Lauryn Hill Unplugged

Today is Lauryn Hill’s birthday. I marked the occasion by listening to Unplugged with fresh ears.

Does one brilliant album a genius make? Lauryn Hill put that idea to the test in 2002.

Her debut album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, came out in 1998. It cleaned up the major awards and was hailed as an instant classic. She wasn’t interested in fame, celebrity, touring, performing, all of it. Taking a page from the Bill Withers playbook, she stepped off the train, became something of a recluse, and focused on her family and herself.

This is fertile ground for legend making, rumors, and bullshit.

In 2002, she released Unplugged, a warts and all double disc acoustic set of new songs, sermons, and rambling thoughts. Contemporaneous reviews suggest a mixed bag, everything from calling it a disaster to welcome change.

Enough time has passed for fresh ears. When I saw the CD on the shelf I decided to blow the dust off it and give it a listen.

Yes, there are rambling between song sermons, yes her truly great voice soars and falters, but all the things that make Lauryn Hill great are present too.

Oddly enough, as my thoughts on the album circled, I thought about Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace (really can’t wait to see the movie).

Aretha Franklin plugs into a long gospel tradition. One that contains multitudes of power. She is the greatest gospel avatar that the secular musical world has ever seen. And, at the height of her powers, now that she has us hooked, now that we gather around her, she takes us back home.

She takes us to church. Literally.

She plugs into that tradition, grasps that electrified rail of history. The audience is literally buzzing, popping, and humming like a power line. I’ve never seen or heard an audience and performer so intuned with one another. They can’t contain the Spirit, and before long, they don’t.

In her own way, Lauryn Hill takes us to church, but it is one of her own construction. We are her guests, bearing witness. It’s not about whether these songs and this set are good. Because she’s moved passed that dichotomy of judgement. She simply is. And these songs just are. Let them wash over you.

I may not be much of a religious man but I believe in powerful things. One album is a journey, and the other is a destination. One is personal and private, and the other is universal.

Both however, are worth your time. Aretha’s album deserves to be better remembered and Lauryn Hill’s album deserves a fresh listen, free from the baggage that surrounded it’s original release.

Happy Birthday Lauryn Hill. Thank you for the music you have given us so far. Should you drop new music on us, the real fans will be there. And if not, safe travels and know you are appreciated.

Favorite Movies of 2020 (so far)

Corona time has meant more time to catch up on some movies, and to write blog posts 🙂

Here are my 20 favorite movies I watched for the first time in 2020, 5 great scenes in other movies I liked, the one movie I hated, and two notable re-watches.

Blow the Man Down (2020)

I love how the entire perspective of the story is from the women of the town. Another great Margo Martindale performance.

Blood Quantum (2020)

Is it a successful zombie movie? Yes. Is it a successful movie in the mode that was chosen (exploitation film)? Yes. Does it also have something to say? Yes, many times over. This is the Native exploitation gory zombie flick you’ve been waiting for.

Color Out of Space (2019)

I loved Color Out of Space but man does a movie about an isolated family slowly going mad hit different in the Corona times.

The Chaser (2008)

I still marvel at how organically the story unfolds from the characters actions. Na Hong-jin is a master at many things, one of which is endings that leave you in despair. His movies are singular emotional experiences that go full dark in ways rarely reached by others.

Cheap Thrills (2013)

Glad I finally got around to this one. I talked myself out of it a few times because of the expected rising gnarly-ness. What I didn’t know about was the heart and humor and how much it had to say about class and socio-economic status.

Dope (2015)

I went into Dope cold, not really knowing anything about it. It was hilarious and had a touch of South Central Tarantino to it that was unexpected.

Dolemite is My Name (2019)

Having watched Rudy Ray Moore flicks back in my video store days and listened to party records over the years, I never would have expected a Rudy Ray Moore biopic to be such a feel good story. But it is, it really is. So much heart and love packed into it.

Green Room (2015)

Another one that took me too long to get around to. Claustrophobic and mean and makes you feel like you’ve been backed into a corner.

The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil (2019)

South Korea’s obsession with serial killer stories continues to be the source for an inventive and fun body of work. This is big budget, slick fun with a great pulpy premise.

The Host (2006)

All of Bong Joon-ho’s great film qualities are on full display in The Host, the greatest dysfunctional vs. a monster movie ever made.

The Irishman (2019)

Yes, The Irishman is long but I can’t think of anything I would cut or trim. I was immediately locked into the story and the lives of these characters.

Ishq (2019) 

Intense psychological thriller about the unchecked male ego and the practice of moral policing in India. Shine Tom Chacko gives an amazing performance as the main bad guy, he’s like an evil Taika Waititi

Jallikattu (2019) (review)

Jallikattu is the greatest action movie about catching a bull ever made. An absolute bonkers, adrenaline soaked, kaleidoscopic descent into madness.

Lake Mungo (2008)

This is a low-key movie that sticks with you long after the credits roll.

Let Us Prey (2014)

I won’t sit here and tell you that this is a great movie but damn do I love it anyway. Two great performances from Polly McIntosh and Liam Cunningham.

Let the Corpses Tan (2017)

This is another sensory movie. This is a heavy stylized experience that you are just going to have grab and hold onto for the ride.

Midsommar (2019)

Hallucinogenic story of mounting creep and dread told in full daylight horror.

The Night Comes For Us (2018)

A holy shit great Indonesian action films (the best action action films these days) that takes the heroic bloodshed model made famous by Hong Kong action movies and expands and destroys it at the same time.

Robbery (2015)

I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie with this many tonal shifts (even by South Korean standards). I’m not even sure it fully works but goddamn I loved it.

VFW (2020)

A full blown, practical effects driven action horror flick in an 80s vein. Assault on VFW 13.

The worst movie I saw this year:

The Open House

Five notable scenes from other flicks I enjoyed:

-The botched police raid in The Beast (and the opening moments of The Beast are really good too)
-The shootout with police in Hold the Dark (it was a great scene in the book too)
-The car chase scene in Extraction
-Ma Dong-seok/Don Lee riding into save the day on his motorcycle in The Fives
-The claw machine from hell chase scene over mountains of dead bodies in The Flu

Two notable re-watches:

Female Prisoner Scorpion series

Is it possible to tell a feminist story through the traditionally un-feminist mode of the exploitative women in prison story? The Female Prisoner Scorpion series certainly tries. This is a gorgeous movie, crazy movie with an iconic lead character.

Prince of the City – What a brilliant old New York film that doesn’t seem to get talked about much these days. I was mesmerized all over again by Treat Williams’ lead performance.

Jallikattu (Lijo Jose Pellissery dir.) – movie review

images (8)Wow.

Jallikattu is the greatest action movie about catching a bull ever made. Yep, you read that right. The premise is simple, a bull gets loose in a village and the men of the village all try to find and capture it. That’s it. But like a good simple premise, much comes from it. The bull cuts through all of the social dynamics in the village: socio-economical, religious, generational. The escaped bull applies pressure to those dynamics and exposes the fault lines. Like a prison riot the escaped bull becomes a chance to air other grievances and settle other scores. The thin veneer of the civilized world cracks and ancient primal instincts that were never that far below the surface are exposed.

Jallikattu is an immersive movie that constantly engages all of the senses. You don’t simply watch it, you experience it. At times it borders on sensory overload.

The opening 10 minutes are a brilliant exercise in editing, quick cuts, and provides a short hand lesson in the dynamics of the village. It’s also established how important bull meat is to everyone in the village. There is no single protagonist in Jallikattu, but multiple characters who weave in and out of the unfolding action. So there is no guide to this fictional world and the events that will unfold.

Nearly every moment of Jallikattu is chaotic. There are long takes with something happening in every portion of the frame. It’s a very kinetic movie, there’s constant movement. Many scenes have multiple people speaking at once.

Jallikattu is a tour de force of editing and sound design .

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Here’s a couple stray comparative thoughts I had at different points while watching Jallikattu: It’s the bull in a china shop as an action movie; it’s the energy of the opening battle in Saving Private Ryan sustained for 90 minutes; it’s the the ox scene in Apocalypse Now as an action movie. Those may not be fully accurate comparisons but I share them just as a glimpse into some of my thoughts while watching.

We’ve covered the story set-up and some of the technical stuff, let’s take a moment to dig a little deeper. In addition to the running commentary on the various fault lines that run through the village, Jallikattu shines a light on masculinity run amok and the animalistic nature of man. As the movie progresses, individual dialog becomes absorbed into a greater mass of voices until you just have large groups of men yelling, screaming, and shouting as a cacophonous whole. When later scenes focuses on individual men or smaller groups of men, they are often grunting or making other animal noises. The visual style also echoes the theme that man is an animal.

And in case the viewer hasn’t picked up on these themes there is the absolute bonkers, adrenaline soaked, kaleidoscopic descent into madness that is the final 15 minutes or so of the movie.

This was my first movie from director Lijo Jose Pellissery and it won’t be my last. I’m really curious now to dive into his back catalog. I see that he’s directed some crime flicks that I’m going to track down next (Nayakan, Angamaly Diaries).

Wild City (Ringo Lam dir.) – review

Wild City (Region A Blu-ray) (English Subtitled) Ringo Lam by ...

When Wild City came out in 2015 it was Ringo Lam’s first full length movie in 12 years. This was a big deal because, along with John Woo and Tsui Hark, Lam was one of the finest directors to come out of the 80s-90s Hong Kong action film boom. He was known for gritty crime dramas and his films City on Fire, Prison on Fire and Full Contact are considered classics of that era. Full Contact in particular is dialed up to 10 and never really backs off.

So Lam returning to film *and* it being a crime flick was cause for celebration. But Ringo Lam was older and didn’t have the same concerns as his younger self. Why should he? We all grow older and change over time. So did he.

Some critics and fans said that Wild City was not a return to form. What does that mean? Isn’t that a sentiment that betrays a flaw, that a creator should always do more of the same. Why should his form remain the same?

Another big change is that the Hong Kong of the 90s is not the Hong Kong of the 2020s. That may seem like an obvious statement that can be made about any place, but it is especially true for Hong Kong, which was handed back over to mainland China in 1997. The politics and way of life in Hong Kong changed, but so did its film industry.

Wild City is, essentially, an old man crime movie. It’s meditative, deliberate, and contemplative. It looks back on choices made and how they affect current circumstances rather than future conquests that will surely happen.

Ringo Lam gave us many great HK crime/noir flicks. He knows the beats of the genre and knows that the viewer knows them. A beautiful woman with a secret washes up at a bar owned by a disgraced ex-cop who has retained his nobility. Add in the ex-cop’s hot headed, knucklehead brother and an out-of-town gang hot on the woman’s heels and you’ve got a nice recipe for a crime flick. And that’s what Wild City is. While Wild City is not going to be considered a classic, held to the same level of esteem as some of his works from when he was younger, but it is a competent crime flick with noir-ish flavor added in places. When a genre master returns to the genre, it is always going to be worth a look.

Ringo Lam died in 2018 at the age of 63. Wild City wound up being one of his final movies.

Recommended

 

Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head: The Essential Guide to Hong Kong’s Mind-Bending Films

For much of the 20th century, Hong Kong Cinema had a rich history and was, at times, the third largest film industry in the world. Unfortunately their film industry still has not recovered from the hand over to China in 1997. During the 1980s and 90s, Hong Kong genre films made serious inroads in the worldwide market and their action films were regarded as the best, becoming highly influential.

In 1996 the book Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head: The Essential Guide to Hong Kong’s Mind-Bending Films by Stefan Hammond and Mike Wilkins was published. It was an early guide to the world of Hong Kong action, cat-III, supernatural thrillers, HK film noir, and martial arts films. It had a semi-serious tone but became an instant favorite. I was already a fan of Hong Kong cinema because of the movies of John Woo and Jet Li and a couple of others that I had managed to see. Now I had a fuller list that could accompany me on my shopping trips to Suncoast Video, the greater world of Hong Kong films opened up for me.

The book is out of print and there are now other books on the subject of Hong Kong cinema, but it is still a favorite.

Over the last few years I have become increasingly enamored  with South Korean cinema. At their best they invoke in me a feeling similar to the one I felt in the 90s when exploring the world of Hong Kong Cinema.

The exciting world of Hong Kong cinema is in danger of being forgotten. Many of these films are not streaming anywhere or able to be rented or purchased in digital form. Physical media is out there in many cases but isn’t always affordable. For a generation of films and filmmakers that was so well regarded and influential, it is remarkable to see how far they have fallen in the digital age. It also serves as a reminder that the streaming model isn’t the end all be all.

Since I still have my copy of the book, I wanted to take the movies from it and make the info about them easily available. Here are the movies from the guide, a brief critical extract from the book where applicable, and where the film is streaming as of the date writing this post.

I love the book and Hong Kong films and hope you find this helpful.

Book Synopsis:

Far from the orbit of Planet Hollywood, the new cinema of Hong Kong beckons.

Gone are the flying pigtails and contrived fist-thuds of your father’s favorite chopsockies. These are punch-straight entertainers, movies juddering with the excitement that put the “motion” in motion pictures. Dodge a thousand bullets as you contemplate the heroic gangster-knights of Master Director John Woo. Watch international superstar Jackie Chan perform action-comedy on the edge of peril. Wrap your imagination in the fantasy of director Tsui Hark, who proffers comely ghosts floating on silk, otherworldly romance, and no-joke witches and demons. And there’s much more! Fighting femme flicks featuring fatales hiking up their designer dresses and bouncing spike heels off the bad guy’s forehead. Stylish tragedies rivaling the best of Hollywood noir. Brain-boiling monster weirdies to delight the grindhouse faithful. Subtitles that mangle the English language into fabulous new mutations.

Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head: The Essential Guide to Hong ...

The Movies:

To Hell With the Devil (1982) – “Even if you are a diehard fan of Woo’s bloody epics, you should approach To Hell With the Devil with caution. You may find this film either astounding, disappointing…or both. Loosely based on Dudley Moore and Peter Cook’s Faustian send-up Bedazzled, To Hell With the Devil is a comedy about a lonely nebbish who sells his soul to an agent of the underworld to get the girl of his dreams…Woo–no slouch when it comes to movie lore–also throws in references to Gone With the Wind, The Exorcist, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, plus Horror of Dracula!”

Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) – “Tsui Hark’s frenetic, nutty fantastic Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain helped spark an 80s boom in HK supernatural films. Zu serves as a bridge from the manic Shaw Brothers supernatural films of the same period to Hark’s more Westernized Chinese Ghost Story series. Zu is a fantasy–Hark burning into celluloid what Georges Méliès, the father of cinematic gimcrackery, would have if could have. But it’s also about passion, loyalty, self-sacrifice, and saving the Earth from certain destruction by The Forces of Evil. Few films set so ambitious an agenda, but Zu manages to pull it off, largely because the thing is so visually breathtaking.”

Fantasy Mission Force (1984) – “Fantasy Mission Force is utterly ridiculous — but never boring — in that special kind of psychotronic way. There is an admirably consistent tone of lunacy throughout: Jerry Lewis remakes The Dirty Dozen high on laughing gas. Just a footnote in Jackie Chan’s extraordinary career, Fantasy Mission Force is notable for being the most bizarre film he ever appeared in. Chan is paired with female action great Chang Ling as a pair of bumbling thieves who intermittently weave in and out of this film’s mad, mad, mad, mad narrative.”

Long Arm of the Law (1984) – “This seminal film foreshadowed the violent realism of later efforts by Ringo Lam, John Woo, and Kirk Wong. The neon-flamed Christmas ambiance of Hong Kong has never looked meaner.”

Mr. Vampire (1985) – “Mr. Vampire is first and foremost in a long line of Chinese vampire flicks. Our bloodsucking brothers from the East do not traipse about in capes flaunting Old World charm and seductively biting necks. There is a fine line between horror and humor, and Mr. Vampire does everything but jump rope with it. Mr. Vampire’s appeal is based on its ability to place its characters in just enough danger to straddle the humor/horror balance beam.”

My Lucky Stars (1985) – “…primarily a comedy. It contains some remarkable action sequences and marks the HK debut of Japanese crunch-princess Michiko Nishiwaki, but those who gnash their teeth at extended buddy-buddy gag sequences should be forewarned.” (Prime)

Police Story (1985) – “Police Story stands as a landmark for Jackie Chan, who proved for the first time that he could bring his style of martial arts wizardry to a contemporary setting and still achieve the commercial and artistic success of his previous period-chopsocky films.” (Criterion Channel)

Project A (1985) – “…doesn’t have much of a plot, but the action is furious and bruising. It also showcases Jackie’s appreciation for and homage to silent film…”

A Better Tomorrow (1986) – “The definitive urban thriller of 80s Hong Kong cinema, A Better Tomorrow is a raging torrent of blood, sweat, and tears with a manic collection of masterfully designed shoot-outs”

Royal Warriors (1986) – “Another excellent action vehicle for Michelle Yeoh.” (Prime)

Peking Opera Blues (1986) – “For many American viewers, Peking Opera Blues was the very first taste of the explosive, kinetic experience known as “new wave” Hong Kong cinema. Sitting through Peking Opera Blues‘ astonishing combination of high flying acrobatics, hilarious comedy, excruciating torture scenes, and unabashed heroism from powerful female characters is like watching one of the old-style martial arts movies through a kaleidoscope. Throughout Peking Opera Blues running time (best described as “120-compressed-into-90″), identities are mistaken, genders are rent and bent, and the laws of gravity constantly amended. The action sequences are masterfully choreographed, but so are the slapstick comedy routines, and together they create a giddy, unbelievable spectacle.”

Magnificent Warriors (1986) – “Big-budget adventure pictures like Raiders of the Lost Ark dominated the 80s, and this Michelle Yeoh vehicle is no exception. Like in Raiders, it’s the 1930s and the khaki-fascists are up to their usual plans of world domination. Since this is a Hong Kong movie, the bad apples are the occupying forces of Imperial Japan….The 30s rough-fashion look and style of Magnificent Warriors is up to the Raiders standard, even if the film’s budget wouldn’t pay for Spielberg’s catering.” (Prime)

The Seventh Curse (1986) – “Secret lives of the HK rich and famous are explored in this splatterific yarn. The Seventh Curse is a show stopping midnight movie, which seems to have flown under the radar of even dedicated HK fans. This film marked a possible development for HK films (gore/fantasy) that never really panned out.” (Prime)

Armour of God (1986) – “Armour of God‘s main claim to fame is not its shameless appropriation of Raiders of the Lost Ark, nor that it’s one of Jackie Chan’s highest grossing films, nor even the presence of 80s Cantopop superstar Alan Tam as Jackie’s dopey sidekick. Nope, Armour of God is famous as the as the film that almost killed Jackie Chan.”

Legacy of Rage (1986) – “The late Brandon Lee left precious little cinematic legacy. Legacy of Rage displays Brandon more favorably than his Hollywood snorers Showdown in Little Tokyo, Rapid Fire, and The Crow. With his good looks, muscular fame, and glowering “freeze ’em” stare, one wonders what Lee might have accomplished had he been as prolific as most Hong Kong stars.” (Prime)

Righting Wrongs (1986) – “Righting Wrongs is a bleaker version of Hollywood’s The Star Chamber. Fortunately, the courtroom scenes are kept to a minimum, and action prevails.”

Eastern Condors (1987) – “War spectacular with an all-star cast of HK regulars, and a ringer, Oscar winner Dr. Haing S. Ngor (Best Supporting Actor, 1984). The action sequences are expert as the best in the business get to strut their martial stuff.”

Dragons Forever (1987) – “Sammo Hung is a great stunt coordinator and action director, but this 1987 Jackie Chan vehicle once again proves what a terrific comedy director he is as well. There are fight throughout the film but–until the final fifteen minute sequence–the main emphasis is on humor.”

Angel (1987) – “The original Girls with Guns flick.”

A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) – “…breathes flesh and nerve as it spins a love story from a cyclone of fantastic action. An ancient Chinese legend married to Western pacing, this cine-fable from producer Tsui Hark is at once earthy and unearthly, elegant and chaotic, and remains one of Hong Kong’s breakthrough films.”

Project A, Part II (1987) – “This sequel is arguable Jackie Chan’s finest work to date. In form, it isn’t much different from its predecessor or from the  Police Story movies; it simply has the most sustained sense of inspiration, in both its comedic and action elements.”

On the Run (1987) – “There is no better example of Hong Kong noir than On the Run. It was made at a time when fear in Hong Kong over the impending takeover of the colony by the People’s Republic was at a fever pitch. The film is as much about that paranoia as anything . Even Lu’s heroin smuggling is motivated by his desire to get enough money to emigrate. When Hsiang Ming first encounters his wife’s killer, he does not rage at the assassin because she killed the woman he loved–he’s angry because she has eliminated his means of getting out of Hong Kong! On the Run is more than just a good Hong Kong noir, it is good film noir. The film is shot in a dramatic, nihilistic style with deep shadows and strong lighting. The romance is so understated it never seems forced or unbelievable. And in spite of a tortuously complicated plot, we never lose track of what’s going on or why.”

City on Fire (1987) – “City on Fire garnered additional attention when Quentin Tarrantino’s Reservoir Dogs was released in 1992 and invoked comparisons with the earlier Ringo Lam film. While elements of City on Fire were certainly worked into the fabric of Reservoir Dogs, especially elements of the third act, we’re talking apples and oranges here. What’s more important is that both films are excellent modern crime dramas that explore the complex dynamics of cops who have gone so deep undercover that their loyalties twist.” (Kanopy)

Prison on Fire (1987) – “Prison stories are often told from the perspective of the “new fish”, an innocent who is tossed into a hellhole filled with bullying, predatory gangs but protected by a sympathetic old hand. What sets Ringo Lam’s Prison on Fire apart is its austere look and the gritty scripting by first-time screenwriter Nam Ying, who seems to have some, shall we say inside knowledge of the subject. Coming on the heels of his triumph in A Better Tomorrow, Prison on Fire helped cement Chow Yun Fat’s reputation, and the film did gangbusters at the box office.”

School on Fire (1988) – “Lam’s final installment in the “Fire” series, this is the darkest (and goriest) of the lot. As in the previous installments, innocents are placed in harm’s way/ This time though, it seems as though no escape or redemption is possible. Set among two-dollar noodle shacks, concrete block flats bristling with television antennae, and crowded cramped classrooms, School on Fire looks and feels as bleak as its story. Cops and triads–opposing forces who both make offerings to Kwan Ti, the red-faced God of War–seem to follow predestined patterns of mutually assured destruction. HK’s schools can’t be this bad, but the relentless dirge of School on Fire makes you wonder.”

People’s Hero (1988) – “A small bank. Almost closing time. Two dangerously incompetent bank robbers. Hundreds of police surrounding the building. Wait a minute…it’s Dog Day Afternoon! Nope. This is indeed a Hollywood-inspired almost-remake, but it’s definitely no rip-off. In fact, despite its mongrel pedigree. People’s Hero is a standout thriller. Directed by former actor Derek Yee, People’s Hero hinges on character and relationship rather than gunplay and wirework. The film quickly establishes its own identity after the initial Dog Day set-up. The movie never veers far from a horror/absurdity fulcrum. The human drama inside the bank is as riveting as the thriller elements that trapped them there. Every character is sharply and economically drawn. A terrific cast of mostly young actors provides the perfect touch of verisimilitude. But best of all is the towering performance of Ti Lung as Sunny Koo, People’s Hero gives him the role of a lifetime.”

As Tears Go By (1988) – “Wong Kar-wai’s smeary, brooding, vibrantly photographed As Tears Go By is a Romeo and Juliet for the MTV generation. Moving effortlessly from hushed, lush seductions to blood-drenched beatings, Wong’s baroque take on the generic trappings of HK’s youth-gang cinema blends longing, loss, and the impact of hot lead on tender flesh into an ultrastylish swirl of fluorescent realism  and perspiring tragedy. There are few HK films that so successfully expose the underbelly of triad glamour without lapsing into cheap melodrama or tiresome “naturalism.” Despite being a self-conscience reworking of Martin Scorcese’s Mean Streets, As Tears Go By undercuts the macho swagger of its inspiration by emphasizing Ah-ngor’s emotional yearnings and clearly condemning Ha-tau’s loutish brutality to women. While the film’s smudgy, expressionistic visual effects, sudden camera movements, and unexpected angels are closer to the art-film lexicon than the HK mainstream, it remains as an engrossing and extraordinarily stylish thriller (despite occasional lapses into sans-subtitle ambiguity). That As Tears Go By also transcends those limitations and faces up to senseless brutality rather than merely endorsing and reinforcing it suggests that Wong Kar-wai may be one of the few HK directors more interested in making films about violence than simply making violent films.” (Fandor)

Pedicab Driver (1988) – “Sammo Hung’s Pedicab Driver is magnificent…a love story with with barbed hooks and exquisite martial action.”

A Better Tomorrow 2 (1988) – “…the sequel is gorged with Woo’s trademarks: slow-motion sentiment, high caliber chivalry, distracted misogyny, and entertaining excessive-ness…Less a continuation of A Better Tomorrow’s narrative than a funhouse exaggeration of its central motifs.”

In the Line of Duty 3 (1988) – “With Michelle Yeoh’s Royal Warriors and Yes, Madam! considered the first two installments of the In the Line of Duty series, Cynthia Khan debuted in number three–with a bullet.”

I Love Maria (aka Roboforce) (1988) – The cyborg “Saviour recalls the mad robotmonger Rotwang from Metropolis, and the Maria robot owes a nod to Metropolis’s Maria, but the film has more in common with goofy fare like Infra-Man that Fritz Lang’s classic.”

Gangs (1988) – “Gangs examines the misadventures of a bunch of unpleasant juvenile delinquents. There is little comic relief in Gangs, and every scene is played for its grimness. The stars of Gangs are not the usual, well-known assortment of HK actors. The kids in this film look and act like real teenagers. The fight scenes are chaotic, haphazard, and refreshingly free of any martial arts pretense. The way these kids talk to each other is as important as what they say. This is the Cantonese of the streets, with its singsong roughness and drawled word endings. Like director Lawrence Ah Mon’s other underworld peek, Queen of Temple Street, Gangs is uniquely natural and all the more depressing for it.”

Painted Faces (1988) – “Painted Faces is based on the early lives of Jackie Chan (here called Big Nose), Sammo Hung, and Yuen Bao, and their troupe called the Seven Little Fortunes. Sammo Hung himself stars as his real-life teacher, Master Yuen Chan-yuan. Painted Faces features no kung fu fights, sex, or guns–just a group of acrobatic bald-headed kids and their Master. It’s about change and pain, and a shared experience that goes beyond friendship. It is also about the culture and ferment that shaped the creators of current Hong Kong movies.” (Netflix)

Peacock King (1988) – “Man’d depravity has undermined justice, again, and the Four Holes to Hell are opening ip. It’s up to a pair of hardened Buddhist youngsters to repel the “Unholy Trinity”–Hell King, Hell’s Agent, and the cute-yet-destructive Hell Virgin.”

The Big Heat (1988) – “A wild ride through the soulless world of gotta-get-out-before-97 HK criminals. The film is visually rich, well cast, and exceptionally brutal.”

The First Time is the Last Time (1989) – “A women’s prison movie is supposed to satisfy certain criteria. Hoary cliches include sadistic prison doctors, cruel and sexually repressed female wardens, lusting lesbian inmates, and lots of gratuitous nudity. The First Time is the Last Time, on the other hand, is one of those unexpected, female-driven dramas i which women and their relationships with each other are actually explored. The loser fathers and boyfriends who mess up their lives are also portrayed, adding depth and texture.”

Rouge (1989) – “A sadness over what Hong Kong has become pervades Rouge. There is a subtle anti-commercialism here, lamenting the effects of Western civilization on Hong Kong. Shots of the Chinese theaters and markets dissolve into shots of the 7-Elevens and shopping malls that have replaced them. Rouge moves at a languorous pace, with a haunting, sad mood uninterrupted by shock, gore, or slapstick. It is not a slam-bang action film, but it is beautiful, different, and great.”

My Heart is That Eternal Rose (1989) – “Veering wildly from the rainy, jet-black streets of downtown HK to the withering heat of the colony’s rural islands, Patrick Tam’s deeply romantic thriller has something for: swimsuited honeys, and heavy artillery, leering cretins and luscious ladies, disco and heartbreak. The proceeding are energized with bottle-rocket pacing, sudden shoot-outs, thwarted rapes, and a convenient bag of automatic weapons stashed in a gym locker.”

God of Gamblers (1989) – “God of Gamblers was an enormous hit in Hong Kong. In a place where money is seen as the only means of escaping both the dreariness of daily life and the impending takeover by China, the concept of an invincible gambler was an irresistible one. God of Gamblers breathed new life into the old genre, the Hong Kong Gambling Movie.”

Possessed II (1989): – “Looks like the makers of this flick stayed up all night watching The Exorcist, Altered States, and An American Werewolf in London–and ate waaaay too much congee.”

In the Line of Duty 4 (1989) – “The fast and furious fourth installment of the In the Line of Duty series is about raw aggression, extended brawling, and kicking one’s opponent’s guns into the ocean.” (Prime)

The Killer (1989) – “The Killer is a stylish , heartfelt action film, made by a wonderfully skilled director whose celluloid paradigm is informed by everything from French New Wave to Japanese gangster classics. Like other examples of HK films during the late 80s, The Killer has a bleak view of the changing face of Hong Kong. Fear over mainland China’s takeover of Hong Kong in 1997 and dismay at the increasingly amoral behavior of the triads are briefly touched upon. The Killer is an extremely powerful film melding operatic melodrama with bullet hailstorms.”

Bullet in the Head (1990) – “No one who sees John Woo’s most intense film, Bullet in the Head, can remain neutral: you either love it or hate it….Brutally intense, this film is not easily forgotten.”

Black Cat (1990) – “A virtual shot-by-shot remake of Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita, which was also remade by Hollywood as Point of No Return. Of the three, the HK version hits the target hardest. Newcomer Jade Leung’s shuddering animalistic performance as the Pygmalion hit lady makes her American and French counterparts look like Avon salesladies.”

Queen of Temple Street (1990) – “Tough love among the hard bitten. Queen of Temple Street focuses on a mother/daughter relationship between a middle-aged female pimp and her juvenile delinquent hooker daughter. Even subtitled, the dialogue is deft and cynical, and the relationship between the to women is explored with depth and compassion.”

Wild Search (1990) – “Those expecting a rollicking bulletfest a la Full Contact from this Ringo Lam-Chow Yun Fat collaboration will be disappointed. But it’s still  a good example of Lam’s prime strength as a director, developing strong characters and exploring their often surprising relationships. Wild Search is a crime-action film starring Chow as a hard-bitten RHKP officer, but it’s also a romantic drama that sets its believable characters in a framework of powerful criminals opposed by hardworking cops.”

Gunmen (1990) – “Kirk Wong’s films are notable for their oblique approaches to crime drama. Wong is subtler, more enigmatic director than John Woo or Tsui Hark, yet his films do not wither for lack of action. Like Ringo Lam, Wong seems more concerned with characters’ relationships with one another, and provides us with sincere moments of tenderness amid the carnage.”

Sex & Zen (1991) – “…adaptation of the 17th century erotic classic The Carnal Prayer Mat, Sex & Zen is pure Hong Kong hijinks, brimming with both formal, flowing period-piece atmosphere and sexual shenanigans of highly improbably postures.”

Once a Thief (1991) – “…and while there are some finely crafted action sequences, Once a Thief is not The Killer. This may come as a shock to bullet junkies, but Once a Thief is not really out of character for John Woo, whose comedic directorial efforts include Laughing Times and To Hell With the Devil. If you have half as much fun watching this high-glamour, high crimes/no misdemeanors flick as the stars obviously had making it, your time will be well spent.”

Once Upon a Time in China (1991) – “Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China is one of those rare productions that sparks latent interest in a perennial favorite, then transforms it into an instant franchise. Jet Li’s infectious grin and dazzling martial arts skills made him an excellent choice to revive the Wong Fei-hong legend. The action is so furious that it is sometimes too fast to follow…”

Red Spells Spells Red (1991) – “Red Spells Spells Red’s blend of sorcery and warped travelogue takes you back to the glory days of Manhattan’s 42nd Street grindhouses. You can almost hear the Times Square faithful hollering for more gore or staring in dope-addled disbelief at the screen. Creepy-crawly and aggressively strange, Red Spells Spells Red will find no favor with hard-core PETA-philes; its scenes of pig-sticking, chicken geeking, and scorpion attacks are rough and raw.”

Armour of God II: Operation Condor (1991) – “Armour of God’s sequel came five years after the original. The film was shot in Barcelona and the Sahara Desert, and quickly went past schedule and over budget. But Jackie fans come out ahead since many of the effects  are quite spectacular. Indeed, Armour of God II: Operation Condor eclipses the original in many respects.”

Robotrix (1991) – “In this entertaining, nonsensical flick, top-heavy androidettes battle a robotic villain with a penchant for carnal mayhem. Robotrix is a T and A flick (titanium and aluminum).”

Full Contact (1992) – “Drenched in feedback and octane, Full Contact revels in outrageous villains, antiheroes, and the hollow rattle of brass casings hitting the pavement. Ace director Ringo Lam cranks up all the knobs to ten in this crime-action fuel-burner.”

Hard-Boiled (1992) – “Hong Kong cinema is a deck full of action aces, but John Woo’s Hard-Boiled is the trump….Woo’s most spectacular film and an absolute must see.”

It’s Now or Never (1992) – “It’s Now or Never opens in a furious blur. Roving packs of early sixties teddy girls with big hairdos are out looking for boys and trouble. Soon you realize you’re watching a shrewd black comedy whose gags are nasty enough to draw blood. Hong Kong comedies don’t usually translate well, but this one, influenced by the films of John Waters, is a crackpot exception.”

Police Story 3: Supercop (1992) – “Driven by a strong narrative and making the most of its striking locations, Police Story 3: Supercop propels the viewer with a watch-spring-tight plot and Jackie Chan’s trademark: an assortment of ever-escalating, heart-halting stunts.”

The Heroic Trio (1992) – “The Heroic Trio is an outrageously uninhibited action movie, and an engaging showcase for three of HK’s most talented actresses. Each adds a surprising amount of emotional depth to this film’s cartoonish landscape and frequently loony occurrences. Some see The Heroic Trio as a thinly veiled allegory of a divided China, with the three heroines representing Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the mainland. Yeah, maybe. But even if it isn’t, it is a delirious comic book fantasy that seems to invent itself as it moves along.”

Dragon Inn (1992) – “Buoyed by the success of Tsui Hark productions Once Upon a Time in China and Swordsman II, HK filmmakers responded with an avalanche of action epics dressed up in period costume. These movies–often flashier, pumped up remakes of martial classics–have done much to sustain the current worldwide appreciation of contemporary HK cinema, well beyond the scope of John Woo’s gangster films. Dragon Inn, a remake of director King Hu’s 1966 film Dragon Gate Inn, is one of the more impressive efforts to come out of this revival.”

Swordsman II (1992) – “Swordsman II gleefully pours a twisty plot into a sprawling, brawling spectacle of delirious swordplay. Swordsman II’s densely packed frames riot with exploding bodies as antagonists are torn apart by whips, swords, huge bifurcated hooks, and other exotic weapons. Those with a solid knowledge of Chinese history and martial arts philosophies might try to follow the breakneck plot; all others, just let ‘er rip.”

City Hunter (1992) – “Jackie Chan is not only a pan-Asian phenomenon, but Japan’s most popular HK film star. There’s a Japanese tilt to this fluffy, sprawling comedy, which is based on a manga about a rakish private eye named Ryu Saeba. The film re-creates the comic book style in live action, and viewers should be prepared for ninety minutes of ridiculous sight gags and goony slapstick. Still, this is a Jackie Chan movie, and action fans won’t be disappointed.” (Tubi)

The Wicked City (1992) – “An ambitious attempt to translate the flamboyant creativity of Japanese anime to live action cinema, the Tsui Hark produced Wicked City is a visually intriguing mixture of sci-fi and melodrama. The movie moves with comic book quickness, without much of that boring cinematic connective tissue. Scenes are short and often contain extreme angles or forced perspective to give the movie its exciting graphic feel. The Wicked City faithfully recreates some scenes from the similarly titled Japanese animated film (also known as Supernatural Beast City) and also draws inspiration from Alien Nation and Bladerunner.”

The Bride With White Hair (1993) – “Psychosexual drama loaded with rich visual textures and fast, furious action. Unscrolled on the big screen (where it belongs), this epic poem will go a long way toward converting an HK film skeptic.” (Prime)

Naked Killer (1993) – “Naked Killer arches its back and spits at you for ninety minutes. Stylish, vaguely comprehensible, and entertaining as hell.”

Green Snake (1993) – “This gorgeous Tsui Hark production is based on one of China’s most famous folktales, Madame White Snake. This tale of two female snakes who have achieved the power to assume human form after centuries of training is irresistible, and has been brought to the Chinese screen several times before. This latest version pulls together some intriguing ideas humanity, religion, and sexuality as a base for Hark’s scintillating visuals, which include an enticing eroticism not usually seen in his movies. Green Snake boasts a superbly diverse musical score that incorporates everything from Hindi inspired rockin’ pop to New Age ether. The film’s main drawbacks are its dime-store special effects, which look jarring juxtaposed with the seamless fantastic landscape of the film as a whole. Viewers entranced by the undulating groove of Hark’s big, bad Snake will barely notice.” (Fandor)

Taxi Hunter (1993) – “Many in the Hong Kong film industry fold fast to an exploitation model: milk a newsworthy topic for box office cream. In 1993, HK taxi drivers came under fire for all sorts of rude behavior: cruising around with “Out of Service” notices that disappear at the wave of an HK$100 note, levying illegal surcharges in bad weather, and refusing to take people short distances. A sizable groundswell of ill will spiked up. Almost immediately, Taxi Hunter banged into theaters featuring Anthony Wong (visually styled like Michael Douglas in Falling Down) as a meek-mannered businessman bedeviled by those horrible hacks.”

The Assassin (1993) – “Despite the film’s poster art, which makes it look like a classic Shaw Brothers swordfest, The Assassin, which stars Zhang Fengyi (fresh from Farewell, My Concubine) as a man in the killing business, is much closer in spirit to Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. But broadswords replace six-guns in this violent tale of Ming Dynasty era power struggles. The sword duels in The Assassin are big and brawny, and the wintry landscape is used to stunning effect by cinematographer Zhao Fei, who shot Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern. Blood flies freely, and Eunuch Ngai’s killing techniques (the sort of rip ’em apart methods favored by gorehounds and video games devotees) earned the film an adults-only Category III rating.”

Satin Steel (1994) – “Hong King filmmakers are notorious for reshaping Hollywood movies, often swallowing an idea whole and spitting out something entirely different. In the case of Satin Steel, the movie on the carving block is Lethal Weapon. How do you rehab that slab of ham? Make the cops women.”

Drunken Master II (1994) – “…provides a showcase for one of cinema’s most physically gifted actors to demonstrate a wide range of styles.”

Chungking Express (1994) – “Chungking Express has the relentless energy and inexplicable grace of a perfectly crafted pop song: its giddy rhythms and infectious melodies linger long, circling around memories of forgotten lovers and ill-fated romances, teasing at emotions you’d long ago misplaced. Passions cross, pursuits dead-end, and romances disconnect in this bright, buoyantly atypical HK art film. It’s easy to see why Chungking Express was chosen as the first US release from the Quentin Tarantino managed distribution company, Rolling Thunder. While a plot synopsis barely begins to convey the assortment of visual riffs (mirrored images, smudgy chases, loopy body language) and thematic resonance, it is a film filled with possibility and energy and a sense that, though the clock is ticking, time is forever expanding, and that–1997 notwithstanding–the future isn’t running out.” (Criterion Channel)

Rock ‘n’ Roll Cop (1994) – “Rock ‘n’ Roll Cop is another of Kirk Wong’s enjoyable gritty police procedurals. Filled with vivid portraits of cops teetering on the edge, it showcases his talents at the top of his game.”

Burning Paradise (1994) – “Ringo Lam departs from his usual modus operandi of contemporary crime thrillers for this riveting period martial arts movie. Lam drenches the movie with a brooding, sinister haze that makes this a grim–but worthwhile– martial arts movie. Revisionist? A throwback to 70s gore-loving Shaw Brothers director Chang Cheh? Yeah, but this is still a martial arts movie and its gloomy passages are counterbalanced by a number of exciting duels.”

The Adventurers (1995) – “Despite its title, this Ringo Lam offering is a straightforward revenge drama. That is, as straightforward as an emotionally charged Hong Kong actioner with hokey conspiracy and romance-laced subplots driving several dazzling action sequences can be.”

Other Movies mentioned in the book (I did not look to see which of these films are streaming):

A Serious Shock: Yes Madam ’92 (1992), She Shoots Straight (1990), Angel 2 (1988), Black Cat 2: Assassination of President Yeltsin (1992), Blonde Fury (1988), Dreaming the Reality (1991), Kickboxer’s Tears (1993), Mission of Justice (1992), Princess Madam (1989), Story of a Gun (1991), Widow Warriors (1989), The East is Red (aka Swordsman III)A Chinese Ghost Story II (1990), A Chinese Ghost Story III (1991), Aloha Little Vampire Story (1988), Doctor Vampire (1991), Evil Cat (1987), The Ghost Snatchers (1986), The Golden Swallow (1988), The Holy Virgin Versus the Evil Dead (1991), Mr. Vampire Part III (1988), One Eyebrow Priest (1987), Deadful Melody (1994), Hello Dracular (1988), The Ultimate Vampire (1991), Spiritual Love (1987), Crime Story (1993), Drunken Master (1978), Twin Dragons (1992), Wheels on Meals (1984), Call Girl 92 (1992), Fallen Angels (1995), Flirting (1987), Her Vengeance (1989), The Incorruptible (1993), Women’s Prison (1988), Prison on Fire 2 (1987), Erotic Ghost Story (1990), Erotic Ghost Story II (1991), Centipede Horror (1988), The Dragon From Russia (1990), Ghostly Vixen (1990), Jail House Eros (aka Haunted Jail House) (1991), My Neighbors are Phantoms (1990), The Nocturnal Demon (1991), Operation Pink Squad 2 (1988), Saviour of the Soul (1992), Stone Age Warriors (1990), Encounter of the Spooky Kind 2 (1990), A Kid From Tibet (1991), Fong Sai Yuk (1993), Bloodstained Tradewinds (1990), Bury Me High (1990), Kung Fu Cult Master (1994), Iron Monkey (1993), Last Hero in China (1993), Seven Warriors (1989), The Tai Chi Master (1993), Tiger Cage (1990), Tiger on Beat (1988), Doctor Lamb (1993), Man Behind the Sun (1990), Remains of a Woman (1993), The Story of Ricky (1991), The Untold Story: Human Meat Roast Pork Buns (1993)

From John Ware to the Compton Cowboys: 100 years of scholarship, writings, and re-contextualizing the black experience in the west

Man that’s a wordy title.

A couple of times, over the past year on social media, the topic of black cowboys has come up. It’s a fascinating subject that goes against the typical presentations seen in western fiction and stories of the west.

I just wanted to pull together, in one place, a list of some of the books on the subject. Basically, the books I’ve read. They’re all readily available and provide great insights and a solid introduction to the topic.

This is not an exhaustive list. There are many other books on the black experience in the west.

The earliest book that I’m aware of on this subject is from 1919 and a book on this subject was published in 2018. So we’re looking at a century of works about the black experience in the west.

Continue reading “From John Ware to the Compton Cowboys: 100 years of scholarship, writings, and re-contextualizing the black experience in the west”

“…the nightmare tales Woolrich wrote are thoroughly modern in one sense: they take place in a godless world where monstrous, irrational, barely comprehensible forces wreak violent havoc on the affairs of doomed innocents, who scatter like cockroaches in the night.”

From Richard Dooling’s introduction to Rendezvous in Black by Cornell Woolrich

James Lipton: You’ve described your mother as not liking you for quite protracted moments.“

Hugh Laurie: “Yes. I was a frustration to her.”

“Why”

“I don’t actually know. And perhaps I’ll never ever work it out. But I think there were big chunks of time when I think she, uh yeah, she didn’t like me. She didn’t like me.”

Inside the Actors Studio

“…it would seem that Wister’s personal values constantly interfered with his objective to describe the West and its people as they really were. Romance and marriage in his novels, as in some of his stories, serve only to emasculate his cowboys, to make them docile Easterners concerned more with personal ambition, accumulation of wealth, and achieving what by Eastern standards could only be considered social standing, rather than luxuriating in their freedom, the openness and emptiness of the land, and the West’s utter disregard for family background. To make his cowboy’s acceptable heroes to himself, as well as to his Eastern readers, Wister felt compelled to imbue them with his own distinctly patrician values. For this reason his stories cannot be said to depict truthfully the contrasts and real conflicts between the East and West of his time and Western readers of his stories have always tended to scoff at what he was presenting as the reality of Western life.
“Wister in his political philosophy was a progressive and what has come to be termed a social Darwinist….He believed in a natural aristocracy, a survival of the fittest – the fittest being those who measured up best to the elective affinities of his own value system. …Yet privately (and this is wht his journals are so illuminating), he lamented the sloth which he felt the West induced in people, and it was his ultimate rejection of the real West that brought about his disillusionment with it and his refusal, after 1911, ever to return there.”

Jon Tuska, Western Stories