Friday, October 23, 2009

Up in the Air

Jason Reitman's latest film is, simply, wonderful. The director of "Thank You for Smoking" and "Juno" has maybe made his best movie yet.

George Clooney stars as a professional ax-man who spends more than 90% of a year on airplanes, in airports, and in hotels. And he loves it. He is sent all over the country to fire people. He is very good at his job.

The movie is about a lot of things, really. It's about peoplelosing their jobs, a man who hates commitment, a young lady looking to live the perfect life, a woman looking to escape her life, and plenty of other stuff.

While some of the acting is off (because Reitman used plenty of regular, everyday people), George Clooney does an exceptional job. The film isn't as funny, perhaps, as either of Reitman's last two features, and it certainly doesn't have the biting social commentary of "Thank you for Smoking". It does have as much heart as "Juno" (if not more), but the audience doesn't suffer through Diablo Cody's forced quirkiness.

I got to see a test screening, so some things may still change before the movie comes out on December 4th. To me, the only things that would need changing would be to tighten up some lingering shots in editing, and add a bit more music to fill in some gaps. Otherwise, like I said, I think it's Reitman's best work.

(Also highly enjoyable: Reitman's re-use of some actors -- Sam Elliot, J.K. Simmons, and Jason Bateman)

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Stepfather

This remake of the 1987 "based on a true story" horror film is... Well, it was better than I expected.

I should say that I only wanted to see this movie for Dylan Walsh. I love the show "Nip/Tuck" and I wanted to see how Dr. Sean McNamara fared in something else (though he was the lead in "Congo", way back when).
His acting was definitely the best part of the movie.

While the movie is pretty typical, mundane slasher-thriller stuff, it is still fun. I was at first a bit reticent because it is rated PG-13. All this meant, however, was that there wasn't really any slashing, and there weren't any unnecessarily nude coeds (although practically everytime we see Amber Heard, she is either in a bikini or underwear). Unfortunately, there is at least one bad cut, and some rather obvious digital work.

While the music selection is good on its own, a lot of it is unnecessary. This comes out to be more of an MTV teen flick than a horror film in a lot of ways.

I suggest that if you go see this, you see it when and where and with whom you will have the most participatory experience. The movie is best when you're in a room full of people laughing, screaming, and yelling at the characters together.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Batman -- Martial Artist - 05 - Capoeira

Capoeira is an art that originated in Brazil, developed by African slaves sometime in the 17th century. It is characterized by its high, sometimes acrobatic kicks, moves that seem similar to modern break dancing, and typically being accompanied by music.

Firstly, it should be said that Capoeira is really less a martial art than a cultural practice. It is, in essence, a dance. Its fighting origins are debatable, but it is generally accepted that the slaves brought to Brazil by the Portuguese (from what is modern day Angola) developed a fighting style that could be used while their hands were shackled, but they disguised it as a dance so the slave masters could not stop its practice.
While African tribes did have fighting styles, and similar techniques could be seen in the fights amongst Afro-Caribbean slaves, the generally accepted origin story of Capoeira is highly dubious. One problem with this origin is that slaves were most typically shackled by their ankles. How much work can a slave really do if his hands are immobile? Another problem is the question of effectiveness: if the slaves really had such a great fighting style, why are there not MORE stories of escape and uprising? While plenty of slaves would have known wrestling, stick fighting, and kicking techniques, the slaves had often been captured in the first place because they were not the best fighters around.

This is not meant to discount Capoeira as a fine cultural tradition. It can even be described as a martial art, but with the emphasis on ART. Capoeira is really a dance or game. It is NOT recommended for anyone looking to learn practical self-defense. But, if one wanted to get in great shape, dance to great rhythmic music, and meet fine Brazilian girls, then by all means he should take up Capoeira.

So, would Batman practice Capoeira? No. He would certainly become familiar with it, maybe even borrow a move or two, but it is not an art that Bruce would have spent time diligently practicing or attempting to master Capoeira. While it would be a good idea to learn some techniques that would allow him to fight while shackled, Batman would be able to use kicks from Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Savate, or any other art more effectively than the break dancing moves of Capoeira. Also, Batman’s Plan A is to simply not get handcuffed in the first place.
Remember, Capoeira is a dance. While Bruce Wayne may do the tango or salsa, or waltz with gorgeous society girls, we know one thing for sure -- Batman does not dance.

-There is a delightful bit in the movie “Never Back Down” in which the main bad guy faces a fighter who shows off with some fancy Capoeira moves. The bad guy dispatches him quickly with a simple, direct punch.
-The villain in “Ocean’s Twelve” uses Capoeira to slip through a security laser field.
-Capoeira is the art used by Eddy Gordo and Christie Monteiro in the Tekken video game series.
-As per usual, check out youtube if you want to see Capoeira in action.

Batman -- Martial Artist - 04 - Eskrima/Kali/Arnis

Eskrima, Kali, and Arnis are all names for similar styles of Filipino martial arts. They primarily focus on the use of sticks or knives, or the defense against such weapons.

As with many martial arts, the Filipino martial arts’ origins are hard to objectively pin down. Most of the styles were culturally rich and passed from father to son until more recently, when teachers started making money. The cloudiness of the origins is compounded by the fact that stick and knife fighting were not necessarily the practice of scholars, so there are no older written source materials.
Like most martial arts, the origins are likely a mixture of older cultural practices (from places like India, Indonesia, and China) and native developments.

The method by which Eskrima is taught is streamlined and so effective that one can become fairly proficient in a relatively short amount of time. The armed techniques are all very direct and quick, and the unarmed techniques are just as direct and joint locks are heavily utilized. For this reason, Eskrima is taught to various special military forces and intelligence field agencies. The ability to defeat and disarm a knife-wielding opponent is of course a valuable skill to anyone who must defend himself on a regular basis.

Eskrima is practiced with items such as rattan sticks, wooden (now mostly rubber) knife replicas, and various other improvised weapon substitutes. Drills are the most common form of practice, much like forms are used in empty-hand arts. When sparring in Eskrima, the practitioners will don protective gloves and helmet-masks similar to (or the same as) those used in Kendo or fencing.
A lot of the safety features have been added not just as a result of modern thinking, but so as to appeal to people of other cultures. Traditional martial arts as practiced when they come to America or Europe are more watered down, at least in terms of cultural integrity and physical severity. If you go to the Philippines to train in Eskrima, Kali, or Arnis, you will likely suffer many more bruises, lacerations, and even fractures than you would if you went to a school in America.

The popularity of Filipino martial arts in America has been due to both their efficiency and, in large part, the efforts of great martial arts masters like Dan Inosanto (one of Bruce Lee’s top students/training partners).
I incorporate very basic Kali solo drills into my own martial arts practice, and while I’m not so confident as to think that I could face a knife-wielding mugger unarmed, I’m confident in my skills with a stick in my hand.
You can see Filipino martial arts mixed into the fighting styles of fictional characters (using Kali or a similar art adds a realistic proficiency) in such movies as "Daredevil", the Daniel Craig "Bond" films, and the "Bourne" movies.

Would Batman learn and practice Eskrima, Kali, and/or Arnis? Of course he would. Batman would need to be able to effectively disarm knife- and stick-wielding assailants. Bruce traveled the world and spent years in Asia. It’s likely that he would have spent 3 to 12 months in the Philippines learning some of the most efficient fighting /self-defense techniques in the world. Or, at the very least, one Bruce’s many teachers would have covered knife and stick use and defense.

-If you want to learn more about Filipino martial arts, I highly suggest the Kali and Eskrima episodes of Fight Quest and Human Weapon, which you can find on youtube. Also on youtube, you can find plenty of instructional (or at the very least demonstrational) videos from teachers or semi-casual practitioners.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Simpsons take on MMA!!!

"The Simpsons" episode 21.03 ("The Great Wife Hope") just aired and it dealt with a subject dear to my heart: Mixed Martial Arts.

Now, it's a few years late, but "The Simpsons" can't always be expected to be truly cutting edge (like the episode they did making fun of "24" -- it aired like three years after the first season of "24" was over). They already kind of took on martial arts in general early on in the series, when Bart wanted to take up Karate, but didn't have the patience or interest in anything besides the violence. Now, they've finally gotten around to MMA.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship is represented (as Ultimate Punching Kicking and Choking Championship) as MMA becomes popular in Springfield, but of course Marge has to protest.

As per usual, all sides are pretty well represented and made fun of. The kids immediately start imitating, Marge feels that she should be able to ban something if she doesn't agree with it, etc. People on both sides are portrayed as stupid and mean, but each argument is given just the right amount of validity.

It's a good episode, overall. Unfortunately, Chuck Liddell is SEVERELY underused as a guest voice actor.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Batman -- Martial Artist - 03 - Savate

Savate is, essentially, a French form of kickboxing. The martial art takes its name from the French phrase for “old boot” or “old shoe”. This is because Savate is derived from older “kick fighting” styles that originated in the 19th century. In a time in which it was thought that kicking was ungentlemanly (and for sissies), French street fighters threw that false sense of honor to the wind and used their feet for more efficient fighting.
Some claim that it started as a fighting style for French sailors. They would hold on to something like a mast or rigging and would use kicks.

The style uses the basic punches of boxing, but Savateurs tend to prefer kicks. This is most likely ingrained by historical practice. Since your legs are longer and stronger than your arms, you can typically keep a safer distance and do more damage by kicking rather than punching.
There is also the fact that punching tends to look more savage and hostile, so French street fighters would use kicks and even slaps to avoid harsher legal punishments. This way of thinking is actually beneficial to street fighters, or even law abiding citizens who simply have to defend themselves, of modern day America. Police officers and most jurors are rather typical people who primarily see boxing as the fighting mainstay and think kicking is for sissies (I find this odd, as one would think that the proliferation of Asian martial arts would have changed this mindset by now), so they are more likely to believe you were just defending yourself.

Savate kicking is rather interesting because (at least from my observations) the hips are not used much. Kicking with the legs and not the hips (and punching with the arms and not the waist) does not produce the same amount of power, but it is more deceptive. This type of kicking allows you to plant your foot on someone’s face much more quickly because you don’t telegraph your move by twisting.

Would Batman know Savate? You bet. While I don’t know of any specific issue in which Batman uses or learns Savate, Scott Beatty does mention it in “The Batman Handbook”, and we should remember that Bruce did train in France for a time. While he was learning from Henri Ducard, he probably picked up plenty of Savate techniques.Savate would be a good supplement to Bruce’s boxing training, and while the kicks might not be as powerful as those learned in Muay Thai, Karate, Kung Fu, or Tae Kwon Do training, they would be more deceptive, and Batman is big on deception.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Batman -- Martial Artist - 02 - Jujitsu

In Detective Comics issue 38 (April 1940), the debut issue of Robin, the Boy Wonder, Bruce Wayne is depicted training the young Dick Grayson. For martial arts, he trains the boy in Boxing and Jiu Jitsu. To my knowledge, this was the first real mention (at least by name) of Batman’s martial arts training. Nowadays, we know that Batman knows many (if not all) styles of martial arts, but 1940 was a different time. There were western fighting arts like wrestling, boxing, fencing, and single-stick fighting (which was a lot like fencing, but with wood). Jujitsu and Judo were pretty much the only eastern arts known in the west at the time. At the time, Jujitsu was becoming a leisurely physical activity for those who could find and afford instruction. Also, it had the appeal of being exotic. Because Bruce Wayne is supposed to at least appear to be one of the idle rich, and Jujitsu gives Batman not only fighting skill but an exotic edge that is helpful to the popularity of a pulp character, it makes total sense that Bob Kane and Bill Finger would establish that Batman knows Jujitsu.

Jujitsu is a Japanese art, the name of which translates into English as “gentle art”, or even “science of softness”. Make no mistake, though: it may be called gentle, but it can definitely be deadly.
Jujitsu is a cultural martial art with deep roots in Japanese history, so it is a bit difficult to place its origins exactly. Many experts date the origin back to CE 8th century, with historic roots going as far back as BCE China.
One story claims that in CE 712, Tatemi Kazuchi threw Tatemi Nokami as if he were “throwing a leaf”.
Another story claims that Emperor Shuinjin holding a martial arts tournament in 23 BCE. One fight ended when a sumo wrestler died after being thrown and kicked by Nomino Sukume.
Some say that Jujitsu was developed by a Buddhist monk in CE 13th century. Some say Jujitsu comes from an art called katori-shinto ryu, developed in CE 15th century. Others say that Jujitsu was brought from China by a monk named Chen Yuanein in CE 17th century.

Every culture has some sort of fighting, whether systematized and artistic or not. Japanese Jujitsu does have origins in Chinese fighting systems, but it is also the result of much work on the part of Japanese combatants. There is likely no “true” origin of Jujitsu, but instead, like most martial arts, it developed from cultural needs. Basically, the samurai wore armor. You can’t hurt a guy very much by punching him in the chest when he’s got a chest plate on. So, Jujitsu developed as many different schools (ryu) that focused on throws, joint locks, and strikes to areas that weren’t easily protected by armor (i.e., armpits, back of the knees, elbows, etc.).

Samurai, ninja, and even non-combatants also developed defenses against assailants who might use weapons. While it ultimately comes down to who is the better fighter (not who has the better style), a Jujitsu practitioner should ideally be able to disarm someone who comes after him with a sword, bo staff, jo stick, spear, etc.

There is some confusion about the English spelling of “Jujitsu”. The phrase "Jiu-jitsu" is useable for any variation, really. Interestingly, the phrase "Jiu-jitsu" has become mostly associated with Brazilian Jiu-jitsu here in the west. This is interesting because it is a rather recent development (more so for North America and Europe than South America, of course). BJJ was mostly unknown outside of South America (particularly Brazil, of course) until the Ultimate Fighting Championship came about. Prior to that (particularly from the '30s to the '60s), Jiu-jitsu was well known as a Japanese art alongside its "child" Judo. Nowadays, though, the Japanese have to remind people that Jiu-jitsu is of Japanese origin!
As with many martial arts, and foreign phrases in general, there are variations in English spelling. Ju-jitsu, Jujutsu, Jiu-jiutsu, Jujutsu, Jujitsu, and others are (in my opinion, at least) acceptable spellings. However, I think to avoid such confusions, a general consensus has been reached that the Brazilian variety should be spelled "Jiu-jitsu" and the various ryu of the Japanese variety should be spelled "Jujitsu" or something like that. This has had a lot to do with the insane rise of popularity of BJJ over the last 15 years.

Batman would certainly study at least one ryu of Jujitsu extensively under a highly skilled sensei. Batman definitely spent some time in Japan, and even if he didn’t study Jujitsu specifically, if he studied Aikido or Judo his techniques would have roots in Jujitsu. Batman would use Jujitsu to be able to trap and manipulate the limbs of assailants. While he certainly isn’t averse to punching out a bad guy, it’s always good to have a gentler and more controlling option.
In "Batman Begins", Ducard recognizes that Bruce has studied Jujitsu.
Jujitsu is listed as one of “The Martial Arts Every Superhero Should Master” in Scott Beatty’s “The Batman Handbook”.
In Detective Comics issue 38, Bruce is shown teaching Dick “Jiu Jitsu”.In "Batman: Death Mask" (the manga by Yoshinori Natsume), a young Bruce Wayne trains in Japan in an art that "had roots in Judo and Aikido" (so we can tell that the art had roots in Jujitsu).In the animated series episodes "Night of the Ninja" and "Day of the Samurai" (both in season two), we see a young Bruce Wayne training in a style that seems to be a blend of Jujitsu, Aikido, and Karate, with some Samurai and Ninja stuff thrown in for good measure.And, of course, our most modern idea of Batman includes him having mastered as many styles as possible.

Now, here's the deal with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. When Jigoro Kano was going around learning different styles of Jujitsu, there was often a preference that each school had for either standing and throwing or rolling around and wrestling. Kano, being an early version of Bruce Lee or any mixed martial artist, combined these styles and streamlined them to his liking to form Judo. Originally Judo was fairly evenly split with a combination of ground and standing techniques. However, as often happens, even Judo started to split up. Different teachers of Judo would have different preferences and in the early '20s, the throwing techniques even started to lose much popularity to wrestling!
Kano couldn't have this (he himself preferred throwing/standing), so he started emphasizing throwing over ground fighting. One of the teachers who had preferred ground fighting, however, was Mitsuyo Maeda (a.k.a. "Count Coma"). Maeda was the victor of many tournaments, so Kano sent him on a "Judo is great" tour that ended in Brazil. He opened a school in Brazil, where he taught his personal blend of Judo, Jujitsu, and striking. In 1925, Brazilian politician Gastao Gracie hired Maeda to teach his sons Carlos and Helio. While Carlos was big and strong already, Helio was tiny but tenacious. He was the more devoted and driven of the two brothers, so he wound being the better fighter. Gradually, the Gracie brothers adapted what they learned to fit their own tastes (and Helio's diminutive stature). They challenged many people, typically won, and ...blah blah blah... Royce Gracie, UFC, Dana White, and so on.

While there has been no mention yet (at least to my knowledge) of Batman having learned Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, our modern story of him should include the idea that a young Bruce would have traveled to Rio de Janeiro with a Portuguese phrasebook and learned Gracie-style Jiu-Jitsu. While Batman’s goal is to never get taken to the ground, he would also be prepared for just such an occurrence.

-Much of the historical information on Jujitsu was adapted from Fay Goodman’s “A Handbook of Martial Arts”.
-A good portion of this was taken from comments I previously made on Building Batman. See
Also check out
-The information about BJJ's origins in Judo comes from a great article by Kelly Crigger, "Maximum Efficiency Minimum Effort", in the June 2009 issue of Fight Magazine.

Superman/Batman: Public Enemies

The sixth DC animated original movie is based on the issues/TPB by Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness.
Overall, it’s pretty good, but not as enjoyable as I expected.

The story is based on a great concept, but the plotting leaves a little to be desired, as does the dialogue. The fights are excellent, but the character sketches look like ridiculous action figures (Batman actually looks pretty good, though) (Amanda Waller is so grotesquely, cartoonishly fat that she looks like Helga from "The Oblongs") and the backgrounds and designs look like they belong in cheap Saturday morning cartoons.

The real highlight of the movie is the voice acting. Kevin Conroy is as amazing as usual as Batman, and Tim Daly and Clancy Brown are great as Superman and Lex Luthor, respectively. Allison Mack (known as Chloe on “Smallville”) is pretty good as Power Girl (but it’s hard to take her seriously as the character design has insanely large breasts and a butch haircut).
Sadly, Malcolm McDowell did not return as Metallo and John C. McGinley is not particularly impressive when he does his few lines. Also, the voice acting for Hiro (Toyman) is rather atrocious.

Despite its flaws, it’s still cool to see a bunch of B- and C-list characters go up against the two greatest superheroes ever.

I would suggest the deluxe edition DVD, though, for the special features. There is a cool little exploration (although my Psychology-major girlfriend was unimpressed) of the mentalities of Superman and Batman. There is a dinner conversation between Kevin Conroy and others involved in the production that is pretty cool for a Batman fan. There are two great episodes of “Superman: The Animated Series” that feature Batman and Superman teaming up. There is also a look at the upcoming “Crisis on Two Earths”.

Me, Chi, and Bruce Lee

Brian Preston’s book – subtitled “Adventures in Martial Arts from the Shaolin Temple to the Ultimate Fighting Championship” – is an enjoyable journal of sorts. It’s comparable to Matthew Polly’s “American Shaolin” in that it’s about a wimpy westerner who trains in the martial arts and provides some insightful writing regarding the history and culture. It’s rather different, though, as Matt Polly was a young man at the time he trained, and he specifically trained in a Shaolin school for about a year. Preston, however, is a mid-lifer who starts learning a style of kung fu in Canada, and does some dabbling in Tai Chi, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, visits China for a couple of weeks, talks to a UCF fighter, and eventually settles on training Bagua in his backyard.

Overall, I think that Preston’s research into the arts he discusses leaves something to be desired. And his status as a pot-smoking, pacifistic journalist (who may be going through some sort of mid-life crisis and really only took up martial arts because his publisher told him that they should capitalize on the kung fu craze caused by films like “Kill Bill” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) does not exactly make him look like an authority on the subject.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book because Preston visits some Wudang schools, as well as the actual Shaolin Temple, meets Royce Gracie, and talks to UFC fighter Jeff Monson. He also talks a bit about Bruce Lee, both positively and negatively, so at least his opinion is balanced. Unfortunately, his first master and master’s master seem to be crazy kung fu bullshitters in a lot of ways.

I would suggest it if you’re just looking for an entertaining read and know enough about the subject already to not take Preston at his word. If you’re new to the martial arts, or looking for something definitive, then read something else.