Monday, April 4, 2011

Tarantino's March Madness Pt.11

Over the course of March the New Beverly Cinema is housing Quentin Tarantino's March Madness. The whole month is in celebration of Quentin Tarantino's birthday and will feature 37 movies selected by the master himself. Most of the films that are playing come from Tarantino's personal collection and a number of them are not available on DVD. The month long programming will feature plenty of grindhouse movies that have been influential to Tarantino and plenty of others as well. Tarantino's March Madness will be capped off with a seven day run (a second week was added) of the uncut version to "Kill Bill." I will be attending thirteen nights of programming at the New Beverly Cinema and in an effort to give my readers the most in-depth experience I can I've planned to breakdown each of the events. Hope you enjoy and here's Part Eleven...

Note: Technically this is the 17th event of Tarantino's March Madness however it is only the 11th event I've attended. I missed the "Crack House" and "Redneck Miller" double bill to kick off the month, the night of Ralph Bakshi animation with "Coonskin" and "Hey Good Lookin'," as well as the first midnight feature of March Madness, "Shame of the Jungle." Sadly I missed Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's extravaganza "Grindhouse" and "Machete" double (triple) bill as well as "Man Friday" and "Cooley High" double on March 16th and 17th. The last event I missed (due to an illness) was the legendary Robert Mitchum vehicle "Thunder Road" and "Five Minutes to Live" starring Johnny Cash.
Tonight's agenda was two movies from the legendary Shaw Brothers Productions, "The Avenging Eagle" and "Duel of the Iron Fist." These two films were the last regular programming (outside of the midnight programming) before a two week run of the 2004 Cannes cut to "Kill Bill." The two martial arts films were a solid pairing and had similar themes to match the mood of Tarantino's 4th feature film. More about what played in a few minutes, but for now let's cover the trailers showcased during the double feature.

Trailers ahead of "The Avenging Eagle" included "Sacred Knives of Vengeance," "Super Man Chu," "The Mighty Peking Man" and "The Stranger and the Gun Fighter." The Sacred Knives of Vengeance trailer had a real nice build up to the title of the film that included a money shot of the "knives" themselves. Super Man Chu had screened previously and just as before, this trailer pulls you in with its bold comparisons to James Bond and other bad ass heroes. The Mighty Peking Man looks all kinds of bat-shit insane. It is essentially King Kong in Hong Kong on a low budget scale and looks to be dripping with cheese. I know Tarantino is a huge fan of this film and has championed it but something tells me he just likes looking at Evelyne Kraft. One thing is for sure this version of the classic Kong story looks to provide a whole slew of laughs. The last trailer ahead of 'Avenging Eagle' was hands down the best of the night. The Stranger and the Gun Fighter looks incredible. It stars Lee Van Cleef and Lieh Lo in a Italian Spaghetti Western. The movie up-plays both leads previous skills in their particular genre of film and then slams them together. I've never seen the gun-toting and kung-fu kicking movie before but after watching this trailer I'm on the hunt to find it. The second round of trailers after a short intermission and before Duel of the Iron Fist were "Seven Blows of the Dragon," Kung Fu: Punch of Death" and "Man of Iron." All three of these trailers were the American re-released English language dubbed versions. Each one looked to provide a number of laughs as well as some enjoyable fighting sequences. I'd hadn't seen any of these titles. All of them look to be worth a watch, but not necessarily something I would try to find right away. More inclined to hope they would play at the New Beverly in the future rather than tracking them down and watching at home. These types of films can be just as enjoyable at home, but there is no comparison between seeing it with an enthusiastic crowd in a theater on 35mm.

Going into tonight's double feature of Shaw Brothers Productions I was expecting a light-hearted night of ass-kickery. While we got plenty of action and kung-fu from both 35mm prints screened, this double feature was far more complex than anticipated. The first film of the night was "The Avenging Eagle." A non-linear tale about two strangers who join together to take down the Eagle Clan for their evil doings. The version screened was in the original Chinese language and featured English subtitles. While I have no problem with subtitles I hate to say that the audience seemed to be not as enthusiastic with them. It felt like some audience members couldn't find the humor in certain dialogue because they were reading it. I even noticed a few people leave, but that was their loss because 'Avenging Eagle' was a solid betrayal/revenge film with some outstanding themes of loyalty and humanity.

One thing about "The Avenging Eagle" that stuck with me is how quickly the film chugs along. Within the story we learn that Chi Ming-sing (Ti Lung) is apart of a clan of orphans who are trained to become killers by Eagle Chief Yoh Xi-hung (Ku Feng). Chi Ming-sing has a change of heart and sets out to kill the entire Eagle Clan for their crimes. There are 13 Eagles in the film Chi Ming-sing must take down. 13! That is a lot of highly skilled martial arts fighters he must take down. The Bride only has 5 people to kill in "Kill Bill" and silly old Scott Pilgrim only defeats 7 evil exes, but Chi Ming-sing nearly doubles that with 13 brothers to kill. Granted Chi Ming-sing has someone to help him through the fighting. Cheuk Yi-fan (Alexander Fu Sheng) who for mysterious reasons is willing to help Chi Ming-sing with his quest. So back to the momentum, despite having a large number of people to weed through, 'Eagle' does a good job of keeping the pace moving.

All of the fighting is good. Each Eagle has a unique weapon they posses, Chi Ming-sing wields a 3 column pole while Cheuk Yi-fan has wrist guards that have attachable blades. While much of the weapon play is solid, I was craving a bit more hand-to-hand combat versus swords, poles, blades and shields clinging about. I will give the sound department major kudos for all the distinct noises used for the various weaponry. Throughout all of the fighting, it is clear which weapons are clashing. The sound team went out of their way to make sure we hear a variety of sounds clinging together and not just the standard "swoop" or "ting" generically used. The best fight in this film is the climax. When Chi Ming-sing and Cheuk Yi-fan reach the Eagle Chief. We have a brilliantly executed three prong fight that takes place between the trio. A fight that includes Eagle Chief's ponytail braid whip! Eagle Chief has a very long braid in his hair and he uses as a whip. Every time he would lash it about I would get a huge kick out of it. Absolutely hysterical. I love that the braid whip is also taken so seriously. You would think Eagle Chief was whipping about a lasso of razorblades the way Chi Ming-sing and Cheuk Yi-fan react. Eagle Chief also possess a iron claws that he fights with. I don't want to spoil all of the carnage that goes down in this final battle, but it certainly was the highlight of the adventure for me.

Like every film programmed throughout the month of March, "The Avenging Eagle" has a number of things to point out that remind us of "Kill Bill." First is the non-linear structure of telling the story. Secondly is the idea of a highly trained group of assassins. Third is a kinship between the assassins and their master. Fourth is a very clear path towards vengeance. All of these can certainly be found in plenty of films, but being a build up to Kill Bill it becomes very clear why Tarantino programmed this particular film the day before showing is fourth feature film.

The second film of the evening was "Duel of the Iron Fist," a film I had seen previously some ten years ago when I was in college on home video. Being over ten years I really couldn't remember what the film was about. Once it started however, memories flooded back into my head of the 1970's beatnik themed action. Promotion for this film is absolutely no help in trying to find what the story actually follows. With taglines like, "The greatest duel of the Kung Fu masters, their fingers are swift daggers, slashing flesh with cat-like speed," "See Men in Mortal Combat!" and "Watch the Most Incredible Karate Duel Ever Fought!" it is not clear exactly what you are in for and sadly it does not live up to any of those taglines. The film follows Tang Jen Chieh (Ti Lung) as he is asked by family to take the blame for a murder and go into hiding. He is promised that after one year he will be able to return. Upon his return he finds out that he was double-crossed and his family has been dishonored. Much like the first film, 'Duel' delves heavy into betrayal.

'Iron Fist' refers to the use of knives and not the strength of one's hand. I was hopeful for the latter but ended up marginally pleased with the former. That said, the film is not overloaded with fighting. I actually walked away wanting more. The fighting that is on display is appealing and pulls the audience in just fine, but it needed more of it (especially considering the very abrupt ending). As far as the the tagline's used as promotional tools, they are misleading. I took offense with the line "their fingers are swift daggers," actually the knives in their hands were the swift daggers because we do not see very much weapon-free combat as the tagline would have you believe. We so many knives in this movie I could imagine off camera there was a table overloaded with knives and production assistants would ensure everyone would have a knife in their hand before walking on to set/in front of cameras. Seriously, everybody had them! Another trend I noticed in 'Iron Fist' was shirtless or an open karategi. Almost every male was shirtless and absolutely every nameless thug was as well. There must have of been some law within this particular Chinese village that every male must carry a knife and have their shirt open to expose their chest. It would have made more sense if we had a vicious female running the town. I envisioned an Octopussy-esque Clan running things that had a sex-addicted leader who was hellbent on seeing every male's chest between the ages of 18 to 35 in town but instead we got what appeared to be the gay uncle running things.

While I enjoyed "Duel of the Iron Fist" my biggest gripe would be I liked the supporting character (David Chiang) better than I did the lead (Ti Lung). I wanted the movie to be told from his perspective rather than what we are given. David Chiang played Chiang Nan or rather the Rambler, a character who I'd call Mr. Cool. He is the black sheep of the film. Dressed in popular culture 1970's clothing he looked like an Chinese version of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. He is the one guy to stand out amongst a sea of shirtless men. Tying into his character was a funky 70's score and his love for smoking. I quit smoking a year ago after having the terrible habit since the 90's and watching the Rambler as he puffed on his cigarettes was a bit tempting. He bled cool as far as I'm concerned. Tang Jen Chieh's character is just so typical that 'Iron Fist' saving grace becomes the bad ass Rambler as he glides through the plot.

The version we saw was the English language dubbed edition. The dub was laugh-out-loud bad. Typical voice-over's with voices that do not match the character at all. While the dub did generate quite a bit of chuckles I felt the film would have benefited from remaining in its original language. In other words I wished the version we saw was like "The Avenging Eagle" and in the original language with subtitles. 'Duel' is a serious movie. It is not a tongue and cheek karate movie. The film has a very grounded story to tell about betrayal and loss. The dub and deterioration gave the film a far more comical perspective. The print itself was dated and seemed like it could have been frankensteined together. By frankensteined I mean, coming from multiple prints and splicing them together to make one film. It is clear that not every film cell is present in the cut we watched. One clear example of this is the ending. I was stunned at the hard cut to end the film. It was abrupt and sort of left a bad taste in my mouth. Something that would leave you asking yourself, "that is it?" On the other hand, I went into the evening wanting light-hearted kung-fu and this badly dubbed version gave me moments of that. It just too bad that didn't seem like the filmmakers decision. Truthfully the cut screened undoubtedly lost something in translation to 'Duel of the Iron Fist.'

While the month of March is over Quentin Tarantino's March Madness is still rolling through April 7th. The 2004 Cannes cut to "Kill Bill" is in its second and final week at the New Beverly. Tickets sold very fast for this special public two week run of Kill Bill. A big reason for that is it is the way Tarantino intended the film to play and its the first time general audiences have had a chance to do so. You still have a chance to see it for yourself too! April 6th and 7th tickets will only be sold at the box office on a first come first served basis. So if you want to see Kill Bill as one film you'd better plan to be in Los Angeles on April 6th or 7th and get down to the New Beverly early to line up.

Stay tuned for my final 2 posts on Tarantino's March Madness and checkout my previous posts on the amazing month of programming with Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9 and Part 10.