Sunday, September 28, 2014

Kung-Fu Klassix: Dirty Ho

Hopefully this will be something of a semi-regular feature around here...

Dirty Ho
Directed by Lau Kar-Leung
China, 1979

Well, this is the goofiest, yet most enjoyable, martial arts movie I've seen in a while. It's pretty nuts, starting out as what seems to be a rivalry between businessmen/jewel thieves and building, in that hard-to-follow way that old-school kung-fu movies often do, into a complex plot that has to do with the succession of the Chinese Emperor's heirs. Of the two rivals, the younger, Ho, gives the movie its name, since he's uncouth and uncultured compared to his counterpart, Wang, who likes to surround himself with art, music, and fine wines. The plot sees Wang, who is played by the great Gordon Liu, take Ho under his wing as he battles assassins for reasons that eventually become clear, and the two of them face off against ever-more-dangerous opponents on their way to the expected climactic fight.

What makes all this especially amusing is that Wang wants to keep his kung-fu skills secret, so for most of the movie, any fights he has are done surreptitiously, with him and his opponents kicking each other under the table while everyone else in the room is unaware or trading quick blows while people have their heads turned. This makes for some especially bizarre fight scenes, such as a bit in which Wang is sampling some nobleman's wine, but the nobleman and his servant keep attacking him in between pours and sips. It's hard to explain, and I wasn't even sure what was going on at first, but as the scene progressed, I became more and more delighted at the sheer oddness of a wine-tasting battle.

In another great bit, Ho breaks into Wang's house and attacks him, and Wang passes off a female musician as his bodyguard, then when Ho tries to fight her, he stands behind her, pushing her hands and feet to make her punch and kick him and making for a hilarious scene as she beats him up without understanding what is going on:

The move is definitely a comedy, full of goofy facial expressions and noises, and some of the silliness that would show up in kung-fu movies of the period. There's a fight with some beggars who are all pretending to be cripple, although it doesn't seem to give them much of an advantage, and an unfortunate bit in which a gang of effeminate men attack Ho and make him question his sexuality. But overall it's a lot of fun, with Liu especially seeming like he's having a great time acting completely oblivious while he fends off attackers without letting on that he knows what's going on.

The fights are impeccably choreographed, all leading up to a climactic scene in which Wang and Ho, sharing a long staff, face off against three foes, one of whom uses one of those spears with a big, sword-like blade on the end and another using what appears to be some sort of weighted chisel, and the whole thing is like an intricate dance, with each side switching weapons and positions, moving around each other and striking each other in close quarters. It's crazy and awesome, everything I would hope for in a Gordon Liu fight.

Occasional dumb jokes aside, this one is something special, one of the most unique and strange examples of the ways that kung-fu movies of the 70s would go to weird places and stretch themselves into nonsensical plots just to get in some good fights. You always hope for something like this when you watch one of the older martial arts movies, and this time that expectation paid off.

If this sounds like your idea of a good time, you can watch the whole movie on YouTube. I don't know if this is only temporarily available, since I don't know how much attention the rights holders to old kung-fu movies pay to YouTube, so just in case it gets taken down someday, here's the fight I took the gif above from, and here's the final battle. Enjoy!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Fables: I Think I See Where This Is Going

Fables, volume 20: Camelot
Written by Bill Willingham
Art by Mark Buckingham, Russ Braun, Steve Leialoha, Barry Kitson, et al.
Published by DC Comics/Vertigo

Over the past year, I took something of a hiatus from blogging, but I didn't remain completely silent. I guess I can't let my thoughts go unrecorded, so I regularly posted little "here's what I thought" blurbs on Goodreads about most of the books I read, including the last few volumes of Fables, a series that I used to like quite a bit but felt had been kind of floundering for the past couple years. I was especially down on the 19th volume, so I'll go ahead and repost what I wrote about it here (and if you want to see what I thought was a dumb comment and my somewhat-obnoxious reply, go check it out):
I think this volume confirms that I'm ready to stop buying this series (which means I'll still read it, of course, just to find out what happens to the various characters). It's just not really doing it for me, even though its events should be intriguing. There's just something about the nature of the threats that the characters face that seem kind of contrived, as if Bill Willingham is casting about for new stuff to cause them problems, but then also wrapping them up too quickly. Snow White having a secret "husband" that predated Prince Charming and Bigby Wolf should be a big deal, but we learn so little about the guy (except that he's a sexist jerk, so we can boo and hiss at him), how he got his magical powers, and what exactly he wants (to rape Snow, apparently; did I mention the booing and hissing?), that he seems more like a device to get the characters where Willingham wants them to be by the end of the volume. The early years of the series were characterized by a massive threat hanging over the characters, one that we only slowly learned about, so when the big confrontations came, they seemed epic. And even after that was over, other events took time to play out, rather than appearing, being confronted, and ending before we fully understand what is going on. At this point, Willingham seems like he's casting about for something to do with the world he's created, which doesn't bode well for its continued existence (which isn't lasting that much longer anyway, but this sort of thing makes me think that, like happens so often with long-running TV series, it's limping to a close rather than reaching anything resembling a planned conclusion).
Well, as of the next volume, I can see that there does seem to be a plan for the series' end, and an interesting one at that, but I'm not ready for a complete mea culpa; I still think that volume is pretty clunky, abruptly introducing a powerful threat, shuffling a major character off to the edges of the story until he can show up at the end for a big battle, and then killing him off in a way that all but guarantees a later return.

This next volume, however, makes some of that story make sense, at least as an awkward way of hammering the series into shape for the final few volumes. It's obvious in retrospect that it was meant to accomplish two things: remove Bigby Wolf from the series for the time being, and introduce something to drive a wedge between Snow White and Rose Red. It seems that Willingham has a big finale in mind for the series, but had to get some pieces into place in order to kick it off, and rather than spend a while building to it organically, he found a way to unceremoniously shove the characters into the spots he needed them.

So, it was kind of an ugly way of getting to this 20th volume, but now that we're here, I like where it's going. Rose Red has decided to take her place as an agent of the avatar of Hope, specifically as the Paladin of Second Chances. In order to do so, she decides to reestablish Camelot, recruiting knights in need of redemption who can go on quests for the betterment of Fables everywhere. But what she doesn't realize (or thinks she can control) is that establishing this paradigm will repeat the full story of Camelot, including its horrible fall.

That's pretty interesting stuff, especially seeing how the different characters fall into different roles (Rose as King Arthur, Morgan Le Fey as Merlin, and even Lancelot as Guinevere). But what I find especially intriguing is that Snow White is being set up as the new Morgan Le Fey, due to Rose's decision to give the evil Prince Brandish a chance at redemption. That's a really interesting conflict, and Willingham sells it pretty well, giving Snow a sort of villain speech in which she describes how cold and hard she can be when defending herself from threats. I'm really curious to see how this plays out over what I believe are the remaining two volumes of the series.

There's also a single-issue interlude that's one of the best stories the series has done in a long time, in which Bigby meets Boy Blue in the afterlife, and they discuss the new perspective that being dead brings, as well as contemplate the meaning of life and the afterlife. It's an interesting look at some of the grander themes of the series, and even gives a touch of humanity to the crazy, mystical world of the series, providing a nice bit of character exploration and ending on one of the more poignant scenes of the entire series. Bigby is certain to come back to life before the series is over, but this would work well as a last hurrah, even though we know it won't be.

The volume isn't all wine and roses; there are a few one- or two-issue stories that look at some of the series' minor characters that aren't very good (the Geppetto story is interesting, indicating that he's going to become a threat again, but I can't imagine he'll play into the finale too much, considering how the series has moved past him), and some moments are kind of distasteful, such as Dr. Swineheart's sexual advances toward the now-beautiful former Nurse Spratt. But overall, this installment is a definite improvement, and one that makes me hopeful for the upcoming end of the series. For now, at least, it looks like this is going to come to a satisfying conclusion rather than an indecisive close. We'll see if Willingham can stick the landing, but even though it's not going to be as good as the series' glory days (I would mark volumes such as March of the Wooden Soldiers and The Good Prince as high points), it looks like it's going to be better than I had been expected for the last few volumes. That's a pleasant surprise.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

One Piece is Still Awesome as of September 2014

I've continued reading One Piece as it came out in digest form since the last time I wrote about it, but even aside from my near-complete lack of blogging since then, I haven't found much to write about. It's been enjoyable enough, but the story that lasted from that volume (67) all the way up through volume 71 got kind of draggy, acting mostly as setup for the next portion of the plot, which is finally kicking into gear as of the current volume, #72. But with all the craziness and stuff that's going on, I'm back on board, at least for now (we'll see how I feel in a few months, when the next volume comes out).

Want some examples of the stuff that's got me excited again? I would start with the plot, but as usual, it's way too complicated to explain in a way that makes much sense; it basically involves the Straw Hat Pirates infiltrating the kingdom of their current enemy, Don Quixote Doflamingo. They're supposed to do a prisoner swap with him while secretly planning to destroy a factory he's using to manufacture artificial devil fruits (the things that give people the crazy superpowers that almost everybody in the series has). Things immediately get sidetracked when Luffy gets distracted by a fighting tournament, in which the prize for the winner is the Flame-Flame fruit. This was the fruit that gave Luffy's brother Ace his powers, but now that he's dead, somebody else can claim it (that's apparently how things work in this world), and Luffy doesn't want anybody else (especially some vicious criminal) to have it. That gives the tournament some stakes, but that doesn't matter all that much (for now); you never need much of an excuse to throw a fighting tournament into a shonen manga series.

The previous volume featured some of the preliminary rounds of the tournament, but the bulk of this installment is dedicated to the round that Luffy participates in, and it's as awesome as one would hope. As with any big fight scene, Oda takes this chance to throw in a bunch of crazy characters, like this martial artist whose badassery is somewhat tempered by the frilly ruffed collar he wears:

Or this cactus-hatted fellow:

Or these brothers, one of whom has the bizarre power to be worn as a jacket:

But while that's funny, we still get some awe-inspiring, grin-inducing action, like this moment in which Luffy comes up against a giant who had been wiping the floor with everybody:

I love the reaction shots that Oda mixes in to the action there, especially the one at the end of the first page. We see Luffy winding up for a massive punch, but it actually happens off-panel, and we just see the crowd freaking out about it, before turning the page and seeing its immediate effects (and a further freak-out as the shock of what just happened continues to register).

Later, the battle comes down to Luffy and another powerful foe, and you can tell it's going to be awesome as soon as they throw their first punches:

Their fight gets a bit of emotional stakes due to the revelation that he was a pirate whose life was ruined by Luffy's grandfather Garp (you see, he had hidden his pirate treasure beneath a glacier that only he could break open, due to his diamond pointed head, but Garp punched him on the head so hard, it wasn't pointy anymore), so he swore revenge on Garp's family. I won't spoil the resolution to the battle, but it's awesome and hilarious, and as the other competitors get fleshed out and their motivations come into focus and begin to tie into the rest of what's going on in the kingdom, I expect it's going to lead to some pretty amazing places.

But that's not all that's going on in this volume. There's also a bit in which Sanji starts to form a relationship with a lady who is working for the kingdom's organized crime family, and she has one of those powers that Oda occasionally uses that is based on the silly things that kids do (see also: CP9's finger pistols):

And she also has a pretty good kick-to-the-face move:

I also liked a scene in which Trafalgar Law, the Straw Hats' ally, is facing off against Joker/Doflamingo and a Navy General, when the latter apparently uses a power to call down a meteor strike:

The three of them use their various powers to block it, leaving a gaping crater and the three of them standing on tiny pillars:

It's only a short scene, but it's a hint at an epic battle to come, demonstrating the immense powers that our heroes will have to face at some point. I can't wait to see how Oda deals with it, whether it's Luffy, Zolo, or any (or all) of the other characters that will have to come up with some way to battle literally world-shaking forces.

On a lighter note, there's a running subplot in which Nami, Brook, and Chopper get attacked by a lady who has the power to turn people and things into "art", which means they get transformed into the following forms:

That's really weird, but I like the references to Munch and Picasso. This lady also lets Oda break out one of his classic gags, in which an ugly woman insists she is beautiful in a non-sequitur manner:

And I didn't even mention the other running subplots, in which there are some tiny people living underground in the kingdom planning on launching a rebellion, or that half of the country's population is living toys. The latter looks to be leading up to a classic emotional reveal, since there are hints that somebody with strange powers is turning people into toys, who then go on to secretly help out the families that think they are dead without revealing their true identities. That sounds silly, but if anybody can make it work, and even wring tears from it, it's Oda. I'm hoping he won't spend too many more volumes working it all out, but if the rest of this storyline is as enjoyable as this installment, I probably won't mind.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Exquisite Expressiveness of Kelley Jones' Batman

Over-developed musculature:

Distended limbs and necks:

Massively painful physical assaults:

Incredibly complex Batcave equipment:

Flowing, billowing capes:

Strangely ribbed capes:

Long, long, long capes:

Which sometimes act as panel borders:

Moody, occasionally amusing poses and expressions:

With bat-ears that sometimes point backwards for increased sleekness:

Sexy ladies:

An especially overgrown take on Swamp Thing:

A grotesque, contortionist take on Deadman:

Occasional little floating bats:

And finally, an old-timey flashback Batman:

All images taken from Batman by Doug Moench and Kelley Jones, Volume 1. Apologies for poor image quality.