DVD Loose Ends for January 2010 – Johnnie To, Jackie Chan, Robert Siodmak and Wim Wenders

Late arrivals and overstuffed release weeks meant that quite a few titles slipped through the cracks over the last month. Here’s a few that I was able to catch up with.

Tactical Unit – Human Nature (Tai Seng) – Johnnie To’s hit Hong Kong cop movie PTU not only launched a whole genre of urban policier dramas, it spawned its own series of feature film spin-offs. Simon Yam, Maggie Siu and Lam Suet have different names than they sported in PTU but they play essentially the same characters—Yam as the crisply professional and unfailingly loyal leader of the police tactical unit (essentially street cops trained with soldierly precision), Siu as his colleague and Suet as a sloppy, morally questionable police detective who went through the academy with Yam—in simple but effective morality dramas. This episode of loyalty and corruption and duty is played out in the midst of a major investigation. Lam is a disgraced detective deep in debt to a loan shark and Yam is the incorruptible street cop and fearlessly loyal comrade who defends his reputation. Good action, great atmosphere and terrific urban location shooting, but be warned that the English subtitles are nearly incoherent.

Simon Yam

Despite his name above the title, Jackie Chan is merely producer of Jackie Chan Presents Wushu (Lionsgate), a youth-oriented martial arts buddy movie. Chan’s old school chum and frequent collaborator Sammo Hung, a legend of eighties Hong Kong action cinema, is in the old master role, a widower and paternal Wushu instructor whose two sons are among his best students. The first act is all cute kids and sentimental music, swimming in kid innocence and friendship as the five buddies meet up and bond, and the transition to teenage years is terrific: they literally leap into their mature bodies in a series of flips and a little CGI magic. The rest is a weird mix of gooey friendship and young love colliding with a criminal gang of child snatchers in the middle of a tournament, but the most interesting component is a side-trip with a former student and tournament champion to a film set, where he works as a stunt coordinator. He’s quite sanguine about what former martial arts champions do: they work on films and become cops or bodyguards. Unspoken is that the brutal champ during his time went into crime and now leads the kidnapping ring. There’s plenty of cool moves but it’s only when old master Hung joins the fight that the film really kicks into gear. In Mandarin with English subtitles, with optional English soundtrack and two featurettes.

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Buena Vista Social Club

[Originally published in Eugene Weekly, 1999, reprinted for the DVD new rerelease]

In 1996 composer, producer, and guitar legend Ry Cooder entered Egrem Studios in Havana with the forgotten greats of Cuban music, many of them in their 60s and 70s, some of them long since retired. The resulting album, “The Buena Vista Social Club” (named after a once great but long since defunct Havana music hall) became a Grammy winning international bestseller, bringing this exciting, percussive music to the world, and more importantly bringing it back to Cuba. The album turned the spotlight on long neglected artists and revived dead or defunct careers. In 1998 Cooder returned to Havana to record a solo album by 72 year old vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer (“the Cuban Nat King Cole,” according to Cooder) and as he reassembled his master class of musicians, filmmaker Wim Wenders was on hand to document the occasion.

Curtain call
Curtain call

Wenders splits the film between portraits of the performers, who tell their stories directly to the camera as Wenders wanders the streets and neighborhoods of Havana, and a celebration of the music heard in performance scenes in the studio, in their first concert in Amsterdam, and in their second and final concert at Carnegie Hall. There are some terrific stories in the film. Ibrahim Ferrer, once a major vocalist, was making his living shining shoes when Cooder tracked him down for the album. 80 year old pianist Ruben Gonzalez hadn’t played in ten years and insisted that arthritis prevented him from taking it back up (his subsequent performances dispels that statement immediately). Guitarist/singer Compay Segundo is a father of five at 92 and isn’t giving up hope for a sixth. The way Wenders intercuts their stories with spotlight concert performances gives the audience a taste of their art before introducing the person behind the performer, then concludes with their spotlight performance in concert. The music is marvelous on its own, but the background enriches our experience of the performance.

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