Some [kinda] Short Reviews
Never Die Alone
Never Die Alone
is an unexpected treasure, a beautifully stylish quasi-noir from the unlikely source of director Ernest R. Dickerson (who?), and stars DMX and David Arquette. King David (DMX) is stabbed to death within the film’s first fifteen minutes narrates the story from beyond the grave, telling a quick-n-slick tale of his escape from the gritty Big Apple to sunny So-Cal via audio tapes he left to Paul (Arquette), the white boy who was considerate enough to drive the dying man to the hospital. James Gibson, adapting Donald Goines novel, throws everything he can into the almost trashy screenplay. With Michael (Michael Ealy), a fallen thug trying to extract vengeance from a crime the King committed in the past, the King’s disturbing California tale replete with unequal mixtures of love and drug addiction, and Paul’s obsession with the dead man’s gritty voice spitting thug literature out of cassette tapes, Never Die Alone
is a rich, if ultimately pulpy, story of urban reliance.
That Arquette’s aspiring white writer resides in the ghetto, with posters of Miles Davis and the Wu-Tang Clan adorning his apartment, and claims to use his environment to produce authentic stories (his black girlfriend asks if she is part of his artistic “slumming” research) is a poignant subplot that telling speaks for the rest of the crime drama. The film is continually populated with people who dangerously rely on illicit elements of the urban world in order to feel alive-David hooks girls on heroin so he can feel needed, Michael’s gang history provokes desire for continual bloody retribution, and Paul is obsessed to the King’s blunt street-poetics. The title of the film itself speaks towards all their need to have somebody other than themselves around to give them a reason to live. Unfortunately, in noir fashion, the circles these city-dwellers move in are those of the underworld and fate is unavoidable.
Be it on drugs, love, women, revenge, or stories to tell, Dickerson weaves an astonishingly multi-textured story that loosely and subtly incorporates several religious beliefs into broad, old-noir themes of fatalism and retribution. Shot by the brilliant young cinematographer Matthew Libatique, Never Die Alone
has an amazing visual look of richly etched grain and deep colored hues that seem to blend the opulent tones of a drug lord’s pleasure palace with the neon grime of the urban streets. A booming score mixing jazz, hip-hop, and classical orchestration simply sweetens the film’s beautiful aesthetic detail. With Arquette and rapper DMX at its head, Never Die Alone
doesn’t ask for much, but it is a slick, gritty B movie at its finest, and may prove to be the surprise of the year.
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring
is an understandably simple Buddhist parable. Though the narrative tracks the spiritual progression of a young monk through the seasons, effortlessly jumping decades with each significant change in his life, the film adheres strictly to its location in nature, a breathtakingly picturesque Korean lake on which floats a modest Buddhist temple. From this, then, it becomes clear that all the film really does is follow the seasons, and the few humans in the movie, like the temple itself, simply drift on top of the reliably shifting landscape.
One could be entirely satisfied focusing only on the film’s nature photography, as director Kim Ki-Duk has chosen a lake that seems to render an endless variety of beautiful seasonal moments-frozen waterfalls, mid-summer showers, late evening fog, autumn-crisp golden leaves-the lake seems a magical place where anything in nature that can be imagined can be found. The story itself, unfortunately, is a bit too trite. It takes the form of a textbook parable on human desire, contemplative understanding, and life’s circularity that, for better or for worse, a child could easily discern. Instead, it is the few moments in-between Kim’s larger picture that contain the film’s charm. When the child monk is foraging the lakeside picking herbs (having been warned to look out for snakes) Kim shows a deadly looking snake approaching him. The child looks up at the snake, which is merely inches away, momentarily startled. But instead of fleeing the child simply picks the snake up by the neck and casually flings it out of harm’s way. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring
is not necessarily replete with such charming and subtly meaningful moments, but their accumulation, along with the bountiful splendor of the film’s isolated location cannot fail to move.
Along with the acclaimed Zhang Yimou polemic arthouse martial arts film Hero
, Stephen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer
has been kept on Miramax’s shelf to the point where both films have acquired the status of sheltered cult classics. Sadly, Shaolin Soccer
, the first (and most crowd pleasing) of the two to get a hesitant release in no way lives up to the wagonload of Hong Kong Film awards and exuberant internet praise heaped upon it. Indeed, Chow’s film may introduce a novel and highly entertaining amalgam of martial arts action films and sports success stories, but aside from the animated creativity of the special-effects laden kung-fu soccer matches the majority of the film is painfully mediocre.
Shorn of roughly thirty minutes by Miramax (who also simplified the subtitles and inserted glaring English words over store signs and notes originally written in Chinese), Shaolin Soccer
's main problem is a complete lack of thematics with which to frame the regular sports genre progression of-team is fragmented, team is pulled together, team is trained, team does well at first, team gets wake up call by losing, team regroups and wins it all. Chow plays an ex-Shaolin master Sing, and along with the rest of his dead master’s pupils, has fallen onto hard times. Golden Leg Fung (Man Tat Ng), once a famous player now a cripple vying to get vengeance on the man who crippled him and now coaches winning soccer sensation Team Evil, quickly sees the soccer potential of Sing’s cannon-like leg power. Sing in turn not only wants a better job but one that helps spread the message and ideals of kung-fu to the general populace, whom he thinks has lost interest in the art which can so easily be applied to daily life. To keep the audience on their toes Chow has cast mostly middle-aged and overweight men to play his Shaolin brothers. To top the team off (and broaden the film’s appeal) Shaolin Soccer includes an agonizingly truncated romance in the form of putting beauty Vicki Zhao under acne-heavy makeup but giving her kung-fu skills that will undoubtedly help win both the game and Sing’s heart.
Within all this are a number of fairly obvious, but nonetheless existence, themes that would give Shaolin Soccer
a purpose. Teamwork, self-confidence, unemployment, and Shaolin philosophy are all introduced into the narrative by Chow, but he focuses on none of them and it is never as clear as it should by why exactly this team is going to (and should) win, other than the fact they face a team named Team Evil. At times this lack of thematics is infuriating because Chow uses extremely witty computer graphics to envision the sports crossover of Shaolin-style soccer. Visualized more like Street Fighter meets soccer than down to earth martial arts, Sing’s team can fly, kick balls that send the opposing team flying like pins, produce bomb-like shock waves and even acquire animalistic fury. The action is fast and ingenious, the humor crude, broad and generally enjoyable, but like many kung-fu movies before it, nearly all the fillings surrounding the action leave much to be desired. See it for the cheeky and wild action, Chow’s lean athletic charisma, and the lead villain’s bizarre affinity to Hollywood producer Robert Evans. For a much better and still highly unique Asian sports phenomenon, see Fumihiko Sori’s gleefully charming 2002 film Ping Pong