Traces of a Dragon (2003)

Traces of a Dragon [龍的深處:失落的拼圖] (2003)
AKA Traces of a Dragon: Jackie Chan & His Lost Family

Starring Jackie Chan, Charles Chan Chi-Ping, Fang Shi-De, Fang Shi-Sheng, Chan Yu-Lan, Chan Gui-Lan

Directed by Mabel Cheung

Expectations: Moderate.


Traces of the Dragon is a documentary about the lives of Jackie Chan’s parents, the details of which were unknown to Jackie Chan himself until some time around the filming of this documentary. Crazy as that sounds, it’s true; his parents were focused more on surviving and keeping the family afloat than regaling their young son with tales from their lives before he was born. Jackie wasn’t around his parents for much of his youth, anyway. His distaste for regular school led to a 10-year, contracted enrollment in the Peking Opera school where he would meet Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, laying the groundwork for his life of entertainment and death-defying stunts. And from the way they talk about it in the film, it doesn’t seem like Jackie did much of anything but practice his skills during these school years.

Jackie Chan may have gone on to become a global star, but his parents’ lives are actually far more interesting and worthy of a documentary than his. It’s such a moving tale that the director of the documentary — well-respected Hong Kong filmmaker Mabel Cheung — would later dramatize it into the 2015 film A Tale of Three Cities. They not only lived through the Second Sino-Japanese War and the continued Chinese Civil War that followed it, his father was involved in the war as a Nationalist operative and both of his parents were hugely affected by these country-wide struggles. Their story is one of war, refugees, and making the hardest choices that life can throw your way.

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Jackie Chan: My Stunts (1999)

Starring Jackie Chan, Ken Lo, Bradley James Allan, Anthony Carpio, Mars, Nicky Li Chung-Chi, Rocky Lai Keung-Kun, Johnny Cheung Wa, Go Shut-Fung, Louis Geung Gwok-Wa, Sam Wong Ming-Sing, Chan Man-Ching, Alex Yip Choi-Naam, Jack Wong Wai-Leung, Huang Kai-Sen, Rocky Cheung, Andy Cheng, Ron Smoorenburg

Directed by Jackie Chan

Expectations: High.


It’s no secret that I hold the work of Jackie Chan in very high regard. A good portion of this respect and admiration directly stems from his style of action and his stunt team’s willingness to put aside their personal safety for the exhilaration of the audience. Watching an action movie is entertaining, but witnessing something real and dangerous takes the action film to a whole new level. Whenever I love something as much as this, I’m hesitant to dispel the myth and mystery surrounding it in any way. Jackie Chan: My Stunts actually made me appreciate the skill and dedication of Jackie and his team more than I ever could have before, something I didn’t even think was possible!

Jackie Chan: My Stunts is exactly what it sounds like: 90 minutes of light documentary focusing on the stunt/fight work of Jackie. How he trains, how he devises scenes, his tricks of the trade… it’s all here. And it’s all fascinating. Unlike a lot of “fluffy” behind-the-scenes docs on American films (whether that’s DVD featurettes or legit docs), Jackie Chan: My Stunts is almost like a handbook for anyone looking to make low-budget action films. I wouldn’t recommend piling up boxes on top of an old mattress and jumping out a second-story window onto them, but it does make these kinds of feats seem doable and attainable through perseverance and practice. The team’s accomplishments in the stunt field are absolutely incredible, but Jackie Chan: My Stunts reminds us that the members are but trained professionals, not superhumans.

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Jackie Chan: My Story (1998)

jackiechanmystory_1Starring Jackie Chan, Willie Chan, Charles Chan, Stanley Tong, Sylvester Stallone, Michelle Yeoh, Sammo Hung, Joe Eszterhas, Arthur Hiller, Martin Lawrence, Michael Warrington, David Wu

Directed by Jackie Chan

Expectations: I don’t know, honestly. Curious.


Whether you’re an old fan or someone just discovering the work of Jackie Chan, Jackie Chan: My Story is a great overview of his career up to the point just before Rush Hour was made. It’s pretty “fluffy,” but this light tone reflects the jovial spirit of its subject and thus works well to convey the specific charm of Jackie (especially to newcomers). Even though I’ve seen so many Jackie films, I never feel like I know the real man underneath the characters. Jackie Chan: My Story cracks that shell a bit, allowing the audience to gain an understanding of his methodology for filmmaking, as well as how his dedication to his craft has impacted other areas of his life.

Jackie Chan: My Story also does a good job of communicating what makes Jackie’s style of action stand out from others (notably American films and the work of Bruce Lee). Besides showing a bevy of wonderful clips from his Hong Kong films, a direct comparison between the two versions of the fight with Bill “Superfoot” Wallace for the end of The Protector perfectly encapsulates the key difference in style. One of the best moments comes when Jackie walks us through the creation of his on-screen snake style seen in Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, showing that each movement has purpose and thought behind it. I wish I could show this doc to everyone who ever questioned my intense love and fascination with martial arts films (because according to them: “they’re all the same”).

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Arnold Quick Takes: The Long Goodbye, The Rundown, The Kid & I

longgoodbyeThe Long Goodbye (1973)
onestar

Starring Elliott Gould, Nina van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden, Mark Rydell, Henry Gibson, David Arkin, Jim Bouton, Warren Berlinger, Jo Ann Brody, Stephen Coit
Directed by Robert Altman

Raymond Chandler is one of my favorite authors. After many, many years of procrastination, I finally read The Long Goodbye last month. It instantly became one of my favorite books from any author, and it is by far Chandler’s best. To put it bluntly: Robert Altman’s film version is a horrid adaptation of one of the best books I’ve ever read. Yet, this is a film with a fantastic reputation among film buffs! I can only surmise that they haven’t read the book. I understand that Altman’s goal was to subvert the detective genre with The Long Goodbye, but what I find most interesting is that Chandler’s novel does this better in many ways already. Much of the novel’s complexity is completely lost, and while some that is to be expected in any adaptation, it is very clear from the beginning that Altman was never interested in actually adapting Chandler’s novel. He supposedly didn’t even read the whole thing! The style, soul, and substance that made The Long Goodbye such a resonant piece of work are unceremoniously sucked out and replaced with an entirely different, Altman energy. I honestly don’t know that a faithful adaptation of The Long Goodbye could work as a film, but this sole attempt literally gets every aspect of the novel wrong. Even taking my love of Chandler out of the equation, the film itself hardly feels worthy of praise.

Oh yeah, I was watching this because of Arnold’s cameo. Even this was a disappointment! Arnold doesn’t get to say anything, although for what it’s worth, he sports a weird mustache and strips down to his underwear in one of the oddest gangster confrontation moments I’ve ever seen. WTF.  And don’t even get me started on the recurring Long Goodbye theme song… [and then, then I made a noise like this — HHUUUAAHH  HHUUUAAHH  HHHUUUUUUUUUAAAAAAAAHHHHH] I’ll stick with the book, thank you very much.

the_rundownThe Rundown (2003)
twohalfstar

Starring Dwayne Johnson, Seann William Scott, Rosario Dawson, Christopher Walken, Ewen Bremner, Jon Gries, William Lucking, Ernie Reyes Jr.
Directed by Peter Berg

The Rundown was the first starring role for The Rock, and he easily proved that he could be a capable leading man. It’s not a great film by any means, but it has an odd charm that most mainstream films, especially ones from this era, don’t have for me. Arnold’s cameo isn’t anything more than the quick line, “Have fun,” but in this single moment during the film’s opening, Arnold effectively passes the bodybuilder-turned-action-hero mantle to The Rock. He’s a perfect fit, too; he’s got the body, the charisma and the acting chops to do very well. And now, 13 years later, he definitely has! But The Rock isn’t Arnold, so The Rundown isn’t the type of movie that Arnold himself could have starred in. The Rock is given a few hand-to-hand fights, and the action choreographer (Andy Cheng) wisely incorporated wrestling takedowns and the like into the choreography to take advantage of The Rock’s special skill set. Capoeira figures largely into the film’s most impressive fight, as well as some excellent wirework. I was honestly taken aback by how much I liked the choreography. It felt very Hong Kong-influenced, so when I discovered that Andy Cheng was a stunt double/member of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team for a few years, it all made sense. Overall, the action is pretty good, the comedy not so much, but it was still a lot more fun than I remember it being.

The Kid & I (2005)
threestar

Starring Tom Arnold, Eric Gores, Linda Hamilton, Joe Mantegna, Henry Winkler, Richard Edson, Shannon Elizabeth, Brenda Strong, Arielle Kebbel, Yvette Nicole Brown, Gabrielle Sanalitro
Directed by Penelope Spheeris

The Kid & I genuinely surprised me. It’s well-written and it boasts a great cast with a bunch of fun cameos (including Shaq and Arnold as themselves). I wasn’t expecting anything, but I was instantly won over by the unexpectedly dark suicide humor that opens the film. What makes the film even more interesting is that it’s a blend of fact and fiction. The film revolves around Tom Arnold writing a vanity project for a billionaire’s kid to star in, and the kid is played by Eric Gores, son to real-life billionaire Alec Gores. The Gores family lives next door to Tom Arnold, so the film serves as both the vanity project AND a sort of documentary peek inside the making of the movie. This kind of thing could have easily gone off the rails, but the cast performs admirably and it is impressively well-directed and edited. I’ve wanted to delve into the work of Penelope Spheeris for a while now, but The Kid & I solidifies that inclination to explore the work of this interesting and varied filmmaker.

Mini-Review: A Fuller Life (2013)

fullerlife_1Starring James Franco, Jennifer Beals, Bill Duke, James Toback, Kelly Ward, Perry Lang, Robert Carradine, Mark Hamill, Joe Dante, Tim Roth, Wim Wenders, Monte Hellman, Buck Henry, Constance Towers, William Friedkin

Directed by Samantha Fuller

Expectations: High. I love Sam Fuller!

threehalfstar


A Fuller Life is a wonderful tribute from a daughter to her father. Samantha Fuller hasn’t put together a documentary, but more a concise, visual version of Sam Fuller’s memoir, A Third Face. This approach seems like an odd choice at first, but much like the films of Sam Fuller himself, A Fuller Life carves its own path and succeeds in creating something unique and worthwhile.

The script is composed of selections from A Third Face, read by his friends, colleagues and admirers. Each person puts their own energy and interpretation into the reading, and coupled with the undeniable truth and spirit of Fuller’s words, it plays almost like a final collaboration with the iconoclast. Through their performances, Fuller’s words come alive and transcend the printed page, even for someone like me that has already read the book.

fullerlife_2Not only does this non-traditional style work for this film, it’s perhaps the only way to properly paint a picture of Sam Fuller as vibrant and affecting as the man himself. A traditional documentary might catch glimpses of the fire and the passion of his words, but in A Fuller Life it’s almost like having Fuller himself telling you a quick version of his story and struggles. The material is riveting, and each reader is exceptional well-suited to the passages they read. The film reminded me of everything I love about Sam Fuller, both the man and the director, and this overview of his life allowed me to appreciate even more just how incredible his story was.

If you’re a Fuller fan, it’s definitely worth your time, and if you’re Fuller-curious I’d say that outside of Fuller’s own films, it’s probably the best introduction you could ask for.

A Fuller Life has been recently released to DVD, currently available exclusively on the Chrisam Films website. The DVD has a few bonus interviews, as well.

 

The Rescuers (2011)

therescuers_1Starring Martin Gilbert, Stephanie Nyombayire

Directed by Michael King

Expectations: Moderate.

threestar


The atrocities committed by the Nazis during World War II are among the most egregious crimes against humanity in the history of the world. This is an undeniable fact, and the stories of the survivors are equally undeniable and powerful. It’s impossible not to be moved when those who fled the Nazi regime as children return as aged adults to where their visa was stamped by a kindhearted diplomat. But as powerful as these stories and these specific moments are, The Rescuers still feels like it needs to handhold its audience a bit with highly emotional, overbearing music.

This was my main problem with the presentation of The Rescuers, as the music feels completely unnecessary for the film to work. On top of that, something was wrong with the sound mix on the screener I received for review, so whenever music was playing (which is almost constantly) the narration was nearly inaudible unless I cranked the sound way past comfortable levels. Clearly this was not the director’s intent so I will try to look past this technical issue in reviewing the film, but I can’t deny that it definitely clouded my experience with the film.

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Tough Bond (2013)

Tough Bond - 108 MediaDirected by Austin Peck & Anneliese Vandenberg

Expectations: Moderate.

fourstar


Tough Bond is a fantastic but utterly crushing documentary. A feeling of hopelessness permeates every aspect of the film, from the personal day-to-day struggles of the street children featured, to the broad societal implications of what today’s Kenya is like compared to just two generations prior. It’s a film that calls for action, but it’s also a film that presents its case so well, and with such powerful imagery, that by the end I, too, felt hopeless. The problems are not those that could be fixed quickly, and they would require the entire country’s involvement, not just a few humanitarian aid packages.

At the center of the film is a brand of glue called Tough Bond. It is a contact adhesive made in Kenya and sold throughout the country for various industries to use. But the street kids of the country have taken to huffing it to forget their problems, with the glue’s manufacturer estimating that the kids account for sales of roughly 15% of his product. That’s a huge amount of glue for a factory that produces 40 tons of the stuff, but the manufacturer doesn’t seem too bothered by it. He states that he doesn’t see any damage being done with his product in the kids’ lives, even going so far as to say that it has the positive effect of helping them sleep.

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