and the apartment building is locked down; anyone escaping would be shot. I won't spoil the rest of the film for you, but we're left wondering about the fate of the reporter.

Rec was filmed from the point of view of the cameraman - although I'm not a big fan of Michael Bay-style shaky-cam, it worked well in the movie; it provided a sense of immediacy that amplified the tension.

Rec 2 (2009) picks up a few minutes after the first film.  An armed quasi-military squad (think SWAT) are asked to bodyguard a researcher and another cameraman while he collects a sample of blood from the building.  Of course, things go very bad very quickly.

A rather unexpected diversion in the film introduces three teenagers; they're goofing around with a video camera, when they make a bad decision and find themselves trapped in the apartment. The kids are annoying in a way that only kids shoe-horned into a movie can be (i.e. destined for peril), and serve as a minor plot point..

The end of Rec implied a religious connection to the contagion, and this is further amplified in Rec 2.  The researcher turns out to a be a priest involved in fighting this outbreak of demonic possession.  This gives Rec 2 a certain 1970's old-school feel (which isn't necessarily a bad thing). This may have resonated more in largely catholic Spain, but I had trouble accepting this at several points (especially during the Exorcist-like interrogation of one of the teenagers).

The shaky-cam is shakier, more so in the action scenes and sometimes it's difficult to adequately tell what's happening to who.  It's not overly annoying, though; if the filmmakers wanted viewers confused and disoriented, it worked.  There's certainly some inventiveness - a zombie is dispatched with a firework thrust down its throat, leading to a remarkable scene in a dimly-lit corridor; the shaky-cam highlights the shear anarchy of what we're witnessing.

The slow build-up of the first film is largely discarded, and there's more Zombie-huntin' with guns.  It doesn't have the sparse, linear, plotting of the first film, but chooses to throw in a few curve balls.

The ending implies that the demonic contagion will spread to the outside world, and sets up the premise for Rec 3.  If Rec 3 retains the immediacy and intimacy of its two prequels, I can see it being a success with genre-fans.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Finest Martial Arts Fight Ever Filmed

Drunken Master 2 (1994) contains the finest martial arts fight ever filmed. The beauty is in the athleticism of the participants, the beauty of the choreography, and the care and attention on lavished on the editing, lighting and environment.

I'd like emphasize the editing and framing - action flows smoothly from one shot to another, mostly in full view.  In many martial arts films, editing and framing is used imply action (as opposed to showing it in full frame), in attempt to disguise the fact that the participants are not actually fighting, or that body doubles are taking the place of the protagonists.

My favorite sequence in the fight is when Jackie leads with his right shoulder, swinging his left leg back and into the air... his centre of balance towards his opponent...

...reaches out to strike with his right hand, but is blocked by his opponent's outstretched arms...

...his opponent retracts, leaving Jackie on one leg and tipping over ...

...his opponent swings his right leg out to kick Jackie...

...and forces Jackie back.

The fluidity of this sequence is startling, leaving you wondering how they choreographed the intricate interplay between both protagonists.  Bear in mind that the above sequence is barely half a second in length and is surrounded by equally as exquisite choreography.

Jackie, after drinking industrial alcohol halfway through the fight, also demonstrated a stylized, cinematic version of Drunken Boxing.This was actually a satire of actual drunken boxing (which funnily enough, does not demand that you are drunk, but requires that you sway and totter, followed by suddenly releasing the moment and attacking the enemy) .

This stylized, alcohol-fueled form of fighting, featured aspects from the Eight Immortals school of Drunken Boxing. Myth has it that after being invited to a banquet and getting drunk, the Eight Immortals were attacked and in their inebriated state invented a new form of kung fu.

Here are screengrabs of each of the eight forms (you have to see the filmed fight to truly appreciate them).

1. Lǚ Dòngbīn (呂洞賓), the drunkard with internal strength. Jackie later played him again in The Forbidden Kingdom.

2. Elder Zhang Guo (張果老), the drunkard with the swift double-kicks and deceptive kicking backflips.

3. Lan Caihe (藍采和), the drunkard with the sudden deadly waist attacks.  Note the wide angle "fish eye" effect, effectively framing the movement of Jackie and his opponent.

4. Hé Qióng (何瓊), the drunken woman flaunting her body, distracting her opponent, and then launching into vicious attacks

5. Iron-Crutch Li (李铁拐/李鐵拐), the cripple with the powerful right leg

6. Han Xiang (韓湘子), the drunken flute player with the powerful wrists.  In this section Jackie uses straight-line attacks.

7. Royal Uncle Cao, the drunkard with the a powerful throat lock. In this part of the fight Jackie also slaps the side of his assailant's head, and punches him in the chest, Dim Mak style

8. Zhongli Quan (鐘離權), the drunkard holding a wine cauldron in his arms. The circular motion knocks your opponent to the ground.

This is a picture of Zhongli Quan from Chinese literature (note the cauldron and its congruence to Jackie's hold on his assailant above)

I can't think of many other movies that have a fight sequence as intricate as that in Drunken Master 2.  What's more remarkable is that Jackie was over 40 years old when he filmed this movie. That's testament enough to his dedication to martial arts cinema. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Hyperion Cantos

The Hyperion Cantos are the finest science fiction books I've ever had the privilege to read.  There are four book in the series.

  • Hyperion
  • The Fall of Hyperion
  • Endymion
  • The Rise of Endymion
The joy of the books lie in the wondrous, mysterious universe that Dan Simmons, the author, has created.  It feels internally consistent and logically constructed, and there's a rich density of novel ideas.

The biggest compliment I can give to the books is that for two years after I finished the series, I kept returning to books, re-reading passages that made shivers run down my spine.  The plot twists and turns throughout the books, with all the plot threads explained (to at least some degree) in the final book.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Disturbing French Movies

One of the great qualities of cinema is its ability to disturb, to move you to the dark places in your soul. Some people will not find any value in this, and will actively shun such movies. Others, like myself, enjoyed being scared, being made uncomfortable, and left with sour bile in our gullets.

I like being disturbed. I search out these experiences in movies, and for some psychosocial reason, French directors have started to specialize in some of the more memorable ones.

Here's three that I saw recently over the course of a night.  Next morning, my senses had been bludgeoned into bloody submission, and I spent the whole day sipping hot milk and eating biscuits.

We start the film as a young woman menaces and kills a middle class French family with a shotgun (with bonus ludicrous gibs).  Her friend joins her at the end of the massacre, with the tense middle of the film involves the mother of the family who just won't die.  The final third of the film takes a left turn and becomes a completely different movie - a meditation on pain and suffering, with extreme scenes of brutal torture.


A pregnant woman gets terrorized by a hooded figure. The brutality comes from the violence and terror that's inflicted on not just a woman, but a PREGNANT woman.  Occasional cutaways shows the baby in the womb reacting to its mother's ordeal .  Again, it's a French film.


Again, another French film.  It's told in snippets in reverse. The camera constantly swoops and sways from side to side - it's extremely disorienting (but not in the crappy Michael Bay shaky-cam way). The soundtrack of the movie includes a low rumble that's designed to make you feel nauseous.

The Road

The Road is a grueling experience to watch. It's based upon the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name.

Set ten years after a disaster has wiped out most life on the planet, it's the story of a man accompanying his son across a post apocalyptic wasteland. The world has turned to dust and ash, and the color scheme of the film reflects that.  If that isn't gloomy enough, we learn that the boy's mother commits suicide because she can't bear raising a son in that grim environment.

The journey consists of one desperate scrabble for food after another, while dodging bands of cannibals hunting prey. One particularly grim scene involves the discovery of a human farm in a cellar - people kept alive and locked up while limbs are hacked off for food.

Eventually, the man dies, but the son finds some sort of partial salvation.

Requiem For A Dream

This is one of the most powerful movies I have ever had the pleasure of watching (experiencing?). It's the story of four people and the dramatic effect that drug have on them.

The standout performance is by Ellen Bernstein, who plays a mother of a drug addict, who herself becomes addicted to weight loss drugs, and the thought of being on TV. The obsession with a TV gameshow leads her down a path that leads her to mental instability.

The whole of the movie is greater than the sum of its parts. The cinematography, music and performances result in an enthralling experience. Props go to Darren Arrenovsky, for his masterful direction, skillfully using all the tools that cinema has to offer