Sometimes, Dead is Better

Pet Sematary is the final Stephen King adaptation released in the 80’s. It was buried for so long since King has called it the scariest book he’s ever written. Although the themes are creepy and saddening, the movie can only go so far. The misspelled Pet Sematary centers on a pet cemetery that mysteriously brings animals back to life. It’s a personal story that King based on similar life experiences. So much so that King wrote the movie himself. Pet Sematary follows the Creed family as they move to a traditional Maine town. The only thing off about their new home are trucks that speed down the street and the titular cemetery down the road.

Dale Midkiff doesn’t stand out as Dr. Louis Creed, but Fred Gwynne is a major presence as their heavily accented neighbor Jud Crandall. Denise Crosby plays Louis’ wife Rachel a year after quitting The Next Generation. Their children are the ambiguously supernatural Ellie and adorable toddler Gage. There’s the usual uncomfortable talk about religion, but their cat Church is actually named after Winston Churchill. When Church dies, Jud tells Louis how to bring him back to life. A soft grey cat can only look so intimidating, but Church coming back wrong is unsettling. “Sometimes, dead is better.”

Other creepy happenings are an undead patient named Victor Pascow warning characters not to use the cemetery and Rachel remembering her sister Zelda who died of a spinal disease. Neither compare to Gage being tragically struck by an oncoming truck. It’s part of the reason why I avoided watching the movie, but it is offscreen. What isn’t offscreen is Louis bringing Gage back to life as a murderous child. 3 year old Miko Hughes is still cute, but surprisingly terrifying. SPOILER ALERT! Jud dies an unexpectedly graphic death and Rachel returns only to die as well. A detatched Louis puts down his cat and son before bringing his wife back. Pet Sematary isn’t the instant Stephen King classic I thought it would be, but it’s lively enough.

Pet Sematary

Church hisses

Followed by: Pet Sematary Two

Magic Grits

My Cousin Vinny is one of the funniest courtroom comedies I’ve ever seen. I don’t watch trial movies often, but my mom strongly recommended it. I’m glad she did, because My Cousin Vinny is both an accurate and entertaining depiction of the legal process. It brings together three of the biggest Italians working in Hollywood at the time. The hotheaded Joe Pesci is perfect for inexperienced New York lawyer Vinny Gambini. He’s profane, but hilarious in a culture clash story where his young cousin and friend end up in a rural Alabama murder case.

This is one of a few times I’ve seen Ralph Macchio in a role other than The Karate Kid. Bill and his nervous friend Stan are falsely imprisoned when a car matching their description is mistaken for theirs. Several misunderstandings made me laugh out loud. Vinny does his best to talk his way through court, but the more reserved Southern inhabitants don’t make it easy for him. Fred Gwynne shines in his final film role as the judge looking for any reason to hold Vinny in contempt. Stan wants someone more professional, but the public defender is a bit of a mess.

Between those challenges is a particularly funny running gag where several things keep Vinny and his fiancé awake. Easily the biggest standout is relative newcomer Marisa Tomei as the fiery, but intelligent Mona Lisa Vito. She steals the show and won a much deserved Oscar for her humorous dynamic with Pesci and courtwinning automotive knowledge. Vinny eventually gets the hang of being a lawyer by using what he learns about the town. Everything from grits to tire tracks. My Cousin Vinny makes court fun.

My Cousin Vinny

Vinny cross-examines Mona Lisa

Horizontal, Vertical (水平垂直)

The Grandmaster is the more stylized approach to the Ip Man story. Although it’s a bit confusing, two seperate Ip Man movies were in production around 2008. A 2008 franchise starting one starring Donnie Yen and a 2013 standalone one starring Tony Leung Chiu-wai. I’ll always prefer Ip Man, but The Grandmaster did make me curious. I remember when it was nominated for 2 Oscars. Best Cinematography for Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai’s beautiful, mostly slow motion backdrops. Best Costume Design for its decades long period setting.

Unlike Ip Man, The Grandmaster severely condenses his life. To the point that many events are explained in narration and/or text. There’s not too much focus on his wife or children, the Second Sino-Japanese War is quick, Ip Man’s Wing Chun martial arts school is in the background, and Bruce Lee is just a boy who appears close to the end. So the movie’s biggest strength is action. Most of it focused on Grandmaster Ip Man teaching the importance of martial arts. There are fights in the rain, in the snow, and by a train.

A conflict between the South and the North leads to him facing many grandmasters. Those fights are much more close quarters. Tony Leung is fine as Ip Man, but we don’t really get to know him. He’s more distinguishable by his white fedora. A lot of the focus actually switches to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon actress Zhang Ziyi as Gong Er. She’s a Northern rival and possible mistress with a journey that takes up most of the film’s climax. The Grandmaster is artful, but not my preferred way to experience Ip Man.

The Grandmaster

Ip Man vs. Gong Er

The Student Becomes the Master (学生成为主人)

Ip Man 4: The Finale gave Grandmaster Ip Man a dignified send off. It was only a matter of time before this mostly biographical martial arts franchise came to an end. Donnie Yen returned one final time and gave it his all. After losing his wife, Ip Man is diagnosed with cancer in 1964. He fights through the pain and deliverers some of his fiercest Wing Chun. Danny Chan is a lot more prominent as Bruce Lee, but the movie still isn’t about him. Though he does have an awesome fight scene complete with nunchucks.

Lee invites Ip Man to San Francisco where most of the film takes place. So expect way more English than you’d expect from a Chinese production. The central theme is “father’s and their children.” Ip Man has a strained relationship with his son, but he still goes to America to find him a school. Tai Chi master Mr. Wan of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association appears to be the villain, but this franchise always leads me astray. The real enemy is discrimination. Something Wan’s daughter Yonah faces from an annoying rival cheerleader.

Ip Man takes her under his wing and defends their way of life. He fights Chinese masters, school bullies, and a racist drill instructor. Lee’s student Hartman is a US Marine who’s Chinese kung fu is mocked by the karate proficient Barton Geddes played by martial artist Scott Atkins. Ip Man defeats his brash sensi when he comes to Chinatown, then teaches Geddes a brutal lesson. Ip Man 4 never loses sight of what’s important with a genuinely heartfelt tribute to Ip Man’s finest moments. Ending with world famous Bruce Lee at his grandmaster’s funeral. Ip Man 4: The Finale is an honorable end.

5. Ip Man 4

Ip Man prepares to fight

Preceded by: Ip Man 3

Another Master’s Path (另一个大师之路)

Master Z: Ip Man Legacy is a fine detour from the Ip Man story. Although produced by Donnie Yen, Master Z is all about rival Wing Chun master Cheung Tin-chi. He may be based on a real martial artist, but the story is more or less fictional. Max Zhang made such an impression in Ip Man 3, that he was given his own spin-off. One more concerned with stylized action than story. Not that Cheung isn’t an interesting martial artist who wants to put that life behind him.

He’s just trying to be a good father, but Cheung is roped into the violent world of organized crime. Something that brings him in contact with the lovely Julia, her business owning brother, and opium addicted friend. Both triads are ran by major celebrities. Martial arts legend Michelle Yeoh seems to be the villain, but Ms. Kwan is trying to legitimize her business. It’s really her brother making trouble in an illegal drug ring. Dave Bautista himself plays syndicate leader/restaurant owner Owen Davidson. Tony Jaa is also involved as a mysterious hired assassin.

Since action is more emphasized, all players get impressively over-the-top fights. Cheung faces several men on neon signs, fights with the surprisingly proficient Julia, matches skills with Yeoh, and has a brutal scuffle with Bautista. In the end, the real enemy is the increasingly annoying dirty cops controlled by the British. Master Z doesn’t add much to the Ip Man legacy, but awesome action is usually enough for me.

4. Master Z Ip Man Legacy

Cheung Tin-chi vs. Tso Ngan Kwan

Spin-Off of: Ip Man 3

Master vs. Master (大师对大师)

Ip Man 3 is probably the weakest in the franchise by default. Ip Man got so popular at this point, that telling a genuinely authentic biopic was no longer a top priority. Ip Man 3 is far more stylized with a PG-13 rating instead of the usual R. Several Ip Man movies sprang up between the second film’s release and Donnie Yen wasn’t keen on returning. Even though the Grandmaster of Wing Chun had so much story left to tell. Although it now takes place in 1959, I’m not sure how much of the movie is factually accurate anymore. Ip Man 3 deals with rising crime in Hong Kong.

The Chinese police officer from the second movie returns to assist Ip Man when a greedy foreign developer seeks his son’s school. You know you’ve achieved international fame when Mike Tyson himself wants to play the villain. It’s a little jarring, but Tyson’s boxing/martial arts match with Ip Man is a highlight. The rest of the action is on par with the previous films. Though it does seem to take more time to get to the cooler fights. Ip Man once again takes on over 10 thugs and has a close quarters fight in an elevator. Bruce Lee was originally a priority for Ip Man 3, but he’s still mostly a cameo whom Ip Man neither accepts, nor denies.

Fun fact: Danny Chan actually previously played Bruce Lee in a biographical Chinese TV series. The main theme is Ip Man’s relationship with his family. The most genuine part of the movie is Ip Man losing his wife. So his final obstacle ends up being a martial artist similar to himself. Based on Sum Nung, Zhang Jin effectively plays Ip Man’s friendly Wing Chun rival and fellow struggling father Cheung Tin-chi. They ultimately fight in an epic match to prove whose Wing Chun is superior. Zhang is so memorable that he ended up getting his own spin-off. Ip Man 3 does go more for style, but its substance isn’t without merit.

3. Ip Man 3

Ip Man vs. Cheung Tin-chi

Preceded by: Ip Man 2 & Followed by: Ip Man 4: The Finale

The Grandmaster’s Legend (宗师的传奇)

Ip Man 2 continues the legend of the grandmaster with a sequel that plays to the strengths of the original. The mostly true story of Master Ip Man was meant to focus on his famous tutelage of Bruce Lee, but it was too soon for that. Instead, Ip Man 2 closely follows Ip Man’s family after they’ve survived the Japanese occupation of Foshan. Although less grim than the first movie, Ip Man 2 has far greater character drama. While at the same time increasing the martial arts action tenfold. Fortunately Donnie Yen is excellent at conveying both.

Ip Man 2 begins in 1950 Hong Kong where Ip Man takes care of his pregnant wife and struggles to open his own school for Wing Chun. His most eager student is the impulsive Leung who slowly learns the importance of kung fu. The only other returning characters are his savior Chow becoming a sad beggar and his former rival Jin turning his life around. Fighting is still the star of the franchise with even more awesome fights between expert martial artists. Ip Man teaches his potential students a lesson and defends himself against a horde of rival students.

Fellow martial arts legend Sammo Hung plays Master Hung. Although presented as the villain, Hung is just a struggling family man with a big ego. Their best fight is on an unstable table top. The true enemy is British colonialism. The final act practically turns into Rocky IV with an East meets West boxing match between English speaking foreign devils. Hung and Ip Man separately face the brash Twister played by English stuntman Darren Shahlavi. Their ring matches are intense, but Ip Man prevails and offers a message of peace. Only a last minute scene alludes to the future with a 10 year old Bruce Lee confidently seeking Ip Man’s training. Ip Man 2 ups the stakes and increases the excitement.

2. Ip Man 2

Ip Man vs. The Twister

Preceded by: Ip Man & Followed by: Ip Man 3

The Great Master (伟大的大师)

Ip Man is an awesome display of masterful martial arts action. Just as influential as Bruce Lee is the man who taught him. Master Ip Man (or Yip Man) was a Chinese martial arts grandmaster of Wing Chun. Many Hong Kong filmmakers wanted to make a biopic, but the 2008 Ip Man beat them all to the finish line. I’ve heard of Ip Man, but foreign films are rarely on my radar. It was really a co-worker of mine who encouraged me to watch it. Ip Man was so cool that I had to backtrack just to experience the Bruce Lee collection. Only then did I fully appreciate the original master. Expert martial artist Donnie Yen is an absolute spectacle as Master Ip Man. He’s both humble and fierce when he needs to be.

Although based on a true story, Ip Man is meant to be a stylized kung fu flick. The beginning is a lot lighter with Ip Man as a wealthy family man who accepts challenges behind closed doors. His wife Cheung Wing-sing is depicted along with their son Ip Chun. We also meet Ip Man’s close friend Chow who owns a cotton mill, bickering brothers Lin & Yaun, and police officer Li. All of whom respect Foshan martial arts and Ip Man’s coveted skills. A sudden dark turn brings Ip Man into the practically colorless reality of the 1937 Second Sino-Japanese War. His family faces great hardships, but Wing Chun isn’t as useless as he thinks.

Action is the real star of the movie. Ip Man fights with precision strength, rapid punches, and effective kicks. The first duel between local master Liu is a perfect opener. The second duel between cocky martial artist Jin is humorous, but he does return to bully Foshan later on. Leading to Ip Man training cotton mill employees to defend themselves. The true enemy is the ruthless martial arts obsessed Japanese General Miura and his more sadistic second-in-command. Ip Man defends the Chinese people in a final public duel against Miura, but easily the best fight is Ip Man confidentially defeating 10 men in a dojo. Ip Man hints at the grandmasters later life and Bruce Lee, but the movie is just as accomplished with his action-packed early years.

Ip Man

Ip Man prepares to fight

Followed by: Ip Man 2

The Man, the Myth, the Legend

Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story explores the man behind the legend. After watching Bruce Lee’s entire filmography, I figured the next logical step was to watch a biopic. Dragon has Linda Lee Cadwell’s seal of approval and even some input from Brandon Lee before his untimely death. Although Brandon was considered for the role of his father, up-and-coming actor Jason Scott Lee was chosen instead. Since Bruce Lee is so iconic, it’s impossible to see anyone else in the part, but Jason Scott does an admirable job. Dragon follows Bruce Lee as he grows up in Hong Kong and receives martial arts training from Ip Man himself.

Most of it is rushed since the primary focus is Lee’s life in America. How Lee worked as a humble dishwasher and faced prejudice as a Chinese American. The most effective depiction being how Bruce reacted to yellowface in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. At its heart, Dragon is a love story between Bruce and his future wife Linda. Lauren Holly is just as effective in depicting their forbidden love, hardships, and eventual triumphs. The Randy Edelman theme enhances every moment. We see them writing his book Tao of Jeet Kune Do and the birth of their children Brandon and Shannon. Although Rob Cohen could’ve made a straightforward biopic, he filled it with mysticism and exaggerated fights.

Lee’s inner demons are literally depicted with samurai and the fights are meant to represent actual Bruce Lee movies. Bruce trains people of all races, defends his honor on multiple occasions, and is eventually discovered by producers. We see him as Kato on The Green Hornet, how he lost the role in Kung Fu, and how he won success back in Hong Kong. Only The Big Boss and Enter the Dragon are depicted since they represent his strained home life the best. Dragon ends on a triumphant note without having to show Bruce Lee’s tragic death. Although some see it as hero worship, Dragon: The Bruce Lee is an honest portrayal through a Hollywood lens.

Dragon A Bruce Lee Story

Bruce Lee on the set of Enter the Dragon

Mickey & Mallory

Natural Born Killers is a more f***ed up version of Bonnie and Clyde. Although Quentin Tarantino wrote the story, director Oliver Stone made it his own. Natural Born Killers is one of the most controversial films of all time. Despite Tarantino disowning the project, the movie was a success. Leading to a disturbing rise in copycat crimes. Which is mostly why I’ve avoiding seeing Natural Born Killers for as long as I did. The extreme violence is disturbing, but it’s so frequent and exaggerated that I sort of became desensitized to it. Stone specifically wanted a movie that satirized the media’s glorification of crime in the 90’s. Natural Born Killers accomplishes that goal, but the visual style is just too much.

There are frequent cuts to black & white, red & green color palettes, animation, dutch angles, and bizarre imagery spliced with advertisements. It’s possible Stone wanted the audience to go as crazy as the criminal leads. Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis go against type for the first time as natural born killers Mickey & Mallory Knox. Both became iconic for Mickey’s sunglasses and Mallory’s mullet. They’re a pair of romantic psychopaths who go on a killing spree and gain a devoted following along the way. I wouldn’t come close to calling them sympathetic, but they are both shown to come from abusive homes that led to their reckless disregard for human life.

Rodney Dangerfield also goes against type as Mallory’s abusive father in a segment parodying I Love Lucy. Robert Downey Jr. purposefully puts on an Australian accent as exaggerated true crime reporter Wayne Gale. Previous Stone collaborator Tommy Lee Jones doesn’t show up until the third act as an unhinged prison warden. The only connection to True Romance is Tom Sizemore playing a more depraved cop. Apart from maybe an Indian spirit guide, no one is likable in Natural Born Killers since we almost never get to know the victims. Natural Born Killers may have something important to say, but I’m too disturbed to listen.

Natural Born Killers

Mickey and Mallory Knox