Thursday, September 16, 2010

Comics I just got (9/16/10)

"What If? Daredevil VS. Elektra" = A decent little one-shot. The main story is so-so (What if Matt Murdock died saving Elektra and her dad in college? According to these cats: he gets ressurected by the Hand, Elektra becomes a SHIELD agent, the Hand destroys SHIELD, Elektra gets trained by Stick, and then Elektra and the undead Murdock fight.), but the cover (referencing Frank Miller's work) and the funny bits on the last couple pages bring the book home.

"Punisher: Year One" = Pretty good trade. Collecting the mini-series from 94/95, it's a worthwhile book that heavily influenced the 2004 film version (which I think is a highly underrated film). Unfortunately, just about all the action is in the last chapter, but it's still worth reading.

"Batman Beyond" #4 = Ugh. This book isn't exactly getting any better, with a pretty unbeliavable/lousy "twist" ending. Still, I do like seeing more stuff in the Beyond era. Makes me want more of the cartoon.

"Marvel Universe VS. The Punisher" #4 = This is the best issue of the mini-series. The way the conclusion of this story is written is a great improvement over the writing in the previous issues. Parlov's art, though cartoony, still seems befitting of the Punisher to me. I highly recommend this mini for any Punisher fans, if for no other reason than this excellent final issue.

"Batman" #703 = Perhaps the most enjoyable issue of "Batman" I've read in years. Fabian Nicieza and Cliff Richards deliver a well-written, well-drawn issue in which Dick, Damien, and Alfred display just the right amount of skill, heart, and optimism.

"Serenity" #1 = Go out and spend a buck on this reprint of the first issue of "Those Left Behind". Good stuff.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Comics I just got (9/1/2010)

Marvel Universe vs. The Punisher #1-3 = This is a decent read. It's kinda like "The Punisher" meets "I am Legend" meets any other post-apocalyptic story. The comparisons being made to "Marvel Zombies" are not unfounded. The characterization of The Punisher is not always so great (certainly no Garth Ennis, not even Jason Aaron). He just keeps saying "I'm a shooter. I'm just a shooter. I'm not fighting FOR anything. I'm just a shooter. Padre. Padre. Padre." Goran Parlov's art is enjoyable, though.

Wolverine #1 = meh. The writing's kinda decent, but not as good as most of Jason Aaron's stuff. The whole "Hell" thing is stupid to me. The best part of the comic is the Silver Samurai back-up story.

Shadowland: Elektra = This is a pretty good one-shot. For the most part, I enjoy how Elektra is portrayed, but something is lost in the combination of the art and writing. I can't really describe it.

Shadowland #3 = meh. I'm still not really enjoying the series. The Punisher isn't used enough, even though he's on the cover. The only other thing I can remember reading by Andy Diggle is "Green Arrow: Year One" and I mostly enjoy that story. This comic, though...

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Comic I just got (8/25/10)

Batman #702

Pretty good. I'm enjoying Grant Morrison's writing in "R.I.P. -- The Missing Chapter" a lot more than in "R.I.P." itself. "Return of Bruce Wayne" is frustrating me a bit, but these last couple issues of the monthly "Batman" have been enjoyable. I'm actually getting more and more interested in Bruce's inevitable return.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Comics I just got (8/21/10)

Batman Beyond #3 = I'm pretty much enjoying this mini-series so far. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing where it may be going.

Green Lantern #29 Secret Origin Part 1 = This one was just given to me by my friend at the comic shop. It's decent.

Deadpool #26 = Also just given to me. It's pretty good; a nice little look at Deadpool's past. Also, certain nerds should be pleased at Ghost Rider and Deadpool fighting.

Wolverine: Weapon X #16 = A pretty good issue. It features Logan mourning for Nightcrawler. Jason Aaron takes a nice little look at their relationship.

New Avengers #3 = Also just given to me. It's okay. I think that the best aspect of Bendis' current Avengers comics is the text "History of Avengers" feature in the back.

Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #13 = A good issue. This series has become hit-or-miss, but this time Bendis hits. The Ultimate Chameleon(s) is/are interesting. Seeing Peter and JJJ taken hostage together is interesting.

Invincible #1= Also given to me. This is great. I definitely want to check out the series now. If you haven't read it, just shell out the $1.00 for it.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8: Riley = Another freebie for me. Meh. The dialogue is well-written, but since I don't read the series, I have no idea what the fuck is going on.

Aliens vs. Predator #1= Another gimme. This is a fun comic from 1990. It's effective in that it makes me want to read more. Once again, drop a buck to check it out next time you're in a comic shop.

Simpsons Comics #169= A good issue written by Chuck Dixon. It's quite funny, with a funny "Single White Female" reference, a couple of lines that could be on the TV show, and a last-minute appearance by Silent Bob.

Comic Book Guy: The Comic Book #2= This mini-series is great so far. This issue is very funny and very referential. Stan "The Man" Lee makes an appearance. The issue also briefly takes a nice little jab at film directors, particularly Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

a quick post about "The Dark Knight"

Recently, a friend of mine asked me whether or not I thought the ideas presented in "The Dark Knight" could be separated from the source material. In response, I quickly drafted this messy little essay of sorts.
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Can the ideas presented in a Batman film be divorced from the source material?

Short answer: Yes.
However, the question should be asked and seriously discussed. Batman is a cultural icon that has persisted in the public conscious for seventy years now. Just as any film that depicts Jesus Christ is not interpreted solely in terms of what the film itself presents but also what is written in the Bible and what many centuries’ worth of theologians, any film that depicts Batman is typically interpreted not only in terms of what such a film presents but also what has been depicted in other media.
While the typical filmgoer is not all that knowledgeable about comic books, Batman is one of those characters that have permeated the overall modern popular culture. Because of radio and movie serials, the 1960s TV show, wildly popular movies, countless animated series, action figures, and video games, even someone who has never read a comic book likely knows who Bruce Wayne is and why he is Batman. Because of his popularity and 70-year existence, the premise behind Batman and (at least) some minor details are known by just about every man, woman, and child in the “civilized” world.
Because Batman is such a well-known character, it might be unlikely that a viewer would initially watch a particular Batman movie (for the purposes of this piece, I’ll focus on “The Dark Knight”) without making associations with prior interpretations of Batman. However, it is not necessary that a viewer discuss “The Dark Knight” while associating with previous incarnations of the characters presented therein. It is simply a lot easier to do so, and such associations allow for more discussion.
One can divorce the ideas presented in “The Dark Knight” from the source material/character by simply “emptying his teacup”. However, if that answer is too vague/eastern for you, then it may take some extra effort on your part to watch the film with eyes only for the film itself. I admit that I am unable to logically explain exactly by what method one might go about doing such a thing, but I do think that if I am able to do it, then most anyone else should be able to as well. As a lifelong Batman fanatic, perhaps I will naturally be subconsciously biased and never truly able to interpret “The Dark Knight” freely, but I can do my damndest to at least discuss the film without making reference to other Batman-related media (except for “Batman Begins”, which is excluded from such efforts because it is the progenitor of the filmic masterpiece that is the focus of this writing).

Let us look at how the character of Bruce Wayne/Batman is portrayed in the film:
He is a self-proclaimed man with no limits. He keeps moving. He gets bitten, beaten, stabbed, and even shot, yet he continues to fight and run and do all of those things that physically distinguish Batman from lesser mortal men.
He is supposedly incorruptible. Even the Joker believes as much. He cannot be bought, bullied, or even negotiated with. It is interesting that he should be considered incorruptible when he is, in fact, a corruption – of law, societal ethics, and the sense of goodness as “light”. He works outside the law to enforce a sense of justice that is more in keeping with the law than breaking it. He uses methods that many people would not approve of, especially when used by authority figures (i.e., torture, invasion of privacy, blowing up parked cars, etc.). Most people would associate light with a concept of “good”, but here we have a “good guy” who is garbed in black, works at night, and stays mostly in the shadows. Or is he more like the Bat-Signal? A symbol, a beacon, a “light” in the sky or at the end of the tunnel?
In the film, Bruce Wayne/Batman is perhaps driven by more than a sense of simple revenge. The loss of his parents certainly inspire his actions, but he is not as haunted by their deaths as he is in “Begins”. He may be driven by something broader, deeper, more important, and more inherent. However, it is possible that his love of Gotham and his need to protect and clean the city may simply be the manifestation of his psychological need to please his father.
Whatever the reason for his mission, he certainly demonstrates a sense of “tunnel vision”. Like a horse with blinders on, he knows only to move ahead. He sees little besides the mission at hand. He may be somewhat distracted by Rachel Dawes or the Wayne Enterprises’ goings-on, but he is ultimately moving forward as Batman. For this reason, he may be considered something of a narcissist. The world revolves around Batman. Alfred has no life of his own (even beyond the duties of a normal butler, though this is also his choice). Bruce seems to only ever think of Rachel in terms of her relationship with him. Batman’s ego may very well be out of control. He wants to be a symbol, an embodiment of ideals. He cannot simply be a mere mortal.
Is it Bruce Wayne or Batman that displays this narcissism? Are they the same man? They could be two halves of a whole, or the protagonist’s personalities could be representative of an uneven dichotomy. Is Bruce/Batman representative of the duality of man? Is he more representative of a Freudian construct? Perhaps there is a vengeful, idealistic monster that is the superego; there is a misguided, hedonistic playboy that is the id; and the character we see on screen is the ego, balancing the two sides to live in the real world. There may also be the concept presented by Hermann Hesse in “Steppenwolf”-- that there are thousands, if not infinite, different personalities within one person. We may just see a few different amalgams in the different actions of Batman and Bruce Wayne.
In the film, Batman is supposed to represent the victory of good over bad, order over chaos, and Good over Evil. He does not kill the Joker. Instead, he captures him, choosing to let the authorities (the physical manifestation of order) contain him (the physical manifestation of chaos).


I have done my best to look at the subject strictly in terms of the film and the story presented therein. Were I to mention comics, Batman would actually be much more complex and difficult to figure out because of the many different writers who have handled the character over the last 71 years. Sometimes, Batman would be much kinder, or much worse. So, hopefully this can serve as a sufficient enough demonstration that a Batman film can be discussed without bringing up the comic books.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Expendables


When I started reading about this movie (seemingly forever ago), I was super fucking excited about it. Stallone writing and directing a mercenary flick to star a bunch of action stars/lesser action actors? Fuck yeah!
Then, the first trailer hit. Still excited!
Then, all of the TV spots and other such promos. Not as excited.
Then, last night, I saw the flick at midnight. Excitement confirmed!

While the film may not live up to the expectations I had when I first heard about this movie being made, it is better than the promos make it out to be. It's exciting and action-packed and often funny. But you really go to see this movie for the actors.

Sylvester Stallone and Jason Statham are great as competitive best friends who look out for each other, bicker, and crack many a joke. Jet Li is great in what is, for him, a rather small role. Dolph Lundgren isn't as good as expected, but still pretty good as the loose cannon of the group. Terry Crews and Randy Couture are sadly underused, but great when they're on screen. Mickey Rourke is his usual amazing self as an ex-Expendable friend.
David Zayas, Eric Roberts, and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin are all good as the bad guys.
And, of course, the cameos by Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger....... pure greatness.
It is somewhat odd to see some headliners taking a backseat. Stallone and Statham have the biggest roles, but it's kind of strange to see Jet Li as a sidekick and Mickey Rourke as a buddy who's only in a couple of scenes.

The action is pretty good, but Stallone's camera work is often too shaky and tight, and the CGI blood/fire/smoke often looks obviously fake. But the fight scenes and some of the more creative deaths are great. Seeing Stallone getting beaten up by Stone Cold, Jet Li and Dolph Lundgren going mano a mano, and Jet Li and Jason Statham double-teaming a bad guy -- these are all wonderful things to behold.

Of course, the real treats are the references. Stallone and Lundgren together again (Rocky IV), Statham and Li reunited (War), Randy Couture talking about his cauliflower ear. The best scene is probably the interaction between Willis, Schwarzenegger, and Stallone. Schwarzenegger and Stallone just go at it with the insulting jokes, and the audience just erupts. I love that a lot of lines are written specifically because of the actors playing the characters.

In case you can't tell, I definitely recommend seeing this movie.



(As an aside note, in a real fight, Dolph Lundgren would probably kick Jet Li's ass. Jet Li could probably kick a lot of guys' asses, but mostly he does flowery, gymnastic wushu, whereas Dolph Lundgren is a giant man who was in the Swedish army and is an experienced practitioner of kyokushin karate.)

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Comic books I just got (8/7/10)

Irredeemable #16 = Pretty good. Lately I think the series has been lacking, but this issue gives me renewed hope.

Shadowland #2 = The series is kinda decent, I guess. I have to say, I don't really believe the direction everything's going. I don't think Daredevil would kill Bullseye, or set up a ninja castle in the middle of Hell's Kitchen. Then again, I have the same problem with comics in general, nowadays (whether it's DC or Marvel, I just feel like the shit going on shouldn't be going on).

Joker's Asylum II: Harley Quinn = It's a pretty fun little one-shot about Harley Quinn on Valentine's Day. She goes crazy and shoots a lot of people and blows a lot of stuff up in order to spend Valentine's Day with her puddin'. My girlfriend described it as "cute".

Jack of Fables vol. 1 = This trade is pretty good. I actually like it even though I'm not so much a fan of "Fables".

Ex Machina vol. 7 = This trade is pretty excellent, of course. It may not be as good as earlier volumes in the series, but it's still quite good.

Religion and Morality

For many people – perhaps most people – religion and morality are inseparable. There are a great number of people who think of religion as the most important source of ethics and morals. There are even plenty of people who think that religion is, or should be, the only source of ethics and morals. This is a myopic, and rather unfortunate, line of thinking.

The great deal of importance that people have historically attributed to religions has led many, for millennia, to equate morality with adherence to dogmatic dicta. If not killing or stealing prevents some deity from taking a personal, negative interest in one’s life, then it would make sense to simply avoid such transgressions as much as possible. Seemingly for this reason, societies adopted religious codes such as the Ten Commandments as the basis for secular law. A fear of divine punishment can be a powerful motivating factor.

However, moral and ethical laws arguably do not even have their origins in religion. In terms of logic rather than faith, ancient man could see the harm that needless murder and theft could do to the group as a whole. Seeing that certain actions do more harm than good to the village/tribe/clan/what-have-you does not require divine inspiration, but simply rational thinking. Perhaps rational thinkers sought to tell others of the dangers of what we call criminal actions, but their arguments did not jell with the general populace. Instead of trying to spend much time explaining the sociological impact of certain actions, perhaps it was simply easier to say, “If you do this, God will spank you.”

Religion is not a necessary source of morals, certainly. In an organized society with a legal system, it is unnecessary to derive morality from religion. If it is a matter of punishment, parents and other authority figures can simply use the threat of legal recourse for criminal actions. While divine punishment is on a much grander scale, secular punishment is much more tangible, and therefore relevant.

World Religions -- Islam

See the other World Religions papers for explanation/"disclaimer".
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What I find most interesting about the reading regarding Islam is the treatment of women. As far as the religious ideals go, women and men are supposed to be equally respected and fairly treated. However, the actual treatment of women in predominantly Muslim societies has been far from what most people would define as respect or equality.

Women in Muslim societies have historically been treated as anything but equal. Harems, veiled faces, polygamy, institutionalized wife-beating, denial of suffrage, and the execution of adulterers are practices that have been common to Muslim societies. While it can be argued that these are practices that were present before the adoption of Islam by Arabic and Persian societies, and that the legal treatment of women actually improved. While the ideals and dicta of Islam allow women the right to divorce, inheritance, and employment, these sadly remain as little more than ideals in modern Islamic societies.

By modern, western thought, Islam is an inherently sexist religion because it is stated that men are in charge of women. The Koran states that Allah made men to excel over women and bear financial burdens, while women are meant to perform motherly and wifely duties. Any religion that dictates specific roles for men and women is, by our modern, more “enlightened” definitions, sexist. Even if it is the word of some almighty god, it is still sexist.

As with many religions, the more abominable practices in Islam are often claimed by more modern practitioners to be aberrant to the fundamental ideals of the religion. While it can be argued that certain things are up to interpretation, and that extremists interpret the religion incorrectly, I think that it says something about the religion itself when so many Muslims can so easily “misinterpret” the fundamentals so as to institutionalize inequality and mistreatment.

World Religions -- Confucianism

Another little thing I wrote for my brother for his World Religions class. I apologize for the poor writing in these things, as well as any inaccuracies that result from my lack of research.
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The thing I find most interesting about Confucianism, especially as it is regarded in the reading, is the fact that its classification as a religion is somewhat debatable. Confucianism may be regarded as a religion because of the importance placed on ritual and ancestor worship. However, ethics, loyalty, and education could be considered more important, thus making Confucianism less a religion and more a philosophy.

It is true that ritual and ancestor worship are staples of Confucianism. While these are common amongst religions, and though they would support the argument that Confucianism is in fact a religion, their inclusion alone is not enough to define Confucianism as a religion. Ancestor worship was not a novel concept when Confucius gained popularity. Chinese folk religion included ancestor worship long before the birth of the famed philosopher. Also, while ritual is often a defining aspect of religion, it is not solely a religious concept. Ritual is important to secular culture. It has often been especially important to education, which is another aspect stressed in Confucianism.

Confucius put great stress on concepts such as ethics, loyalty, education, and respect. One of the most important aspects of Confucianism is the idea that everyone should strive to be a perfect person. These core concepts of Confucianism, taken together, are similar to --if not the same as-- the Greek concept of Virtue. In this sense, Confucianism is in fact not a religion, but a philosophy. It is a school of thought, or an ethical system.

The root of this problem lies in how one defines “religion”. While Confucianism fails as a religion according to a definition held by many western thinkers, teachers, and students, it may not fail according to eastern definitions. This is because eastern thought rarely makes a distinction between philosophy and religion. There is no reason that Confucianism should be any different.

World Religions -- Christianity

Both my younger brother and I are college students. We go to different universities, though. A while back, my brother was taking a class on World Religions. Knowing that I typically get high marks on essays/papers, he decided to pay me a nominal fee to write some of his World Religions and Literature papers.
Normally, I would be ethically against this practice. However, my brother is a Finance major. He'll never have a real use for writing skills, so I see no reason why he should be forced to pay for classes that make him write such papers. In fact, it shows how right Finance is for him that he used money to delegate labor.
So, I wrote some papers for him. This one (and some to follow) were simple little one-page reactions to readings from the textbook. I hope no one feels insulted by these little writings, but if you do, oh well.
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The thing that I find most interesting about the reading regarding Christianity is the question of the divinity of Jesus. This is arguably the most important central concept of Christianity. The divinity of Jesus is perhaps the aspect of Christianity that, at least in western terms, defines Christianity as its own independent religion. However, as with most religious concepts posited as fact, the divinity of Jesus is quite debatable.

The status of Christianity as its own religion and not simply a sect of Judaism hinges on the idea that Jesus is in fact a deity, and not simply a prophet. Most sects, or “denominations”, of Christianity exhort the worship of Jesus as a god. To most Christians, Jesus is not simply a prophet, but also the son of the Judaic god Jehovah; not simply the son of God, but also God Himself. While this son-of-self status may not sit well with anyone looking for logic in their god, it is typically explained away with an argument for blind faith. While all “facts” presented by any religion are debatable, perhaps none in Christianity is more debatable than the assertion that Jesus was in fact divine -- whether simply the son of God or also God Himself.

Muslims believe that Jesus was a very important prophet, and many Jews can accept Jesus as a man who once existed and happened to be pretty wise. There are even some people who are typically described as Christians who do not in fact worship Jesus, but simply venerate him as a prophet or the son of God. Even some Hindus recognize Jesus as one of many, many gods. While the divinity of Jesus is dubious at best, what is more recognizable as fact is Jesus’ existence. It is generally accepted (even if there is a lack of HARD evidence) as historical fact that a man known as Jesus traveled and preached a particular philosophy and added seemingly novel insights to his interpretation of Judaism. While there is no logical explanation or genuine evidence for his alleged immaculate conception, various miracles, or rise from the dead, it is reasonable to view his execution as the result of political upheaval in a tumultuous land.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Comic books I just got (8/1/10)

Return of Bruce Wayne #4 = Meh. It saddens me to think that Grant Morrison CAN write exceptionally well, but lately he's been lousy, nonsensical, and just about impossible to follow.

Widening Gyre #6 = Great. Not sure if I like the "twist" ending (actually, "To be continued..."), but still a good read. I'm a fan of Kevin Smith, but his comics have typically been a little lacking. This mini-series shows that he's improving, though.

Batman Beyond #2 = Good. I'm looking forward to seeing where this is going.

Jack of Fables #1 = Intriguing. I'm not a huge "Fables" fan, but this is worth the buck it costs, and it makes me want to buy the trade.

Wolverine: Weapon X #15= A pretty decent ending to a decent storyline.

Wolverine Origins #50 = Pretty good. End of the series. Now I feel like an ass for dropping the regular "Wolverine" monthly title when it became all about Daken (now they're starting over at #1... if I'd kept up, I would have had every issue of the series).

Futurama #50 = Pretty good. Typical, but cool blacklight poster inside!

Simpsons #168 = Pretty good. Funny little takes on mythology (Norse gods, Greek gods, and Superman).

Batman: Under the Red Hood



The latest movie from DC Animation/Warner Premiere is one of their best. “Under the Red Hood” really elevates the level of quality that we can expect from these little stand-alone flicks. The story is about as compelling as the comic book saga (“Under the Hood”). And it should be, since Judd Winnick wrote both.

Overall, the animation quality and character design are pretty good. The only complaints I have are that Bruce Wayne and Nightwing have terrible haircuts, the animation goes from good cel animation to crappy CG when there are vehicles involved, and the Joker doesn’t really emote when he laughs.

The voice acting is good stuff. Bruce Greenwood does well as Batman, though I think I still would have preferred Kevin Conroy. Neil Patrick Harris is pretty good with Nightwing, though, once again, the original voice actor probably would have been better. John DiMaggio makes for a good Joker, I think. While I love Mark Hamill, I like to occasionally hear a different take on the Clown Prince of Crime. Jensen Ackles shines as Jason Todd/Red Hood. Unfortunately, a lot of the actors in this movie who mostly do live action stuff are in the flick unnecessarily, I think. Many of them are underused.

The fight scenes are fun to watch; especially a particularly rough-and-tumble bout between Batman and Jason Todd towards the end.

I personally think that most comic book characters who “die” should stay dead (otherwise, their deaths are always meaningless), so I would prefer it if Jason Todd was never resurrected. Still, the “Under the Hood” comics make for good reading, and “Under the Red Hood” makes for good watching.

(The DVD is lacking a commentary, which saddens me, but disc 2 has a pretty good “documentary” about Dick Grayson [I’m not sure why they didn’t go with Jason Todd, or all the Robins]. There’s one of the customary “sneak peeks” at the next movie, and I am looking forward to “Superman/Batman: Apocalypse”, which will feature Supergirl and Darkseid.)

(Also, the “Jonah Hex” short on this DVD is excellent. The caliber of actors doing voices for this ten-minute cartoon is perhaps unnecessary, but it’s good stuff and Thomas Jane is great as the eponymous anti-hero. I never bothered to see the recent live-action movie with Josh Brolin and Megan Fox, but I know it can’t have been as good as this short because then it would have been successful.)



Tuesday, April 20, 2010

36th Chamber of Shaolin and Batman Begins



Here's a paper I handed in today for my World Cinema Traditions class. The assignment was to compare a foreign film with an American film. After spending weeks racking my brain about what movies I would compare, after a four-hour conversation I had with someone the other day about "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight", I finally knew what I would compare.
The paper's title is "A Couple of Dudes Who Learn How to Kick Ass and Fight Injustice: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Batman Begins".
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Lau Kar Leung’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins each tell a story of a young man who removes himself from general society and enters an organization devoted to training and achieving a particular ideal. In both stories, the young man re-enters society in order to fight what he sees to be injustice. While they are united by some common story elements and themes, the two films differ drastically in style and cultural background.

Lau Kar Leung (also known by his Mandarin name, Liu Chia-Liang) directed the 1978 Shaw Bros. classic The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (also known as 36 Chambers of Shaolin and Master Killer). Lau was raised in a kung fu household. Taught from a young age by his father, Lau grew up to be a skilled martial artist. Schooled in the Hung Gar method, Lau eventually found work as an extra and choreographer on films depicting fictional adventures of the style’s most famous practitioner, Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-Hung. Lau parlayed this work into more and better film work, going on to choreograph such classics as the 1967 One-Armed Swordsman and the 1975 Master of the Flying Guillotine. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the history of chop-socky flicks, however, came in 1978 with The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.[i]
Starring Lau’s “martial brother” Gordon Liu (Liu studied under Lau’s father and the two became life-long friends), the film tells the story of San Te, a young man who rebels against the oppressive Manchu government during the Qing Dynasty era. Wounded in a fight after his family and friends are killed, San Te seeks sanctuary at the Shaolin Temple (actually a monastery). There, he asks to be trained in kung fu so that he might take revenge against the evil Manchurians. Though initially rejected, he begins his training by sweeping floors. After a year, his training begins in earnest and he swiftly progresses through the thirty-five chambers at the monastery. After years of training, he returns to general society and attempts to fight the Manchurian soldiers. After taking revenge on his family’s killer, San Te establishes a thirty-sixth chamber at the monastery, in which lay people are taught kung fu so that they can defend themselves against an unjust government.

The film’s depiction of an oppressive, militaristic government is interesting to note in light of the film’s release in 1978. The war in Vietnam had just officially ended in 1975. Many Hong Kong residents had fled the People’s Republic of China. Hong Kong had also suffered under Japanese occupation in the early 1940s. In 1978, Hong Kong was still under British rule. The then-recent history of Hong Kong and the anti-military sentiments popular in western societies combined to influence many kung fu films, in which lone heroes or small teams would fight against oppressive occupying governments or evil invaders. Though common in Hong Kong kung fu films, the RZA (of Wu-Tang Clan fame) points out that the lone hero’s struggle against oppression is a universal theme. [ii]
While the political climate of Southeast Asia may have influenced the story, it’s unlikely that it had any influence on the style of the film. The style of the film is primarily influenced by two things: Lau’s background in the martial arts, and the method by which most Hong Kong films were made at the time. Lau’s kung fu proficiency and background as a choreographer dictated that the film’s primary focus would be the training and the fights. Hong Kong kung fu films are of a different nature than western action films, and the performers and directors often prefer to showcase skill through lengthy fight scenes rather than make action sequences tenser with tight editing. The fight scenes in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin are long, and Lau shows off his and the performers’ skills. Almost as important as the action is the set design. Though not necessarily an accurate representation of the Shaolin monastery in Dengfeng, or the training apparatus contained therein, the temple setting and the various kung fu training set-ups presented in the film are lovingly imaginative and service the story and San Te’s character development.

Aside from Lau’s martial background, the film’s style is partly determined by the “assembly line” method of production of Hong Kong films at the time. A biographer of Bruce Lee writes of the Hong Kong film industry:
"The Hong Kong-based film industry made films the way Detroit made cars: on an assembly line. They could wrap up a production in three days; a big-budget extravaganza might require a week. The Shaw brothers – Runjy, Runme, and Run Run – had almost singlehandedly set up the Hong Kong film industry. Shaw Brothers Studios was a mixture of purpose-built sets and sound stages where everything from pagodas to concentration camps were perched on a windy hillside overlooking Clearwater Bay. Shaw Brothers was the biggest studio outside of Hollywood and Europe, accounting for two-thirds of the “Chinese” films produced in the world. An average of seven features were always in production, while the sound-dubbing rooms were shared on a tight schedule of three shifts daily.
The secret of Shaw studios’ success was a hard-nosed policy geared to speed and economy. Films were shot without sound and, like Italian-made “spaghetti Westerns”, were later dubbed into whatever language was required. The films were often shot without a written script, more or less made up by the crew as they went along and “edited” directly on camera with few retakes. …"
[iii]

This method of filmmaking often resulted in pictures that western audiences might think of as lesser in quality. Like most film studios, Shaw Brothers’ primary concern was profit, and the assembly line method worked just fine to that end. Even if Lau had wanted to make a sweeping epic that would take a lot of time and a lot more money, it probably just would not have happened.

Nearly thirty years after Lau Kar Leung and Gordon Liu made The 36th Chamber of Shaolin for Shaw Brothers, Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale made Batman Begins for Warner Brothers. In the film, Bruce Wayne is a child when he witnesses his parents gunned down in an alley. Unable to cope, he eventually runs away from Gotham, traveling the world and winding up in a Bhutanese prison. He is found and recruited by a secret organization devoted to their master’s concept of justice. Wayne is trained in the martial arts and ways of the ninja, but when asked to be an executioner he betrays his master and flees the organization. Returning to Gotham after seven years of absence, he dons a costume and uses high-tech gadgets to fight crime. While he attempts to take down organized crime and fight against the corruption that permeates the city, his master and the secret organization attack Wayne and attempt to devastate Gotham. He fights off the ninja, defeats his master, and saves the city, establishing himself as a symbol and weapon of justice.
The film is directed by Christopher Nolan. Half-British, half-American, Nolan blends different sensibilities when it comes to writing and directing. Batman Begins is a big-budget action movie that is an adaptation of an iconic American comic book character, while Nolan’s previous studio films could be considered psychological thrillers. He was born in England and received most of his education there, but he also spent time during his youth in the United States. Even as a child, he enjoyed making films, and continued to do so through his college years. His work as an independent filmmaker eventually led to his current status as an A-list Hollywood director.[iv]

Batman Begins was released in 2005. The major events affecting America at the time were the war(s) in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the presidential election of 2004. While Nolan was filming in Iceland, England, and Chicago, American soldiers were fighting in the Middle East. In November of 2004, George W. Bush “won” his re-election. Perhaps the period of war and the political landscape influenced the development and success of the film. In the film, Batman does utilize technology that is specifically intended for use by the military (it’s noted that he essentially drives a tank). A part of what Batman is fighting against is the corruption of the city’s government. While those events may have influenced the film, it should be noted that the source material also provided suitable influence. In Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s Batman: Year One (1987), Batman fights against the corruption that infects Gotham City. In Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986), Batman drives a tank-like vehicle and references are made to Ronald Reagan and American military action. In Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again (2002), the government controls the country through fear and the tactical use of the media, with the evil villain Lex Luthor behind it all.

The style of Nolan’s film is drastically different from that of Lau’s. While Lau’s kung fu classic is shot on a shoestring budget with relatively limited movement, Nolan’s big budget Hollywood production features much more movement and aerial shots of the grimy metropolis that is Gotham City. While Lau’s film is sparsely cut so as to show of the martial arts skills of the performers and Lau himself (as well as save time in post-production), Nolan uses much tighter editing in the fight scenes. This style of fight scene is supposed to have a jarring, confusing effect because Batman fights his enemies quickly and with deceptive tactics. While Lau’s color palette is broad, but typical, Batman Begins seems to be dominated by black and orange. Lau’s film is predominantly devoted to the training of San Te in the Shaolin Temple, but Nolan devotes less than a quarter of his film to Wayne’s training in the ninja camp and does not feature nearly as many training methods or apparatus. Also, while Lau tells a fairly straight-forward story, Nolan attempts to explore the psyche of his film’s protagonist by delving into his childhood and searching for what makes a man devote himself to an ideal (and what could possibly drive one to dress up like a bat).

While the films are very different stylistically, they share a great commonality in that they are stories about angry young men who work hard towards the goal of fighting some sort of injustice. San Te wishes to fight an oppressive government and avenge the death of his friends and family. Bruce Wayne at first wants revenge, but when he is robbed of the opportunity, he travels the world in anonymity, not knowing what he wants; he eventually makes it his mission to fight the evils that plague his city. San Te spends years training in the martial arts at a Buddhist monastery, eventually using his skills to take revenge. Bruce Wayne trains in martial arts and tactics with a secret ninja society, returns to Gotham to take down organized crime, and eventually saves his city from imminent destruction by defeating the organization that trained him. At the end of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, San Te begins to teach kung fu to lay people so that they might rise up against the oppressive government and defend themselves against tyranny. By the end of Batman Begins, Wayne’s alter-ego has become a symbol for justice and he hopes to inspire Gotham citizens to stand up for themselves and eradicate corruption as he wages war on the criminal underbelly. Their journeys are certainly similar, though their intentions and the details differ.
The differences between the two films could be attributed to a number of different factors. One cause for the differences may be the time periods in which the films were made. Technological developments, as well as an increase in the “sophistication” of filmmakers (over time, people have had more access to a greater variety of films, so it stands to reason that filmmakers have a greater potential to make good films since they have an increasing number of films and filmmakers to learn from) could explain the differences between a film from 1978 and another from 2005. Another cause could be related to the cultural differences. While Hong Kong culture has partially been influenced by British culture and both Lau and Nolan would be used to crowded, polluted cities, the vast differences between Chinese and European-American sensibilities should be taken into account. The educations of the filmmakers should also be considered. Nolan is a college graduate, while Lau’s major skill is the kung fu knowledge passed to him from his father. Perhaps most important to consider is the simple fact that the filmmakers are different people. Different people naturally have different tastes, and when you add different time periods and different cultures, two films with similar story elements and themes are still bound to have many differences.

[i] Commentary/special features on DVD. Lau, Kar Leung. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Hong Kong: Shaw Brothers (Dragon Dynasty, DVD), 1978 (2007, DVD).
[ii] Commentary/special features on DVD.
[iii] Thomas, Bruce. Bruce Lee: Fighting Spirit. Berkeley, California: Frog, Ltd., 1994.
[iv] "Christopher Nolan". Wikipedia. April 20, 2009 .

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Monday, April 19, 2010

Ran



Here is an essay I recently wrote for a World Cinema Traditions class. It is entitled "Nihilism, Chaos, Warfare, Samurai, and Disobedient Sons: The Joys of Akira Kurosawa’s Ran".
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Ran is written and directed by Akira Kurosawa. What can be written about Kurosawa that hasn’t been written a million times before? Genius. Visionary. Apologetic for his samurai heritage. Like many artists, he suffered from depression, particularly later in his life. This film was made in a time when Kurosawa had great difficulty securing funding and had to seek foreign investors. 1985’s Ran is worth noting not simply for its artistic merit, but for its connection to Kurosawa’s past and future.

Like most of Kurosawa’s most famous work, Ran is set in feudal Japan, the time when the warrior class known as samurai ruled. The Edo period, when samurai had been fully established as the ruling class, is one of the most well-known and important times in Japanese history. The era’s importance is evidenced by its continued representation in Japanese narrative fiction. Kurosawa’s films are evidence not only of the era’s importance to Japanese history in general, but also of the importance to Kurosawa’s personal history. Akira Kurosawa was descended from samurai. While many would think of samurai ancestry as a point of pride, Kurosawa was well aware of the harsh realities of life for the common people under samurai rule. He was apologetic about his family’s status as members of the class that personified inequality in Japan. While samurai were supposed to embody and exemplify honor, justice, discipline, loyalty, and service, in reality many were just as crude and cruel as any other warriors in human history.
The film Ran, however, is not a commentary on negative aspects of samurai per se. Instead, its primary focus in regards to samurai is that of loyalty. Hidetora, the head of the Ichimonji clan, is betrayed by two of his three sons. The only supportive son is the one Hidetora banished because of his early disapproval of Hidetora’s decision to abdicate responsibility. The disloyalty and conspiracy presented in Ran, as well as the story’s status as a tragedy, bear a striking resemblance to William Shakespeare’s King Lear. While Kurosawa did admit to seeing some inspiration in the play, his film is much more relevant to samurai history. While Lear makes mistakes, Hidetora has a distinctive past as a cruel warlord. The wife of one of his sons is in fact from a family that he had slaughtered in a power struggle.

Kurosawa’s films are rarely about one simple thing, however. Ran is more than a typical samurai film, and much more than a loose adaptation of a Shakespeare play. Aside from conspiracy and disloyalty, themes of the film include chaos, nihilism, and warfare. The very title can be translated in English as “chaos”. This is distinctly exemplified by the eruption of violence following Hidetora’s abdication. The protagonist spent most of his life waging war and slaughtering others, and in his twilight years he desires instead a more peaceful life. Shortly before handing de facto leadership to his oldest son, Hidetora holds a conference with neighboring daimyo (“warlord”, a feudal ruler of a Japanese fief) and uses diplomacy to end conflict and prevent further bloodshed. However, the peace is ephemeral, as the wife of his oldest son fuels the ambitions of her husband and his younger son, pushing them to wage war on their father. Hidetora descends into madness as the result of his Critic Michael Sragow refers to this as Kurosawa’s “trickle-down theory of anarchy”: "Kurosawa's monarch, like the Bard's, overburdens the bonds of family when he places his security on the shoulders of unsuitable and unready offspring. Hidetora's wishful thinking blinds him to the honesty of his third and youngest son, whom he banishes for bad-mouthing his scheme.
For Kurosawa, more than for Shakespeare, the monarch's real erosion of authority has its roots in the way he acquired power in the first place: through systematic pillage and slaughter."
[i]

The chaos that Kurosawa demonstrates is perhaps simply a product of a depressing period in his life, and could very well be considered subsidiary to the theme of nihilism. There is nothing resembling happiness in the end. The characters are dead. Violence trumped diplomacy. Even the saintly Lady Sue, devout Buddhist wife to Hidetora’s second son, ends up beheaded. According to Sragow, Kurosawa said in 1986,
"What I was trying to get at in 'Ran,'and this was there from the script stage, was that the gods or God or whoever it is observing human events is feeling sadness about how human beings destroy each other, and powerlessness to affect human beings' behavior.”
[ii]

If there are gods watching these characters and events, they either will not or cannot change them. The three possibilities this presents are all depressing in their own ways. The first possibility is that the gods will not intervene and cease the destruction; this can be depressing because it implies that the gods do not even care. The second possibility is that the gods are unable to intervene; this can be depressing because if the gods are powerless then one must wonder what humans could possibly do. The third, and perhaps most depressing, possibility is that the gods don’t exist and that humans are alone and solely responsible for their actions against one another.

This element of nihilism could simply reflect a general world-weariness of Kurosawa’s, or perhaps more specifically his views on his own old age. In his seventies, he could have been described as old-fashioned by audiences and critics looking for more exciting fare and shots that did not linger languorously over fields of dewy grass and immobile bodies. Roger Ebert touches upon this very idea:
"Akira Kurosawa’s Ran is inspired by King Lear but may be as much about Kurosawa's life as Shakespeare's play... Kurosawa has not told the story of a great man whose sin of pride drives him mad, but the story of a man who has waged war all his life, hopes to impose peace in his old age and unleashes even greater turmoil. There are parallels not only with kings but also with filmmakers, who like royalty must enforce their vision in a world seething with jealousy, finance, intrigue, vanity and greed. …
He was preoccupied with mortality in his later years. His eyesight was failing, he attempted suicide…
Ran is set in medieval times, but it is a 20th century film, in which an old man can arrive at the end of his life having won all his battles, and foolishly think he still has the power to settle things for a new generation. But life hurries ahead without any respect for historical continuity; his children have their own lusts and furies. His will is irrelevant, and they will divide his spoils like dogs tearing at a carcass."
[iii]

Perhaps the nihilism in Ran is a filmic expression of Kurosawa’s depression and Hidetora is as much Kurosawa as he is Lear. While the inter-connected themes of chaos and nihilism are important and universally understood, the third inter-connected theme of warfare is certainly more tangible and could be considered more relevant to the Japanese. Kurosawa was in his thirties when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were devastated by atomic bombs. He lived for decades afterwards, able to witness and experience the long-term psychological and sociological effects that the loss of the war and ensuing globalization/Americanization had on Japan as a whole. According to critic Michael Wilmington,
"The secret subject of Ran—as Kurosawa explained to me in a 1985 interview—is the threat of nuclear apocalypse. The film is saturated with the anxiety of the post-Hiroshima age."
[iv]

The film is actually set during a turning point in Japan’s history, when fairly effective rifles were introduced and their use established in feudal warfare. A matchlock model plays an important part in the destruction in Ran. The people of Japanese know all too well the effects of the newest, deadliest weapon available at the time. Even the fire that besets Hidetora’s retirement castle can be interpreted as a comment on something that can so easily wipe out everything it touches. (However, it should be noted that because Japanese homes have primarily been made of wood and crowded together, fire has been a problem throughout Japan’s history.) After all, the film was made toward the end of the Cold War, and Japan had fought with both the US and Russia before. The only country to have suffered a nuclear attack, the Japanese people were perhaps more susceptible to fear of nuclear warfare than any other nation.

Like most of Kurosawa’s films, Ran is a complex work of art produced by a complex man. The film is about no single thing. No single aspect of humanity is the primary focus. Akira Kurosawa was a master filmmaker, suicidal painter, and an elderly man who had great difficulty getting work and whose wife died during the production of this film. It should come as no surprise that this film portrays some of the worst aspects of humanity. When disloyalty causes a descent into madness and terribly destructive war, the world can seem as nothing but nihilistic and chaotic.

[i] Sragow, Michael. "Lear meets the energy vampire". salon.com. March 1, 2010 .
[ii] Sragow
[iii] Ebert, Roger. "Ran (1985)". rogerebert.suntimes.com. March 1, 2010 .
[iv] Wilmington, Michael. "Ran: Apocalypse Song". criterion.com. March 1, 2010 .

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I highly recommend this film. Also, I totally cop to getting plenty of info from Wikipedia.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Kick-Ass


Last week I was fortunate enough to attend a screening and see "Kick-Ass" early.
I have only read the hardcover collection once, but I would qualify myself as something of a fan of the comic book.

I can say with confidence that the film does a great job. In some ways, it could be considered a bit better than the comic. This is because the director, Matthew Vaugn, does not simply use one method/style of directing. He tries different things for the action scenes throughout the course of the film, and the use of music is always a great bonus that doesn't come along with the comic.

While it isn't a perfect film, it's a damn near perfect movie. It's a lot of fucking fun.

Chloe Grace Moretz definitely steals the show as Hit-Girl. Nic Cage also does a great job as Big Daddy (in fact, his take on a Batman-esque character is his coolest action role since "Con Air"). Aaron Johnson at first seems like a strange choice for Kick-Ass, as the character is a skinny wimp in the comic, while Johnson kinda has a build. Nevertheless, the actor delivers. Mark Strong is pretty good as mob boss Frank D'Amico. Christopher Mintz-Plasse (commonly known as "McLovin") is typical as Red Mist (I'm just not a fan of the guy, he's always the same; also, he has a very distinct voice, so there's no way he could have a secret identity).

Some people might complain that plenty of the details are changed from the comic, but I think it all works out to be an exciting, fun, great movie. Comic fans should love it for all of the references made to comic books and the depiction of the world of fandom.

The jokes are good, the music's good, the violence is good. Just about everything in this flick is good. When it hits theaters, everyone should definitely go see it.

(On a personal note, the only thing that's ever really bugged me about the comic [and now the movie] is the idea of anyone going out to fight crime with NO martial arts training. I don't think even the lowliest of idiots would actually think to survive crimefighting without so much as a single boxing lesson.)

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Batman -- Martial Artist - 06.04 - Tien-Hsueh



Tien-Hsueh is the Chinese martial art that focuses on attacking vital points.

This art can be as simple as striking the obviously vulnerable parts of the body (i.e., groin, throat, kidneys, etc.), but ultimately it entails the ancient and difficult-to-master art of acupressure. Just as in acupuncture, this art relies on certain lines of energy ("meridians") that are alleged to connect a certain point on the body's surface to an internal, vital organ.



The training essentially takes the form of years of training for accuracy of strikes (most often with the index and middle fingers), and intensive study of anatomy as presented in traditional Chinese medicine. Basically, learning where the vital points are, and training to be able to strike them while fighting.
Traditionally, one must learn how to heal in concurrence with learning how to do damage using acupressure.

While one may not put a lot of stock in ancient ideas like meridians and chi, over thousands of years there has been a vast accumulation of anecdotal/empirical evidence for the efficacy of this art. There are modern scientific explanations for these things (i.e., nerves, impulses, etc.), but this is a traditional art/science.



Now, would Batman bother with Tien-Hsueh? Most likely. He would find it beneficial to know at least the basics of a system that has lasted for millennia. Also, if he can take out a perp without needing to exert himself to much, all the better. It would also make sense for Batman to know this art so as to be able to defend himself from its practitioners.
The best way I can answer this question is actually to point out that Batman has learned something similar. In the episode "Day of the Samurai" (BTAS: Season 3), Bruce Wayne travels to Japan at the behest of his old sensei in order to defeat his old rival. The ninja rival has sought out an ancient pressure-point technique that can kill a man with a single, well-placed strike. Batman deduces this very pressure-point in his investigation, and is able to protect himself. Since he knows where this point is, he could therefore use this technique (not that he ever would).

Chinese Boxing: Masters and Methods


This book, by Robert W. Smith, published by Kodansha in 1974, is a short tome detailing some of the experiences of the author in Taiwan in the 1950s.
Smith writes about several different kung fu instructors he meets and learns from, as well as the methods taught.

The chapters are as follows:
1. The Not-So-Little Elephant
2. The Monkey Boxer
3. The Guerrilla General
4. Master of the Five Excellences
5. Master of Relaxation
6. A Policeman's Pa-kua
7. Bone-Locker Extraordinary
8. The Wrestling Champion
9. Other Teachers
10. Teachers in Southern Taiwan
Appendix A: Chou Chi-chun's Views on the Origins of Tai-chi
Appendix B: Sun Lu-tang's Principles of Tai-chi Chuan
Appendix C: Chi-Kung, Exercise of Internal Energy
Appendix D: Tai-chi in the People's Republic of China
Appendix E: Wu-Shu Forms in Taiwan

The book primarily focuses on the author's three or so main instructors over the course of about three years in Taiwan. The styles covered most are Tai Chi and Pa-kua. These both rely heavily on internal concepts.
Oddly, the author warns the reader against charlatans who make outlandish claims about their chi power and abilities, yet he consistently exalts his own teachers and their (only seemingly outlandish) abilities.

He also offers some descriptions of Chi-Kung (a purely internal discipline), Shuai Chiao (Chinese wrestling), and Chin-na (joint locking). However, these chapters are lacking.

Overall, the book is lacking of substance. It is primarily a listing of masters to be found in Taiwan at the time, with little-to-no worthy elaboration or description of techniques.
This book is ONLY for the traditionalist interested in master's names and lineages.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Snag



Yesterday I was working on a short film set. I saw a couple of the other guys on set messing around with what I thought were plastic practice knives. Naturally, I inquired about the objects.

Turns out, a guy's father (and a friend of the father) recently invented/developed a new non-lethal self-defense tool to be called "the snag" (it could be "snagg", I'm not sure yet). Though the guy who demonstrated the use of the tool to me did not enjoy my "simplification" of this item, it is essentially a modified, plastic version of a karambit knife. This weapon/tool can be used to break kunckles (by targeting a counter-punch at an oncoming fisty), hurt the ribs, or simply do more harm to an assailant's face and sternum.
Why it's called a "snag", however, is because you can use the hooked end to dig into the assailant's clavicle and better manipulate him with stand-up grappling techniques.

I was fortunate enough to be given one, and I'm definitely going to be carrying it as my if-necessary weapon of choice. It's quite handy, and I plan to devote quite a bit of time to practicing with it so that in a week or so I will be able to use it efficiently and swiftly.

The guys who developed this are martial arts enthusiasts (of course), and they have been making deals to sell the Snag to military and police departments. While this may never get the same self-defense rep as brass knuckles, or become the next big thing in non-lethal tools used by soldiers and police officers, I think that it deserves that consideration. It's handy for both punching (like brass knuckles) and stand-up grappling. It should be on the market in the next couple of months, and will be getting write-ups in the major martial arts, self-defense, and weapons magazines. I predict that Joe Wagner (Black Belt's resident reality-based self-defense and military expert) will be talking about it within a year.

It is somewhat similar to the Japanese yawara (a small stick used to damage knuckles and strike pressure points ), but I think it is much more effective since it can more easily be used with typical gross motor movements (basic punching is made more devastating by the extension of the plastic ring on the index finger and the "edge" beneath the pinky). I personally think that this tool/weapon should be used in every self-defense class and modern "ninjutsu" school.

[This seems like the kind of thing Batman would develop and use. That is, if he didn't already have batarangs, bat-shuriken, and a complete mastery of empty-hand fighting.]
[I think we'll see this in movies sometime fairly soon. I'm hoping to be the first person to put it in a movie, and I plan to use it in some fight scenes in a feature I plan to shoot this summer.]
[By the way, I do NOT get paid for any of this. I'm just fan.]

MegaCon 2010


For the seventh year in a row, I attended MegaCon (March 12-14). It was about as great as usual. Wound up spending an inordinate amount of money that I really couldn't afford to part with, but in exchange I got about 40 back issues and 15 trades/graphic novels. I got a bunch of figures, as well.

I was able to complete my collection of "Lone Wolf and Cub", and I made great strides toward completing Denny O'Neil's run on "The Question" and Alan Moore's "Tom Strong". I also got the full series of "Green Hornet" on DVD, as well as the entire 1960s Batman show.


Sorry for my absence...

My apologies to my few readers for my lengthy absence from this here blog.

Over the last month or so, I've worked on some fellow film students' short films. Also, I am now certified by the American Red Cross in CPR and AED.

I'll be rather busy for the next couple of weeks, but I'll still try to post occasionally.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Wolverine: Weapon X #10


The latest issue of Wolverine: Weapon X is probably one of the best Wolverine comics I have read in years.


Jason Aaron writes a great issue that helps transition between the last arc (which was a bit strange and not all that enjoyable for me) and whatever is coming next.

Throughout this issue, Logan expresses his feelings for invesigative reporter Melita Garner, while reminiscing about lost loves (a common, but important theme in his life) and considering the danger that his love always puts someone in.

Logan fights ninja in Japan, runs into a seductive Yukio, plays chess with Storm, plays pool with Rogue, hangs out at a shooting range with Black Widow, goes shopping with Jubilee, helps Luke Cage and Jessica Jones calm down their baby daughter, and visits Mariko's grave. All the while, he discusses with his friends and Melita the fatality that seems to be inherent in his relationships. We also get to read about Logan's first time having sex!

Unfortunately, there is an ending that feels somewhat tacked-on in order to provide a "cliffhanger" feeling and make you want to stick around for the next arc. But for the most part this is a great example of a self-contained issue.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention C.P. Smith's incredible art. His rich shadows and "gritty" colors perfectly accentuate his clean linework. Smith also presents Wolverine in several different versions of his costume, which is a delight to a long-time fan.

The cover by Adam Kubert (with Morry Hollowell) is entertaining enough, but does not do the story justice.

This is a great, poignant issue that reminds you of who Logan is as a lover and reaffirms the idea that he really is more man than animal.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Batman -- Martial Artist - 06.03 - Northern Shaolin



The word "Shaolin" is probably the most-known phrase worldwide in regards to Kung Fu. This will be a fairly brief overview of the style/school that is typically what people, whether they know it or not, are referring to when they say "Shaolin". (To read my brief summary of the Temple's historical origins, read the first post on Kung Fu.)

The Northern Shaolin Monastery is the monastery that most people refer to as Shaolin Temple. It is where Bodhidharma made his pilgrimage and introduced some yoga and Indian martial arts techniques. These teachings blended with the indigenous martial arts styles already present, and the monks practiced their martial arts as a form of moving meditation, but initially the martial arts practice was primarily done to prepare monks to defend against marauders and bandits. Gradually, the monastery became more secure, and the monks were able to focus on using the arts for more spiritual purposes.
It was not uncommon for retired soldiers to devote themselves to religion, and the Shaolin monastery became the home for many such men. These men brought with them their military training and helped augment the Shaolin martial arts, particularly when it came to weapons. It was also not uncommon for fleeing criminals to seek sanctuary, and many ruffians would eventually become monks, also bringing their own physical skills and training methods.



While a student in the Shaolin monastery could learn several individual, distinct styles weapons methods, over time the various styles also blended into what could be described as the Northern Shaolin style. This style focused on longer-ranged techniques, acrobatic attacks, flexibility, and speed. The high kicks and jumping techniques found in northern schools of Kung Fu are often attributed to the idea of taking an opponent down from their horse. The wide stances are supposed to give the martial artist a lower center of gravity and greater balance.
Most technques were passed down in illustrated manuals and taught in forms. Students would practice most forms, and when becoming ordained monks would typically chooses to master one empty-hand form and one weapon.
Because of the military influence, Northern Shaolin teaching encompassed most weapons available at the time. These include (but are not limited to) the broadsword, straight sword, staff, monk's cudgel, three-section-staff, nunchaku, dart rope, and butterfly knives.
Because students typically lived in the monastery for years, if not most of their lives, there was plenty of time to train by repetition. A student could certainly spend five hours in a stance, simply punching. Techniques would be repeated ad nauseum until they would be strung together as forms. Then, after thousands of repetitions of a single form, students would practice in two-man forms. Eventually, after years of repetitious drilling, students (usually monks) could spar so as to perfect their reflexes and hone their techniques.
Many monks would also practice various "iron body" techniques, usually focusing on a single area (some monks focused their palms, others on their groin, or head, etc.). (Read my post on Iron Fist.)

The monastery featured many training apparatuses, examples (and exaggerations) of which can be seen in kung fu movies (like "36th Chamber of Shaolin") and plenty of documentaries.



Nowadays, the Shaolin Temple is primarily a religious, cultural, and monetary institution in China. To learn "Shaolin Kung Fu", someone (especially a foreigner) would have to go to one of the hundreds of schools surrounding the actual monastery. These schools are typically run by monks or former monks looking to spread martial culture and make a decent living. While some of the older techniques and training methods can certainly still be found in those schools, the schools primarily focus on the much more profitable styles of Wushu (the modern acrobatic, demonstrational style that came about as a result of the Cultural Revolution) and Sanshou (the modern kickboxing style that also was formed and is regulated by the Chinese government).



Unfortunately, Northern Shaolin style does not exist as it once did, really. The influence of it can be seen in the Northern systems of Kung Fu, and somewhat in Wushu and Sanshou, but most teachers claiming to teach "Shaolin Kung Fu" are most likely teaching a different style (that could very well have been influenced by Shaolin, or a descendant of it) and simply capitalizing on a rich cultural tradition and household brand name.
Would Batman learn Northern Shaolin? He would certainly want to be skilled in the elements present in the style, but he could do this by studying multiple Chinese styles. Of course, Bruce Wayne is supposed to be able to find out-of-the-way masters of older, perfected styles, so he could very well find a "true" Shaolin master and study under him.


-I highly suggest the movies "36th Chamber of Shaolin" and "Shaolin Temple". I also suggest the book "American Shaolin".
-I have found it quite easy (and enjoyable) to spend hours on end looking at videos on youtube that portray Shaolin training methods. I could also suggest the "Human Weapon" and "Fight Quest" episodes about Kung Fu.
-The TV show "Kung Fu", while quite enjoyable, was almost entirely errant in its representation of the Shaolin Kung Fu an many Shaolin traditions. Nevertheless, I do love that show. RIP David Carradine, crazy sex fiend that he was.
-Always question whatever history you read or hear in regards to martial arts (including this one). I admit to not having done a truly exhaustive amount of academic research on the subject, but I especially advise you to be wary of things that sound too much like legend and over-hype. (If you meet a "master" who claims to have trained at the Shaolin Temple, either disregard him or ask what school in Dengfeng he ACTUALLY trained at, and what generation of monk his teachers were [they should know, and it should usually be between 30th generation and 33rd].)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Batman -- Martial Artist - 06.02 - Mok Gar


Mok-Gar (or Sil Lum Mok Gar Kuen) is another Southern Chinese branch of Kung Fu. Like most Southern styles of Kung Fu (including Wing Chun), Mok-Gar stresses in-fighting.

The legend of this particular style’s origin claims that it was developed by a midget monk of the Sil Lum monastery (Southern Shaolin Temple) named Mok Da Si. At the time, Mok was considered the foremost master of the Southern Shaolin Fist (Sil Lum Kuen/Shaolin Chuen). Like many great masters, he made his own adjustments here and there, developing the art into one not unlike what we know as Wing Chun. As a shorter man, it would be a poor decision for him to attempt attacks and defenses better suited for longer limbs. Thus, he taught the principle of getting in close to the opponent, using short blocks and punches, and low kicks.

Three generations later, Mok Gin Kiu learned stronger and more varied kicks from a teacher outside of his family and became a famous fighter. At this time, the style he inherited dropped the long-since erroneous name of Shaolin Fist and began to be called Mok Gar Kuen after the family.

One of the most notable Mok-Gar practitioners was Mok Kwei Lan. As a teenager, she studied under her uncle and eventually married a friend of his: the famous Hung Gar grandmaster and fairly modern Chinese folk hero Wong Fei Hung. Mok Kwei Lan convinced her highly skilled husband to incorporate the kicking skills taught in Mok-Gar, so that the Hung Gar style as passed down from Wong Fei Hung shares many kicking techniques with Mok-Gar.

Mok-Gar makes use of two different wooden dummies. The first type is the same found in Wing Chun. The second is called a darn gee and is typically made up of a hollow bamboo post (about 13’ tall, 4” in diameter, set into the ground by about 3’), filled with washers (or coins). It is used to practice techniques and build power, particularly for kicking. The primary goals are to increase flexibility, speed, and accuracy and to toughen the feet.

Mok-Gar encompasses most traditional Kung Fu weapons, but primarily focuses on wooden pegs (shorter sticks, mostly for jabbing vulnerable points on the body), butterfly knives (same as Wing Chun), and the siu so gee (like a nunchaku, but with one end much shorter than the other).
Would Batman learn Mok-Gar? Maybe. While it is about as effective as any other Southern Chinese style, Batman might not find it necessary to learn this art if he learns both Wing Chun and Karate. The blocks and punches taught in Mok-Gar seem to be half-way between the blocks and punches found in Wing Chun and most styles of Karate. The trapping found in Mok-Gar could also be covered by Wing Chun and Jujitsu. In Bruce’s travels in China, he would certainly come across Mok-Gar, Wing Chun, and Hung Gar, and would find something in each of them. If nothing else, he would likely find the dummies used in Mok-Gar to be effective training tools.

Additional information came from Wikipedia, of course, as well as other internet sources (like http://www.plumpub.com/info/knotebook/boxmokgar.htm ).
Also:
A Handbook of Martial Arts by Fay Goodman

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The World of Apu

I recently had the pleasure of viewing this 1959 Indian film by writer/producer/director Satyajit Ray. It is absolutely wonderful.

The final part of "The Apu Trilogy", this film follows Apu Roy, an unemployed, educated young man who lives in Calcutta. He does his best to live life as freely as possible, but this is is threatened when (through a series of circumstances) he is married to a friend's cousin. He and his wife live happily enough for a time, though they have no money.
Without overtly spoiling anything, the third act of the film is primarily about a depressed, older Apu struggling to connect with his young son.

This is a beautiful black-and-white film that stands high above every other movie I've seen come out of India. I once had a girlfriend who loved Bollywood musicals, and she made me sit through about twenty of those god-awful things. I think it's fine if that's your personal taste, but I personally find most musicals to be terrible, and I really can't get into foreign musicals.
This film, however, is nothing like those. The director actually grew up in a very arts-oriented home, and made his living as an illustrator before going in to films. He despised the happy-go-lucky Indian films of his time (and so would despise more modern ones) and sought to introduce the Indian public to the artistry that could be found in post-war films from France and Italy. He was particularly inspired by Italian neorealism (especially the film "Bicycle Thieves").

While many people would find this film difficult to sit through because of its long, lovingly held shots and lack of action, I think anyone who loves films should take a look at it.
(A note of minor interest: "The Simpsons" and "Futurama" creator Matt Groening has always been a fan of Indian films, and named the stereotypical Indian convenience store clerk character in "The Simpsons" after the main character of "The Apu Trilogy".)

Friday, January 1, 2010

Sherlock Holmes -- Martial Artist

Having seen "Sherlock Holmes" a second time, I feel more compelled to comment on the martial arts presented in the film.


In the Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of the Empty House" (1901), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle writes about Holmes's martial arts knowledge by having him refer to "baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling".
However, there is not and never has been any real martial art named "baritsu". The name is in fact based on a British martial system named Bartitsu. This style was developed at the turn of the last century by E.W. Barton-Wright. Barton-Wright had spent some time in Japan and learned a bit of Jujitsu and Judo. He was also an exponent of stick fighting, boxing, and Savate. Because of his wide knowledge base, Barton-Wright is considered to be far ahead of his time in terms of mixing martial arts styles in order to create a more effective fighting system (however, it should be remembered that there was a time before systematization ruled, and the old masters were knowledgeable in all basic martial concepts).

While in the film Downey's character does demonstrate a variety of martial capabilities, the word "baritsu" is never mentioned, and the fighting style the great detective utilizes appears to be much more akin to Wing Chun than anything else (in fact, a Wing Chun wooden dummy can be seen in the apartment at 221b Baker Street). This is most likely due to Robert Downey, Jr.'s real-life practice of the Chinese style. Downey likes to mention and demonstrate his love for the system to many interviewers, and he even gives his martial arts practice some credit for his recovery from drug addiction.

Holmes uses similar poses and the vertical fist espoused in Wing Chun. To be fair, though, he also uses some Jujitsu, boxing, stick fighting, and all-around dirty fighting. His fighting ability comes in quite handy when doing battle with the criminal element. He also likes to blow off steam and practice his technique by participating in bare-knuckle fights at a bar called the Punchbowl.

Jude Law's Dr. John Watson fights rather differently, however. While Holmes takes some time to mentally calculate his strikes and their damages, Watson just goes at it. He just hits anyone and everyone with anything in reach, including but not limited to his sword-cane. This could be because Watson is not such a calculating fellow, and is an ex-soldier (in my personal experience, military men tend to brawl rather than calculate).

The fights are interesting and fun to watch in the film. I think that they demonstrate a great blend of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's writings, director Guy Ritchie's love of Karate and Jujitsu, Robert Downey, Jr.'s love of Wing Chun, and just plain good characterization and visual acumen.



(Most of this stuff was from my own observation/general knowledge, but some additional info came from some interviews on Aint It Cool News and stuff from Kung Fu Magazine [and, of course, Wikipedia].)