Jet Li's last wushu movie, Fearless, is about the philosophy behind the martial arts – and yet it features some of his most interesting fight sequences; The Wicker Man has survived the indignity of a hideous remake, courtesy of a splendid two-disc collector's set, and American Pie Presents The Naked Mile takes baby steps back toward the heart of the original film…
Jet Li's Fearless
Jet Li's Fearless is only the latest of dozens of Asian films based on the life of Huang Yuanjia who, in 1910 restored China's national esteem. In the film, Huang has grown to be a glory-seeking, hard partying martial arts champion who is so taken with his fame that he is easily manipulated by would-be student and disciples – to the point of near-bankruptcy.
When he kills a rival martial arts master over a perceived injustice, – and after the master's son has slain his wife and daughter – he learns that the "injustice" was a lie, and drinks himself into a stupor before fleeing to an outer province. There, he is taken in by a blind farm woman and comes to learn what is really important in life – and comes to understand his late parents.
During the same period of time, China has become subservient to a coalition of foreign powers, including the Americans, the Germans, and the Japanese. Since his return, Huang has become a champion, again, but this time, one who is humble and eschews the party life. He comes to the attention of representatives of these when he defeats an American called Hercules O'Brien, and they challenge him to a series of four matches, all on the same day. He faces a boxer, a lancer, a fencer and a Japanese martial artist.
Huang's story is used as a vehicle to expound [without a trace of preachiness] Li's philosophy – the philosophy behind his martial arts skills: the more accomplished a fighter one becomes, the more he should become a peacemaker. That may be a bit of a simplification, but it is at the heart of Li's beliefs and makes the film something more than just another wushu movie.
Li shows that he's developed as an actor and his supporting cast is mostly excellent. Ronny Wu's direction is as crisp as it needs to be, and Yuen Wo Ping's choreography is extremely good. The only real problem is that Fearless covers ground that has been told many times, already. It's Li's passion that keeps the film from becoming maudlin, or too-over-the top – Li's passion that makes it worth watching more than once.
Features include: an extensive deleted scene, A Fearless Journey – a featurette in which Li, Wu and Yuen are interviewed about the film, and The Original Theatrical Release.
Jet Li's Fearless – Unrated – Grade: B
Features – Grade: C
Final Grade: B-
The Wicker Man – 2 Disc Set Collector's Edition
The original 1973 release of The Wicker Man became a cult phenomenon – even though it had been hacked to ribbons by its studio. The release with which we are familiar [88 min.] was still powerful enough – and intriguing enough – to get overwhelmingly positive reviews, but the original, 102 min. release hadn't been seen since then. Thanks to the discovery of a print in America, it was possible to put together a 98 min. version that captures the feel of the original release to a great extent.
The film is about a Christian police sergeant [Edward Woodward] who is called to a remote Scottish island to investigate the disappearance of a local girl. The locals insistence they've never heard of the girl – causing Sergeant Howie to begin an investigation that soon leads him to believe that the girl has been sacrificed to pagan gods to gain their favor for the year's harvest.
The cast featured a number of odd characters, and led by Christopher Lee [Lord Summerside] and Britt Ekland, Diane Cilento and Ingrid Pitt, given quietly intense performances that draw us into the web that comes to surround Howie. The script [by Anthony Schaffer] is smart, sly and an example of how to create horror though the examination of human foibles.
Robin Hardy's direction is best described as deliberate – there were music videos to influence his style, so he slowly builds a creepiness that begins to insinuate itself into the subconscious of the viewer. The result is a film that Cinefantasique called "The Citizen Kane of horror films." The Wicker Man remains as creepily effective today, as ever.
Features include: the 1973 release; an outstanding audio commentary [by Hardy, Lee and Woodward, and moderator Mark Kermode] for the restored version; The Wicker Man Enigma – interviews with Woodward, Lee, Pitt, Hardy, producer Peter Snell, writer Anthony Schaffer, and other members of the crew; the theatrical trailer; a TV spot; radio spots, and Talent bios.
The Wicker Man [88 min.] – Grade: B-
The Wicker Man [98 min.] – Grade: A
Final Grade: B+
American Pie Presents The Naked Mile
The latest effort to cash in on the American Pie brand turns out to have a good deal more heart than the previous release in the series [Band Camp]. The story revolves around Eric [John White], the black sheep of the Stifler family – who is a high school senior and a virgin. The film opens with an homage to the original American Pie – with a tragic twist…
When he and his girlfriend, Tracy [Jessy Schram] are interrupted as they finally decide to go for it, Eric is humiliated again. In a moment of generosity, Tracy gives him a weekend guilt-free free pass – to do whatever he wants – while he and two friends visit his cousin Dwight [Steve Talley] at college. Of course, one of the college's traditions is "The Naked Mile" – hordes of students run a mile in the nude to blow off steam after exams. The run is followed by a blowout party.
Naturally, The Naked Mile is full of gross-out gags [like the opening], but there is finally a core of sweetness – that actually feels real – on which to hang the gags. The film is still nowhere near as good as the theatrical trilogy, though it has a number of great moments – some involving Mr. Levenstein, better known as Jim's Dad [Eugene Levy]; others involving an evil fraternity of little people, and one involving a heart-to-heart talk between Eric and Dwight.
Perhaps the most interesting moments come in the commentary, when writer Erik Lindsay points out that most of the events in the film were actually happened to him and his friends in college. Another interesting thing is that a movie that features hundreds of college kids running naked across campus actually panders less than its predecessor [which is not the same as saying it doesn't pander, but… it's a real distinction].
Frankly, I was amazed at how many times I laughed out loud. American Pie Pres
ents The Naked Mile is no animal House, nor is it even another American Pie, but it is more than marginally entertaining. Enough so that I have to give it a marginal recommendation.
Features: the aforementioned commentary [by director Joe Nussbaum, White, Talley, Lindsay, Ross Thomas and Jake Siegel]; Yoga Guide For Getting Girls [tips from Ms Schram for guys contemplating the yoga mat as a place to find women]; The Bare Essentials [preparing to run The Naked Mile]; Little People, Big Stunts [behind the football sequences]; Outtakes [nothing as funny as what's in the movie]; Deleted and Extended Scenes, and Life on The Naked Mile [behind the scenes featurette].
American Pie Presents The Naked Mile – Grade: C+
Features – Grade: B
Final Grade: B-